The country was being torn apart, literally, and people who were otherwise sane were going on killing rampages. But in the cinema halls and the film studios it was business as usual in August 1947. Two films were released in Bombay on Independence Day itself, Shehnai at Novelty on Grant Road and Mera Geet at Swastik on Lamington Road around the corner. Mera Geet must have sunk like a stone since there seems to be record of it anywhere but Shehnai was one of the biggest hits of the year.
1947 was a good year for Hindi films though, to tell the truth, the films were more Hindustani than Hindi. There were five major production centres, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Lahore and to a lesser extent Poona. In Bombay alone, 114 films were made and released that year. In March, we had Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal with Raj Kapoor and Madhubala in their first lead roles. He was twenty-three and she was just sixteen. Never mind that the film flopped, they were destined to leave their mark on our films in years to come.
Five films topped the box office, Shehnai (Rehana and Nasir Khan), Jugnu (Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan), Do Bhai (Kamini Kaushal and Rajan Haksar), Dard (Munawar Sultana, Suraiya and Nusrat) and Mirza Sahiban (Noor Jehan and Trilok Kapoor).
These films had one thing in common. They all had great songs, a major requirement then. A film with ten songs was not uncommon. Filmistan’s Shehnai took the country by storm with that great composer, C. Ramchandra, coming up with a new westernised beat with a little help from his Goan assistant, Chic Chocolate. Parents forbade their children to sing that evergreen number, aana meri jaan meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday. (Years later, my wife told me that!) The singers were Shamshad Begum, Meena Kapoor and the composer himself under the name Chitalkar.
The length of that song required two sides of a 78rpm record. That is why Shehnai had only nine songs, instead of an even ten. That way the soundtrack could fit on a set of five records. I wonder how many of the readers remember those gramophone record machines that played for no more than four minutes. You had to crank it up each time by hand and changed the needle after playing both sides, a real nuisance. It is good to be nostalgic but some things have changed for the better.
A.R. Kardar’s Dard had a mundane story and the acting was pedestrian. The hero was Kardar’s brother whose career went nowhere and he later had to try his luck in Pakistan. But the film ran and ran on the strength of its songs, sung by Suraiya, Shamshad Begum and a newcomer, Uma Devi. Dard was composer Naushad Ali at his best. (He always delivered his best compositions to his two tennis-playing best friends, Kardar and Mehboob Khan. Shankar- Jaikisan did the same for Raj Kapoor but here I digress).
The only person who was not impressed by Dard was Baburao Patel. “The music in this picture is just damn unattractive and Naushad seems to have become a spent force,” he wrote in Filmindia. It was not easy to impress Baburao unless you advertised the film in his magazine! Kardar, by the way, did not own a studio. He had no son to inherit it and his five beautiful daughters, living with him on Marine Drive, were not allowed anywhere near a studio. Lovely Gazala once told me that.
Do Bhai was also a Filmistan film, a company started by expatriats from Bombay Talkies after they left the studio in a huff having differences with its owner, Devika Rani. Filmistan was the most successful studio of that era. Besides Shehnai and Do Bhai it had two other hits in 1947, Sajan (Ashok Kumar and Rehana) and Sindoor (Kishore Sahu and Shameem.) The music for Do Bhai was by S.D. Burman who was just establishing himself in Bombay. One song is still remembered fondly, mera sundar sapna beet gaya. Geeta Roy (Dutt) has not sung better, before or since. Listen to it on your laptop, such pathos in her voice.
Mirza Sahiban was the fourth highest grossing film of 1947. Its success rested completely on the shoulders of Noor Jehan since the hero was a non-entity. After that film Trilok Kapoor’s acting career went straight into B-grade mythologicals with a trishul and a rubber cobra to keep him company on the screen. Husnalal-Bhagatram provided the music. Noor Jehan was not only the most popular actor of that period but she could also sing like an angel. The film’s success was partly due to the fact that it was based on a popular Punjabi folk story of two doomed lovers, Romeo and Juliet set in mustard fields.
That brings us to Jugnu, the last of the big five of our independence year. It was Dilip Kumar’s first hit and the co-star was again the ever-reliable Noor Jehan. The film was directed by her husband, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi and the music was by Feroz Nizami, a relatively unknown. One song, in particular, stands out, yahaan badla wafaa ka, a Noor Jehan and Mohammed Rafi duet.
You will notice that of all the sixteen actors I have mentioned in this piece, eight were Muslims, all working out of Bombay. It must have been a difficult choice for them. Some stayed; some took the train to Lahore. Noor Jehan was one of the very few actors whose career continued to flourish when she crossed over to Pakistan. Nasir Khan (Dilip Kumar’s younger brother) had the distinction of being the hero in the new country’s first film, Teri Yaad. But he was soon disillusioned and returned to Bombay in 1951. He had a fairly successful career after that and was often paired with young Nutan.
Suraiya and Madhubala stayed and became major stars. I don’t know about Munawar Sultana. She did a number of films after Dard, Babul with Dilip Kumar and Nargis was one of them. After that she disappeared. She might have returned to Lahore since she was from Heera Mandi in that city.
Rehana was a very popular star in undivided India, known as the ‘jhatka’ queen. She gave us hit after hit, mainly under the direction of PL Santoshi. But soon her films started flopping. Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo was a major disaster and it ruined Santoshi. She migrated in 1954 hoping to revive her career across the border. That never happened. Pakistan’s film industry never did take off.
Mohammed Rafi, a Punjabi, had the unique distinction of being in Bombay at the time of partition while his family was in Lahore. It was our good fortune that he asked them to join him in Bombay rather than him going there. I don’t have to tell you about Dilip Kumar the great Pathan from Peshawar.
Bhaichand Patel is an author, columnist with a passion for Indian cinema