Cabaret Queensby Dhruv Somani September 27 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 20 secs
Film historian, Dhruv Somani, returns to the era of cabarets to select seven of the dancing divas that shone a light on Bollywood entertainment.
There was a time when a film wasn’t complete without a swashbuckling fight, villains of the ruthless kind, a vamp who was so entranced by the hero that she would sacrifice her life for him. And in between all the reels, there would surely be a tantalizing cabaret number or two.
There was a very gradual transition from the semi-classical dances to the western, ultra-modern shimmies with elaborate sets and over-the-top shimmering costumes. Incidentally P.L. Raj, Herman Master, Hiralal-Sohanlal and Robert Master were considered the best in executing cabaret numbers.
Initially, Cuckoo and Sadhana Bose were the trendsetters soon to be overtaken by Helen primarily.
From the 1960s onwards, especially, the cabarets and their own distinctive Bollywood style became a rage. Asha Sachdev jumped on to the dance-wagon with Ek Hi Raasta, Kalpana Iyer became the disco queen of the 1980s with Rambha Ho and Hari Om Hari and was also seen in popular films like Sawaal, Kudrat and Avinash. Prema Narayan with crowd-wowing Tere Jaisa Pyara Koi Nahin from the film Hotel drew wolf whistles from the audience and was seen in Qayamat, Swarag Narak, Sherdil, Mahal and Umrao Jaan.
Leena Das specialized in cabarets usually set in cavernous studio sets or hotel halls. And there was Madhumati who excelled in the number Huzurewalla, in Yeh Raat Phir Naa Aayegi, flanked by Helen. Kumkum and Minoo Mumtaz set hearts racing whenever they broke into a dance. And Laxmi Chhaya was unforgettable as the rustic dancer who was so enthralling in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, especially with the number Maar Diya Jaaye Ya Chhod Diya Jaaye.
However, slowly but steadily, top heroines took over the cabaret scene. Mumtaz before playing a mainstream heroine was see in stunt flicks with Dara Singh and even enacted characters with deep shades of grey. A combination of the cute and sexy, she burned the dance floor in Humjoli and Apna Desh.
Rekha too performed cabarets in Saaz Aur Sanam, Karmayogi, Hawas and Chehre Pe Chehra. Zeenat Aman proved to be a prime mover and shaker with Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, Shakti Samanta’s Great Gambler and Mohan Sehgal’s Daulat.
Parveen Babi also performed cabaret-like dances in Kaalia and Namak Halaal. A spoof cabaret conventions, was rendered by Sushmita Sen in Paisa Vasool. Ditto by Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om.
Today, though, those intricately choreographed and often saucy numbers have almost gone extinct. For this Sunday, I revisit 7 of the most-adored cabaret queens:
Because of her sheer flexibility, she was called the Rubber Girl. Of Anglo-Indian birth, she introduced Helen as a chorus dancer in Shabistan while they both featured in a duet in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi and Yahudi. Her dances in Andaz and Anokhi Ada, both helmed by Mehboob Khan, had become very popular. She was last seen in Sunil Dutt’s Mujhe Jeene Do (1963). Although she appeared in scores of films, she spent her end-life reclusively and was believed to have passed away, following a terminal illness, in penury at the age of 53 in 1981.
Helen’s entry to the cabaret arena was with the help of Cuckoo’s younger sister. Of Anglo-Burmese descent, Helen Richardson made her debut with Shabistan and lucked out when she was selected for a duet dance number in Badnaam.
She was also noticed in producer P.N. Arora’s Hoor-e-Arab, who then took her under his wings. She made a huge impact with Shakti Samanta’s Howrah Bridge. She defined cabarets and graduated to acting roles in Dr Vidya, Hum Hindustani, Cha Cha Cha, Woh Kaun Thi, Gumnaam, Jewel Thief, Imaan Dharam and Lahu ke Do Rang (for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Filmfare trophy).
She always took the bullet for the hero in the tension-fraught finale. There was a time when there was no Hindi film without a Helen number, Her make-up, costumes, wigs and her feathers, colored contact lenses and stockings gave her an exotic, unreal look.
