Friday, December 4, 2009

M. S. Subbulakshmi’s Hindi Meera (1947)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on December 3, 2009.

M. S. Subbulakshmi as Meera I have some memories associated with my old VHS tape of the 1947 Hindi version of the 1945 Tamil film Meera that is synonymous with M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004). The year was 1991. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated on May 21. Sometime in the next couple of days or so, Doordarshan, in a gesture of magnanimity reserved for such somber occasions, paid homage to the departed soul by screening Chandraprabha Cinetone’s Hindi Meera—which, for some reason, unlike its Tamil original, is not easy to come by.

As a schoolgirl, for me—as for many others, undoubtedly, in keeping with Shakespeare’s “whining schoolboy … creeping like snail unwillingly to school”—the death of a famous political leader usually meant a sudden holiday, much welcomed especially if it was the postponement of a dreaded test or assignment. Some things never change. (Of course, Rajiv Gandhi’s death occurred during the summer vacation—I had just finished Std. XI—so it was certainly a lost holiday opportunity for whining school goers.)

The other thing about such deaths was that one could be fairly sure that Doordarshan would be inclined to broadcast vintage devotional or mythological films—essentially, classics that would stir the soul. Likewise, All India Radio would offer quite a musical bonanza, with rare recordings of devotional songs, bhajans, and classical music—which were all certainly not easy to come by on an ordinary day. And, of course, the melodious but sad strains of a shehnai vaadan (usually by Ustad Bismillah Khan) could be heard wafting through the neighborhood TVs and radios that would all be on, in anticipation of any announcements or updates.

For the avid vintage-films/vintage-music collector in me, this was the time for some serious recording work. Armed with enough blank audio and video tapes, and with both the TV and the radio on side-by-side, I would assume the role of watchdog (and a pugnacious one at that, if anyone interrupted), keeping my eyes and ears open for any vintage treasures that were on the way. And that is how I acquired my precious copy of the Hindi Meera, directed by Ellis R. Dungan (1909-2001), the American from Barton, Ohio, and co-written by Kalki Krishnamurthy, the legendary writer and freedom fighter (1899-1954).

Meera, with nearly twenty exceptionally melodious songs, all vying with each for best song, is one of those films that one can never have one’s fill of. The music for the Hindi version was inspired by the famous musician-intellectual of the time Dilip Kumar Roy (1897-1980) and composed by S. V. Venkatraman, G. Ramanathan, and Naresh Bhattacharya. (So far I have not been able to find accurate information about the three music directors, which just shows how wanting the documentation is in this area; I did read in a few places though that S. V. Venkatraman was an underrated composer. That is hard to understand, given the melody of the songs here.)

I really don’t want to sound clichéd, but M. S. Subbulakshmi is, cinematically and musically, quite the personification of Meera. When I think of or read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sir Laurence Olivier’s brooding face (from his 1948 film) comes to mind. When I think of Meera or listen to her bhajans, the inner eye, by default, equates Meera with M. S.—although I have seen and listened to other adaptations of the story of this 16th century Rajput princess. M. S.’s interpretation of Meera is one of those rare things that one can rely upon when one is down on one’s luck in the world; it is quite the panacea for life’s wear and tear.

The film starts with Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) introducing “Subbulakshmi of the South to the people of the North”—and to the world. It is a spellbinding introduction of a spellbinding artist, from one of modern India’s great literary voices, effortlessly lyrical and heartfelt. Clip 1:

The film tells the story of Meera’s single-minded devotion to Lord Krishna. A reluctant queen who sings the praises of Krishna, she is loved by the common people who call her Meera Maata, but criticized by the palace bigwigs for her unworldly ways. After many a trial and tribulation, Meera finally attains self-realization at the shrine of her beloved Dwarkanath.

Legend has it that Meera, as a child, fell in love with an idol of Krishna that was brought to her house by a holy man called Rupa Goswami. In the following scene, Radha Sadasivam (M. S.’s step-daughter) plays little Meera, sitting on the lap of her grandfather, played by Durasiwamy (an actor who specialized in fatherly roles in Tamil and Telugu films, hence playfully referred to as Appan Duraiswamy by my father, who points out to me that Appan Duraiswamy would die usually coughing). Little Meera is entranced by Krishna’s idol, which for a moment turns into a charming Kumari Kamala—the quintessential Krishna of celluloid. Rupa Goswami appears to be Serukalathur Sama, a Carnatic vocalist who acted in many Tamil films, such as Sakunthalai (1940) and Gemini’s Nandanar (1942). Baby Radha and Serukalathur Sama are singing for themselves in this song. Clip 2:

One day, little Meera sees a marriage procession from her balcony and, when she wonders about it, is told that she will also marry when she grows up. Then and there, she makes up her mind that she will wed only Giridhar Gopal. Baby Radha sings “Nanda bala mora pyaara,” and over the course of the song, she transforms into M. S. in what is now regarded as a sequence unprecedented in Indian cinema. The technicalities are best explained in film historian Randor Guy’s words, which I quote:

“When the changeover takes place, there is a 45-second, fast-paced musical interlude by the background orchestra as bridge as part of the song. Normally such background musical interludes are recorded along with the song in a recording studio long before the shooting of the film commences. But Dungan did not do so. He shot the scene first and the changeover sequence consisted of a number of shots of the statue of Lord Krishna… lighted candles with flames flickering …flowers on trays… prayer offerings…. Krishna’s flute in the statue…and then a cut to a close-up of MS singing with great feeling and emotion, “Hey! Murali… Mohana…” The shots were static, and also on fast trolley in close-up. (There were no ‘Zoom lenses’ in 1944-1945!) Dungan edited them all by himself into a rapidly cut fast-paced sequence first, and then the sadly underrated but highly talented music composer, S. V. Venkataraman scored the background music, in rhythm with the shots in a recording theatre. The impact was ecstatic and brilliant.”

