Flashback: Stories from 1947

From young India’s moral panic about the intermingling of opposite sexes to communal riots playing a part in Rafi’s rise as a singer, 1947 was yet another glorious year for the film industry
Flashback: Stories from 1947

India's Independence will forever be doused in the anguish of the Partition and so searing were the tragedies of 1947 that it wasn't until the 1960s that stories about that period found their way to the silver screen. Films like Chhalia (1960), Garm Hava (1974) and Earth (1999) made way for Pinjar (2003), Qissa (2013) and many more depictions of the trauma and grief that riddled the nation. 

Yet 1947 was a prolific year for the Hindi film industry, which produced around 170 films that year. The releases had everything from social justice – Kishore Sahu's Sindoor, dealt with the controversial theme of widow remarriage – to comedy-tinged drama. Films revelled in the use of the recently-conceived stunt sequences, mythological elements and of course, a soundtrack with eight to 10 songs. The year witnessed the death of legendary actor-singer K.L. Saigal, often referred to as the first superstar of India, marking the end of the era of actors singing their own songs. Many notable figures of the Hindi film industry migrated from Bombay to Lahore, like actor Noor Jehan – who went on to have a successful career in Pakistan — as well writer-director Zia Sarhadi and writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Many others left Pakistan to settle in Bombay (Gulzar, Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar). 

New stars were ushered in as Raj Kapoor and Madhubala bagged their first lead roles with Neel Kamal (1947) and Dev Anand appeared in two successful films after his debut in 1946. Apart from Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan's Jugnu, the year saw major hits such as PL Santoshi's Shehnai, Munshi Dil's Do Bhai, A.R. Kardar's Dard and K. Amarnath's Mirza Sahiban. With such resounding successes came some wonderful, astonishing and heartwarming stories that we bet you didn't know. Here are four of our favourite cinematic anecdotes from 1947. 

Communal riots and the rise of Rafi 

The first playback song — as in, a song in which the singer was different from the on-screen actor — was recorded in India in 1935. Until then actors preferred to sing their own songs. For example, Ashok Kumar sang his own songs for 11 years before his film Sajan (1947), directed by Kishore Sahu. Kumar was slated to sing all his songs for Sajan as per usual, but in the turbulent pre-Independence days, there was a communal riot in Bombay and the actor was unable to reach the recording studio. Legendary music director, C. Ramachandra, was Sajan's music composer and he decided to go with a "freelance playback performer" (these people were not on the studio's payroll) – a certain Mohammed Rafi. Rafi's rendition of the song "Humko Tumhara Hi Aasra" was an instant hit, cementing his presence as a playback singer. Playback singing would quickly replace the actor-singer, creating a uniquely Indian cinematic tradition. 

Dilip Kumar's pro tip to Lata Mangeshkar 

Actor Dilip Kumar and singer Lata Mangeshkar met for the first time in 1947, on a local train. Mangeshkar recalls the fateful meeting in Kumar's 2014 autobiography, Substance and Shadow. The two were introduced by veteran music director Anil Biswas, who mentioned to Kumar that Mangeshkar sang well. When Kumar learned Mangeshkar was Maharashtrian, he pointed out that singers who weren't well-versed in Urdu often tripped over some of its trickier pronunciations. (Kumar could speak many languages, including Hindi, Urdu, English, Gujarati and Bengali).

Mangeshkar recalled being hurt by Kumar's comment but realised the truth in what he had said. "A learned maulana was arranged by Shafi Imam, our family friend who was like an elder brother to me," she said in Substance and Shadow. "As I continued my Urdu lessons, I found myself being appreciated and admired more and more." Mangeshkar would go on to sing some of Bollywood's most beloved Urdu lyrics, without even the hint of a slip-up. Decades later, when Mangeshkar passed away, Pakistan's former Information and Broadcast Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, said, "Wherever Urdu is spoken and understood, there are crowds of people saying goodbye to Lata Mangeshkar." 

Hinglish lyrics, at your service

Shehnai, directed by P. L. Santoshi, gained the coveted title of the "first hit of Independent India." Released on August 15, 1947, the film had jubilee runs in major cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Karachi. The film had 10 songs, including "Aana Meri Jaan, Meri Jaan, Sunday ke Sunday" with newer, peppier sounds of the saxophone, harmonica and drums. The composer was C. Ramachandra. With a visual treatment that tipped its hat to Charlie Chaplin, and picturised on Dulari and Mumtaz Ali, the song was playful and fun. It's also an early example of Hinglish lyrics: 

I love you, bhag yaha se tu

I love you, bhag yaha se tu

Tujhe Paris ghumau, tujhe london ghumau

Tujhe brandy pilau, tujhe whisky pilau

Aur khilau murgi ke, murgi ke ande

Aana meri jaan meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday

Decades later, the tune would be adapted for a commercial selling eggs, where the tagline was "Sunday ho yaa Monday, roz khao andey" (Whether it's a Sunday or a Monday, have an egg every day).  

How 1947's highest-grossing film faced censorship

Out of the five films that recorded a smash success at the box office in1947, Jugnu was perhaps the most intriguing. It catapulted Dilip Kumar to stardom and was iconic singer-actress Noor Jehan's last film before she migrated to Pakistan. The film revolved around Jugnu and Sooraj, two college-going adults who fall in love. While the film was a hit, many in India thought the film propagated promiscuity and showed college as a place for young people to mingle, instead of study. 

According to the Indian Express, Filmindia, the most popular film magazine of the time, condemned the film as "a dirty disgusting vulgar picture". So offended was Filmindia's editor Baburao Patel that he had sent an 'advance copy' of his review to the then Bombay Home Minister, Morarji Desai. After watching Jugnu, Desai issued a ban under Section 21 of General Clauses Act of 1897. Other cities followed suit. Despite the film being cleared by the Censor Board, the distributors had to run Jugnu through another round of certification, and it was heavily edited. Of its original duration of 156 minutes, another 28 minutes, including scenes of Kumar and Noor Jehan flirting inconspicuously behind a sofa, were cut.

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