Saturday, July 21, 2012

The poetry and egalitarianism of Chandidas (1934)

A truncated version of this post with a missing punch line first appeared as "Messages in black and white" in 
The Hindu on July 18, 2012.

Calcutta's New Theatres’ 1934 Hindi version of its 1932 Bengali film Chandidas has a strong ballad-like feel to it as it musically lays before the audience the story of the legendary poet-saint from fifteenth-century Bengal. Reminiscent of the Romantic poets for his staunch belief in humanity, Chandidas was quite the recalcitrant figure of his times who opposed orthodoxy, rituals, and social stratification; favoring humanity as the only true religion, he saw the caste system as man-made, not God-made, and consequently invalid.

The Bengali Chandidas, directed by Debaki Bose (himself a Vaishnava follower), with Durgadas Banerjee in the lead role, was a runaway hit—indeed, it was New Theatres' first hit, which played for 64 weeks at the Chitra theatre in Calcutta. Two years later, the Hindi version directed by Nitin Bose (the cinematographer of the Bengali Chandidas) and starring K. L. Saigal—his first major success—was released. With his dreamy eyes, Saigal is a convincing Chandidas, a Brahmin fearlessly in love with the lower-caste washerwoman Rami (played by Umashashi, who made her Hindi film debut in 1933 with New Theatres’ Puran Bhagat after the Bengali Chandidas, before which she acted in silent films). Early in the film, Rami, while at her washing chores, sings “Premnagar men banaoongi ghar main,” when Chandidas comes by to the ghats and joins in, in a very memorable duet by the two actors. Song 1:

Music composer R. C. Boral, who is credited with introducing the playback system of recording in Indian cinema in Bhagyachakra / Dhoop chhaon (Bengali and Hindi, 1935), pioneered the use of background music in Chandidas to heighten the film’s lyrical movement. There is a sense in which the music is a character all by itself as it helps drive the narrative forward in this film filled with poetry from medieval Bengal. Indeed, Boral’s music and Chandidas’s poetry together create an aesthetically significant film that has, at its heart, the theme of liberation from the clutches of organized religion. Agha Hashr Kashmiri wrote the lyrics for the Hindi Chandidas. Listen here to the heart-tugging strains of “Tarpat beete din rain” in this very characteristically Saigal song. (Boral, who composed music for over 150 films, was, of course, one of Saigal's early mentors.) Song 2:

The film depicts a time when temples were closed to the lower castes. Chandidas, an apprentice to a temple priest, flouts the rules by insisting that the lord’s bounties are for everyone. His egalitarianism irks Gopinath (actor Nawab?), the local Brahmin merchant, who, in true filmi fashion, lusts after Rami. For all his condemnation of the lower castes, Gopinath has no scruples about hounding Rami, who is at a disadvantage because of her gender, caste, and economic status.

When Gopinath traps Rami in his house, the latter mockingly wonders about the irony of such an action by a supposedly incorruptible being such as a Brahmin. Rami’s outspokenness angers Gopinath, who sets fire to the house she shares with her brother Baiju—actor Pahari Sanyal, who sings quite a bit in the film. Listen to him here in "Chhayee basant aayee basant karke solah shringaar," my most favorite song in the film. (There is no audio from 0:20 to 0:26 with the print freezing; I apologize for that and for the poor print of all these clips.) Song 3:

Chandidas rescues Rami, and the priest rules that Chandidas will have to atone to be accepted back into the Brahmin fold. An aghast Rami goes to meet Chandidas, when Gopinath’s goons assault her. When Chandidas sees the battered Rami, he is disgusted enough with the rigidities of his brahminical roots to decide not to perform repentance, and, convinced that the human cry for justice is the greatest cry, he abjures forever his ties to the orthodox religious order. No longer bound by any societal shackles, at last he is free. Chandidas, Rami, Baiju and Baiju’s wife make a foursome as they walk away, singing “Prem ki ho jai jai,” vindicating the religion of love. Song 4:

A concluding thought: It would be a more somber ending for the lovers—the low-caste girl and the Brahmin boy—two years hence in Bombay Talkies’ hit film on the evils of caste in contemporary India—Achhut Kanya (1936). The lesson was the same, however: the caste system and untouchability were vices that ate into the Indian psyche, and could not be afforded when the nation needed to unite against the conqueror. According to Chandidas’s credits that commented on the lingering national problem of caste, the film is “based on the life problem of the poet Chandidas—a problem India has not been able to solve.”

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant....long long ago I watched this in DD Bangla....thanks again for such a nostalgic post