Thursday, January 31, 2013

One day I discovered Suraiya

When Suraiya passed away, I wrote this piece for India Abroad, March 12, 2004. On the occasion of her ninth death anniversary today, I post it here.

Suraiya in Dastan (1950)
When I heard that Suraiya, the singing star of yesteryear, is no more, I felt a twinge of sadness for the lost world of old Hindi cinema. Suraiya's songs are so inextricably intertwined with memories of my growing up years in India. As a thirteen-year-old in Bombay in the late eighties, I had just stumbled upon the magical world of old Hindi films, old being pre-1960 for me. The first movie I watched was Raj Kapoor's Shree 420 (1955). Immediately, I knew I had found my own little dreamy retreat. Black and white had permanently cast its spell on me. With their crackling prints, exquisite songs, and breathtaking orchestra (why do they not use such orchestration anymore?), these films captured my imagination in a way nothing else did. One film led to another, one song led to another, and soon I was cruising along the road of Hindi film music's golden years. Each day would bring the thrill of a new find—a rare Anil Biswas composition, a soulful Naushad number, or a Kishore Kumar song as early as 1948. And then one day I discovered Suraiya.

Always on the lookout for vintage songs, I was addicted to a radio program called Raymond Sargam Smriti (it later became Centura Sargam Smriti) that played rare pieces from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I heard Suraiya for the first time on this program: the song was "Tu mera chand main teri chandni," a duet with Shyam, composed by Naushad in the film Dillagi (1949). I was struck by the beauty of the song and the simplicity of its rendering. Suraiya, I later found out, was a natural singer; she had not learnt classical music. Yet, her singing was effortless and had a certain genuineness about it. Her voice was not cloyingly sweet.
It rang vibrant, full of spontaneity and life. Her immortal "Ta rari ta rari" duet with Mohammed Rafi in Dastan (1950), where she acted opposite Raj Kapoor, bespeaks that inherent sense of frolic. This Naushad song with the Western classical touch brings to mind a faraway world, a kind of wonderland almost. It is a world I still periodically escape to.

Suraiya was that rare thing: an accomplished singer as well as a graceful actress. I remember seeing some of her films like Dard (1947) and the aforementioned Dillagi and Dastan at the Kardar film festival in Bombay. (A. R. Kardar was a famous producer-director from the 1930s to the 50s.) While Suraiya started as a child star with a small role in Mohan Pictures’ Taj Mahal (1941), she recorded one of her early songs as a playback singer for a Kardar movie called Sharda (1942). The song was "Panchhi ja," and the composer was Naushad. The Kardar-Naushad-Suraiya collaboration resulted in some very memorable movies and songs. After lending her voice to other heroines in the initial years, Suraiya went on to become the biggest heroine of her times.

She also had the rare privilege of acting opposite the legendary K. L. Saigal in Tadbir (1945), Omar Khayyam (1946), and Parwana (1947). With the Partition in 1947, Noorjehan, the other great singing star of Hindi cinema, left for Pakistan. Suraiya chose to stay on and soon became the acting-singing sensation of independent India. 1948-49 was the turning point of her career. Famous Pictures' Pyar Ki Jeet and Badi Bahen, together with Kardar’s Dillagi, all released during this time, made Suraiya a household name. In Badi Bahen, she sang the haunting "Woh paas rahe ya door rahe" for Husnlal-Bhagatram, possibly the first music-director duo of Hindi cinema. Suraiya had reached the dizzying heights of stardom.

After 1952, however, the scene changed. Lata Mangeshkar's arrival a few years earlier had heralded a new era in playback singing. Suraiya’s fortune was on the wane. Her films could not repeat the earlier magic at the box office, and she was also doing fewer films. The songs were still exquisite though, many of them hits. Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954), opposite Bharat Bhushan, was one of Suraiya's best performances as an actress. She sang the soothing "Dil-e-nadan tujhey" duet with the velvet-voiced Talat Mehmood. Suraiya and Talat faced the camera together in the 1954 film Waris (one of Talat’s rare screen appearances). Two of Hindi cinema’s finest voices sang the lilting "Rahi Matwale," composed by Anil Biswas.

After Rustom Sohrab (1963), Suraiya quit the silver screen permanently. She left movies but did not leave the hearts of her countless fans. For me, Suraiya's songs and movies will always be a reminder of the carefree days of my childhood—of that happy, spellbinding world of old Hindi films. In some fundamental ways, life has not changed.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kundan Lal Saigal and Kailas Puri

Today being Saigal's 66th death anniversary, I post here a Saigal anecdote by my late father, S.V.Ramakrishnan, which he wrote for The New Indian Express, July 2, 2009. 

