Tales of undying love travel, and how. What was once a local legend in Persia in the ninth century spread far and wide, thanks to numerous poets, translations and folk art, until it became one of the most oft-used elements in the lyrics of Hindi film songs. The lovers Laila and Qais (who got the nickname “Majnu”, meaning “mad”, for his antics after getting separated from Laila), who could never live together or consummate their passion, became a symbol for tragic romance in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, Khosrow and Shirin, Sassi and Punnu, Sohni and Mahiwal, and Mirza and Sahiban.
Like all these pairs, Laila and Majnu too have had an indelible influence on Hindi cinema and its music. Their most recent appearance is in the song Bandook Meri Laila from the Sidharth Malhotra-Jacqueline Fernandez starrer A Gentleman. Lyricist Vayu compares Laila to a gun (“Bandook meri Laila”, “Beretta ki beti”).
One of the earliest uses of Laila in a Hindi film song is in SS Vasan’s satirical film Mr Sampat (1952). The song, Laila Laila Pukaroon, is staged as part of a theatre company’s show where the dancers enact the tale of Laila-Majnu. The next year saw the release of the third talkie adaptation of the Laila-Majnu legend in Hindi, starring Shammi Kapoor and Nutan in the titular roles. It was a box-office hit.
In 1957, Laila reappeared in Main Pyar Ki Laila Hoon, a duet sung by Sudha Malhotra and Manna Dey, from the science-fiction film Mr X, starring Ashok Kumar, inspired by HG Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. The next year, in Satyen Bose’s hit comedy Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Kishore Kumar’s character Manmohan serenades Renu (Madhubala) in the song Paanch Rupaiya Baara Aana with the lines “Tere liye Majnu ban sakta hoon, Laila Laila kar sakta hoon.”
That very year, Kishore Kumar once again made himself the woman’s Majnu in Hum To Mohabbat Karega (“Laila Laila karega, thandi aahen bharega”) in the film Dilli Ka Thug.
Laila reappears in the Arabic-flavoured Aap Se Miliye from Nasir Hussain’s 1969 lost-and-found saga Pyar Ka Mausam. Seema (Asha Parekh) performs to the Lata Mangeshkar song (“Arre pyar ke sehraon mein firte hain ye bhage, oonth hai inke peeche Laila koi aage.”) on stage along with her troupe members, as a besotted Sunil (Shashi Kapoor) gazes at her with awe.
Laila is prominently featured, for obvious reasons, in Harnam Singh Rawail’s 1976 adaptation of the Laila-Majnu legend, starring Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta Kaur. The film opens with the title track, Laila Majnu Do Badan Ek Jaan The, which lays down the premise of Laila and Qais as star-crossed lovers. Later, a heartbroken Qais (Kapoor) wanders in the desert after being exiled, and pines for Laila with the song Likh Kar Tera Naam Zameen Par (“Saayon ko liptaata hain aur Laila Laila karta hain”).
Two years later, Kapoor and Neetu Singh became Majnu and Laila to each other in a slapstick song sequence, O Meri Jaan Thik Se Dekho in the film Anjane Mein. Raja dons Majnu’s garb and serves food at Rani’s table (“Laila, o Laila, kaha ho meri rani, arre main le ke aaya hoon tere liye mohabbat ki biryani.”). Rani, not amused, puts a bunch of bananas on Raja’s head and goes, “Arey Majnu ke chele, kahi ja kar bech kele.”
In between came Rajesh Khanna’s hit thriller Chhailla Babu (1978). In the opening track Main Babu Chhailla, Khanna goes, “Aaj se ban gaya re main Majnu, dekh ke tujhko Laila” in a carriage with a coy Zeenat Aman by his side.
Laila became a nationwide phenomenon in 1980 thanks to the hit number Laila O Laila from Feroz Khan’s crime thriller Qurbani. This song, along with the Biddu-produced Aap Jaisa Koi from the same film, heralded the disco era of Hindi film music. Laila O Laila is situated in a club where the singer Sheela (Zeenat Aman) and her drummer (Amjad Khan, actually an inspector in disguise) lip-sync to the song sung by Amit Kumar and Kanchan and composed by Kalyanji-Anandji. The lyrics (“Laila main Laila, aisi hoon Laila, har koi chahe mujhse milna akela.”) are by Indeevar.
Thereafter, Laila became a regular fixture in Hindi film songs as either a part of the hookline or embedded somewhere in the lyrics: Laila O Meri Laila (Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye, 1983), Laila Mar Gayi (Uttar Dakshin, 1987), Laila Ne Kaha Jo Majnu Se (Jungle Love, 1990), and Jumma Chumma (Hum, 1991).
Laila’s recall value was further enhanced with Sonu Nigam using the name in the lyrics of his superhit song Tu from his 1998 album Kismat. The video featured Nigam, one of the hottest Indipop stars of the time, and Bipasha Basu, who was yet to make her Bollywood debut.
Shah Rukh Khan got his Laila moment with Apun Bola Tu Meri Laila in Josh (2000). Max (Khan), a local rowdy, tries to capture the attention of Rosanne (Priya Gill). His attempts mostly lead to failure, which forms the crux of the song which he sings to his friends in despair: “Apun bola tu meri Laila, woh boli fekta hai saala.”
A month after Josh’s release, Alisha Chinai sang the forgettable Laila in her non-film album Om (2000). The most definitive Laila song of the 2000s is, however, the item number Laila Laila from the 2003 serial killer mystery Samay: When Time Strikes, a rip-off of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).
Laila-Majnu make a comeback not just in a song but as a part of the story in Anil Mehta’s Aaja Nachle (2007). Choreographer Dia (Madhuri Dixit) returns to her hometown and stages a performance of the Laila-Majnu folk tale along with locals in order to prevent the destruction of her mentor’s dilapidated dance theatre. The song Koi Paththar Se Na Maare Mere Diwaane Ko from the Rishi Kapoor starrer Laila Majnu (1976) is recreated for the play in Aaja Nachle.
The next decade saw a serious hike in the number of Laila songs. Then a rising star in 2011, Yo Yo Honey Singh, famously rapped, “Main tera Majnu, bann meri Laila” in the hit track Angreji Beat from his breakthrough album International Villager.
The song was later used in Cocktail (2012).
Laila kept making appearances throughout the decade in a number of hit songs such as Gandi Baat (R... Rajkumar, 2013) and Matargashti (Tamasha, 2015). The Tamil hit Mental Manadhil from Mani Ratnam’s romantic drama O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) opens with the lines “Like-a like my Laila.”
While Laila has been a part of many songs in the past few years, two particularly successful ones have been Laila Teri Le Legi from the gangster film Shootout At Wadala (2013) and the recreated version of Qurbani’s hit number in the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Raees (2017). Both are item numbers, filmed in a dance bar-like setting where gangsters drop in to be entertained. Both feature Sunny Leone as the eponymous Laila dancing purposefully to make the name her own in the annals of Hindi cinema.