WHY DO we know so little about Nasir Husain? He impacted mainstream cinema in a big way with his ideas and as a director and writer, and yet he has never found place beside illustrious peers such as Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy. In Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain, author Akshay Manwani tries to make amends by chronicling Husain’s film journey, explaining why his craft remains so important for the Hindi film industry’s growth and development.
Husain’s directorial debut was Tumsa Nahin Dekha in 1957 and he instantly brought in a breath of fresh air to an industry that was then making films with “nation-building narratives” of the post-independence era. Husain’s films were “entirely about entertainment”, perfecting a “certain kind of ‘rom-com-musical’ that was uniquely his”. He relaunched Shammi Kapoor, with his signature song and dance moves, the romantic hero who took on the era’s reigning star, Dev Anand. Husain brought to his films a “lightness of touch”. He was deeply interested in Hollywood, loved Elvis Presley and had a world view that helped him give his films a touch of modernity.
Manwani couldn’t meet Husain, who passed away in 2002, but spoke to a host of people from the family—including son Mansoor—and the film industry who knew him. Nasreen Munni Kabir, whose interview with Husain has been quoted exhaustively in the book, says his legacy is that “the heroes have become very important… you have romance, good music, entertainment, have a good time and go home.”
Aditya Chopra told Manwani that his debut film, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, was a “combination of the influence of three film-makers, Raj Kapoor for the intensity of romance, Manoj Kumar for the patriotism that comes through the song Ghar aaja pardesi and Nasir Husain for the sheer fun and exuberance of life.”
Bollywood’s successful song-and-dance formula owes a lot to Husain. Music was an integral part of his films and many of his songs have reached cult status—Jaawaniya yeh mast mast bin peeye, Sar par topi, O haseena zulfon waali, Chura liya, Bachnaa ae haseeno, Hum kisise kum nahin, Papa kehte hain, to name just a few.
One of the earliest memories actor Aamir Khan has of his uncle is of him coming home from work and deciding on the spur of the moment to take all the children to Khandala, listening to the Beatles on the way. This was around 1969-70. So how did he manage to listen to music in the car at a time when cars didn’t have built-in music systems? Thereby hangs a tale and we wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.
In a wonderful foreword, Khan says his uncle’s films are “spontaneous, full of adventure, romance, fun, music and the outdoors… and highly entertaining… like a sudden freak holiday… and, there is always a journey in there somewhere.” But in Husain’s formula of entertainment, the films reflected on contemporary Indian life and culture, and its changing mores, recording it all for posterity. Through films like Teesri Manzil (1966), Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973), Hum Kisise Se Kum Naheen (1977), Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and over a career spanning 45 years, his music, ideas and dialogues kept pace with the changes around.
Interestingly, Husain almost didn’t become a film-maker. In fact, his father frowned upon films and Husain was sent to Delhi to live with his maternal grand-uncle, Maulana Azad, in the hope that he would get a job. The story goes that Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then the Indian ambassador to the USSR, offered to make Husain an envoy, an offer turned down by Azad, who didn’t want his relatives occupying high posts in the government. Thankfully, Husain soon landed in Bombay and took to writing scripts and directing.
As Javed Akhtar put it: “There are so many people who we don’t know about, but their work is invaluable to us. In the same way, it is a real tragedy that nobody knows who started this… tradition of light-hearted romantic comedy, beautiful songs, beautiful picturisation, everything being presented with a certain aesthetic sense…” The cinema of Husain has crept slowly into films being made today, and when we watch a sweet romantic film, we must never forget who started the tradition.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer