One of the few good things about not being able to go out these days is that you can do things like watch your favourite movie again and again, guilt-free. I was watching Waqt (1965), for the nth time, when I paused at the song Chehre Pe Khushi. On the face of it, there’s nothing unusual about the song. The setting is a party in a smart, upper-class home, with potted plants, rich carpets, heavy curtains for décor, and a bunch of guests standing around, clutching their drinks.
Sadhana, in a pink churidar-kameez, is at a piano, singing. Her suitor, Sunil Dutt, in a cream-coloured suit and dark red tie, is watching her ardently. There’s a second hopeful in the picture — Raaj Kumar, in a black suit, none too pleased at the smiling glances being exchanged between the two lovebirds.
Why was the party song (often involving a piano) such a fixture in Hindi films? For starters, I think it was simply an opportunity for the director to insert a ‘song situation’. It also gave the characters a chance to express their feelings for each other (usually a declaration or reiteration of their love); if there was a love triangle at play, it was a chance for the audience to see the interplay of emotions between the three.
It also allowed us a vicarious glimpse into what was usually a glamorous, wealthy setting. (And the piano made for great cinematic angles!) The song Chehre Pe Khushi meets all these criteria. As do hundreds of other such songs. Like the Shankar-Jaikishan number Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega from Sangam (1964), where the characters that form the love triangle — Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar and Vyjayanthimala — sing at a party, surrounded by well-turned-out guests, in a sumptuous home featuring pillars, ornate chandeliers and oil paintings.
The romantic colour films of the ’60s were the high noon of the party song, though it existed before that as well. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949) is an excellent example. Dilip Kumar sings Tu Kahe Agar with Nargis draped across the piano, while Cuckoo does a mesmerising dance and the guests stand or sit around, watching. Andaz, incidentally, was a sophisticated film for its time, with a modern young miss for a heroine, whose friendliness was mistaken for love by Dilip Kumar, setting in motion a catastrophic chain of events.
To get more insight into the party song, I called the author and filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir, one of the most perceptive commentators on Hindi cinema. She had an interesting take; she called it a “performance within a performance”. “The cinema audience is watching the performance of an audience on screen watching a performance,” she says. “The party guests are immobile, like spectators in a theatre. Take the 1963 film Mere Mehboob, where Rajendra Kumar sings about his chance meeting with Sadhana (Mere Mehboob Tujhe Meri Mohabbat Ki Kasam) in front of an audience of which she too is a part. The presence of the others allows the hero to declare his love in plain sight without fear of rejection or society’s critical eye, while the beloved knows the song is directed at her. Folk and classical theatre, the mushaira and musical recital, with their inherent presence of an audience, seem the ancestors of the settings of such songs.”
The party song, sadly, is long gone. But it remains a charming, enduring motif of Hindi movies of a particular time. And the songs were almost always so beautiful!