Saturday, May 18, 2013
Last Updated: 18 May 14:47 PM IST
1 December 2012
ac tuli recalls performers who set the screen on fire in the early years of the talkies and scrolls through an impressive current list of item girls who demand astronomical sums with no less effect
SONG-AND-DANCE sequences have been a part of our films right from the advent of talkies in India. In old films, most of these sequences were picturised on the hero and the heroine. In some, it was the heroine (mostly a village belle) and her friends who were seen on screen. Even in today’s films, such sequences continue to regale cinegoers. So that way nothing much has changed in our industry in the last 80 years.
But in the old films, apart from the heroine, there used to be one more girl who would appear on the screen just to give one song-and-dance performance, and very often this girl would have nothing to do with the film’s storyline. Her dance was a sort of delicious sidedish, so to say, to be savoured by the audience in between enjoying the main course, that is, the film.
The choreographers of our early Hindi films had a rather limited repertoire. They derived their inspiration mostly from traditional folk dances, or followed the provocative dancing style of “kotha” girls who entertained their customers with saucy gestures as they swayed and pirouetted around to the beat of tabla and harmonium.
The dancers who set the screen on fire in the early years of the talkies were Sadhana Bose, Sitara, Mumtaz Shanti, Paro and quite a few others. Sadhana Bose, a stunning beauty, was a trained dancer and also a good actress. Sitara, a Kathak exponent, was also an actress who was seen mostly in Mehboob Khan’s films. Mumtaz Shanti and Paro were also good dancers and actresses. Mumtaz Shanti impressed cinegoers with her dances in films like Basant (1941) and Kismet (1943).
The most popular choreographer of those days was Mumtaz Ali, father of comedian Mehmood. He, apart from being a good dancer himself, was also an actor of some repute. He acted in and choreographed for mostly Bombay Talkies’ films made in the late ’30s and ’40s.
The first Bollywood dancer who broke away from the “kotha” style of dancing to experiment with something different was Cuckoo Moore, more popularly known as Cuckoo. She excelled in cabaret-type dances. This Christian girl came to Hindi films in the ’40s and soon became a rage with audiences. Though not exactly a beauty, Cuckoo had a slim-trim figure and a tempting come-hither look, which kept cine buffs glued to their seats as they watched her jigging, swaying and pirouetting on screen.
Cuckoo’s saucy gestures, her coquettish smiles and her way of rapidly blinking her eyes – all these combined to make an explosive mix which kept the front-benchers in cinemas wolf-whistling and clapping deliriously.
From the mid-’40s to well into the late ’50s, there was hardly any Hindi film in which she did not appear as a dancer. Her song-and-dance sequences held a special attraction for the audience. Although Cuckoo had little talent for acting, she essayed a few minor roles in some films.
In the mid-’50s, Cuckoo began to feel the heat of competition when a much younger Helen began to figure in almost every other Hindi film. Born of a Burmese mother and an Anglo-Indian father, Helen came to India when she was a four-year-old kid. She first appeared in Shabistan(1951) in a dance sequence. Even though gifted with a lissom figure and a beautiful face, she had to work hard to establish herself in films. Luckily, she soon found a patron in filmmaker PN Arora of All India Films, who gave her significant breaks in his own films and also recommended her to other film-makers.
Soon she became an established “item girl” of Bollywood, though the term “item girl” was then not part of a film critic’s lexicon. Her success was phenomenal. She was uninhibited in her approach to her profession, so film-makers had no trouble dolling her up in skimpy get-ups to present her as some sort of human lollypop that the drooling front-benchers in cinemas could freely fantasise about.
Her testosterone-raising song-dance sequences in films like Howrah Bridge (1958 — Mera naam chin chin chu, raat chandni mein aur tu…), Sholay’ (1975 — Mehboob ai mehbooba…) and Don(1978 – Yeh mera dil pyar ka deewana…) evoked wolf whistles in cinemas. And then, who can ever forget her rollercoaster song-and-dance number in Caravan (1970 — Piya tu ab to aaja… Monica my darling…). In a career span of some three decades, Helen has appeared in around 600 films. An enviable record, indeed, and all this she achieved when she was all along facing stiff competition from other competent dancers.
There was, for instance, Madhumati, a brilliant dancer with fluid movements. She was seen in a number of films of the ’60s and ’70s. She married Punjabi bhangra dancer Manohar Deepak.
Jayshree T, Meena T, Minoo Mumtaz, Aruna Irani, Laxmi Chhaya, Bela Bose and several others were also formidable competitors that Helen had to contend with. But none of them could beat her in the race for being the top “item girl” of Bollywood. Till the mid-’80s, Helen reigned supreme as numero uno.
After she retired from films, several other dancers emerged to fill the void. In fact, now even mainline heroines of films were not averse to doing hot item numbers. Shilpa Shetty in Shool set young hearts aflutter with her sizzling number, Main aai hun UP Bihar lootne…, Bipasa Basu’s Beedi Jalaile, jigar mein badi aag hai…in Omkara was a screen-scorcher, Katrina Kaif charmed her countless fans with her item numbers, Sheela ki jawani… in Tees Maar Khan and Çhikni chameli…in Agneepath. And Aishwarya Rai was superb in Kajrare, kajrare tore naina (Bunty Aur Babli).
Today, we have an impressive array of item girls who demand astronomical sums for performing their numbers in films. Malaika Arora Khan, Mallika Sherawat, Yana Gupta, Sameera Reddy, Gauhar Khan, Rakhi Sawant, Maria Gomez and several others have earned kudos for their spirited item numbers in films. Malaika Arora Khan’s Munni badnaam huee darling tere liye (Dabangg) became a chartbuster. Yana Gupta’s raunchy moves and thrusts in Babuji zara dheere chalo in Dum were heart-stoppers for her admirers
Motor-mouth Rakhi Sawant is known as much for her dare-bare item numbers as her controversial statements to the press. Mallika Sherawat began with Khwahish (2003), a film in which there were more kissing scenes than you could count on the fingers of both hands, and is now chiefly known for doing item numbers in outlandish, cleavage-revealing get-ups.
In fact, in recent years some “item girls” of Bollywood have started demanding astronomical sums as their fees and, surprisingly, they often get what they demand.