Howrah Bridge had one of the strangest movie posters I have ever seen. A pair of legs (maybe male, maybe female) straddle the title and the rest of the space is crammed with faces. Ashok Kumar pulls off a Bond-esque pose with a lit cigarette and a revolver, Mehmood looks hopelessly young and lost, there’s a fight scene and a dead body, up front. So much for a subtle crime thriller!
But then, Shakti Samanta’s movies were never subtle. (You really just need to watch Amar Prem and Rajesh Khanna’s OTT hamming. And yet who can forget the famous, “Pushpa, I hate tears” line?) They were over the top in a way that was all innocent charm, and if the oldies in my family are to be believed, you walked out of the theatre with a quiet satisfaction on money well-spent. If the story wasn’t good enough, which was the case with Samanta’s movies in the later decades, the music was worth your money. And his films did have some extraordinary music, including one song that set the benchmark for sensuous club numbers, a benchmark no item song can ever hope to beat. Not even in your dreams, Messrs. Malaika Arora, et al.
Aaiye Meherbaan, in reality was a song that defined two very important women of the Hindi film industry – Madhubala and Asha Bhonsle. For Madhubala, Howrah Bridge was a turnaround of sorts, coming as it did on a string of failures at the box-office. What followed Howrah Bridge were hits like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Barsaat ki Ek Raat, Kalapani, culminating in the peak that was Mughal-e-Azam. Her easy grace, the hint of sensuality brought the song alive. That and the fact that the camera could just never stop following Madhubala around.
For Asha Bhonsle, the song became just another landmark to prove her versatility. I may be on the verge of committing a heresy here, but between the two Mangeshkar sisters, Asha Bhonsle is a far better singer, given the vast repertoire she has garnered. Not just that, her style still seems timeless and effortless, no disrespect to the older Mangeshkar. It may seem ironic here that she was actually trying to sing the song in the style of inimitable Geeta Dutt. The lilt in her voice, the mischief, the transition her voice makes from coy to open, flirtatious charm still makes the song timeless.
There are other elements to the song that grab you as well. OP Nayyar’s music, Ashok Kumar’s dapper entry in a bright, white suit, the club musicians – all reminiscent of a time that isn’t going to come back. But then, isn’t that what nostalgia is about? Part dream, part memory, part wishful thinking?
Song: Aaiye Meherbaan
Film: Howrah Bridge (1958)
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Music director: OP Nayyar
Lyricist: Qamar Jalalabadi