How Bollywood's 'club songs' once swayed India and faded away

1965 was a landmark year for this genre. Four such songs ruled the radio waves.

 |  11-minute read |   12-04-2017
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In the early 1980s, a colleague of mine (a promotee officer on the verge of retirement) found out that I was a member of a well-known erstwhile British club in Lutyens’ Delhi and expressed a desire to spend an evening there. We went one Saturday.

The music band’s equipment was already ready on the stage at the corner of the main bar. The place was packed and my guest smiled in approval. Shortly, the band walked in, in black tuxedos and bow ties, took stage and started the proceedings.

A lady crooner took the mike. English music of the 1960s was the fare. Again, my guest nodded approvingly. Gradually, couples - mostly elderly - took the floor for waltz and foxtrot. My guest by now was tight as an owl and clapping with the beat.

After about half an hour, his enthusiasm had visibly ebbed and, leaning across, he asked when ladies in skirts would come in and start dancing. I was dumb-struck!

Clearly, he was still stuck in the time warp of the 1950s and 1960s when a "club song" featured frequently in Hindi films. In fact, it had acquired a genre of its own. Like some others, this "institution" has also fallen by the way side, yielding place to other forms.

How does one define a "club song"? How is it different from a cabaret? Since I have no primer to fall back on, I venture to answer by my experience of having watched the famous and memorable "club songs" and gleaning their essential characteristics from such viewing.

The venue used to be a public place, not residence, which was normally a club or restaurant. It could even be a gambling den or a bar. The patrons, in evening dinner dress, were seated at dining tables and food and drinks service continued during the performance. Smoking was the norm.

A full-fledged music band of Anglo-Indians used to ply their trade on a stage; tuxedoed, playing western instruments - trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, drums, guitars; sometimes even a double bass. There could also be just a single instrument played by the singer - but that was an aberration.

The singer could be male or female. Usually, there was a retinue of dancers accompanying the singer. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of these dancers were Anglo-Indians, usually wearing skirts. That image had been etched in the mind of my guest, and millions of others.

The basic purpose of the "club song" was entertainment, not titillation. That’s what differentiated the two genres. Cabaret dancers were scantily clad and aggressive in their dance movements. Club dancers, if female, would be demure, clad in silk or satin gown.

So how did it start? The country had recently won independence. The ways and habits of the British, as reflected in their eating, drinking and entertainment habits in "whites-mostly" clubs in cities, cantonments, railway townships and plantations,  and tony restaurants, were imbibed by the upper crust Indians.

The musicians in the bands were Anglo-Indians, and later, Goans. The music was waltz, rock ‘n’ roll, calypso, Latino. For example, in Calcutta, restaurants such as Trincas, Blue Fox, Mocambo and Moulin Rouge used to have live bands; dinner jackets were mandatory and only the crème de la crème dined here.

The depiction of this culture in films was a natural progression. Of course, the songs were in Hindi and a poetic license was taken in the depiction. But the inspiration clearly originated from such clubs and restaurants.

Dancers Cuckoo and Helen, both Anglo-Indians, were the main dancers of this genre in films. Though the traditional Indian dance forms also featured once in a while, it would take several years for such dance forms to get firmly entrenched in Hindi films. Till then, the "club songs" were the major entertainment feature of Hindi films in the 1950s and 1960s.

Naturally, all such songs are too many to enumerate. I will only highlight some landmark songs.

The first such song is Patli Kamar Hai, Tirchhi Nazar Hai from Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949). A young, suave and rakish Prem Nath sings the song and dances with Cuckoo. This was the first film of Shankar Jaikishan. All the songs were massive hits.

The song that really started the trend of "club songs" was Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui from Baazi (1951). The song was sung with such vivacity and sensuousness by Geeta Dutt, matched on the screen by Geeta Bali’s oomph and coquettishness to a dejected Dev Anand in a gambling den, that it became a huge hit.

The song changed Geeta Dutt’s image as a singer of weepy songs and bhajans and showcased her talent to be much more versatile. Sahir Ludhianvi, who had penned this ghazal, had expected SD Burman to compose it in the style of a ghazal - a soulful, philosophical ditty.

He was aghast when it was composed as a "club song" - the western lilt provided by the Spanish guitar and fast tempo providing an upbeat ambience. Sahir would have walked out of the film had not Geeta smoothed his ruffled feathers. And the rest is history!

Even Anil Biswas, the doyen of Hindi film music, who dexterously walked the tightrope between classical and popular music, composed Dil Chura Loon in Faraar (1955), both the Geetas yet again stamping their class.

Fast forward to Howrah Bridge (1958). It had not one, not two, but three "club songs", composed by the inimitable OP Nayyar - another composer responsible for giving Geeta Dutt a make-over. Geeta did not disappoint and once again exhibited her mettle in this genre in Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, singing with gay abandon.

The Hawaiian guitar prelude, the fast-paced clapping, the idiosyncratic nonsense lyrics, the catchy tag-line: "Hello Mister, How Do You Do?" and Helen’s exuberant dancing (this was her first film as a full-fledged dancer) was guaranteed to make the song a superhit. So much so that it was used in Salaam Bombay.

In Ghulam, Aamir Khan sings the first line of the song. Then there was Aayeye Meherbaan sung by Asha. This song, which gave Asha her first distinctive image, and portrayed with come-hither sensuousness by Madhubala, has given the song an iconic status.

