Teesri Kasam was made in another age and time. But more than 50 years after it briefly lit up the screen before it was yanked off the majestic Apsara Cinema of Bombay, “the finest human document written on celluloid”— as one viewer describes it— continues to live in the heart of every single viewer. Ratnottama Sengupta pays a tribute to the man behind this ‘love-lyric on celluloid’ – Kaviraj Shailendra, with some untold stories about the making of the classic.
“Teesri Kasam ki tareef ho hi nahin sakti… Can’t ever praise the film. For, I don’t have words adequate enough to praise the film”— Ramesh Jivanani
“Lyrically the greatest ever film made in Hindi”— Shiv Shankar Gehlot
“Immortal lyrics, immortal music, very very touching storyline, great acting – a gem-studded masterpiece”— Bittu Sharma
Was it 1966 or 1967? Radio was big then. There was no television, so cinema lived in the lives of us pre-teenagers only through the songs. There was this kid who was boasting to his friend— both about ten years old— that his father had bought a new car. This had raised the social status of his family, a fact both the kids were aware of even at that juvenile age. Just then, Mukesh’s voice rang out, Na haathi hai, na ghoda hai, wahaan paidal hi jana hai… Sajan re jhootth mat bolo…” As if on cue, the second child responded, “Heard that? We will all have to go to God on foot. So what good is your father’s car?”
Sajan re jhootth mat bolo (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Mukesh)
That was the impact of the enchanting combination of Shailendra’s words, Mukesh’s voice, and Shankar-Jaikishan’s melody. And the song got further etched in my consciousness once I saw the film – albeit long after its release in 1967. By then it had got the National Award for the Best Film of 1966. Shailendra had passed away. Waheeda Rehman was a major star for me after Guide. I had come to revere Subrato Mitra as a hero who had made Pather Panchali – in fact the Apu Trilogy – a lesson in cinematography. Phanishwar Nath Renu had come to our house in Malad, to discuss Maila Aanchal with my father – Nabendu Ghosh – and I had learnt that Baba was a screenplay writer who was soon turning director with that novel. And what is screenplay? “It is direction on paper,” my mother Kanaklata had simply explained.
Got the hang of it? Teesri Kasam was made in another age and time. But more than 50 years after it briefly lit up the screen before it was yanked off the majestic Apsara Cinema of Bombay, “the finest human document written on celluloid”— as one viewer describes it— continues to live in the heart of every single viewer. Yes, Raj Kapoor was somewhat flabby, and looked too sophisticated as a gaadiwaan. Yes, the film could have been edited more tightly. Yes, it was rooted in a region that was far, far away from the world of Sangam and Guide, Mamta and Teesri Manzil – the megahits of that time – so the average viewer had to recalibrate his sensitivity in order to relate to a Nautanki dancer in rural Bihar who leaves her company rather than crush the love of a naïve bullock cart driver who worships her as a goddess. Love stories such as Hiraman and Hirabai’s are the stuff of folklore.
Laali laali doliya mein (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Asha Bhosle)
But let me today unfold the other loves that went into the making of Teesri Kasam. And, no two ways about it, I must begin with Shailendra. For, even today, people believe that the lyricist who was anointed Kaviraj by The Raj Kapoor died heartbroken because of the commercial failure of the film which was his first production and his last ‘child’, carrying forward his name in the world of moving images. The truth, his son asserts, is a long way away: “Shailendra was commanding a princely sum for writing songs like Wahaan kaun hai tera. So he would have certainly recovered his financial investment. He was shattered by the shards of his dream!”
Shailendra met Basu Bhattacharya, in all probability, during the making of Parakh. Bimal Roy was an icon for whom he had already written unforgettable songs for Do Bigha Zameen, Madhumati and Yahudi, which anointed him the Best Lyricist at the 6th Filmfare Awards. And Basu was a regular visitor to his house, along with the director’s daughter he would soon marry. Basu Bhattacharya had a striking ability to cast a spell when he spoke: every one from Shailendra to Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna to Sharmila Tagore, Sanjeev Kumar to Rekha— why, even Indira Gandhi!— was to come under his spell.
But, and perhaps more importantly, Shailendra was in love with the rustic simplicity of the two personas, Hiraman and Hirabai, who called each other Meeta. It was a love story rooted in the soil of Bihar, the land of his ancestors who had travelled all the way from Ara district to Rawalpindi where Shailendra was born, and then moved to Mathura. The song writer made up his mind to produce it, perhaps also because the short story had every possibility of becoming a musical masterpiece. Basu Da was to direct it; Mehmood was to be the gaadiwaan, and Nutan the dancer.
Chalat musafir moh liyo re (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Manna Dey)
The first roadblock came from the actress who had played Sujata. She was pregnant with Mohnish, and refused to shoot any film at that point. Waheeda Rehman was a natural choice, being a dancer and also having acted for Satyajit Ray’s Abhijaan. Subrata Mitra was already on board, remember? Even today we cannot imagine a better Hirabai. Just think Paan khaaye saiyyan hamaro, Laali laali doliya mein, or watch the Mahua ghatwarin sequence!
Paan khaaye saiyyan hamaro (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Asha Bhosle)
For the sake of realism, actors were picked up from theatre groups. And umpteen other roles were to be enacted by his own family of friends and mates. What a chest of delights the credit titles are! Nabendu Ghosh, who transcripted the short story into ‘a love-lyric on celluloid’ played a drunkard who gets beaten up by Hiraman for suggesting that he pimp on his behalf for the “nautanki ki bai”.
There was Kesto Mukherjee who would later get typed in the role of an alcoholic. It marked the debut of A K Hangal on screen. Iftekhar stepped into the role of the zamindar when a theatre actor from Bihar failed to deliver a single line. Dulari got under the skin of Hiraman’s bhaujai. Pacchi, who had produced Jaali Note in 1960 (directed by Shakti Samanta), was then directing Around the World (1966) pairing Raj Kapoor with Rajshri. And there was the Producer himself, playing a villager, who tries to peep in on the romantic couple when Hiraman and Hirabai are sitting in the open, eating curds and rice. Shailendra runs away when Raj Kapoor chases him. It was a fun role that got deleted in the final cut.
However I am more surprised to see that the credit titles attribute the lyrics to ‘Shailendra-Hasrat’. Why did the man who wrote O Sajna barkha bahar aayi, Yeh mera deewanapan hai, Mera joota hai Japani, among hundreds of other unforgettables, share the songs of his own film with a peer who one expects to be seen as a rival? My reading: The producer was perfecting the mood of the scene since Hasrat Jaipuri had penned the number, Maare gaye gulfaam. There’s another reason, says Dinesh. “Shailendra wanted the team of Shankar-Jaikishan, Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra to be together. That is why he shared the credit for lyrics with a peer.”
Maare gaye gulfam (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Hasrat Jaipuri/ Lata Mangeshkar)
So, the unit was one big family of friends in an era of celluloid camaraderie. But that was to take its toll on the producer in terms of both, production cost and emotional turbulence. The first day Shailendra took Basu to meet Raj Kapoor, he hugged the lyricist of Awara hoon and said, “You’ve discovered a genius.” However, after the first day’s shoot, he took Kaviraj aside to say, “You are screwed. This gentleman is a novice in cinema.” This, by some accounts, was not off the mark as Basu had not graduated to be one of Roy’s trusted lieutenants. Later, “Subrata Mitra’s outbursts during the shooting would bear him out,” says Dinesh Shankar, the youngest son of Shailendra.
“The cinematographer, whom Kodak would send their newly developed raw stock for his approval, had startled Mumbai technicians by putting white paper on the walls to obtain ‘bounce light’. He was a very important person all through,” he adds, “as Basu Chatterjee, who was the chief assistant, left even his job as a cartoonist to pursue his own interest in direction. BR Ishara proved to be the only qualified man to shoot a film.” He is said to have written some of the dialogues too. Thus started the journey of a man (BR Ishara) who rose from being a Tea Boy serving on the sets to be a director who, at one point of time, was completing a film virtually every other month – including watershed titles like Chetana – and presenting talents like Rehana Sultan, Anil Dhawan, and Parveen Babi among others.
Another casualty of investing in friends was that a large chunk of the film was shot in Bina in Madhya Pradesh. I know for sure that the riveting last scene, where Hiraman glances back, to see Hirabai’s train recede into the horizon was shot in Borivali, close to Malad in Bombay, and no one can fault it for not being in Bihar. Much else could have easily been shot in some rural pocket outlying Bombay. Yet, the entire bullock cart journey was taken to a far-flung location, only to help the Production Controller Santosh— Shailendra’s wife’s brother— court a lady, later recognised as Nandita Thakur. Their romance had a happy ending when they got married. But in the process, the shooting of the entire film became a picnic for everyone, at the producer’s cost. So much so, that they would shoot during the day, and at night they would go hunting!
One funny incident happened when Pachhi shot what he thought was a Neelgai – and it turned out to be a buffalo owned by the village Pradhan. As a result, the group of shooters were taken into custody and Shailendra had to pay a fine. But at the Police Station they were royally treated by the constables who stood at attention, with folded hands, before the ‘hunters’ as it included Raj Kapoor too! Funny? Yes, but would you like to know the cost of the entertainment? When all the arrangements were made for the outdoor shoot, the Distributor said he had no money to finance the film that was in the making from 1961 till 1966. Further, the leading lady could not be expected to join in until she was paid.
Naturally, the producer was dejected. Seeing his downcast chehra his wife asked him, “What’s the matter?” Once he confided in her, she opened her cupboard, took out her saris one by one, and shook them. As she did so, currency notes started falling on the floor like leaves in autumn. And by the time she touched the bottom of her pile of saris, Shailendra had enough to see him through the shoot – “and more,” Dinesh laughed as he narrated the incident during a screening at Nandan, in March 2016. It had marked the 50th year of Teesri Kasam; of Shailendra’s passing, and had also set off the Nabendu Ghosh Centenary Celebrations.
