The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die | Goynar Baksho – Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha (Book Review)

auntwhowouldntdie

A few months ago, a friend told me about an extremely entertaining Bengali movie she had watched – Goynar Baksho and urged me to watch, whenever it became available on Netflix/ Amazon. For whatever reason, the name stuck – mainly because it stars Moushumi Chatterjee and I did keep an eye for it in the hope of watching it. Therefore, when I read an article recently about the English translation of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Goynar Baksho (The Aunt who wouldn’t die), on which the movie is loosely based, and that too by the prolific and brilliant translator, Arunava Sinha, I knew I had to read it.

The book is rather short, a novella, which makes it a quick read.  An accurate and touching portrayal of three women from three different generations, all grappling with the challenges life has thrown their way, the book gives an insight into the workings of a typical Bengali zamindar joint family in the 1940s and how it changes through time

Somlata is a young woman from a poor family who gets married into a joint Bengali landlord family known for its ancestral wealth. Somlata soon realises that the family’s wealth is just for show and in reality the fortunes were dwindling. The wealth was slowly going and so were its possessions, for typical of the landed rich, the men in the family ( her father-in-law, her brother-in-law and husband) did no work and abhorred taking up any profession or getting into trade. They were perfectly happy being completely useless and living off the dwindling family riches.As she quickly adjusts to her new family, Somlata gets to know of their idiosyncrasies and what makes them tick. She is the typical wife – the one who intelligently knows how to manage her husband – and uses her intelligence to avert the impending financial ruin (by helping them start and run a saree shop), by resolving the various disputes and quietly get what she wants – while being in the background.

Then there is Pishima, her husband’s aunt (the aunt from the title – who is by far, the most unforgettable character of the book). Widowed at the age of 12, she is bitter, lonely and angry, with her family, society and world for having been forced to lead a life of deprivation – for no fault of hers! Unfulfilled and terribly disgruntled, Pishima is furious at the callousness and hypocrisy of her male relatives – who have mistresses – when she was denied her desires, for no fault of hers. This rage and bitterness make her mean and petty and that continues after her death, when she becomes a ghost and starts haunting the poor Somlata.

Finally there is Somlata’s daughter, Boshon – modern and ‘feminist’ – angry with men, serious, headstrong and thoughtful. Many in the book feel that she is Pishima reincarnated. Fair enough, she does have her fiery temperament. However, whereas in Pishima’s case, the fury is justified; it is not in Boshon’s case. Unfortunately, it is this character that is a bit of dampener in the book. Also her whole personal dilemma, which is part of her anger, doesn’t really add up. And hence not a surprise that in the film version (according to the synopsis on Wikipedia), Boshon’s story has been etched out in more detail and reinterpreted giving it more depth and a political angle.

This shortcoming does not take away much from this fantastic book which is a must-read. Highly recommended!

Bhumika (1977)

Today is a good day to revive this blog (yet again), which tends to get severely neglected as I juggle my professional and personal commitments.

Let me start off by wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May this season bring good cheer and joy to all!

                                                      ******************

Smita Patil died the day I saw the Taj Mahal for the first time. We had come back from Agra, when Doordarshan relayed the news of her untimely and tragic demise. Memories do have a strange way of resurfacing. This recollection came back as I was surfing through some site and came across an article remembering Smita Patil on her 32nd death anniversary a couple of weeks back. What this recollection did was to hasten my viewing Bhumika (1977), so that it could be reviewed.

Bhumika_poster

Inspired by Sangtye Aika (which I had read and reviewed on the blog), Bhumika, a Shyam Benegal movie won two National film awards (Best Actress for Smita Patil; and Best Screenplay – Shyam Benegal, Satyadev Dubey and Girish Karnad) and the Filmfare award for Best Film.

The film launches into the story straight away, into a set where a Lavani number  Mera ziskila balam na aaya is being shot. As the credits roll in the background, the shooting is aborted mid-way due to a pulled ankle of a supporting artist and the rude director calls the shooting off.  We see the heroine, Usha waiting for her car (that never comes) and she is dropped home by her co-star (Anant Nag). As she gets into the car, we see some studio workers carrying a poster of her new movie, Agni Pariksha. As she reaches home, her suspicious, jealous and mean husband Keshav Dalvi (a brilliant Amol Palekar) is angrily looking down from the terrace and a bitter row ensues. And a defiant, angry Usha packs her sarees (very hastily and badly) into a suitcase and leaves the house as her subdued mother (Sulabha Deshpande) and daughter (a cute Kiran Vairale making her debut. Does anyone know what happened to her? Where is she now?) watch on.

