In a world where moments are ephemeral, the centennial celebration of these artists beckons us to stop and look back at their passion-fueled creativity. Losing an artist always leaves a void in society, but when we look back at their work, it allows for a renewed appreciation of the art they left behind — a truly beautiful silver lining. We shouldn’t mourn the passage of time, but celebrate the enduring legacy of artists like Johnny Walker, who probably would have been one of the centenarians, but there’s some uncertainty about his year of birth (he belongs to a generation that was less fixated on years and dates). Guru Dutt, the legend himself, gave the comedian the quirky screen name, inspired by a famous Scotch whisky brand, inspired by Walker's knack for entertaining by imitating a drunkard. Known mostly for his comedic timing, Johnny Walker became a crowd favorite for playing supporting roles — who can forget him in Pyaasa (1957) or C.I.D (1956)? — that added a delightful charm to the story unfolding on screen.
As the sun sets on another year, we pause to pay homage to four luminaries of Indian cinema, whose 100th birth anniversary fell in 2023.
Born in 1923, the suave and charismatic Dev Anand's career spanned over five decades, during which he not only entertained, but also challenged societal norms through his films. Known for his distinctive style and evergreen charm, Dev Anand was a trailblazer who didn’t hesitate to bring his star persona to unconventional stories, paving the way for new directions in Indian cinema. He is remembered for films like Guide (1965) and Jewel Thief (1967), but also for Navketan Films, a production house that became synonymous with quality and innovation. His bold choices in roles and storytelling challenged the prevailing norms of conservative Indian society. The characters he chose for himself were often unconventional and thought-provoking, making him a symbol of rebellion against societal constraints. He’s also part of a generation that was vocal in their dissent, like when he led a group of film personalities to speak up against the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For a period of time in the Seventies, All India Radio was forbidden to mention Dev Anand’s name and his films were not to be shown on television (which had only state-run channels at the time). He also briefly had a political career, having founded the National Party of India “to teach politicians a lesson”.
Mrinal Sen, a pioneer of Indian parallel cinema, was a filmmaker whose impact transcended the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, he was part of a holy trinity of artistic cinema that eschewed commerce, focusing instead on social relevance and aesthetics. Inspired by European directors like Jean-Luc Godard — these foreign films were hard to find in the Fifties and Sixties, and Sen is among those who championed the culture of film societies where screenings were organised for select audiences — Sen brought a modern, visual vocabulary to Indian cinema that was well ahead of its time. His cinema was marked by an exploration of complex themes and keen observation, as well as critique of society and politics. Sen's films would find acclaim abroad, with the biggest film festivals around the world — Cannes, Venice and even Berlinale — recognising his work. Sen's legacy is not just a collection of stellar films like Akaler Sandhane (1980), Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Kharij (1982), but a testament to the power of cinema as a medium for social commentary and change.
Mukesh, the legendary playback singer of Hindi cinema, remains an immortal voice that touched the hearts of millions. Best known for being Raj Kapoor’s voice, Mukesh came to Mumbai with dreams of becoming an actor-singer, and his singing style was heavily influenced by that of K.L. Saigal. He would quickly develop his own style and fan following for his soulful renditions that hinted at a deep-rooted melancholy even when the song otherwise sounded playful. Songs like “Mera Joota Hai Japani” from Shree 420 (1955) and “Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan” from Mera Naam Joker (1970) would become anthems of an era and would become popular around the world. (Even today, there are fantastic odes to Mukesh delivered by singers in countries like Uzbekistan and China, who do covers of his songs.) Speaking about the legendary playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar said, “Mukesh bhaiyya brought with him a lot of spirituality and purity into the studios. It was like being in a temple when I sang with him.” Mukesh, who passed away during a concert tour at age 53, is best known for his collaborations with music directors like Naushad Ali (who helped Mukesh create his own unique style) and Shankar-Jaikishan, with whom he created the unforgettable “Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai” from Yahudi (1958).
Shailendra, the poet and lyricist behind the iconic “Pyaar hua iqaraar hua hai, pyaar se phir kyo darta hai dil (when you’ve fallen in love, then why fear it?)”, was born Shankardas Kesarilal, to a Dalit family in Rawalpindi, Punjab. He initially wasn’t interested in entering the potentially unstable world of show business and even turned down Raj Kapoor, who was so charmed by Shailendra’s poetry that he offered to buy one to use as a song. Shailendra politely declined, unconvinced by the commercial-ness of mainstream Hindi cinema. Later, when the poet found himself in difficult circumstances when his wife needed medical treatment that he couldn’t afford, he returned to Kapoor, who didn’t hesitate to help Shailendra. The two became friends and collaborators, and Shailendra’s collaborations with Kapoor and the composer duo Shankar–Jaikishan would go on to create magical songs. (The friendship would see a distance when Shailendra turned producer with Teesri Kasam (1966) and in a tragic twist, Shailendra passed away on Kapoor’s birthday.) His collaboration with music directors like Sachin Dev Burman resulted in timeless songs like “Khoya Khoya Chand” from Kala Bazar (1960). Shailendra’s lyrics sought out poetry in the everyday and he found ways to weave in the hardships he’d experienced into the songs he wrote. His gift for conveying complex emotions through simple yet profound words made his lyrics feel accessible as well as poignant. He spoke about issues like poverty and inequality in a way that would inspire future generations of lyricists.
Inputs from Deepanjana Pal