Kumkum, the leading lady who lit up the screen with her expressive limpid eyes and her with her expressive limpid eyes in the 1950s and 1960s passed away this morning (28 July 2020).
Born in Hussainabad, Bihar on 22 April 1934 as Zaibunnissa, her Hindi film career started when Guru Dutt cast her for a song in Aar Paar (1954). The song became a hit and so did the movie. Kumkum’s innings had begun. She was 20 at the time. Over the next two decades, she acted in more than a hundred films – in Hindi and also in Bhojpuri.
My introduction to Kumkum, as with most Hindi actresses was via Chitrahaar and Rangoli – she was a common face on them- after all so many melodious hummable numbers had been filmed on her.
As a tribute to the late actress, here are a list of my favourite ten songs – mostly those songs which came to my mind when I read the news. I am sure that I will remember some more tomorrow…
These are in no particular order – I have tried to stick to as many solos as possible – though some duets have crept in.
- Kabhi aar kabhi paar (Aar Paar, 1954, Shamshad Begum, O.P. Nayyar): Starting the list with her debut song from Aar Paar. A common trope in Hindi film songs was that of a narrator – a third party interpreting a scene unfurling in front of them through a song. Here, thats what Kumkum is doing. Shyama’s car has broken down and the car mechanic (a smart Guru Dutt) is fixing it. While doing so, he is, of course, teasing her – along with the urchins on the street (Jagdeep, who passed away just a few weeks back, is one of the young boys here). Kumkum, an unnamed construction worker near the site, is witnessing this scene and commenting on it through this song – which hints at the unfolding romance. Shamshad Begum’s lilting vocals and OP Nayyar’s music make this a classic remembered even now, more than six decades later.
- Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan(CID, 1956, Mohd Rafi and Geeta Dutt, OP Nayyar): OK, yes, perhaps this is too early in the list that a duet has crept in – however, this iconic song – describing a cynical view on life in Bombay – is too much of a favourite for it to be left out either. Again, in this song, we see two supporting characters share their take on city life in general. Johnny Walker espouses a bleak view – the city is full of thieves, rogues and deceit rules. Not a place for gentle good souls, making every moment lived here a struggle. Kumkum counters this in the last stanza, offering him some hope and gently exhorting him to shed his cynicism and naivete and learn the rules of the jungle! The musical composition of this piece, with its light western touch (perhaps because it was picturised on Johnny Walker), sung expertly by Mohd Rafi (with the right amount of pathos and comic touch) and Geeta Dutt (sweet and gentle) makes it a memorable one. Kumkum is perfect as the supportive Maharashtrian woman here.
- Tera jalwa jisne dekha(Ujala, 1959, Lata Mangeshkar, Shankar Jaikishen): Quite a many dance numbers in the late 1950s and 1960s were filmed on Kumkum. For she was a trained dancer – she is said to have learnt Kathak from Pandit Shambhu Maharaj. Skills that were clearly on display in all the dance songs. Even though, her name doesnt automatically come up when dancing stars of that time (Vyjayantimala, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Helen) comes up, the classical and non-classical songs filmed on her tell a different tale. Kumkum could emote through her eyes as well as her dance. In this song from Ujala, Kumkum packs in an energetic and spirited performance. Vibrant and graceful, there is something utterly charming and captivating about her here. And then there are Lata’s vocals.
- Yeh hawa yeh nadi ka kinara(Ghar Sansar, 1958, Manna Dey and Asha Bhosle, Ravi): This melodious Asha -Manna Dey duet used to be regularly played on Rangoli and in my mind it is forever equated with Kumkum – who looks absolutely gorgeous.
- Madhuban mein Radhika naache re(Kohinoor, 1960, Mohd Rafi, Naushad): How could this one be left out? One of the finest classical songs in Hindi movies, it showcases Kumkum’s Kathak skills. I was a bit torn between this song and Jadugar qatil (sung by Asha Bhosle) where Kumkum gets to lip synch while dancing and even playing tablas on screen. But I picked this one simply because this is a masterpiece!
- Kaanha jaa re teri murali(Tel Malish Boot Polish, 1961, Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar, Chitragupta): Among Kumkum’s classical dance numbers, I must say that I am rather partial to this one. From a lesser known film, this Manna Dey – Lata duet definitely ranks as among their best – and there are so many. Not only does Kumkum dance gracefully here, her expressions are top-notch. And the way Lata’s voice echoes at Kaanha jaare.…. its simply brilliant!
- Dekh Idhar O Jadugar (House No 44, 1955, Asha Bhosle, SD Burman): From a classical number to a not-so-classical song that was picturised as a mujra. Why I remember this is because when I viewed this for the first time (after having heard it on tape many many times), my only thoughts was – oh it doesnt sound like a mujra. For some reason, I wasn’t expecting to see Kumkum dance. But that she does – as it was one of her early movies, a bit of her rawness in terms of her dance comes through. While not one of her best dance songs, this song still is good enough – largely due to the lyrics, music and singing and her presence on screen.
- Daga Daga vai vai(Kali Topi Lal Rumal, 1959, Lata Mangeshkar, Chitragupta): A folksy number which was hugely popular in its time – and is remembered even now. Pretty as a picture, Kumkum dances her way through this song.
- Khoobsoorat Haseena (Mr. X in Bombay, 1964, Kishore Kumar & Lata Mangeshkar, Laxmikant-Pyarelal): I know, there are some nice solo songs that Kumkum dances to in this film – such as Chali re chali re gori, but I like this duet much more. Kumkum starred in a number of films with Kishore Kumar in the 1960s – this and Ganga Ki Lehrein being some of the more well-known ones. This romantic, teasing duet has a pleasant soothing tune (one that was lifted by Anand-Milind for a song in Baazigar (1993)); Kumkum is pretty, Kishore Kumar is upto his antics and there is a flying car!
- Jaya jaya he jagadambe mata (Ganga ki Lehrein, 1964, Lata Mangeshkar and chorus, Chitragupta): Ending this list with this devotional aarti from this film that I am very fond of. Picturised in a temple, the song has both Savitri (the Southern legend) and Kumkum (in pristine white) lip synching to the lyrics. Even though the movie had some brilliant songs – such as the Kishore-Lata duet Machalti hui hawa mein cham cham (another DD favourite), I went ahead with this one.
Even though this list has been put together hastily – based purely on memory rather than any research, it still amazed me as to how many wonderful songs were filmed on Kumkum. Like Shakila and Shyama (both of whom passed away in the recent past), Kumkum also did not quite get the recognition, she so richly deserved. This list is a mere tribute – to this beautiful, graceful actress. Rest in Peace, Kumkumji.