Nasreen Munni Kabir shares an exclusive excerpt from an interview with the late Vijay Anand, during which they talked about music, movies, and being different, and how, sometimes, you just had to let Shammi Kapoor be himself
The Anand Brothers—Chetan, Dev and Vijay—were a class act. From the late 1940s, they made Navketan (their production company) into one of the most distinctive banners of its time. Not only were their productions popular, they also nurtured new talent and took risks in their choice of film subjects.
Vijay Anand (known by all as Goldie) was the youngest brother. A student of English literature, he was a formidable screenplay writer, actor, producer and film editor, but it is his work as a director that has made a special place for him in Hindi cinema history. His first film, Nau Do Gyarah (1957), bears all the touches of a delightful storyteller.
His masterly grip over content and form led to a long and varied career. Working with a great team of cinematographers, composers, lyricists and choreographers, Vijay Anand brought out the best in his actors. Few could rival his abilities when it came to writing natural and easy-flowing dialogue or picturising songs. Unlike the enjoyment of most songs that is often divorced from the film for which they have been composed, his music is closely linked to the filmic experience. He knew songs are the glue that bind audiences to Hindi films. Close your eyes and you can see Shammi Kapoor with a scarf around his neck, singing “Deewana Mujhsa Nahin” on a colourful hilltop, or instantly recall the smiling faces of Dev Anand and Nutan as they sing “Dil Ka Bhanwar Kare Pukaar” on the inner stairway of the Qutab Minar.
I met this gifted director in the early 2000s and asked if he would agree to work on a book of conversations about his life and films. He gave me the nod and soon after that we recorded two long interviews in 2001 (a part of which is reproduced here). When he was appointed the chairman of the Censor Board in late 2001, he felt he would not have had the time right then for a book, and so, to my deep regret, it never got completed. Vijay Anand was 70 when he passed away on 23 February 2004.
What is the role of dance in Indian cinema? Do you think it has always been an important element?
There used to be many more songs in the early films and hardly any dancing. Songs had a bit of dancing: the heroine moved her hands around a little, but the actresses as such were not required to be dancers.
The arrival of the choreographers Hiralal and Sohanlal brought about a very big change, and by the 1960s they had become firmly established. They were extremely good dancers themselves, because they were trained in classical dancing. Most directors depended on them to picturise the songs and dances. They did not tolerate a bad director, so some directors would not even be on the set when the song was picturised.
What is the essential difference between composing a stage dance or a film dance?
Cinema choreography is very different. You cannot compose a dance in a film as you would for the stage. Choreographers like Sachin Shankar, who came from the stage, could not succeed in films unless they worked with a very good director who brought a strong cinematic sense and could translate the dance into cinematic language.
I think Sachin Shankar was very good when he choreographed “a performance within a performance”—I am thinking of “Gore Gore O Banke Chhore” (Samadhi, 1950). It takes place on a stage-like setting with the heroines dancing and the other characters, including the hero, looking on.
Yes, but that song was for the stage, even if that stage featured in a film.
In Johny Mera Naam I worked with Sachin Shankar. When he composed the dance, he showed it to me. He had the performers on one side and the audience on the other. We made changes together because finally it is the camera that is the audience and the camera angles must change in every shot. So you cannot have a strict division between performance and audience. Unlike a stage dance, the film director has to divide the dance into shots.
If you compose for the stage, you are also confined to a small space. The dance movements are restricted . . . usually within 20 x 20 feet. And cinema does not want to confine itself to space. It can go anywhere.
How did you work with a choreographer?
If the director is good, he uses the other artists [cameraman, composer, art director, choreographer, etc] as tools. He appreciates their talents and finds out whether they have ideas that can enhance his own vision. If this can happen, the entire team gives themselves into your hands. They flow with your work. But if they find the director has no idea what he wants and just wants an entertaining dance, then the choreographer will compose, film and edit the song.
Some choreographers have a limited understanding of editing. They want too many cuts and do not allow the shot to be held long enough … Nowadays, film editors are in love with the rhythm. They don’t allow you to see the faces of the heroine or hero.
You mean nowadays the rhythm determines the cut, not the narrative of the lyrics?
That’s right. Not the narrative. If the choreographers have understood the filmic situation, they do better work than if they were left alone to conceive a dance. Otherwise they usually come up with a repertoire of moves they have learned from their guru that may be good, but do not necessarily work for the scene.