Haaye gajab kahin taara toota (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Asha Bhosle)
For those interested in saris, here’s a bit more. Mrs Shailendra, like you and I, was fond of saris and every now and then she would buy what caught her eye. But, instead of taking them home, she would give them for stitching falls and then drop it at the laundry. When the poet husband noticed his wife in a sari he had never seen before, he’d ask her if it was new. She’d point to the laundry tag and say, “This is what happens if one is married to a poet. He doesn’t even notice his wife is wearing only old saris!” What’s more, every day after he came home, the smart lady would siphon off the ‘small change’ he carried in his pocket and stow away the notes in the folds of her ‘fresh from the laundry’ drapes. That’s why she could rise to his assistance when he was let down by his investment in people.
The song book of Teesri Kasam— one of my prized possessions from my school days— opens a can of memories. I had not recognised Baba when I first saw the classic: A beggarly fella who’s beaten up not once but twice by the hero! Not surprisingly, an aunt of his had advised my mother, “Bouma (bahu), don’t you go to watch this movie. Mukul (Nabendu’s pet name) has got such a thrashing from that no-good gaadiwaan!”
My brother Subhankar, director of Woh Chhokri and of the teleserial Yugantar, adds another anecdote. “One night, Shailendra came to Baba accompanied by Renu. ‘Dada, I will trash what I have shot but I will not change the ending just because Raj Saab wants me to,’ he told Nabendu Da. ‘But why would he want that?’ Baba asked. ‘So that the film has a happy ending with Hiraman and Hirabai becoming man and wife. But that would kill the story!’ Renu joined in, ‘Dada you must explain this to Rajji.’ At midnight, they set out to meet the star who told the screenwriter, ‘You have the pen in your hand, you must change the ending.’ Nabendu Da said, ‘Certainly the ending can be changed but before that you must change the Title of the film.’ ‘Why?’ Raj Kapoor was startled. ‘Because, if they marry and settle down, why would he take the third vow and promise that – like smuggled goods and bamboo poles – he will never ferry a dancer in his cart?’ That settled it and— like Bandini— it went on to play out its inevitable resolution, flowing unabated like a river.
Aa aa bhi ja (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Lata Mangeshkar)
More than half a century ago, when Shailendra screened the completed film for his friends, he meticulously noted down the comments of all those present. While Trade Guide had ranked it as ‘Average’ and Bunny Ruben had written ‘Press report excellent but audience conflicting’, Hrishikesh Mukherjee had predicted, ‘Award film.’
Teesri Kasam remains one of the gems in the filmography of actor Raj Kapoor. The showman knew the potential of the character and had therefore bulldozed his way into the role that had not an iota of glamour about it. But, in return, he did not come forward to give financial tips when his trusted Kaviraj was in deep waters. The optimist that he was, Shailendra had jotted down in his diary, ‘It will be a hit.’ But he was shattered when, though he was too unwell to step out and his entire family was suffering in silence, his dream film was premiered in Delhi with celebrations in full swing.
Sajanva bairi ho gaye hamaar (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Shailendra/ Mukesh)
Some listeners have pointed out that sifting through the songs he penned between 1961 and 1966 gives an insight into his dejection. Sample this: Dost dost na raha… Zindagi hamein tera aitbar na raha in Sangam. When friends offer ‘reasons’ for staying away, he says, Sajan re jhootth mat bolo, Khuda ke paas jaana hai. He questions himself, Tune toh sabko raah bataayi, Tu apni manzil kyoon bhoola (Guide). He concludes: Rula ke gaya sapna mera (Jewel Thief).
“Mukesh was the only one of his many ‘friends’ who had rushed to Northcote Nursing Home on December 14, 1966 when he heard Shailendra’s condition is worsening,” recounts Dinesh. Mukesh alone was let in, while Shailendra’s wife and children stood in the corridor outside the room and the hospital staff kept rushing in and out of the room. Alone, the Voice of Raj Kapoor watched the Awara Poet give up his battle for life. Two days later, the creditors procured a court order and attached every piece of furniture in Rimjhim, the bungalow in Khar, that had been mortgaged to complete his Teesri Kasam.
But the story has a silver lining. Mukesh came forward to inform Mrs Shailendra that he had paid off the mortgage amount and the bungalow was free again. ”It’s not a favour,” he assured her. For, his company, Mukesh and Sons had acquired the distribution rights of Teesri Kasam for Bombay. That was Mukesh – not only a balmy voice but a friend indeed. The company ensured the film’s release in late 1967, but only for a week, as the theatre was pre-booked for Duniya.
Was it poetic justice that viewers of this film came out singing Hiraman’s lines –
Duniya bananewale, kya tere mann mein samaayi!
Kaahe ko ‘Duniya’ banaayi…?
Duniya banane waale (Shankar-Jaikishan/ Hasrat Jaipuri/ Mukesh)
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)
More to read on Shailendra
Teesri Kasam – A Story of Love That Meandered to its Dead End
Shailendra: The Spirit with a Mass Connect
15 Songs of Shailendra: The Art of Simply Expressing Deepest Thoughts
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What a beautiful retrospective this is! My salutations to the ones that have passed and to the author, who brought that time alive for me as I read this beautiful essay!
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