The tone of the movie is set. The movie moves from this tension-filled scene, minimal in dialogues but effortless in conveying the state of Usha’s domestic life, to a flashback of Usha’s childhood in a village. The childhood scenes are shot in black and white. It is said that Benegal was running short of colour stock due to some foreign exchange issues; he decided to shoot the past in b/w and the present in colour, something that the cinematographer (Govind Nihalani) did not approve of, but had to comply with.

A young Usha is running, trying to protect a hen, with her harried mother chasing her. She fails to stop the hen from being butchered; her defiance is unmistakeable. The hen had been slaughtered for the afternoon lunch and she walks out on it. We get a glimpse into their unconventional household – an alcoholic father, a devadasi grandmother and a tired, worn-out mother, Shanta, who wishes for her daughter a semblance of normalcy and social acceptance.   There is also Keshav Damle, a  young cousin/ uncle, who is a frequent visitor to this household. His relationship with the mother can be interpreted as a friendlier than a usual brother-in-law/ sister-in-law one. Interestingly, behind the scenes, he is forcing the young Usha to marry him. Usha finally relents and promises him, just to get him off her back.

While the equation between the mother and daughter is fraught with tension, there is an underlying deep love. Usha cannot sleep at night without her mother. And the mother is trying hard to save Usha from a fate that she seems to be destined for. She does not want Usha to become a gaanewaali. This is made clear when the family is trying to make ends meet after Usha’s death and Keshav suggests that they try sending Usha to become a cinemawali. Shanta protests vehemently; but in the end, tearfully gives in. The four of them then make their way to Surya Movietone where a mythological is being shot, to meet the producer Harilal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and find Usha a role in the cinemas. The young Usha is made to sing a song – which has the actress Bala in peals of laughter. Keshav derides Usha, her mother and her grandmother for messing up the audition. As they sit sulking, Bala passes by and informs them that Baby know that she has got the role. Usha has entered the world of movies.

We are brought back to the present. Usha, reminiscing her painful past, is in a taxi – going to her co-star Rajan’s house. Rajan is not there and as she waits for him, she spots a picture of him and her together in happier times.

Another flashback begins. Usha is now an established actress – carefree and playful. She is shooting with Rajan, who is besotted with her. She teases him, laughs at him and is generally having a good time at an outdoor shoot – when Keshav makes an unwanted appearance, subtly asserting his hold on her.  Shanta, Usha’s mother, does not approve of her ‘friendship’ with Keshav and forbids her from meeting Keshav. But a naive Usha is still defiant. She feels bound to Keshav for having helped them out during their troubled times, and yes there was the promise! In her defiance, she runs to Keshav and wants to get married just then and leave films. Soon she announces her engagement with Keshav at a shooting, much to Rajan’s surprise and disappointment, who is unable to understand her choice and come to terms with it. Much drama ensues – Shanta is aghast but since Usha announces that she is expecting Keshav’s illegitimate child, the marriage takes place. Usha is forced to continue working and her dreams of a blissful married life come shattering down like a pack of cards as Keshav turns out to be greedy, controlling, suspicious and boorish and makes her life miserable.  Cut to present – Rajan, her confidante and friend, is back home. She tells him that she has walked out of her marriage. He asks her to stay back and get a divorce. He is ready to wait for her.

As she shifts to a lodge, Keshav also tracks her down and asks her to go back home. Usha refuses and continues to stay at the lodge. It is where she meets Vinayak Kare (Amrish Puri), who becomes a significant part of her life. This turns out to be yet another dissatisfying relationship – as she grapples with her need to belong while retaining her independence and basic freedom.

What happens to Usha? Does she find what she was looking for? Does Usha take up Rajan’s offer of marriage? Does she go back to Keshav?

The rest of the movie answers these questions, as it follows Usha’s life through its various twists and turns.

