Thursday, June 27, 2013

More on musical sequences: the pleasures of “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo”

[A sequel to the last post, and part of an irregular series about musical sequences in Hindi cinema]

In this post I mentioned one of my favourite recent discoveries, the long song sequence “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo” from the 1968 film Aashirwad. As far as I know, it is among the only Hindi-movie scenes to make extensive use of the Lavani dance form with its many hallmarks, including sexually aggressive gestures by the performers and banter involving the audience. The full video is below. You might need to watch the song a couple of times to really appreciate it, but it builds in energy, and I especially like how it goes from the 3.45 mark onwards.

Some context: music is central to this film. The lead character Jogi Thakur (Ashok Kumar) is the son-in-law of a rich zamindar, but he is also a lover of classical music and never feels happier, more relaxed and more in touch with his finer emotions than when he is practicing with his “guru”, an old villager named Baiju (played by the poet/actor Harindranath Chattopadhyay). In the scene in question, Jogi Thakur, Baiju and their friend Mirza saab go to watch a performance by a visiting dance troupe and end up participating in a musical battle of wits.

Some things I like about the sequence:

– One of the big themes in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema over the decades – in films as varied as Anuradha, Mem Didi, Abhimaan and Rang Birangi – is how men and women move tentatively towards parity in a relationship. This is
often expressed in humorous terms, with music as a conduit: for instance, Mem Didi has the dance number “Hu Tu Tu” in which a group of women face off against a group of men during a celebration, singing about the politics of marriage, each group jokingly claiming victimhood for itself. In “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo”, music becomes an equalizer, blurring roles and mannerisms: the women on stage whistle lewdly, make crude “male” gestures such as scratching under their armpits to mimic a monkey (“Kyun Sikandar, banoge bandar?”), mock their audience (“Aisa lagta hai jaise hum gadhon ke gaon mein aa gaye hain”). And the watching men participate in the performance with a childlike delight, shedding the baggage that they might otherwise carry of being privileged observers or patrons. In both directions, gender is being transcended. (Within the narrative of the film, we have already seen a reversal of traditional roles: Jogi Thakur is a caring father and in general more humane and sensitive than his wife Leela; the implication is that this is because he is more in touch with his artistic side, while Leela – a thakur’s daughter – has grown up obsessed with money and power.)

Music is also an equalizer on another level in this film: it removes class and caste lines. The “guru” is the lower-class Baiju, who recoils in embarrassment when Jogi Thakur tries to touch his feet; for me you are the real Brahmin, says the upper-class man, because a Brahmin is one who teaches. In this scene, the two men sit together on the floor and sitting with them is a Muslim friend; the unforced bonhomie is a direct result of their love for music and the performing arts.

– It took me a couple of viewings to "get into" the song, but I like the way the music shifts register, from the languid, sweet melody when the women describe “Radha” and “Jamuna”, to the strident, challenging notes when they demand the answer to their riddle. And the wordless dance movements near the end, where the dancer conveys a possible answer to Jogi Thakur’s riddle purely through gestures rather than words; the viewer is allowed to interpret her movements, it isn’t spelt out.

– Ashok Kumar’s voice may be rough-hewn and nasal, but how appropriate it is for this song, and how much it adds to the authenticity of the scene. In a regular Hindi-film song – the sort that one can think of in dreamlike or symbolic terms, as taking place outside normal time and space – it isn’t so disconcerting to suddenly have an actor’s voice being replaced by that of Lata Mangeshkar or Mohammed Rafi. (Of course, viewers who are new to Hindi movies do take some time to adjust to this.) But “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo” is very much a “realistic” part of the film’s narrative – an actual performance with real Lavani dancers performing on a stage with real musical instruments being played. Given this, how pleasing it is to hear the lead actor sing in his own voice (one of the most recognisable voices in the history of Hindi film, going back to the first decade of sound). Chattopadhyaya, all of 70 years old, does his own singing here too, just as he would in the lovely “Bhor Aayee Gaya Andhiyara” in Bawarchi.