Saigal in his last film, Shahjehan (1946)
S.V.Ramakrishnan, circa 1962

My friend Kailas Puri and I, both in our twenties, were furiously preparing for IAS etc (now called Civil Services) exam. Our 'combined study' extended far beyond our academic options of History and Law. Kailas hailed from Sialkot in West Punjab—he would proudly refer it by its ancient name, Sakala, famous in Indian history. He also informed me that his surname 'Puri' is nothing but the corrupt form of Pururavas or Porus who fought Alexander the great. His claim of such illustrious descent could neither be proved nor disproved and I had to give him 'the benefit of doubt'. With his vivid memory and imaginative expression, Kailas was full of interesting tales, of which the anecdote about K.L.Saigal, whose 'hamesha jawan' (literally 'ever young') songs that both of us admired no end, stands forth in my memory.

One day we were discussing the date of the death of the great singer. I distinctly remembered the day and month; it was the 18th of January. But I had a doubt whether it was 1947 or 1948, while being sure that it was only either of them. Hearing this, Kailas instantly filled up the gap, affirming that it could be only 1947. How was he so sure, I asked. His explanation makes this story.

Until the Partition divided the land of five rivers and the accompanying holocaust displaced millions from where they belonged for generations, Kailas' family lived in comfort in their spacious ancestral house in Sialkot. His father was a music lover and a fan of K.L.Saigal too. He had a good collection of Saigal songs in gramophone records, the only form of sound recording available in those days. One day there was some commotion among the elders and Kailas' father in particular looked very sad. Learning on enquiry that, alas, Saigal was no more, Kailas, then eight or nine year old, had a prompt doubt in his mind. The immortal singer was no more, but what about his immortal songs? Kailas rushed to his father and asked him "Will his records sing now, that Saigal is dead?" This innocent question moved everyone to laughter and lightened even his father’s somber mood. It became a joke in the family and neighbourhood and everyone would pull the boy's legs for months afterward.

All this, Kailas concluded, could be only before August 1947 when the family had to flee for their lives as refugees to Delhi, leaving all their belongings including his father's treasured gramophone records. He recollected putting his famous question to his father in a hall where the latter was reclining on a large wooden swing (a popular piece of furniture in those days). It certainly did not take place at Delhi where they lived a severe life, crowded in a single room, for months before resettlement. With little space even for the family, there was no question of accommodating a gramophone or a swing. So, if the answer lies only between January 1947 and the next January, he was certain that it was the former.

With this rather uncommon sort of evidence, comic and tragic at the same time, we clinched the date in question.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Bimal Roy’s first film: New Theatres’ Udayer Pathey (1944) and the socialist dream

This first appeared as "Udayer Pathey: Bimal Roy's realistic inference of socialism" at on 
January 5, 2013.

Radhamohan Bhattacharya and Binota Bose in the film

Before soaring to pan-India—and, indeed, international—fame with Do Bigha Zameen (1953) that spoke of the travails of Shambhu the peasant, Bimal Roy had, almost a decade earlier, in 1944, become a household name in Bengal with Udayer Pathey (Towards the dawn), his directorial debut in Bengali for Calcutta’s New Theatres, remade in Hindi as Humrahi in 1945. The hugely successful Udayer Pathey, made by New Theatres on the smallest budget, actually became the studio’s biggest earner. The music was by Raichand Boral and the lyrics by Shailen Roy—in addition, the film featured three very memorable Tagore songs.

Bimal Roy’s works all have a distinct flavor of social realism about them, and Udayer Pathey is steeped in that flavor. It is the story of Anup Chaudhuri, an intrepid writer-intellectual who upholds the cause of the proletariat in a system where the balance of power is skewed towards the moneyed class. Just the previous year, in 1943, Bimal Roy had made a documentary for New Theatres on the subject of the moment, the Bengal famine. Thus, Udayer Pathey came about when the rich-poor divide was in plain view, and inescapably so. The famine, the inflation of the war years, and the economic hardships that were the exclusive lot of the poor had irredeemably polarized the haves and the have-nots into two incompatible camps.

This social divide rings loud and clear in the opening scenes of Udayer Pathey. A luxurious chauffeur-driven car makes its way to a poorer part of Calcutta as the wealthy Gopa Banerjee (actress Binota Bose before she married the film’s story writer Jyotirmoy Roy to become Binota Roy) drops off her poor classmate Sumita (Rekha Mitra, later Mullick) at the latter’s home. Inside Sumita’s frugal home, her mother is at a loss about where to seat the rich visitor who has come to invite her daughter to a niece’s birthday party. 

