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The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

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Categories
A Special Tribute

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)

Swatilekha Sengupta in action in Shanu Roy Chowdhury. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

“Swatilekha is more talented and far better actor than I. Still, everyone keeps asking for me!” Rudraprasad Sengupta was not boasting to me – the helmsman of  the celebrated Nandikar Theatre Group was citing just one instance to show that “women in theatre still suffer bias[1].”

He wasn’t far from the truth: Swatilekha Sengupta, who passed away exactly a year ago on June 16 at 71, had graduated in English, mastered Western classical music in England, received guidance in theatre from iconic names like Tapas Sen, B V Karanth and Khaled Chowdhury. She composed music for, directed and carried on her shoulder Nandikar productions like Madhabi, Shanu Roy Chowdhury, Pata Jhore Jaay (Dry Leaves Fall), Naachni(Dancers).

Madhabi was adapted from Bhishm Sahni’s Mahabharat based play; Shanu Roy Chowdhury was adapted from Willy Russel’s Shirley Valentine; Naachni encapsulated the exploitation of the nautch girls of tribal Purulia. She wrote some, she composed the music for some, she travelled to UK and USA, Germany and Norway and Scotland… with husband Rudrapasad, with daughter Sohini, even to stage a one-woman play.  Yet, she is most recalled for playing Bimala in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985) – although, ironically, she faced fierce criticism for its critical failure!

Growing up in Allahabad Swatilekha – then Chatterjee – had repeatedly watched Charulata (1964) and Mahanagar (1963) with her school friends. She even wrote to Ray seeking an opportunity to work under him. Of course the letter went unanswered – or perhaps it went astray? For, Ray watched Swatilekha in Nandikar’s Galileo and zeroed in on her for the dream role of Bimala: the wife of a forward-thinking zamindar, Nikhiliesh, whose concern for the welfare of the peasantry under his care is critiqued and upended by an upstart revolutionary, Sandip.

Tagore had written the novel, told through the personal stories of the three protagonists, in 1916 when the Nationalist movement was peaking. The 1905 Partition of Bengal had outraged both, the Hindus and the Muslims, and the protests against the religion-based partition also saw Tagore set Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram to music and singing the song to protest the imposition of foreign rule. But after the ‘administrative division’ was rescinded, the call to boycott foreign goods in favour of Swadeshi, indigenous, appealed to the masses – and that led to tensions between the anti-British activists and the idealists. Swadeshi was critiqued as being unaffordable for the peasantry by Nikhilesh in the film and by Tagore, who contended that humanity came before nationalism. Effectively, then, the drama had pitted the conservative versus the radical, rational versus the emotional, East versus West. In short, the home versus the world.

So keen was Swatilekha’s appetite for the character that, on the first day, she’d defied a local bandh[2] and walked from her home in north Calcutta to the legend’s Bishop Lefroy address across the city. On learning that she’d not read the Tagore classic the iconic director had insisted that she should NOT read it. On noticing that she was staring at a harpsichord Ray had asked her if she could play it, and on hearing that she played the piano he’d asked her to play a Beethoven and he had himself whistled along!

Swatilekha Sengupta & Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s 1985 film, Ghare Baire. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

All this camaraderie must have passed on to his actor: when the film released to the world, a prestigious American newspaper praised the “immense grace” of the “pretty, surprisingly wilful Bimala”. But the demanding viewers at home tore her to pieces saying “she neither lived nor looked the role”. Suddenly her ‘home’ had turned into a horrid world… “I sunk into depression and wanted to end my life!” Swatilekha had confessed to my young screen-writer friend, Zinia Sen, while preparing to return to the screen 30 years later — with the same co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee, in Bela Sheshe (In the Autumn of My Life, 2015), which is now considered a cult film.

The story of Arati and Biswanath Majumdar takes a curious turn when, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, the husband seeks to divorce his wife. Because? Arati, a typical, traditional housewife, happily spends her life cooking and cleaning, washing and nursing. For, in her vocabulary, those are just other words to say ‘I love you’ to her husband; for looking after her in-laws; for expressing her concern for her daughters and son and grandchildren… This is a far cry from her husband’s definition of a dream partner. For Biswanath, the proprietor of a fabled bookstore, has unending curiosity about the world and wants to travel beyond the map… 

The five relationships depicted in the film attempt to define the life-long companionship we brand as marriage. Do marriage vows ensure the fairy tale ending of happiness ever after? Is married life built upon promises kept and love requited? Or do unfilled expectations and unarticulated expressions also cement the friendship? Is it possible to walk into the sunset hand in hand?