My two cents:

Interspersed with flashbacks (all in b/w) Bhumika is a fascinating watch – a look into the life of a woman – an impulsive, bold woman who wants to lead her life on her own terms – neither compromising on her dignity or her independence. Longing for an ideal family life, she strives to get away from exploitation, until she realises and accepts her life for what it is.

The acting is superlative. One of Smita Patil’s finest performances, this is her film through and through. She conveys Usha’s character traits subtly – latent anger, her basic kindness and impulsiveness –  using her eyes which breathe fire! No melodrama here. Giving her solid company are the three main male characters, Amol Palekar (excellent – gone is the affable man from Chitchor or Golmaal or Choti Si Baat; instead he excels as a creepy, controlling Keshav); Anant Nag (adequate as the kind besotted Rajan) and Amrish Puri (dignified and convincing as the patriarchal male chauvinist, Vinayak). The supporting cast also delivers – Sulabha Deshpande, Dina Patil and Kiran Vairale all play their parts convincingly.  Using b/w for flashback and colour for present worked extremely well and added to the narrative value. I did not find it jarring at all. The music by Vanraj Bhatia is decent with melodies such as Tumhare bin jee na lage 

All in all, a sensitive film about the life of a complicated woman, from her viewpoint, without judging her or her actions through a conventional prism. A must-watch.

 

Ilaiyaraja reprised – Same tune, different language…

A few days back, the FM channel was blaring “old” songs from the 80s and 90s – some passable tunes and some not-so-bearable. And then a familiar, much-forgotten tune wafted through the sound waves – bringing with it memories long forgotten; something seemed wrong to me. Here was an extremely popular Tamil song (from a movie that is remembered even today – for Rajnikanth and Sridevi’s stellar performances), being reused in Hindi and the result was good but the original was definitely much better! It shouldn’t have been a surprise – the 90s did see a lot of such “inspired”/ plagiarised songs, especially in the case of someone as prolific as as the legendary Ilaiyaraja. However, the difference in this case was that the music director Ilaiyaraja used his older tune in a different film, different language and different context. Not new at all in Hindi music. S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman and Salil Choudhary have reused their Bangla tunes in Hindi to much success – examples are aplenty – and require another list altogether.

Here is a list of Ilaiyaraja songs –  songs from Tamil and Kannada that have been reused/ recreated or blatantly lifted in Hindi cinema. I restricted myself to songs in just these two languages and to songs from either the late 70s or 80s. No song, as in the original version, in this list is post that.

Also, having grown up in the North, I haven’t watched that many Tamil/Kannada movies – just the rare ones that DD showed on Sunday afternoon or the video cassette that would be sourced once in a while from the local South Indian store. So while I have heard these songs a million number of times, I haven’t watched these movies – of course the Mani Ratnam movies are an exception.  Considering these are mainly from the 70s and 80s, the picturisation is not all that great and where I felt it took away from the song/ music, I have included only the audio version.