But for all the lack of material wealth in the house, there seems to be an abundance of moral and intellectual wealth. Sumita’s brother, Anup (Anup Lekhak as he is known), quite literally, lives and breathes celebrated minds—the walls of his room are covered in his drawings of Tagore, Bernard Shaw, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Bankim Chandra, Gandhi and Karl Marx. An amazed Gopa reads out from a Tagore poem that Anup has inscribed on the wall, which has the words “udayer pathey” in it—the inspiration for the film’s title. So, before we see Anup, we see the august company he keeps. 

Tagore's poem on the wall of Anup's room with the words "udayer pathey" 

We then see Anup (actor Radhamohan Bhattacharya, until then cast only in villain roles) return home to find Sumita stitching a frock as a birthday gift, and he cautions her against getting too close to her rich friend as he is convinced that her gift will not be appreciated in a society where price is all that matters. Sumita protests that not all rich people can be categorized so, but Anup is dead sure that all rich folks look down upon the poor. Sumita insists, though, that Gopa is different. And the unassuming and immensely likeable Gopa does seem to be very different from her snooty brethren.

The class divide is laid out in black-and-white at Gopa’s lavish house. The birthday party is on with music and dance, and Sumita sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the rich guests in their finery, and the liveried servers. (Actress Smriti Biwas—whose chubby face I clearly remember in Baap Re Baap, 1955 and Jagte Raho, 1956—dances to the remarkably beautiful Tagore song “Basante phool ganthlo,” very aesthetically picturized with a Nataraja statue, lit with lamps, in the background. I must say that “Basante phool ganthlo,” in this case visuals included, makes it to my category of deeply elevating songs.) The table overflows with expensive gifts, with people busy discussing who gifted what and how much it cost.

Smriti Biswas dances to "Basante phool ganthlo"

Rekha Mitra as Sumita

Sumita’s discomfort mounts by the minute and is not allayed when Gopa compels her to sing. Sumita’s soulful singing only receives a cold response from the gathering. Then, much to her (and Gopa’s horror), Sumita is accused of stealing from the gift table. A mortified Sumita faints, and Gopa discovers—in the folds of Sumita’s sari—the frock that her poor friend had brought along and was ashamed, perhaps, to leave on the table. The accuser, Gopa’s sister-in-law, is silenced, and Gopa accompanies her distraught friend home. There she meets Anup, who is angry to see his sister return crying and refuses to accept Gopa’s apology on behalf of her family. Anup rubs Gopa the wrong way and, after she leaves, Anup tells Sumita that her insult at Gopa’s house is an insult of all the poor by the rich.

Anup ekes out a livelihood through his writing and leads a hands-to-mouth existence—a fact that, however, does not ruffle him much. When his newspaper editor gives him the lead for a position as publicity officer at Modern Industries Ltd., Anup gives it a shot and meets the boss’s son there who is in charge, Shouren Banerjee (actor Devi Mukherjee), who is impressed by the candidate’s writing talents and extends a job offer. Anup accepts it for the sake of his family though he isn’t exactly thrilled that he has traded in the unfettered world of literary writing for the fettered world of publicity writing. 

Devi Mukherjee as Shouren

At this point, there is a scene, funny in an understated way, where Anup, his pockets newly full, wakes up his landlord (Tulsi Chakraborty, whose bulging eyes are etched deeply in the public imagination by the movie poster for Satyajit Ray’s Parash Pathar, 1958) in the middle of the night with the rent money. This is in return for the landlord’s demand, earlier on, of the overdue rent from Anup at an odd hour.

Shouren greedily eyes Anup’s writerly imagination and, when Shouren is asked to deliver a speech at the local university’s student union, he orders Anup to write the speech for him, which, he specifies, be peppered with grand words like bourgeois and democracy while also condemning the rich. The dialogue between Shouren and Anup brings out the contrast between the former’s smug, cocky thinking and the latter’s socialist thinking. The cigar-toting Shouren tells Anup that the rich are unshakably at the top of the social order and condemning them is just for the sake of winning popularity from the students. Anup retorts that the rich are at the top only because they possess the means to do so: they buy their way through. When Shouren condescendingly points out that it is the rich who create job opportunities for people like Anup, the latter notes that these jobs barely provide subsistence.

