Herman Benjamin — The Man Who Prevented Dharmendra from Ruining a Party

by K Sridhar

It was one of those quiet afternoons several years ago, while watching a DVD compilation of sixties Hindi movie songs, that I made this discovery. The song that came up was one of those Rafi tearjerkers from a 1968 film called Izzat which had Dharmendra, Tanuja and Jayalalitha (yes, Amma) in the lead. In what happens to be a party scene where people are gathered to clearly have some fun, Dharmendra turns party-pooper when asked to sing and hits a screechy, moralistic note right away singing “Kya miliye aise logon se”. The revellers, expecting more fun, have turned up in “fancy-dress” costumes, displaying the variations in attire from the different regions of the country. For a moment they seem perplexed with Dharmendra’s choice of song but decide to ignore the Sahir lyrics, pick up Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s beat and break into their Bollywood ballroom dance.

When I finally got up surviving one of the biggest ROFL episodes I have ever experienced, I realised that this is clearly the work of a choreographer who was itching to work in Rumba moves to just about any song he could lay his hands on. The choreographer of this movie was B. Hiralal, of the famous Sohanlal-Hiralal duo, and grandfather of present-day dancer-choreographer, Vaibhavi Merchant. But Hiralal was assisted by a one-of-his-kind choreographer who is the one responsible for “Kya miliye aise logon se”. This was Herman Benjamin, the amazing dancer-choreogapher of the 60s also lovingly known in the Hindi film industry as Harman.

One of the proud sons of the Bene Israeli community of Mumbai, Herman made his entry into the world of Hindi cinema as a choreographer, or a “dance-master” as they were often called, sometime in the late-50s with Dil Deke Dekho being one of the first movies that he worked for. Most often, he either assisted another choreographer or got one or two songs from a movie to do — the typical rock n’ roll numbers in night-clubs so common in the movies of those days. It is not surprising then that he began his career with a Nasir Husain movie and that too one which repackaged and launched Shammi Kapoor in the avatar that we love him. He also appeared on screen as a dancer in quite a few films starting from around the same time.

Of all the 60s films that he worked in, Herman is remembered today for his work in the 1965 film, Gumnaam. A murder mystery, loosely based on an Agatha Christie novel, the film, though it had Manoj Kumar and Nanda in the lead, became popular because of Mehmood and, particularly, for the song “Hum Kaale hai to kya hua dilwaale hain”. The film’s opening number “Jaan Pehchaan Ho” in a night club, though noted at the time, did not stay too long in the public memory.

Then, after a span of 36 years, it was resurrected in 2001 with the release of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. The writer of Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, discovered this song when he chanced upon a DVD of Gumnaam. He and Zwigoff set about getting the rights for this songs and used it in the opening scene of their movie as the credits roll in. Shankar-Jaikishan, the music directors, lyricist Shailendra and the singer Mohammed Rafi are included in the credits. Herman Benjamin appears as the singer on screen with the band Ted Lyons and his Cubs but his choregraphy and Laxmi Chhaya’s rendering of it are, to say the least, epic!

After Ghost World, “Jaan Pehchaan Ho” went on to become a cult classic internationally. It was used again in the production of Ekman’s Triptych performed by a contemporary dance company from Sweden called the Cullberg Ballet. And, then more famously in 2011 for a Heineken commercial.

It is very soon after he choreographed “Jaan Pehchaan Ho” that Herman Benjamin worked on “Aaja Aaja” for Nasir Husain’s Teesri Manzil. After the kind of performance that Laxmi Chhaya gave in the earlier song she would probably have been a natural choice for “Aaja Aaja”. It is ironical that she appears in this song not dancing but as a spectator — clearly she had made some people feel very insecure!

Herman Benjamin had many more classic sets that he choreographed before he died prematurely in 1969. I leave you with one small clip from Brahmachari where he gets an otherwise-wooden Rajshree to set the stage on fire. Herman himself makes a small appearance in this dance clip and in those brief moments the feline grace with which he moves on the screen stands testimony to the talent of this great artiste.

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