  1. Kaathal Oviyam (Tamil, Alaigal Oivathillai, 1981) : Released in 1981, Alaigal Oivathillai was a blockbuster movie directed by the legendary Bharathiraja. It was also the debut movie of the lead pair, Karthik and Radha, who went on to make their mark in Tamil cinema. Karthik went on to become quite the heartthrob of the 1980s starring in Mani Ratnam classics such as Mouna Raagam (1986) and Agni Natchathiram. What is interesting is that all the songs of this movie are popular and have been reused in either Tamil cinema or in Hindi cinema. This song, sung by Ilaiyaraja and Jency, makes an appearance in Hindi cinema in a tele-film in the 1990s. Balu Mahendra remade his Kannada hit, Kokila (1977), as a tele-film Aur ek prem kahani (1996), he got Ilaiyaraja to reprise some of his old tunes. This one becomes the plaintive Asha Bhosle ditty, Meri Zindagi. Gone are the opening notes of the Tamil number (shloka followed by the church bells, indicative of the Hindu-Christian plot line) – the music is different, lyrics and language are different, but the tune is the same. In a way, it is a whole new song!
  2. Jotheyali jotheyali (Kannada, Geetha, 1981): This song, starring one of Kannada cinema’s most talented actors, Shankar Nag (Anant Nag’s younger brother), is an absolute masterpiece. Still extremely popular, 38 years after its release, this timeless tune (sung by SPB and S. Janaki) that has been remade in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi is one of Kannada cinema’s best songs!  In a televised tribute to  Ilaiyaraja on his 68th birthday, the ad-film maker turned director, R.Balki, who considers him the greatest composer in the world said that since only one-half of the country has heard the maestro’s compositions. To rectify this and to bring some of Ilaiyaraja’s best compositions to a wider audience, he selected 4 of the maestro’s tunes  and requested him to “recreate” them for his movie Cheeni Kum (2007). This was one of the songs chosen and the end result, the playful, Jaane do na.
  3. Izhaya nila pozhigirathey (Tamil, Payanangal Mudivathilai, 1982); An all-time classic, this lovely SPB solo is said to have been okayed by the music director on the 25th take during recording – it was then that the guitarist got the interludes` absolutely right! The song found its way into Hindi cinema the very next year – when it was “borrowed” by Kalyanji-Anandji for the movie’s remake/ copy and remains popular till date – Neele neele ambar (Kalakaar, 1983).
  4. Thoongatha vizhigal renda (Tamil, Agni Natchathiram, 1988): This sensuous duet based on the Carnatic raga, Amrithavarshini, and sung by Yesudas and S. Janaki is from one of my favourite Tamil movies. Directed by Mani Ratnam and starring Prabhu, Karthik and Amala, Agni Natchathiram was a super-duper hit back then. Each of its songs is an absolute masterpiece. When this movie was remade/ copied in Hindi as Vansh, this song became a melodious Main toh deewani hui!
  5. Mandram vandha thendrulukku (Tamil, Mouna Raagam, 1986): What can I say about this Mani Ratnam classic? I watched Mouna Raagam in the late 80s when Doordarshan telecast it on a Sunday afternoon and the next day to my surprise, many of my classmates in school had watched it too and were blown away. Recess that day was spent discussing and marvelling over this movie. (Ok, ok, we were drooling over Karthik!) Mouna Raagam remains one of Ratnam’s best movies till date and he has so many more to his credit since! This song was one of the 4 tunes picked by R. Balki and the Hindi song is equally popular too: the title track of Cheeni Kum (2007)
  6. Naguva Nayana (Kannada, Pallavi Anupallavi, 1984): Another super popular Kannada song from Mani Ratnam’s debut movie starring Anil Kapoor, Lakshmi and Kiran Vairale. One of my favourites, not just because of the tune, but because it shows Bangalore in all its beauty (and the way I remember it!) R. Balki requested Ilaiyaraja and the film makers for permission when he used it in an ad film he made in 2008. The ad was that of Idea Cellular – it is a popular tune.
  7. Thenpandi cheemayilai (Tamil, Nayakan, 1987): This one is from Mani Ratnam’s collaboration with Kamal Haasan – the gangster classic, Nayakan, that was based on the life of the Bombay don, Varadarajan Mudaliar. Nayakan has been voted as one of the greatest movies of all-time. It promptly was remade in Hindi, the very next year after its release. Dayavan (1988), starring Vinod Khanna, Feroz Khan and Madhuri Dixit, is probably remembered now for some scenes between Vinod Khanna and Madhuri Dixit, if at all. Some of the songs were direct lifts too – and sorry to say, they were butchered. Especially this number sung both by Ilaiyaraja and Kamal Haasan, which plays through the film. I cringe each time I hear the Hindi version, the Mohd Aziz song, Dil tera kisne toda

This is in no way a comprehensive or a complete list – there are so many more tunes of his that have crept into Hindi cinema. An example is Dhak dhak karne laga (Beta, 1992) which was a direct lift of the Telugu song, Abbani Tiyyani (Jagadeeka Veerudu Atiloka Sundari). 

Or pick any Anand-Milind song of the 90s, and you may just find its inspiration in a Telugu / Tamil song. These haven’t been included as these are post my cut-off date, and also mostly they are in Telugu (and I am not too familiar with that language).

Making this list was personally a satisfying experience – I got to hear so many of the maestro’s compositions. A musician par excellence who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan earlier this year, Ilaiyaraaja is a living legend and simply matchless!

Love in Simla (1960)

The first time I heard of Sadhana was when my mother and aunt had dragged me, aged 10, to a hairdresser in Bangalore. Something had to be done about my unruly hair, they had decided. My hair was assessed and so was my broad forehead and the hairdresser pronounced that I should get a “Sadhana cut” – a fringe that would cover my forehead, making it look smaller. I had no clue who the hairdresser was talking about, but the name stuck.