Indeed, as the socialist argument goes, in the capitalist system profits are flagrantly tilted in favor of those who own the means of production. The rich have the means, which the poor don’t, and that is what makes all the difference. The socialist framework of Udayer Pathey plays out in the context of the nationalist struggle against British rule. With economic and political subjugation thus inextricably intertwined, the film’s capitalist-worker divide is concurrent with the ruler-ruled—and West-East—divide of the times. So, in this scene it is not at all surprising that Shouren and Anup, in addition to mouthing ideologically opposing lines, are presented in Western, and Indian, clothes, respectively—and thus visibly positioned as opposites.

Shouren delivers the ghostwritten speech to much acclaim, and soon Anup arrives at his boss’s house to ghostwrite, in the comforts of a fabulous home library, another speech. Shouren shows off his original Jamini Roy painting—and this reminds the viewer of the earlier scene where Gopa sees Anup’s room covered in wall drawings and Sumita explains that her family cannot afford to buy paintings. Shouren says rather proudly that while he has a book collection spanning all subjects, he is too busy to read. Clearly, Shouren owns these status symbols not out of any genuine appreciation but because he has the brute means to buy it all, like a wholesaler does.

Anup sees Gopa at Shouren’s house (in keeping with the small world of filmi melodrama, she predictably turns out to be Shouren’s sister) and realizes that this is the house where Sumita was once humiliated. He resigns his job right away, actually glad to have the justification to quit working for a rich man. A persistent Shouren, who tries to write the speech himself and gives up, reaches Anup’s house to ask for forgiveness from Sumita and even promises that he will publish Anup’s novel. Anup returns, not so much to see the novel published, but because of his earlier promise of writing Shouren’s speech.

Gopa comes across Anup’s manuscript called “Purbachal” and is totally absorbed by its stark depiction of the lives of the working class. She has questions for Anup who is glad that the book has made her think outside of her class. When Gopa wonders if the homelessness and the poverty are really all that dire, Anup remarks that the very fact that she has to be told about such an obviously grim reality (and does not know it for herself) is disturbing, and indicative of the insensitivity of the rich. From here on, Gopa and Anup warm up to each other. Sure enough, the next time she goes to meet Anup, she wears a simple sari and happily drinks tea from a handleless cup; she also accompanies him to the huts of factory workers.

Meanwhile, Shouren acts foul: he publishes “Purbachal” under his own name. Anup is not shocked, but Gopa is, and she tells Anup that he must confront Shouren. Anup is surprised to see Gopa upset and in tears but he is too disgusted to pursue the matter. He happily realizes that Gopa is very different from her ilk and his regard for her goes up. Shouren’s friends all fawn over him and compliment him on his first-hand knowledge of the hardships of workers. Gopa boycotts the celebration at an expensive restaurant and instead she and Anup attend the workers’ union meet at a hut. Roy juxtaposes the party where food is overflowing and laughter is hollow, with the tension-filled hut where Gopa sees a poor child who has not eaten in two days.

The growing bond between Gopa and Anup is further cemented as they take a stroll together and, appropriate to the context of the moonlight, Gopa sings the soothing “Chander hashi badh bhengeche” by Tagore, with the fog rolling in ethereally. The magic of the scene is unmissable.

"Chander hashi badh bhengeche" and the fog

When Shouren hears of a workers’ protest in the offing and is told that Anup is behind it, he promptly bribes a worker to disrupt the event. When Gopa overhears her brother, she rushes to the meeting just in time to see a riot break out and Anup hit with a stone. An annoyed Shouren pulls his sister away from Anup, but the damage is done: the newspaper headlines scream of the love between factory owner’s daughter and labor leader. As matters get out of control at the workplace and at home, Shouren’s father, Rajendranath Banerjee (actor Bishwanath Bhaduri), enters the picture and tries to make peace with Anup—buy his loyalties, rather. Anup feels contempt for his boss’s manipulative tactics and refuses to oblige. Shouren then lies to Anup that Gopa is sorry about her friendship with a person beneath her class. Anup’s face falls as he hears this.

A disillusioned Anup sends his mother and sister away to the village, and is planning to leave Calcutta soon. As he tears asunder the newspaper with his and Gopa’s pictures, Gopa shows up and is surprised to see Anup suddenly cold and distant. She clears up his misunderstanding and tells Anup to take her along, wherever he goes. Gopa’s father, meanwhile, desperate not to lose his daughter, tries to fix her alliance with a wealthy friend’s son. He visits Anup and requests him to give up Gopa. Anup promises, but apparently Gopa’s mind is made and she puts on a dour expression when her brother arranges her meeting with the suitor.