(Randor Guy, “Full of technical innovations,” The Hindu, December 17, 2004)

Clip 3:

After her marriage to the Rana of Mewar, Meera moves to the capital Chittor, where she leads the life of a householder in the eyes of the world only, for, at heart, she is wedded to Krishna. After fulfilling her daily responsibilities, she retreats into the world of Krishna. Clip 4:

Here is the only duet in the film, with Meera and the Rana (played by V. Nagaiah, the very versatile Telugu actor-singer-composer, among other things) strolling in the royal gardens, in happy times. It is a moonlit night, replete with fountains, lotus ponds, rose trees, doves, and graceful white swans—quite an enchanting zone. The Rana has just promised her that he will build a grand temple for Krishna, and Meera is overjoyed. Clip 5:

As Meera spends more and more time at the temple, immersed in the glories of Krishna, she invites the ire of the Rana’s family, who instigate the Rana against her. In one scene, Meera, in a state of spiritual ecstasy with cymbals in hand, takes to the streets of Chittor, with the crowd following her, in her famous “Chaakar raakho ji” song. When the news of Meera singing and wandering on the streets reaches him, the Rana is horrified at his minstrel queen. Clip 6:

The Rana expresses his displeasure to Meera, who then promises to make amends by being present at court by his side for a ceremonial occasion. The day happens to be a special day at the temple as well, but still Meera agrees to fulfill her queenly duties at the court. The day arrives—but at the last moment, when, as a heavily bejeweled queen, she is all set to leave for the court, she hears “Kaanha ki bansi” (Krishna’s flute) from the temple and, utterly overwhelmed, runs to the temple and bursts into a song. Meanwhile, at court, the Rana is anxiously awaiting Meera. There is a look of sarcasm on the faces of Meera’s chief detractors—namely the Rana’s sister (K. R. Chellam) and his younger brother Jayaman (T. S. Baliah, a popular villain). When the Rana hears about Meera’s lapse, he is furious and stomps into the temple, as the chorus builds up dizzyingly. Clip 7:

Jayaman, who hates Meera with all his heart, decides to kill her and persuades his trembling sister (who still has a spark of conscience) to give her poison. Meera drinks the prasad (or offering) laced with poison that her sister-in-law brings her. The poison does not affect Meera; instead, the presiding deity at Dwarka turns blue and the doors close, much to the shock of the devotees there.

Meanwhile, hearing about Meera, people from all over flock to see her. And thereby hangs another tale. Supposedly, Akbar, the Mughal emperor at the time, accompanied by Mansingh, traveled all the way from Delhi to Chittor in disguise to see and listen to Meera, with an offering of a pearl necklace for Krishna’s idol. In this scene, Meera enters the temple with her tanpura and sings the captivating “Main Haricharanan ki daasi”—if I have to choose my favorite song in the film, it is this. Clip 8:

A suspicious Jayaman accosts the two visitors from Delhi, who, in their hurry to flee, accidentally leave behind an item that bears the stamp of the Mughal empire. Jayaman promptly reports this to the Rana and interprets this as a sign of the Mughals spying on Mewar. The Rana is enraged and, at the goading of his brother, orders the temple to be torn down. A triumphant Jayaman marches with the soldiers to the temple and tells all the Krishna devotees gathered there, including Meera, to leave. They refuse, convinced that Krishna will come to their rescue.

A mocking Jayaman orders the canon to be fired—at that very moment, in the palace, the Rana’s sister who is convinced of Meera’s devotion, confesses to her brother that she tried to poison Meera, to no avail, and pleads with him to stop Jayaman from destroying the temple. When he hears about the plot to kill Meera, the Rana is shocked. He realizes his mistake and runs to the temple—but it is a little too late. The canon has been fired, and Meera has made up her mind to go her own way in her quest for Krishna.

Meera, with only her tanpura, sets out on the long, arduous journey to Brindavan, the place where Krishna spent his childhood. She faces many hardships on the way, but steadfastly moves towards her goal. Clip 9:

She finally reaches Brindavan, and all her tiredness vanishes. And here is another snippet. According to journalist Gowri Ramarayan, Dungan was “terribly worried” about shooting the “Yaad aavey, Brindavan ki mangala leela” song since the scene required a crowd to follow M. S., and the production had not arranged for that. The film’s producer Sadasivam (M. S.’s husband) confidently assured Dungan that the “crowd will turn up.” And, indeed that is what happened with the crowd “materializ[ing]” out of nowhere. (M S Amma: A Shy Girl from Madurai, Documentary directed by Swati Thiyagarajan, 2007) Clip 10:

When Meera reaches Rupa Goswami’s ashram at Brindavan, his disciples tell her that their teacher does not see women. Meera wonders aloud about this gender discrimination in the realm of Brindavan, in the realm of the all-pervading spirit of Krishna. Goswami hears this and comes out to see Meera, apologizing for his narrow mindedness. He recognizes her as the little girl to whom, long ago, he had given a Krishna idol.

With Goswami and his disciples, Meera leaves for Dwarka, where the doors of the shrine still remain closed. In the last song of the film, “Suno meri manovyatha,” Meera’s plea to Krishna is answered, as the temple doors unlock and Meera attains salvation. The repentant Rana comes to take Meera back with him—but he is late. Clip 11:

The film was shot entirely on location, with the cast and crew traveling to all the places associated with Meera, including Jaipur, Chittor, Udaipur, Brindavan and Dwarka. Randor Guy, in the same article I mentioned before, writes that M. S. became a “national celebrity” after the 1947 release of the Hindi version of the film—apparently, even the Mountbattens saw the film before they left India.

This December 11 will be M. S.’s 5th death anniversary.

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