Sadhana

Sadhana Shivdasani, who would have turned 77 on Sep 2, 2018 is still remembered for her immaculate fashion sense and that hairstyle, which incidentally was devised to give her character a makeover and make it fashionable in Love in Simla (1960). And thats the film I planned to watch and review before her birthday. But when do I ever blog on time? Here it is – more than 3 weeks late!

Love in Simla (1960), a Filmalaya production, introduced two new stars – Joy Mukherjee (Sasadhar Mukherjee’s son, who was to become a moderately successful 1960s star, more of a poor man’s Shammi Kapoor), and Sadhana Shivdasani. While it was Sadhana’s first film as a leading actress, it cannot be counted as her debut. She had already made her debut – as an extra and a chorus dancer in Shree 420 (1955) (I have seen Mud mud ke na dekh a million times just to spot Sadhana but have not been able to) and then in a Sindhi film AbaanaLove in Simla, said to be based on an English film Jane Steps Out (1938), also featured two amazing actresses of the 1930s – Durga Khote and Shobhana Samarth (Nutan and Tanuja’s mother) and was directed by R.K. Nayyar. (Sadhana and R.K.Nayyar supposedly fell in love during the shooting of this film and it culminated in their wedding in 1966)

We are introduced to General Rajpal Singh (Kishore Sahu) who lives in Simla along with his haughty wife (Shobhana Samarth), beautiful, spoilt daughter (Azra), a small son and dog. There is also a niece, his late elder brother’s daughter, Sonia (Sadhana), who is a shy, plain, bespectacled chit of a girl. Sonia has been living with General Rajpal Singh and his family since the untimely death of her parents. It is a Cinderella-type situation for the poor Sonia – except that it isn’t that dreary.  Her aunt and cousin are vain, haughty and plain spoilt. Sheela keeps pointing out as to how dowdy and plain Sonia is. Oh yes, there is a kind, witty, likeable grandmother (Durga Khote) also in the household, who keeps sarcastically commenting o her son, a Major General, is so  henpecked and how her daughter-in-law is.  She is genuinely fond of Sonia, who thankfully quickly shows that she has a bit more spunk and does not always keep her mouth shut. Sheela has a special someone in her life, Dev (Joy Mukherjee), who is shortly to visit. And just prior to the visit, other than the introductory song Dil thhaam chale (in which Joy Mukherjee firmly proves why he came to be called the poor man’s Shammi Kapoor), there is a long argument between Sheela and Sonia. Sheela, being the not so nice girl who dances, frequents clubs etc, obviously does not wish to have children and while Dev is dear to her, he is not The One. (She is too ambitious and materialistic to believe in such a concept anyway!) Sonia, appalled at these declarations butts in and extols the virtues of having kids and that she would have some 12 if she could. The argument escalates and the battle lines are drawn. Sheela reminds yet again that poor Sonia is disadvantaged when it comes to the looks department and hence won’t find anyone. Sonia, while hurt, rises up to this challenge and says that she will make Dev hers to prove a point. The audience knows who will win in the end. After all, Sonia is the good Bharatiya naari, while Sheela is a spoilt, anglicised modern chit of a girl.

Dev shows up and Sonia tries to charm him but fails.  She is plain, gullible, and doesn’t seem to have the graces needed or wiles (in this case, to lure Dev) to win a man’s heart.  Dev is genuinely besotted with Sheela. So as Sheela and Dev prance around the house, romancing and singing songs, Sonia is terribly jealous; she gets angry and feels rather sorry for her state. As she breaks down, the grandmother who has been watching all this  steps in for that much-needed Cinderella transformation! Pointing out areas of improvement, she dolls up Sonia and lo, a princess is born. All it takes is getting rid of the glasses (which were being worn to ward off headaches! how very convenient), trousers and yes that now-famous Sadhana cut!