Meanwhile, thinking that it is Gopa who has had their demands met, the workers go to her house to thank her and invite her to a felicitation function. Gopa replies that the credit should go to Anup, and the workers reply that he is going away and give her his letter addressed to her father. Gopa reads it and realizes that Anup is going away at her father’s request. She tells her father that she has to meet Anup and when Shouren tries to stop her from going, Rajendranath stops Shouren. The path clear, Gopa rushes to Anup’s house, where the landlord tells her that Anup has gone walking all the way to Asansol (to deal with yet another labor issue). Gopa gets into her car one last time and catches up with the wayfarer on the Grand Trunk Road, quite the solitary figure against an open landscape. Gopa tells Anup that she has left behind all riches to join him in the path of his choice, now hers as well. To which Anup replies that she has not left behind riches—rather, they lie ahead in this new path that she has chosen. As the two joyously walk away hand-in-hand towards the horizon, it is the dawn of a new beginning.

Walking together on the new path

Concluding reflections and a postcolonial reading: Udayer Pathey was, at various levels, an innovative film and one that set the standards for realism in Indian cinema. It was the first New Theatres film to touch upon the theme of socialism and, although the film’s decidedly black-and-white treatment of the rich-poor divide does seem rather simplistic (and predictable in a filmi way), the exposition of class differences was relevant at a time of rising national consciousness, when the country was busy setting aside differences of class, caste, gender, and religion to coalesce against foreign rule.

The battle that Anup wages against the class divide, and in which Gopa joins him, is a stepping-stone to the larger battle against colonialism. The new path that Anup and Gopa together take, in the end of the film, is a path that will create not just the wealth of classlessness but also the wealth of freedom and self-governance.

There is a sense in which the larger nationalist aspirations of the day merge into the film’s socialist aspirations: that Udayer Pathey opens to Jana Gana Mana (a historic first in an Indian film, although the scene is missing in the DVD from Angel—was it originally censored by the British perhaps?), not yet the national anthem in 1944, suggests that the film’s socialist dream is at once a dream of free India—free from the skewed power structures of capitalism and colonialism, both of which alienate and dispossess the worker/colonized. Shouren not just strips the workers of their rights to a dignified life but goes one step further to villainously rob Anup’s intellect and his creativity. This sort of an elemental plundering—or ravaging of the life force—is fundamental to colonialism, which dispossesses not only at the material level, but also, very significantly, at the inner level. Thus the image of Shouren in his western suit, throwing his weight around, unscrupulously appropriating what is not rightfully his, is indisputably in the colonialist mould. Gopa’s rising rebellion and her final desertion of Shouren, one of her own, to join hands with Anup—and the people— disturbs the status quo of the capitalism-colonialism combine and is symbolic of the weakening colonial grip over India. The path towards dawn at the end of the film presages the path towards a new, independent India.

On a minor, lighter, and perhaps irrelevant note: I couldn’t help but notice that people are constantly drinking tea in the film.

And, finally, a question: I have been very baffled about the missing Jana Gana Mana in the DVD from Angel. Film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla has clearly stated in a few places that Jana Gana Mana featured in the film as the opening song—and Radhamohan Bhattacharya, the film's lead actor, has recounted the same. So, then, did the British cut it in 1944, or did Angel cut it out unimaginatively in recent times? I emailed Angel and here is the response: “... please note that the original Video of Bengali Film 'Udayer Pathey' (B/W) was supplied to us by New Theatres itself. Therefore you are requested to kindly contact representative of New Theatres directly to clarify the matter.” So far, I have not been able to locate the contact information for New Theatres. Anyway, I find a very short excerpt of Jana Gana Mana in the film in this video here (starting at 1:21 and ending at 1:35)--which leaves me even more baffled. It does appear to be in the film, after all. Can anyone please throw some light on this mystery?
An update: I asked Mr. P.K.Nair, and he says that the National Film Archive of India's print of Udayer Pathey, which is copied from the original negative, doesn't have Jana Gana Mana either. The mystery continues ... 

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to: Forhad Hossain of Fremont, California, for patiently translating the film credits into English for me; and my cousin Vasanti Muthukumar of Bangalore, for reading out the names written in Bengali on the walls of Anup’s room from the screenshots that I sent her.

Disclaimer: My screenshots from the film are used for academic/discussion purposes only; they may be reproduced only if accompanied by a link to this blog.