1975’s Sholay, an homage to American spaghetti westerns, is a fan favorite cult film in India for many reasons — Gabbar Singh’s classic one-liners, the Amitabh Bachchan/Dharmendra bromance — but the one I always come back to is “Mehbooba Mehbooba.” Sung by Rahul Dev Burman, who does the most amazing things with his voice, and brought to life by famous “item girl” Helen, it’s one of the sexiest dance numbers ever put to film.
For me, the draw of this ode to the singer’s lover (his “mehbooba”) is absolutely a combination of song and dance. Burman’s voice is so unique, nasal but capable of such range, and it really has an incredibly exotic quality. Then there’s Helen. What can one even say about Helen? Her belly dance is probably nothing people haven’t seen Shakira do, but there’s an earthy, joyous sensuality in her movements that I think still holds up 35 years later. And I’m pretty sure that if I tried to copy them, I’d need a hip replacement.
When you check out a more recent version by Himesh Reshammiya, I feel like it’s lacking in something. It’s very run-of-the-mill — not to mention autotuned and overproduced within an inch of its life. And let’s not even talk about Mallika Sherawat‘s take on Helen’s gypsy dance. The very fact that she has backup dancers speaks volumes about not only the philosophy of the remake, but of modern-day Bollywood in general. “Do it bigger, do it louder.” Helen didn’t need an entourage of background dancers; she wielded all the power, all the attention…and still does, all these years later.