And finally, Dekh Ke Teri Nazar. Madhubala, in the voice of Asha, performs on a ship during a voyage from Rangoon to Calcutta, with Ashok Kumar in attendance. The opening bongos and the western melody of the piano accordian have made this one of the most memorable preludes. As was the style of OP Nayyar, all the songs had western rhythms in the mukhda and dholak in the antara.

1959 was an important year for "club songs". Among the musical gems of Anari was the song 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959. Another film Love Marriage in the same year had Teen Kanashtar Peet Peet Kar. Dev Anand, after listening to the rock ’n’ roll music for a few minutes, can’t stand it anymore. He climbs on the stage were the band is playing, stops the music, and after taking an alaap starts - Teen Kanashtar Peet Peet Ke Galaah Phaad Kar Chillanaa, Yaar Mere Mat Buraa Maan, Ye Gaanaa Hai Na Bajaana Hai.

His lady love Mala Sinha, attired in a saree and wearing a bindi looks on approvingly. He was being very prescient because a decade later, the club songs would almost become extinct in films. But for now, they were still the flavour of the season. Dil Deke Dekho - Asha Parekh’s and composer Usha Khanna’s debut film and Shammi Kapoor’s make-over film - had the perennial favourite Dil Deke Dekho.

Two years later came Ek Phool Char Kante (1960). It had two "club songs". The music was by Shankar Jaikishan. The first one was called Beautiful Baby Of Broadway sung by Iqbal Singh. It was a revolutionary song in its singing and picturisation. It was a Sardar impersonating Elvis - rock ‘n’ roll, twists, shakes, you name it. Very infectious and never heard or seen before.

Interestingly, the song was originally recorded as Bombshell Baby of Bombay and filmed as such. However, the film got in trouble with the censors over the word "Bombshell". The lyrics had to be changed to Beautiful Baby of Broadway.

The song on the record still had "Bombshell" though the film song had "Beautiful". Sunil Dutt also had a "club song" O Meri Baby Doll in the same film. Even though he did a vigorous job of it, it paled in comparison to what Iqbal Singh did.

1961 saw RD Burman’s inaugural film - Mehmood’s Chhote Nawab. RD showed his class right from the word go, and came up with outstanding music including the "club song" Matwali Aankhon Wale.

Chinatown (1962) had two such songs - Yamma, Yamma, Yamma, and the evergreen Bar Bar Dekho with the very un-Chinese tag line - Tally Ho. Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963) had Dil Ki Manzil.

1965 was a landmark year for this genre. Four "club songs" ruled the radio waves. Mehmood’s Bhoot Bangla had the explosive Aao Twist Karein which took the nation by storm. The song, based on Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again, immortalised the twist in Hindi films. The other three songs all featured Ted Lyons & His Cubs as the music band.

Gumnaam had a very popular and mesmerising "club song" - Jaan Pehchan Ho. The look and feel of the song is so full of life that it’s impossible to sit still and listen to it. The guitaring was top class and while it remained western in form, the Indian moorings were evident. A fantastic fusion it was that catapulted it to the western shores. It featured in the 2003 Hollywood film Ghost World as a backdrop to the opening credits.

And who can forget the brilliant Heineken Beer Commercial - The Date - anchored on this song? The other song was from Janwar - Dekho Ab To Kisko Nahin Hai Khabar. Inspired by the Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand, the song was performed with gusto by Shammi Kapoor and Rajshree, with the energetic band dressed up as the Beatles, mop tops and all.

The fourth was an instrumental piece from Mere Sanam where the band played while Oscar made moves (dancing and otherwise) on Asha Parekh. The same film had Humdum Mere Maan Bhi Jao, a song with Punjabiyat written all over it but restrained in its robustness by western dance rhythms.

And then came Teesri Manzil in 1966. With Shammi Kapoor playing the role of a hotel band drummer Rocky, there had to be "club songs". And what a fantastic job RD Burman did. He took the format to its zenith. Aaja Aaja and O Haseena Zulfon Wali were chart-toppers bringing the nation to the dance floor.

Raat Aur Din (1967) had Dil Ki Giraah Khol Do by Nargis (her last film) and Feroz Khan. By the 1970s, the number of restaurants serving live entertainment diminished. The nature of music had also changed. Anglo- Indian bands found their influence waning. Films moved on to disco music.

Later would come "re-mixed songs" and "item songs". The "club song" was yielding place gradually to the new order. There was a brief revival with Kaisi Paheli Zindagani - performed to perfection by the sultry Rekha in Parineeta (2005). But that was expected since the film had the 1960s look and the song was a throwback to the restaurants in Calcutta of that era. Similarly, Bombay Velvet, set in the 60s, had three "club songs" - Mohabbat Buri Bimari, Sylvia and Dhadaam Dhadaam.

While some clubs still manfully plod on with western bands even these days on weekly dance nights, big events, like the New Year Eve Night, invariably need to have Hindi film dance numbers belted out by DJs. Trincas, the iconic institution on Park Street in Kolkata, used to have a tuxedoed band playing English classics till mid-2000s.

It used to be the high point of my frequent visits to Calcutta. Then, suddenly, the band changed its repertoire to Hindi. It had a new singer and the discomfort on the face of the 60-years plus band members was clearly visible. Their innings was over. But the place was packed to the rafters and the appreciative crowd couldn’t get enough.

"Club songs" did yeoman service in providing entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s but now reside, not on the floor, but in fond memories of that generation!

Also read: 8 reasons Bollywood must do away with song and dance


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official and a music aficionado.

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