The story comes first for good directors. When I worked with Hiralal, he knew the song had been written for a certain situation and context in the movie. The choreographer was not really in a position to guide me, because he had to fit his dance moves into my existing concept and narrative.
Sometimes a dance number has no lyrics. Take the snake dance in Guide. There were no words like naina [eyes] or sawariya [beloved]. So what guides the choreographer? The director guides him. In the snake dance I wanted the heroine to express her troubled life. You must explain the emotions that the song or dance is meant to convey.
Can you tell me about the very first song you directed?
It was in Nau Do Gyarah. I did not have a choreographer. I did not need one. I [only] needed a choreographer for Helen’s and Shashikala’s dance—even there the choreographer, Surya Kumar, had to choreograph the dance in a multi-dimensional way. He knew the dance could not be seen from a static viewpoint, as the camera was moving in many directions.
I spent my childhood with people like Zohra Sehgal, Kameshwar Sehgal, Mohan Sehgal and Guru Dutt. They were almost living in our house. So were Balraj and Damayanti Sahni. My brother Chetan brought them to Bombay, and until they found their own places to live in, they stayed with us. Zohra and Kameshwar came from Uday Shankar’s dance academy and started a dance school in our Pali Hill home. A lot of students, including Premnath, used to come to learn dancing. Prithvi Theatre people used to come too. So I imbibed a lot by observing them. I knew what choreography was.
I am wondering if Uday Shankar indirectly inspired the film dances in the 1950s. Like Guru Dutt had Zohra Sehgal choreograph Baazi.
Yes, they were both [Guru Dutt and Zohra Sehgal] from Uday Shankar’s dance academy and so they clicked together.
Left to myself I would not have used theatre choreographers. They were too stagey. As I said, in earlier times there wasn’t much emphasis on film dancing. Dancing was required as a romantic element in a song, but it did not jump out of the story to show itself. “Look at me. I am part of the story yet not part of the story. I am an entity in myself.”
Coming back to Nau Do Gyarah, which was the first song you shot?
“Hum hain raahi pyaar ke hum se kuchh na boliye.” Then “Kali ke roop mein chali ho dhoop mein kahaan”. I shot those songs outdoors.
At that time I used to think a choreographer ruined songs. They interfered with the characterisation. I felt they imposed their own personalities through their dance steps and didn’t allow the artists to express themselves in the way they should.
I am happy to hear you say this, because I have always thought when your characters sing they somehow stay in character. I am thinking of Dev Anand and Nutan in Tere Ghar Ke Samne. Many of the tunes and dance movements in your films match the personality of your characters.
If the director understands his subject, story and characters well, he will not compromise in any aspect. If he is working on a film like Devdas then he has to have songs for Devdas, not for Shammi Kapoor.
The Teesri Manzil songs were not for Dev Anand or Waheeda Rehman, they were for Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh. When I was working on Jewel Thief, we discussed this with the composer. I would tell SD Burman: “Dada, this song is for Vyjayanthimala. I am going to use her talents as a dancer.”
Waheeda Rehman always underplays her scenes, so she needs a different kind of song. If you have a song for Dev Anand, you have to bear in mind that he can’t dance. He has grace but not rhythm. You can’t make him dance.
With Shammi Kapoor, if you don’t make him dance he will make a fool of himself. You cannot tell him: “Shammi, don’t move. Just sit still and sing.” He won’t photograph well if the camera is fixed on him. But he has rhythm—an inborn rhythm that is superior to any movement a choreographer may compose for him.
I have always told my choreographers not to make the hero dance, but to imbibe his character into the choreography.
Imbibe the character or the personality of the star?
The character of the character. When you cast someone like Govinda, for example, you have many choices. When you cast Shammi Kapoor, you have choices, but not too many. Cast Shammi and you want a little bit of the character and more of Shammi Kapoor. You want to use the glamour and inborn talent that he has…
Shammi did not regard himself as a dancer, nor had he ever learnt dancing. But you played a song to him and told him: “Go wild!” He would, because he had such a tremendous sense of rhythm. He just got into the music and every fibre of his body would dance. The only thing you had to make sure was that he did not overdo it. OK, the character is fooling about—this much is allowed, but not beyond that. All the expressions are in the song words: “Dekhiye… naazneen…” It’s all there, so you don’t have to do much more.