Using her new-found looks and ada to her advantage, Sonia plays on Dev’s jealousies and manipulates situations to spend time with him. You see, the battle lines had been drawn – and everything is fair in love and war. All this goes on while the vain Sheela is playing the belle of the ball or sleeping peacefully (after Sonia spikes her milk). Not surprising, after three / four songs and ridiculous banter, Dev and Sonia fall in love. Sheela also ‘wakes’ up and realises her Dev has been prancing around town with her cousin and she confronts her sister. Of course Sonia points out that she has won the challenge and that this could have been avoided had she not been so unkind all these years. Sonia also tells Sheela in no uncertain terms that she knows that Sheela does not really love Dev; its just his money she is after. Sheela promptly goes into victim mode, wailing and weeping and not eating and Sonia, keeping in line with her good Bharatiya nari image, sacrifices her own love for the sake of her sister!

Does she manage to shake Dev off? Who gets Dev in the end? The rest of the movie answers these questions.

My two cents: Love in Simla is a typical 60s movie – with lovely stars, locales, music and a simple story – fluffy and easy to watch. Sadhana is good – the best thing in the movie. She looks pretty; of course there are too many inconsistencies in the way in the character she plays, but she is a delight to watch. Durga Khote, in a rather limited appearance, is brilliant. She literally lights up the scene with her wit, amusement (at her silly son and daughter-in-law) and her fondness for Sonia. Shobhana Samarth may not have been a good actress – she was just so-so as a vain, haughty, sharp-tongued aunt. But she is beautiful; which is amazing considering that by 1960 her eldest daughter Nutan was 25, married and was a sought-out star and Tanuja (who turns 75 today- yet another post in the pipeline) had made her debut.) Both the male characters were silly too (sillier than the women); General Rajpal as the hen-pecked husband with a roving eye and that idiotic, jobless and aimless Dev. He lands up in Shimla, believing himself to be totally smitten by Sheela. Two songs later, he is head-over-heels in love with a now-pretty Sonia. The music by Iqbal Qureishi is good – especially Dil thham chale and Kiya hai dilruba 

All in all, a time-pass movie that is easy to watch.

Book Review: A House for Mr. Misra – Jaishree Misra

A House for Mr Misra

This is a book review that has been long overdue. Jaishree Misra has been one author whose books I have read and enjoyed over the years. I was introduced to her writing when I read her debut novel, the bestseller Ancient Promises, way back in 2000 shortly after it was published. Since then I have kept track of her novels and read all of them – with the exception of the three books published under the Avon imprint.

I had the good opportunity to interact with Ms. Misra personally in 2015 when A Love Story for my Sister came out. It was during this interaction, she mentioned her struggles with a house she and her husband were getting built on the beach in Kerala. She seemed concerned and worried about how slowly things were moving and how difficult it was to get work done, in the face of rules, procedures and established societal mores. As I listened to her troubled tales, little was I to know then that those struggles would result in her first work of non-fiction, “A House for Mr. Misra.”

I must confess that I was hesitant to pick this book up, when I spotted it in the window of my favourite book store earlier this year. I wondered, how would a book, about the struggles of a person in constructing her dream beach house be? Depressing and whiny, perhaps, I thought. Did I really then wish to subject myself to that? Well, I put these concerns aside and did read the book in early February.  And  realised just how wrong I had been.

A House for Mr Misra is anything but that – a whiny, wailing book. Instead, it is an absolutely delightful read that recounts a couple’s real experience in building a house.  The book starts off in London, with the author describing the circumstances that led to their decision to move back and construct a house in Kerala. Not before long, Mr. and Mrs Misra are in the thick of action dealing with nerve-wracking tense situations – mainly springing from their interactions with a wide range of people – unscrupulous builders/ contractors, corrupt government officials and regulatory authorities, terrible neighbours and other general irritants.

What is impressive is the humorous tone employed by the author to describe the harrowing situations the couple find themselves in. The subtle humour crops up in witty sentences when one least expects it. The use of humour and wit to describe what must have been an overall traumatic personal experience (besides dealing with these irritants, there are other life crises that they deal with such as the snake-bite episode and Mr. Misra’s hospitalisation) is admirable.

Visual description has always been one of the strengths of Ms. Misra’s writing. This comes across even in this book. The London borough in the beginning, the lovely Kerala monsoons, the busy Trivandrum roads with traffic and KSRTC buses, seaside dramas, bungling bureaucracy, greedy labourers, maids, why, even the creepy crawlies all come alive, making the reader feel that they are very much there with the couple.

