Cheeta Chaalbaaz (Crafty Cheetah) is a Punjabi film released in May 1978.
By the mid-70s Pakistan was one of the world’s most prolific film-producing countries holding steady at #4 on the league table. In 1978 when this rather obscure feature was released the local film industry released 99 other films, not bad for a country (and industry) that had just a few years earlier been severed in half.
Punjabi films have always been popular in Punjab (duh!) and even enjoy some success with audiences in Karachi and elsewhere. Indeed, while Urdu is the official national language and promoted by the government as the language of culture and education, in and around Lahore, Punjabi is the spoken vernacular. During the Golden Age the film makers of Lahore worked primarily to this Urdu speaking middle class and most of the biggest earners were Urdu social/family dramas. But there has always existed a second audience that prefers their entertainment in their mother tongue. Indeed, some of the biggest and most accomplished films, both commercially and artistically, have been Punjabi films: Heer Ranjha (1970), Kartar Singh (1959), Chanway (1951) and Maula Jat (1979) just to name several.
Cheetah Chaalbaaz was a non-starter. In the no-nonsense lingo of the movie world it was a flop. Director Altaf Hussain was still some years away from his breakthrough hit Athra Puttar (1981) and indeed, Cheetah Chaalbaaz was one of 20 (!) failures in a row that he notched up on his way to success. It is a record that has yet to be broken. But it also speaks volumes of the persistence and passion of the man who went on in the 80s to direct some very successful Punjabi films including Mehndi (1985) and Laawaris (1983).
Aliya, a dancer/actress often cast as a vamp, was one of three big-name female stars in the film. Sadly, her film career was stopped in its tracks when she hooked up with the aforementioned, Altaf Hussain. As happened to Noor Jehan, Begum Akhtar (ghazal singer) and many other women artists, once the man got his girl the curtains came down on her career. The stronger women, including the two just mentioned, eventually dumped the guy and got back into the show. But even though she divorced Hussain, Aliya was never able to regain the momentum she had had before getting married.
Playback honors for the film went to Nahid Akhtar and the music was composed by the famous Tafo.
Given the pet name Tafo (also spelled Tafu and Tafoo) by his father, Altaf Hussain Khan (no relation to the director of this film) is one of the subcontinent’s great tabla masters. A student of Ustad Mian Qadir Bakhsh the master of the Punjab gharana who also instructed Allah Rakha, accompanist of Ravi Shankar and father of Zakir Hussain, ‘Tafo’ Khan, has accompanied all the great names of Pakistani classical and popular music and is recognised among his peers as an unsurpassed virtuoso.
In the 1970s, Altaf Hussain along with his brother Nisar (accordion and keyboards) and later, his sons, made a name for themselves in the movies. Billed as the Tafo Brothers or more simply just Tafo the collective made exciting, edgy and eclectic music for both Urdu and Punjabi films. When not getting topline credit for their work they were often playing in the studio orchestras of other musical directors and worked closely with M Ashraf in particular.
Yes Meri No Teri (My Yes, Your No) is a title I have given to today’s song, as the only reference to it I’ve been able to find on the internet gives it the generic title of Dance Music. Regardless of its true name, the song itself is completely wacky and wonderful. Not only does Tafo sample madly and widely he lifts one of South Asian film’s most iconic musical moments lock, stock and barrel.
Several electric guitars pulse out a beat as woozy, gurgling synths rise and fall like waves on the ocean before a tinny Hammond B3 riff that could be an outtake from The Doors Light My Fire sessions sets up the entry of the vocals.
R.D. Burman, India’s fabled musical director in the 1970s and 80s, made musical history with his song Duniya Mein Logon Ko Dokha Kabhi Ho Jaata Hai (Apna Desh, 1972) in which, in addition to singing, he vocalised a series of rhythmic grunts, groans and heavy breaths which became forever embedded in the national psyche.
In Yes Meri No Teri the very same ‘scat’ is inserted into the opening sequence by way of introducing the immortal lines sung by all time good sport Nahid Akhtar:
dil de gitar waje tau tau tau/ ik ik taar waje tau tau tau
(The guitar of the heart goes tau tau tau/ each and every string goes tau tau tau)
There is no shame in art. Not only does Tafo lift Burman‘s innovation but in the latter part of the song Akhtar slurs her vocals in a way that brings to mind the slightly inebriated singing style that Asha Bhosle used in her mega hit Dam Maro Dam (Take a Toke) from the 1971 movie (also scored by Burman) Hare Krishna Hare Ram.
All in all Yes Meri No Teri, like the film, is no classic. But it is a good example of what some very talented musicians were doing to modernize Pakistani film music. Tafo went on to score hundreds of films and many of his/their songs are rightly held in very high regard. We will share more in the future.
But for now, tau tau tau!