Author Akshay Manwani admits right at the beginning that he does not intend ‘Music, Masti, Modernity – The Cinema of Nasir Husain’ to be a biography of the prolific writer-filmmaker, and he sticks to his word. While often veering to hagiographic extremes, the book steers clear of too many forays into Husain’s personal life, focusing instead on his influences, inspirations, and the inevitable tropes that showed up often in the rom-coms he helmed. Indeed, the only truly personal reflection into Husain’s private life comes from actor Aamir Khan’s foreword– his obsession with music, to the point of modifying and installing a turntable in his car at a time when cassette decks were unheard of.
Having had to fight his way into the film industry after an idyllic childhood in Bhopal, Husain started his career writing dialogues and screenplays for Filmistan Studio. These were key skills to pick up and hone in an era when ‘talkies’ had just entered the scene, and this served Husain well leading up to his first film, ‘Tumsa Nahi Dekha’. Although a fallout with his producer and the studio followed, the film’s success meant a brand new collaboration with Filmalaya. From this point onwards, Husain perfected the very template that he is now looked down upon for – elaborately detailed and picturised song-and-dance sequences became central to Husain’s films, and lent themselves to the success of actors like Shammi Kapoor.
In Husain’s films, hill stations came to be seen as a sort of moral middle ground between urban and rural areas. Tropes such as lost and found stories, land-owning families and inheritances, familiar (and familial) villains, disguises, tony British clubs, and elaborate charity contests came to be associated with his oeuvre. On his part, Husain was self-deprecatory about these themes, joking that the single-parent households he showed merely helped save him an extra character and its associated bloat. Manwani says this very ready wit made Husain successful, with his cinema best reflecting the changing times over a five-decade career. He captured the epoch diligently, except perhaps giving the audience very few memorable portrayals of women.
Audiences didn’t particularly care about the same tropes being rehashed in Husain’s films, and the evidence Manwani puts out does bear this out. While Husain’s films were not really hailed for their cinematography, the clever use of back screens and camera angles reflect the filmmaker’s ingenuity. There is a lot of dynamism in Husain’s work, which is why it is such a shame that the prose in this book is relatively staid and static. Although meticulously researched and annotated, the book reads like an extended news story. This dullness of narration comes across particularly strongly in the sections where Manwani attempts to translate Hindi phrases into English. The effect is particularly jarring when a dialogue is quoted directly – although one is then able to admire Husain’s strength of repartee.
While Husain’s films were not really hailed for their cinematography, the clever use of back screens and camera angles reflect the filmmaker’s ingenuity.
The book also chronicles some of Husain’s greatest partnerships – Majrooh Sultanpuri and RD Burman, for instance – and ends with their collective eventual declines. By the 1980s, times had changed far too much for Husain to keep up, and son Mansoor (who directed ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’) had to implore him to give up on films after the debacle of ‘Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai’. Husain did have his last hurrah with ‘QSQT’ and ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander’, but not as a director. While there are a lot of theories about why Husain’s legacy is often ignored, the last word comes from writer Javed Akhtar, who quips that if McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ and Shakespeare’s plays can share space in the British National Museum, why can’t Husain’s enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining movies be given their rightful due?