Another thing that stands out is the empathy and kindness Ms. Misra shows towards her fellow human beings. While she points out the foibles of all the exasperating (types of) people she came across during this entire project, what strikes the reader is that she is not overtly critical about them and does not lash out despite all the hassles they faced.  Instead, they are dealt with a subtle, sagacious humour. Now that is impressive indeed.

Life in the state of Kerala is clearly etched out and one gets an insight into the workings of an average Malayali mind. The book ends with the house having been built, yes, but with the Misras deciding to move back to London.

A House for Mr. Misra is a quick, engaging and an interesting book, peppered with realism and subtle humour – I read it in one go and throughly enjoyed it.  A must read.

The book ends with an extremely kind gesture by the author. Ms. Misra is willing to offer the house up for any writer who wishes to go there to write and this is for no compensation at all. Interesting, really.

PS: Trivandrum has not been that much impacted in the recent devastating Kerala floods and the seaside house thankfully still stands!

 

 

Book Review – S.D.Burman – The Prince Musician by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal

The past few years have seen a number of books on SD Burman, like Sun mere BandhuThe musical word of S.D. Burman by Sathya Saran or  S.D. Burman: The World of his music by Khagesh Dev Burman ( a relative of S.D. Burman – the original book being Sachin Kartar Gaaner Bhubhan).  I had been wanting to read these but I did not. Because, some time back, over a chat, Anirudha mentioned to me that he and Balaji Vittal were working on a book on SD Burman. I had thoroughly enjoyed the authors’ previous two books (R.D. Burman: the Man, the Music and Gaata rahe mera dil) and was looking forward to this new book.

SDB_Book

And what a book it is! Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal have done it again.

S.D. Burman – The Prince-Musician is a thoroughly researched and extremely well-written work that traces the life of the ‘Prince- Musician’ from right from his childhood in Comilla to his days as a budding musician in Calcutta and then his glorious phase in Hindi cinema.

Time and again on this blog (and at the cost of repetition), I have written about how much of a fan of Sachin Dev Burman I am. I love his music starting from the early 1950s to up until say early 70s (Not too fan of his later films such as Mili (1975) or for that matter Jugnu (1973). Of course, there were good songs in these films as well, but in my opinion, these weren’t as memorable as his earlier scores)

However, I must admit I did not know much about his life; nothing more than the stuff that was learnt from profiles in various film magazines or some sites on the Internet .

What this book does does exceedingly well is to chart out his entire life and music, by providing a timeline. His childhood and early years are all sketched out in great detail – showing the evolution of the royal from Tripura into a complete musician. All his music – starting from the early Bengali scores are analysed from a technical musical perspective (not surprising as both the authors are trained in music, if I am to understand). But the technical analysis is less than what it was in their RDB book (one of my complaints as a reader and a Hindi movie buff with that book was exactly this. It was too “musical”- the technicalities and the analysis was too heavy for me, as a person who enjoys music but hasn’t studied it.) Thankfully that is not the case in this book. The technicalities are very much there but interspersed with many and some lesser known anecdotes/ back stories about the composition, the movies and the maestro’s life.

Like most composers who compose in different languages simultaneously, both the Burman father-son duo used their Bengali tunes in Hindi films. The book traces and mentions the Bengali equivalent of every Hindi composition (wherever applicable). Not that I know anything at all about Bengali music, but I found this trivia interesting. As I do that with Ilaiyaraja and AR Rahman’s music – that is trace the corresponding number in Tamil / Kannada/ Telugu music.

A fascinating portrait emerges of the prince who renounced royalty to become a King among musicians through quotes, stories and anecdotes still vivid in the memories of the people who had a chance to know SDB.

This is a must-read for music buffs and film lovers.

Sharmeelee (1971)

A tribute to Shashi Kapoor who died last December had been long overdue but I did not want to draw up another song list. An unplanned break from work this week meant that suddenly I had time to read and watch some movies.  And when this movie and its music was analysed in a delightful book on S.D. Burman I recently read (review to be up shortly),  I knew I had found a Shashi Kapoor movie to review. So Sharmeelee it was to be. For some reason, the title of this 1971 Subodh Mukherjee movie is spelt as “Sharmeelee” (Should it not be Sharmilee?)

