A true fan of old Bollywood movies is all too familiar with the wonderfully awkward genre of songs known as cabaret numbers. Don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Here at Mr. and Mrs. 55, we don’t judge our readers based on their taste – even if this includes a love for uncomfortably suggestive lyrics, flamboyant dance moves, and scantily clad B-grade actresses. Despite my initial aversion to these types of songs, I have learned to appreciate cabaret numbers for their showiness and sheer entertainment value.
In terms of vocals, the queen of cabaret numbers in those days was the ever-versatile Asha Bhonsle. Asha’s voice was perfect for this type of song; she had the right combination of seduction, silkiness, and charm to execute cabaret songs with finesse. In fact, Asha’s skill in performing cabaret numbers (think piiyaa tuu ab to aajaa from Caravaan and yeh meraa dil from Don) is one way in which she carved a niche for herself in the industry to emerge from the shadows of elder sister Lata Mangeshkar. However, although Asha was the dominating force when it came to the cabaret genre, you may be surprised to know that Lata also sung her fair share of vamp songs in films. Generally known for her conservative and purist reputation, Lata’s take on this genre is markedly different from her sister’s style: she avoids Asha’s over-the-top histrionics in favor of a more quiet (yet effective) seductive appeal. Let’s take a look at the following examples to see how Lata fares when she goes cabaret:
- aa jaan-e-jaa.n, aa meraa yeh husn jawaa.n. This song from Inteqaam (1969) is perhaps the most well-known example of Lata singing cabaret, and she really nails the execution here by slowly and subtly seducing the listener with her enchanting vocals. Although Lata had an understanding with most music directors that she would not agree to sing cabarets, Laxmikant-Pyarelaal assured her that this song would not be problematic because it was composed with her style and artistic vision in mind. We’re grateful that Lata compromised here because, in my book, this song is one of the finest examples of cabaret singing in Hindi cinema.
- mehfil soyii, aisaa koii hogaa kahaa.n. Although this is the second lesser-known cabaret number by Lata in Inteqaam, it’s almost as good as the first. Like aa jaan-e-jaa.n, Lata’s silky vocals and understated seduction make this a cabaret to remember. The little stacatto “oh” that Lata adds to each antara is absolutely precious.
- is duniyaa me.n jiinaa ho, to sun lo merii baat. This song from Gumnaam (discussed earlier by Mrs. 55 here) might not qualify as a cabaret using a strict definition, but it’s certainly worth mentioning because it is one of Lata’s best songs picturized on Helen. In an otherwise grim and suspenseful thriller, this song composed by Shankar-Jaikishan provides some interesting contrast with its light-hearted, frothy spirit. The second line of this song’s mukhda has always confused me: “gham chhoD ke manaao rang-relii, man lo jo kahe kitty kelly.” Helen’s character is probably referring to herself in the third-person, but where the heck did this “Kitty Kelly” nickname come from?
- jiinevaale jhuum ke mastaanaa ho ke jii. Penned by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by Chitragupta, this rare number sung by Lata in Vaasna (1968) has a different feel to it from the typical cabarets we know and love. While its lyrics and music aren’t quite as sultry as the other cabarets here, this song is worth a listen as a strong example of music directors from this time period experimenting with Western fusion. I especially enjoyed the lilting interludes composed by Chitragupta, who was a music director from the Golden Age known for his stylish orchestration.
- mera naam rita christina. Though Helen was the undisputed diva of the vamp genre, there are the occasional instances where cabarets were picturized on other actresses. Saira Banu, looking stunning as ever in a red dress, seduces Biswajeet (watch him pretend like he doesn’t love it) with this fun number from April Fool (1964). I won’t say that this is one of Lata’s best renditions, but this song composed by Shankar-Jaikishan was immensely popular when it was released — so much so that it was banned by the Vividh Bharati radio station for being “culturally inappropriate.”
- aur mera naam hai jamiilaa. Before Laxmikant-Pyarelaal had composed the songs in Inteqaam that shot Lata to cabaret super-stardom, they wrote this song for her a couple years earlier in Night in London (1967). Supposedly, Laxmikant-Pyarelaal had traveled to London to become inspired by the locale while writing the music for this film. I’d say they did an excellent job of capturing the right spirit: Lata shines here with a cabaret that is tailored to suit her style. Even if you hate the song, be sure to watch the video for this one because I know you don’t want to miss out on Helen dancing scandalously while she’s surrounded by a gaggle of shirtless men.
After taking a listen to these examples, do you think Lata had what it took to pull off the cabaret genre? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @themrandmrs55.