Cuckoo was known for her sensational dances in the Hindi films of late forties and fifties but sadly died alone and uncared for at the young age of 53 …
Dance being an integral and inseparable part of Hindi cinema, our industry has from time to time produced some great dancing stars, who have entertained and mesmerized the audience during every era and left an indelible mark in our heart with their charm and flair. One such dancing sensation of the forties and fifties was ‘Cuckoo’ whose unique name itself gave her a distinct personality and aura…
Here is an energetic gypsy dance set to tune by music director Ghulam Mohammed and sung by Shamshad Begum. This ranks among her most popular dance numbers.
Cuckoo’s effervescent and outstanding dancing was very infectious and her dances were a rare combination of speed, flexibility and grace. Her characteristic neck, hand and hip movements in her dances gave her the title of ‘Rubber girl’. She was an Anglo-Indian and her unconventional good looks, winsome smile, slim body-frame and extraordinary agility all added up to make her dances a sheer delight to watch. Her enticing eyes and facial expressions also added to her seductive charm without ever making the dances look vulgar.
NAMOONA (1949) Lata Mangeshkar
She came into prominence at a time when heroines of the era like Nargis, Madhubala, Beena Rai, Meena Kumari, etc., were not known for possessing any special dancing skill. So Cuckoo’s dance numbers were lapped up by the audience and proved a welcome change from the ensuing drama in the films.
KALI GHATA (1951) Lata Mangeshkar
Except for Mehboob Khan’s classic love-triangle Andaz in 1949, she did not get a chance to act and was solely used only for her dancing. In Andaz, she plays Nargis’s friend and looked very charming.
Sadly not much written material is available on her and some of her earliest songs are also missing. There is a lot of mystery regarding her real name, her parents and how exactly she got into films. There is a lot of speculation and rumour about her personal life as well. While some write about her close affinity to a director others write about her marriage to a certain choreographer named More which is why perhaps some articles refer to her as Cuckoo More. But nothing can be confirmed as there are no decisive and definitive sources to vouch for any of the facts.
SINGAAR (1949) Rajkumari
Whatever may have been missing about her personal life, her professional life as a superb dancer was there for everyone to see. And from the information available about her films, it is very clear that the audience loved her enough to make the producers and directors incorporate her dances in their films as a special attraction. She was equally at ease in rural dances as well as ‘club’ dances. She could probably be considered Hindi cinema’s first ‘itemgirl’ and subsequently paved the way for all her successors – Helen, Madhumati, Laxmi Chaya, Jayashree T, Padma Khanna, etc., who dominated the scene in the sixties and seventies.
PHAGUN (1958) Asha Bhonsle
It was Cuckoo who introduced the next dancing sensation of Hindi cinema ‘Helen’. She was friends with Helen’s mother and at the latter’s request got the young Helen her first break in films. She also teamed up with Helen to give us some beautiful and evergreen dance numbers…
YAHUDI (1958) Cuckoo with Helen
CHALTI KA NAAM GAADI (1958) Cuckoo with Helen
She started her career in 1946 but it was her dance sequence in Mehboob Khan’s Anokhi Ada in 1948 which got her into prominence. Later the same director gave her a lot more scope in Andaz where she gets to dance in three songs and even sing alongside Nargis in one song. Then came India’s first technicolour film Aan where again Mehboob Khan incorporated a small dance sequence exclusively picturized on Cuckoo.
ANOKHI ADA (1948) Only tune as it is a stage dance
This is the only dance of Cuckoo’s shot in colour…
Her career got a further boost when Raj Kapoor gave her immortal songs in his Barsaat and Awara. Even though, she does not get to lip-sync in Barsaat, the words ‘Patli kamar hai,tirchi nazar hai…’describe Cuckoo so aptly that it is her dance that stays with us and which we would recall whenever we hear the song.
BARSAAT (1949) Mukesh-Lata duet.
In Awara,the sequence of a moll singing in front of the gangsters set the trend of many such songs to come in the future.
AWARA (1951) Shamshad Begum
Unlike Helen, Cuckoo did not get the chance to wear too many different costumes or experiment with exotic hairstyles and get-up. Her costumes were more conventional keeping in tune with the era in question where rural stories were predominant. She was often seen in flowing ‘lehengas’and swirling long skirts and gowns and made the most of her settings by putting all her energy into her dance.
HULCHUL (1951) Shamshad Begum
She led an affluent life-style and is said to have charged Rupees 6000/- per dance which was considered a very high price for that time. She spent extravagantly and had three expensive cars out of which one was used exclusively for her dog! But as the number of films coming her way reduced, the industry started to forget her. She fell into bad times and with no one around to help or advise her, all her money was lost in tax settlement and she was reduced to penury. It is to her credit that she braved the bad times with dignity and took it in her stride with a smile.
Always the biggest tragedy of our stars is facing this harsh reality that when one is climbing up the ladder of success, everyone wants a part of the pie, but the way down is always lonely and painful. (https://myviewsonbollywood.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/the-tragic-side-of-showbiz/). And so it was with Cuckoo also. With age no longer being on her side, her assignments stopped and to make matters worse, she was diagnosed of cancer. In her last days she was lonely and died on September 30th,1981- alone and uncared for.
PIYA MILAN KI AAS (1961) Mubarak Begum
In Mr. & Mrs.55, the song ‘Neele aasmani…’ sung by Geeta Dutt surpisingly has her just standing and singing in a club and even though the focus is on Madhubala and Guru Dutt and their awakening of love, Cuckoo manages to leave her eternal stamp in the background.
Today not many pause to remember this golden girl who lit up the screen with her vibrance and gave us many hours of entertainment. Many of her songs remain popular even now and I do hope by the end of this blog it would have helped you to recall and hum some of Cuckoo’s popular songs and remember this remarkable dancer of the days gone-by…
SAQI(1952) Lata Mangeshkar
Here she can be seen in an Arabian dance
By 1958, Helen had gained a lot of popularity and after her popular dance number ‘Mera naam chin chin chu…’ from Howrah Bridge, there was no looking back. She became the much sought-after dancing star and gracefully took over the mantle from her own mentor. Cuckoo must have realized that her days at the top were over and she was seen in many ‘twin dances’ where she shared screen space with another dancer.
HEERA MOTI (1958)-With Helen
GUEST HOUSE (1959)-with Sheila Vaz
She was last seen in 1963 in Sunil Dutt’s Mujhe Jeene Do. She does a dance number with Madhumati where she dons the part of a male pretending to tease Madhumati. Though many singers sang for her- starting from Zohrabai Ambalewali to Geeta Dutt and Mubarak Begum, form Rajkumari to Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, it was Shamshad Begum who was considered best suited for her.
Here are some more of Cuckoo’s dance numbers:
HUM EK HAIN (1946)-One of her earliest films.
Of the three dancers, Cuckoo stands out
MIRZA SAHIBAAN (1947) Zohrabai Ambalewaali
RAIL KA DIBBA (1953)