What can the actor do beyond portraying the words of the song that has been composed, written and recorded for him? These elements define the limitations. An actor cannot go beyond the camera framing either. If Shammi Kapoor jumped up and down, he would find himself out of the frame… I used to tell him to bring the song alive through his eyes. A little nod was enough.
PL Raj is credited as the choreographer for Teesri Manzil. Tell me more about him.
PL Raj was Hiralal’s assistant. Once Hiralal and Sohanlal had worked with me, they thought of me as a director not to be interfered with. That was the same with all their assistants, including Saroj Khan, who was Sohanlal’s assistant. She would always ask me: “Goldie saab, what do you want?”
I used to sit with the choreographer when they were composing. Sometimes they would get nervous and ask me to come back the next day when they were ready to show me a few moves. Sometimes I would tell them they were going off track. This is not the character. I did not want any artificiality. My characters should not become artificial when they sing. The characters are not supposed to be dancers in the film. They are merely expressing an emotion through a song. Take Govinda, he can do difficult movements. If we have Shammi Kapoor, then keep the moves flexible.
What about Dev Anand?
Dev saab’s biggest problem was that he never rehearsed. He’d say: “Nahin yaar, don’t make me dance.” And you shouldn’t make him dance because he doesn’t know how. But he had a great presence and audiences used to see the film for his songs. He had style and other actors have copied him. Some of the songs may look ridiculous today, but at that time they were his plus points.
In the Kala Bazar song “Khoya Khoya Chand”, Dev sings as he runs down the hill. He is madly in love and believes his dream is coming true. So let him move his hands— white hands against dark clothes—[as] he makes his way down the hill. It suited the scene, so once in a while you let him go.
[In the same movie] there is a scene in a train compartment. Dev Anand is sitting on the lower berth and Waheeda Rehman is lying on the upper berth. The girl’s parents are also in the compartment. Dev saab sings the song: “Apni to har aah ek toofaan hai/ Kya karen woh jaan kar anjaan hai/ Uparwala jaan kar anjaan hai.” Waheeda Rehman is listening to him but she cannot move much because she’s lying on the upper berth. There is a double meaning behind the whole situation, which is beyond choreography.
You mean the double meaning is in the line “Uparwala jaan kar anjaan hai”. The song is directed at Waheeda, while her parents think it’s a reference to God. Very clever. Tell me about that other wonderful song “Dil Ka Bhanwar”.
In Tere Ghar Ke Samne, Dev Anand and Nutan sing the song on the steps of the inner stairway of the Qutab Minar. The sense that they have reached the peak of emotions is in the location, because you cannot get higher than the Qutab Minar.
Were these conscious decisions?
Yes, certainly. Forty years have passed since I made the film. I cannot really analyse how I came to make all these decisions. But I did feel that love was like climbing the Qutab Minar—it’s an effort. When you let yourself go, there is no effort any more.
The film is set and shot in Delhi just after the India-China war . . . so the story of Tere Ghar Ke Samne is about two neighbours who fight with one another. When you use the city of Delhi as a setting, you have to have the Qutab Minar as well.
In “Dil Ka Bhanwar” you make an appearance as an extra. How did that come about?
The space was restricted and we could not get anyone else up there besides the actors, a small crew and myself. We needed government permission to shoot inside the Qutab Minar and we were told to have a small unit and not to use many lights. I needed two or three characters passing them on the stairs and could not find anyone who could give the proper expression, so I thought let me do it.
It sounds like you were a very confident director from the start.
I was arrogantly confident, you know. I didn’t want to be a film director. I just took the chance. I thought if I succeeded or failed, what the hell! I didn’t care about success or failure. I was doing my Master’s, and thought I’d make Nau Do Gyarah and then go back to studying English literature. Unfortunately, I could not go back to studying. I still dream I will someday.
I never cared much for a profession. Even now I don’t. I was not aware of international cinema. I respected my seniors for their contribution to Indian cinema. But somehow I couldn’t be what they were. I did not want actors to perform in a theatrical manner, nor did I care much for larger-than-life stories.
How old were you when you made Nau Do Gyarah?
I was 22. I made it just for the heck of it. I had written a script called Taxi Driver and my brothers made it into a film and it did well. Of course there was more of Chetan saab in it. He didn’t respect the script that much, but he stuck to the theme and characters and kept some of the dialogue. That gave me a lot of confidence.
