Shooting film songs

The story behind Madhuri Dixit’s ‘Ek Do Teen’, the most famous counting exercise in Hindi film music

While the remixed version, performed by Jacqueline Fernandez for ‘Baaghi 2’, has created a furore, the original song remains as fresh as ever.

Ek Do Teen, the immensely popular dance track from N Chandra’s Tezaab (1988), is the latest subject of a thoughtless remix. Rather than Shreya Ghosal’s rendition of the song, originally sung by Alka Yagnik, it is Jacqueline Fernandez’s dance moves in the new version from the upcoming movie Baaghi 2 that have caused outrage among fans. In the original track, Madhuri Dixit’s character dances before a group of men as she counts down the number of days she has been waiting to meet her beloved. The new version appears to be set in a nightclub, and is in the mode of Chikni Chameli and Munni Badnaam Hui, with Fernandez performing for the camera amidst a group of leering background dancers.

Ek Do Teen, Baaghi 2 (2018).

The choreography by Ganesh Acharya, which includes a few moves from the original song, was “crass beyond imagination”, Tezaab director N Chandra told the website Quint. Declaring that putting Fernandez in Dixit’s shoes was like “turning the Central Park into a botanical garden”, Chandra added, “Madhuri danced with such grace and innocence. This number is like a sex act.”

Ek Do Teen is one of Madhuri Dixit’s most popular songs and among the best examples of her terpsichorean skills. Choreographer Saroj Khan won a Filmfare Award for her efforts in 1989 (the category was created that year, thus making Khan the first winner). “Till that time in Indian cinema it had never happened that a dance is being performed on stage, but the audience isn’t sitting because there are no chairs,” N Chandra told Nidhi Tuli for the PSBT documentary The Saroj Khan Story (2012). “I told them [Saroj Khan and her team] the crowd has gone wild, they are tearing their clothes with excitement, that’s the kind of wild dance I wanted... And when she [Saroj Khan] composed the dance for the song, she told me to see and finalise it before Madhuri could rehearse. And I went and when I saw the signature movement itself I was convinced that she has hit the right note.”

In Tezaab, Dixit’s character, Mohini, performs the song on a stage under duress, even though it is not evident from her enthusiastic moves and blinding smile. Mohini’s debauched father Shyamlal (Anupam Kher) has been forcing her to be a stage performer to repay his considerable debts. After a confrontation with her father, Mohini gets onto the stage and banters with the cheering men in the crowd before launching into one of the most famous countdowns in the history of popular Hindi film music.

Ek Do Teen from Tezaab (1988).

Dixit rehearsed for the song for 16 days and shot for a week. She told Mumbai Mirror, “On the last day, we shot for the entire day and night. It was quite draining.”

The collaboration between Dixit and Saroj Khan produced many more hits, including songs from Dil (1990), Sailaab (1990), Thanedaar (1990), Beta (1992), Khalnayak (1993), Raja (1995) and Devdas (2002). Dixit acknowledged the milestone in her Mumbai Mirror interview: “The Ek Do Teen song turned the tables for me. Every producer wanted me to do a dance number in his or her film… We were shooting a song for Tridev. There were three actresses including Sonam and me. Sonam was a bigger star and so, she was made to stand in the centre for half the song. But as soon as Ek Do Teen became a hit, the producer changed our positions. I was in the centre.”

Javed Akhtar’s lyrics for the Laxmikant-Pyarelal tune have their own back story. In Talking Songs Javed Akhtar in Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir (2005), the poet and lyricist said, “There is something called ‘dummy words’. I think this terminology has been coined by the Indian film industry. Dummy words are used when the music director presents the tune on which words are later written. Instead of singing, ‘la lalala,’ the music director says, ‘ajaaja’ or something like that. The music director, Laxmikant, sang a tune to me and illustrated it through the dummy words ek do teen (1,2,3). So I brought home the tune on a cassette and suddenly had an idea. The next day, I went back to him and said, ‘I’m thinking of keeping the numbers in the lyrics.’ He almost panicked and said, Dekhiye, dekhiye (See here), I think we’re going totally overboard. It’ll sound ridiculous.’ I said, ‘Leave it to me. I’ll write the song in a way that will justify the use of the numbers.’ So I wrote the song accordingly.”

The song evoked lukewarm reactions from Akhtar’s literary-minded circle. “On numerous occasions, I have been asked, ‘You’re a poet and you’ve written such beautiful songs, how could you write Ek do tin [1,2,3]?’,” Akhtar told Kabir. “So I tell them, ‘I’ll recite the whole song, then decide if it still seems a meaningless, absurd song, I’ll accept your verdict and apologize.’ When I recite this song, everyone is surprised, even though they must have heard it hundreds of times. They had never noticed that it has a complete structure. When they listen to the words without music or singing, they are embarrassed and wonder how they could have objected.”

Saroj Khan hasn’t commented on the new version, but an old interview indicates her thoughts on remixes and the state of choreography. “Subtlety has given way to sensationalism,” Khan told The Hindu in 2005. “Choreographers today hardly think on creative lines, they mechanically pack each song with seductive movements for a titillating effect. They are a helpless lot as most of these youngsters are group dancers-turned-choreographers, who have to fall in line with the demands of the producers and directors for the sake of survival. I am sure people will soon be fed up of the overdose of vulgarity.”

The Saroj Khan Story (2012).
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