– The sequence is beautifully acted, both by the dancers (especially the lead, whose name I don’t know) and by Kumar and Chattopadhyay, who seem so comfortable with the setting, so genuinely pleased by the opportunity to do something like this on screen. I particularly love the two-second scene near the end where Jogi Thakur, about to reveal the answer to his riddle and seal his triumph, looks back at Baiju and Mirza (who are out of the frame) with an impish, childlike smile; Kumar’s expression is pitch perfect, and so “musical” as well – it has its own beat and rhythm.

– How the answer to the final riddle overturns our expectations – expectations that arise from the innuendo-laden nature of the performance, as well as the naughty way in which Jogi Thakur asks his question. But though the mood here is one of fun and games and laughter, the riddle takes on somber echoes later in the film. “No one gets to see his own wife as a widow,” Jogi Thakur points out gleefully, and the words foreshadow what will soon happen to this jovial man: he will go to jail and effectively be “dead” for his wife and little daughter.

If anyone has further thoughts on this sequence, the film, and on Lavani in general, do weigh in.


  1. I'm loving these posts on song sequences! Couldn't agree more about the joys of a well-done musical number--and I am definitely going to look for this film.

    The New Yorker had an interesting post a few months back about cross-dressing lavani dancers:

  2. Thanks for that link, Carolyn. Sonia is a friend but I hadn't read this piece - very interesting.

  3. Thank you so much for writing about Harindranath Chattopadhyay here. I've always found his presence in films to be a warm and welcome one, but being the lazy dud that I am, never bothered to find out who this amicable old man was. Now of course I'm digging up his bio and his works. What a treasure! Didn't he also play Naseeruddin Shah's grandfather (seen only in a video will) in Maalamal?

  4. Deepti: and thank you for reminding me of a film that brought together Naseer, Poonam Dhillon, Mandakini, Sunil Gavaskar and Harindranath, among others. What a jingbang! Have only a slight memory of seeing it when it first came out, and sort of knowing that it was lifted from Brewster's Millions.

  5. And yes, what a dynamic screen presence Harindranath was, even though he began acting in films only when he was already in his 60s. I also remember him in a small, droll part in Ray's Seemabaddha, as far removed from Aashirwad's Baiju as it is possible to be. Such a long and multifaceted life too.

  6. Thank you so much for writing about Harindranath Chattopadhyay here. I've always found his presence in films to be a warm and welcome one

    I recommend Tere Ghar ke Saamne which is probably his debut role in films. A very fine performance in a film littered with fine performances.

  7. Fascinating!
    You may be interested in Anna Morcom's book which will be published soon -

  8. Lovely post. Vintage Jabberwock! Pleasure reading it. Thank you for sharing such gems. The sequence was stunning and in every possible way and agree Ashok Kumar's voice fits in like a glove, much like that other classic Piya baawri from Khubsurat. I could hum that taan even in my sleep.

    And about lavani in general, I have a slight pet peeve by how the Lavani dance form at least in the past few years is majorly identified by its sexual/erotic undertones. I think the credit for that mainly goes to its portrayal in Marathi cinema (however well made and meaning it was/is).But Lavani at its heart is a celebration of beauty(lavanya), an art form that is so much more than just a display of female sexuality and aggression. True it is a sensual art where the women are proud and unabashedly sensual, but off late with songs like "Chikni Chameli" being termed lavanis, I am worried that in a few more years the true interpretation of this fascinating art will be lost.
    And in case you haven't already seen it, do check out this Marathi classic by V Shantaram called Pinjara. It stars his wife Sandhya and Sreeram Lagoo and has an absolutely amazing soundtrack.

  9. Thanks Shrikanth. I've seen Tere Ghar Ke Saamne, though it was a long time ago. I remember being impressed by how modern and classy that film was. It's one of the movies from 50's that makes you think maybe our society and our movies have regressed over the decades rather than moving ahead.