I used to write one-act plays in college and wrote scripts for the heck of it. So I wrote Nau Do Gyarah and sold it to Shahid Lateef. He liked it very much, but he couldn’t make the film. There was another producer called Nyaya Sharma and when he heard the story, he bought it. But he could not produce it. He was the man who later made Kinare Kinare.
At that time, Navketan needed to produce a film. Raj Khosla, who was working at Navketan, was making Kala Pani and could not make up his mind about what he wanted to do next. In those days people were on the payroll and Navketan wasn’t making the kind of profit that you could wait around for a year before making a film. So they needed a script and needed to produce a film. Our manager, Mr Prashar, told Dev saab: “Goldie has got a very beautiful script. Shahid Lateef bought it and he is no fool. He was going to make it, but couldn’t. So the script is just lying about. Why don’t you listen to the story?”
Dev saab said I could narrate it to him. But I was too young and arrogant, and said I would not give it to anyone else to direct and I would direct it myself. My brother was working with all the leading directors of the time and was shocked, and thought I was too young to direct. Dev saab said: “He hasn’t assisted any director and hasn’t learnt the craft. He may have written a few college plays and the script for Taxi Driver, but Chetan saab was there to direct it. How can Goldie direct? Tell him not to be foolish.” But I refused to budge and Dev saab refused to budge …
Finally, when Dev saab heard the script and the way I had written all the details, he took a chance and said let’s do it.
I had not learnt filmmaking from anyone. In my script I had imagined situations no one had conceived before. I wanted my characters to exchange musical lines and not dialogue in some scenes. Luckily for me, I had such a fantastic composer in SD Burman. He loved me so much that he encouraged me, and instead of saying “You are very young. Don’t make a foolish mistake”, he said, “Let’s try.”
We had a song that worked like a question-and-answer scene: “Aankhon mein kya ji/ Roopehla baadal/ Baadal mein kya ji/ Kisi ka aanchal/ Aanchal mein kya ji/ Ajab si hulchul.” If these words were spoken in dialogue, it would sound very prosaic. But if it is done musically, it becomes very interesting. No one had done this kind of thing before.
Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote the lyrics. He was great at writing in this style. I was too young and will not say I contributed to the song itself. It was Burman saab who made Majrooh saab write these lines. And I, like a child, sat there very excited. They must have felt this boy has something; let’s listen to him. “Aankhon mein kya ji/ Sunehra baadal.” I said: “Majrooh saab, it’s a moonlit night. You can’t say sunehra. Let’s try roopehla.” Majrooh saab said: “Roopehla is a very sweet word. Shabaash! Goldie, tum achhe director banogey. [Goldie, you’ll make a very good director.] I don’t usually listen to anyone, but that’s a good word.”
A lot of people encouraged me when I was young.
You inspired people to think differently.
I was a catalyst. I wouldn’t say I inspired them, but my demands were unlike the usual demands. Plus I would say no if I didn’t like something. I was very young and very proud.
Tell me something about your parents.
My mother died when I was six years old. I don’t remember her very much. All I remember was that she was always ill. I was born in Gurdaspur . . . My father was a lawyer. It was he who loved music and invited musicians home whenever they visited Gurdaspur.
My father passed away in 1970 when I was making Johny Mera Naam. He didn’t adjust to Bombay and did not want to live here.
Who raised you?
I was raised by my two sisters and later by my sister-in-law, Chetan saab’s wife, Uma. She didn’t want me to join films and said: “Chetan has a giant intellect. I suffer when I see how he has to compromise in filmmaking. Since Neecha Nagar, all he has had to do is compromise.” She thought I should become a writer or a playwright.
When I started writing in college, Uma came to watch the plays I wrote. Sometimes Chetan saab accompanied her. Dev never came. She told me to write a script and said she would guide me. That is when I wrote Taxi Driver.
Did you ever consider making a film without songs?
No. I love songs. I never dreamt of making films without them. They asked me to make a film in English, and I said I didn’t want to. I will not do anything beyond my capability. If they like my work, they will accept it as it is. I am not going to become artificial in order to please anyone.
Nasreen Munni Kabir began her research on Hindi cinema in 1978. Since then she has made over 80 documentaries and written 16 books. Her best known documentaries are In Search of Guru Dutt, Lata In Her Own Voice, and The Inner/Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan. Her latest book is Conversations With Waheeda Rehman (Penguin Books, 2015).