I have breaking news. It’s a glimmer of light upon one of Bollywood’s great mysteries. The scene? Middle of the film An Evening in Paris. The year is 1967, and Shammi Kapoor is hot on the trail of a mystery. It’s one of those twin storylines–good twin is being held against her will by the bad guys (who look a whole lot like Pran in a blue pinstripe suit), and bad twin is a nightclub dancer who moonlights as a hit woman. By a stroke of brilliant luck, both twins are Sharmila Tagore.
So, anxious and slightly disheveled, Shammi Kapoor strolls into the Parisien nightclub, and his sense of Indian purity and uprighteousness takes a hit when the lights dim and a half-naked Sharmila Tagore struts onto the stage in a feathery swimsuit. Suddenly, she bursts into song:
“Zuby zuby jalembu! Zuby zuby jalembu! Aa gaye. Shukriya. Ho mere meherabaan.”
I mean, what the heck? What do those cryptic words mean? For most of the general Indian population of the 60s watching this bizarre film, I’m guessing they
- Assumed it was something French and exotic (“is she really saying Suzy Suzy allez-vous?”)
- Didn’t care because the meaning of these Asha cabaret songs are rarely profound anyway
- Were too distracted by Sharmila’s dance moves and (lack of) costume to pay attention to the lyrics
Well, folks, I’m here to tell you it’s a mixture of choice 1 and 2! It’s actually slightly more meaningful than you probably thought (caveat: slightly). The tagline of the song has a legitimate basis in French music. Indian record companies probably got the spelling wrong–what we typically see as “Zuby Zuby Jalembu” should have been “Zou Bisou Bisou Bisou.” Asha’s awkward pronunciation, of course, did not help anyone.
Released as hit single in 1960 by Gillian Hills, “Zou Bisou Bisou” was a famous go-go style French song of seduction that was later redone by everyone from Sophia Loren to Megan Draper in Mad Men. Cover versions of it hit the French billboards in the 60s and, although its slow sensuality is a far cry from the high-pitched ecstatic Asha Bhonsle version, both certainly share something in common. “Bisou” (French slang for “kiss”) must have been heard somehow, somewhere by Shailendra who used it for authentic inspiration in writing this classy number that made it all the way back to Bombay.
So you see? It’s not entirely nonsense, nor is it entirely logical–the rest of the song’s lyrics don’t add up to anything profound in Hindi, but at least the effect is at very least “exotic.” And that’s all Indian audiences of the 60s could hope for in these kinds of tourist films, right? Sharmila Tagore had a special relationship with France, so much so that in 1999, the country awarded her the highest honor for artists: Insignes de Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres I. Sure, it was probably more in honor of her earlier work with Satyajit Ray, but her tribute to French go-go music must’ve helped.
And there it is. One mystery closed. You can thank me later. This request was submitted by one of our favorite readers, Reena! Have an obscure Bollywood mystery you want solved? Send us a request and we’d love to investigate!
P.S. OK, so I get it. The most interesting part of this post was the mention of Sharmila wearing a bikini on stage. The irony? After igniting a wave of change in film censorship and standards with her bold moves, when Sharmila herself joined the Central Board of Film Certification, she expressed concern with the idea of too many bikinis on screen. For more on cabaret songs in Bollywood, see our post on Lata gone wild!