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Belasheshe. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Bela Sheshe made on a budget of Rs 1.1 crore reaped Rs 2.3 crore. More importantly, while reviving faith in institutionalised partnership it also breathed new box office appeal in the screen partners, Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta. In Belashuru (A New Beginning, 2022) the latest outing of Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee, the director duo have again cast them as Arati and Biswanath. This time, though, it is a new beginning for the husband is eagerly striving for his Alzheimer afflicted wife to recognise that the ‘stranger’ who follows her everywhere, even her bed, is her now-aged groom. For, Arati now lives in the past she left in Faridpur, along with the pond she’d fish in with Atindrada and the textile shop of her comrade in crime, when she got married…

The film pivots on Arati, and Swatilekha outshines one and all in the cast. Not surprising: the actor’s total commitment to the character is borne out by Zinia. She recalls that, “when the rest of the unit sat listening to Soumitra Da’s [3]enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s [4] humour filled recitation, Swati Di[5] refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”

Swatilekha Sengupta as Ammi in Dharma Juddha, a film that will be released in August 2022. Photo sourced By Ratnottama Sengupta.

This is echoed by Raj Chakraborty, the director of Dharma Juddha (Religious War ) which was screened in the recent Kolkata International Film Festival. He recounts that the film was shot in Purulia that suffers extreme summer, but “since the sequence was set on a winter night, she kept her warm clothes on all through the shoot. Such was her dedication to the character and the script!”

Having followed her theatre over a long time Raj counts it amongst his blessings that he could work with her. “I’m certain there was more left to learn,” he sighs as he awaits the masses’ response to the film which once again, rests on the sturdy shoulder of Ma/ Ammi/Dadi[6]. Raj could envisage none but Swatilekha as the protagonist who shelters to two sets of men and women when Ismailpur is seized by an apocalyptic night of communal rage. The pacifier succeeds in instilling brotherhood in the four victims from rival camps – until the tragic truth about her son’s death is revealed. It drives home the realisation that the foremost religion is humanism.

Like Swatilekha, Soumitra Da too had a strong presence on the stage. And fortunately, the screen pair’s daughters – Sohini and Poulami, respectively – are also deeply into theatre.  “I had chosen theatre when I wanted to direct,” he’d said to me when Sangeet Natak Akademi had decorated him, “because, if I make films, people will always compare me with Manikda[7].”

That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru [8]– the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary[9], with a unique exhibition. it showcases Soumitra’s typewriter, the script he penned for a play, a collection of pipes acquired on travels abroad; his paintings, poems, letters to his daughter from his Jaisalmer shoot for Sonar Kella (1974)… And it showcases Swatilekha’s violin and mouth-organ; the costumes she wore in Nachni and Bela Shuru; and, a congratulatory letter to Swatilekha, from a star admirer — Amitabh Bachchan…[10]

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Bela Shuru. Photo Sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Surely a far cry from the bias that you lamented when you celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Notee Binodini [11] in 2013, Rudra Da[12]?

*

Yes, theatre people the world over agree, that the ‘Moon of Star Theatre’ was deprived of her rightful honour when the theatre that was founded by her not named after her. Why? Because “the aristocrats would not like to enter a place named after a noti.” Thespian Noti Binodini might have been, but she was a fallen woman, wasn’t she? So what if this contemporary of Tagore was the first South Asian actress to pen her own story – Aamar Katha — a lucid memoir that portrays the 19th century society in Bengal which was at ease with European ideas but confined women to homes. So what if the sage Ramakrishna had gone into a trance as he watched her essay Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1884)? Such was her portrayal that thespian Amritlal Bose wrote, “Whenever I bow to any wooden or painted image of Sri Chaitanya, I see Binodini before my eyes.”

Binodini Dasi had gone onstage at age 12, under mentor Girish Ghosh (1844-1912), and her career had ended when she was just 23. Merely 11 years, but those were the years when the proscenium theatre modelled after European convention was spreading in Bengal. In those 11 years Binodini enacted 80 roles, playing Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Kaikeyi or Pramila, Mrinalini, Motibibi, Ayesha. Please note: She pioneered modern stage make-up by blending European and indigenous styles.

“Because of this, people who had seen her in one role could not recognise her in another,” Girish Ghosh himself wrote. Yet this same stalwart of theatre, to please whom Binodini had drained her own resources and founded Star Theatre in north Calcutta, refused to write a foreword for My Story as it contained uncomfortable truths about Binodini’s patrons!

Why did the chroniclers of Bengal Renaissance overlook the contribution of this marginalised star to the land’s cultural mileu? “Because of the class-caste divide,” Soumitra Chatterjee suggests in his foreword for the memoir. “How could the Brahmo-Brahmin dominated upper crust acknowledge the talents of a lowborn ‘prostitute’?”

More than a century later, Swatilekha took it upon herself to train the spotlight on the fact that the years had failed to change the plight of another set of dancing artistes – the Nachnis.


[1] Women in Theatre suffer bias.’ – quoted from Times of India, article by Ratnottama Sengupta.

[2] Strike where transport was halted

[3] Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

[4] Kharaj Mukherjee : Actor and comedian

[5] Swatilekha Sengupta (1950-2021)

[6] Grandmother

[7] Satyajit Ray

[8] Release date: 20.5.2022

[9] 22. 5. 1950

[10] Amitabh Bachhan, one of the most nationally and internationally awarded and influential actors

[11] Play based on the life Binodini Dasi

[12] Rudraprasad Sengupta, husband of Swatilekha and a theatre personality

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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