Helen’s iconic dance number Aa Jaane Jaan from Inteqam (a rare cabaret number sung by Lata Mangeshkar), is among the best of its kind in Indian cinema (however, the British censors took objection to it as they felt it was racist since it showed a black man in a cage). Her other classics are Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja from Caravan and Tu Mungda from Inkaar. However she maintains that her dance in Gunga Jumna - Torah Mann Bada Paapi - which used Kathak elements, is her career-best.
Helen was also seen in Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Bhojpuri, Kannada and Punjabi films. Some of her noteworthy films towards the latter part of her career were Don, Dostana, Ram Balram, Khamoshi, Heroine and Jodi Breakers.
Faryal was born in a town near Damascus in Syria to an Indian father and a Syrian mother. She worked as an airhostess before making her debut as a heroine in Biradari, opposite Shashi Kapoor. Her tough-as-nails style, her accent and her flamboyance came nearest to a Hollywood actress though and hence she was not accepted as a Bollywood heroine.
Soon, she mastered the art of provocative dances and made her mark as a vamp. Her big break came with the Dev Anand starrer Jewel Thief, in which director Vijay Anand presented her in a diamond studded body-hugging suit and after that is when producers lined up with similar offers. Some of her impactful performances were in Man Ka Meet, Apradh, Do Thug, Puraskaar, Insaan Aur Shaitan and Manoranjan.
She was one of the most feared vamps who could break into a cabaret at the drop of a hat. At the outset, she had appeared as a child artiste in a couple of films, making her adult debut with Anpadh. Success followed with her Mera Naam Hai Shabnam act of Kati Patang and Hungama Ho Gaya in Anhonee; also from acting roles in Ittefaq and Do Raaste. But it was Dastaan, with Dilip Kumar, which catapulted her to the top as a vamp.
A prolific artiste, she enacted a variety of roles in Abhimaan and Arjun Pandit. And she was canonized as Mona Darling in the company of Ajit in Zanjeer. She became vital for the success of such films as Imtihaan, Prem Shastra and Hawas, in which she played a daring role of a lust-driven vamp. Eventually, she became the terribly querulous mother-in-law of Ghar Ho Toh Aisa, Biwi Ho Toh Aisi and Kishan Kanhaiya. Her other striking performances were evidenced in Parchhaeen, Nateeja, Dharma, Dafa 302, Des Pardes, Parday Ke Peechhey, Daag, Anhonee and Prem Rog.
A Kathak dancer, she had trained with Pandit Birju Maharaj. For starters, she appeared in the small-budgeted Biwi Aur Makaan and Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai. She was also noticed in Chetan Anand’s poetic Heer Raanjha (1970), but her boldest shot at fame came with for Vijay Anand’s crime thriller Johny Mera Naam (1970), in which she performed a strip-tease - Husn Ke Lakhon Rang - driving the villain Premnath as well as the audience, berserk. She was paired with Amitabh Bachchan in Rajshri banner’s Saudagar and was assigned the melodious song Sajna Hai Mujhe Sajna Ke Liye.
She became the face of Bhojpuri cinema and also acted in several TV serials. Some of her likeable performances were seen in Gaddar, Paise Ki Gudiya, Paapi, Rampur Ka Lakshman, Anhonee, Us Paar, Chhaila Babu, Dhuan, Ghungroo Ki Awaaz and Saboot.
She made her debut with Ganga Jamuna when she was nine years old, essaying the childhood character of Azra. Daughter of stage artistes Faridun and Shaguna Irani, Baby Aruna was also seen in Anpadh (1962).
On growing up, she featured in the surprise hit Parasmani (1963). As a heroine, she was teamed with Amitabh Bachchan in Bombay to Goa. He also made a special appearance opposite her in Garam Masala. Her dancing skills came to the fore in Caravan. Also eye-catching was the Ae Phansa number performed in Bobby. Her other memorable performances included those in Do Phool, Khel Khel Mein, Andaz, Jyoti, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Phir Wohi Raat, Shalimar, Fakira, Kartavya, Kali Ghata and the film Beta, which was directed by her brother Indra Kumar.
Adept at Kathak, Jaishree Talpade gained popularity with her comic roles and dances. The song Reshmi Ujala Hai from film Sharmilee, wowed the audiences. Starting off as a child artiste in Goonj Uthi Shehnai, on growing up she acted in films of various languages. She is most well-remembered in the Hindi cinema domain for Sawan Bhadon, Anokha, Aafat, Khanjar, Jaani Dushman, Sau Din Saas Ke and Sannata.