S1

This was a movie I had not watched earlier, mainly because I am not so fond of Rakhee – well, I find her irritating. But surely a charming Shashi Kapoor and good music would offset a double dose of Rakhee, or so I thought.

Sharmeelee starts off with an introduction to the protagonist, Kanchan, a painfully shy young girl who has a golden heart and lives with her parents and her twin, Kamini (who is confident, boisterous and absolutely gorgeous) in some hill-station in Himachal Pradesh.

So shy is she that she is comfortable only with animals and birds. In front of the people she lives with, not one word comes out of her mouth. Her critical mother is desperately trying to marry her off (but to no avail, as everyone who comes to see her chooses Kamini over her). So shy is Kanchan that she has even dropped out of her school, whereas Kamini is in college, pursuing some degree. There is a local priest, Father Joseph (Nazir Hussain, in a role that he has reprised a million times), who runs some kind of dispensary, who is fond of her.

Kamini, when on some college tour to Kashmir, meets a young army Captain, and there is some chhed-chhad, gaana-bajana and bas, the Captain has fallen for her. However, the acquaintance and the romance is short-lived. Meanwhile, the kind priest decides to get his adopted son married to poor Kanchan. The son turns out to be none other than our dear Captain Ajit.

Mistaking Kanchan to be Kamini, he happily agrees but soon enough the truth comes to fore. Kanchan, despite being heartbroken, wishes for her sister to be happy and soon Kamini and Ajit’s wedding is fixed. It then turns out that Kanchan had a past boyfriend Kundan (keeping with her modern girl image) who is not so shareef who comes back to haunt her (a very young Ranjeet making his debut, playing a rapist!) a few days before the wedding. In a bid to escape from his clutches, Kamini kills Kundan by running a car over him. And then drives the car over a cliff, in order to escape from the police, who surprisingly land up there.

The marriage still goes ahead, with Kanchan as the bride. The shocked parents have conveniently not told Ajit or Father Joseph, after all khandan ki izzat mitti mein mil jaayegi. Kanchan protests tearfully but is forced to go along with the plan. She pens a letter to Ajit asking him to come for the wedding only if he is okay with this. Of course, the letter gets intercepted and never reaches him.

Much drama ensues. Upon being told the truth (by Kanchan of course), Ajit accuses Kanchan of killing Kamini to take her place and drives away (to his regiment Kashmir) in anger. The ill-fated Kanchan attempts suicide, only to be rescued by Father Joseph. Months pass, Ajit doesn’t come back. Kanchan lives with Father Joseph, who is furious with his adopted son and wants Kanchan to break off all relations and remarry.

Does Ajit reconcile with Kamini? Does Kanchan win Ajit’s heart? Is Kamini really dead?

The rest of the movie deals with what happens to the three main protagonists as they deal with their changed circumstances.

My two cents:

Largely unwatchable. I found all the characters irritating. Captain Ajit was an idiot through the movie who claimed to be in love with Kamini and ill-treated Kanchan till the penultimate scene when he had a sudden change of heart. Very convenient. Kanchan was infuriatingly servile, more of a doormat than shy! This is not how shy girls behave. Kamini had spunk (in the first half) but being the modern woman, she had to be shown as a wayward girl who smokes, drinks, has affairs and becomes a spy!

Shashi Kapoor is charming (but when he is singing songs or looking shocked). His Captain Ajit was just not likeable, for me to enjoy his acting.  Rakhee does her best – but again Kanchan deserves a whack and later Kamini does too! Less said about the annoying parents. Only Nazir Hussain as Father Joseph was tolerable.

Music:

The sole plus point of this two and half hour long film. Sachin Dev Burman’s composition is top notch. My favourite songs are Khilte hain gul yahan and the two sad songs Megha chhaye aadhi raat and Kaise kahen hum.

Sharmeelee is a movie you should skip, especially if you haven’t seen it. Listen to the album instead.

Of train journeys….a song list

There is something charming about train journeys. As the locomotives whizz past different landscapes, routes and places, towards their destination, taking a whole set of travellers with them, they become a bit more than just a convenient mode of transportation. Accidental meetings take place – people meet, connect and go their separate ways. Long journeys can spark intense reflection and thought as the traveller sits still. A scenic train journey earlier this month had me thinking at first about lofty, existential matters but the mind, being an unchained monkey, soon went haywire and I started thinking of how trains have been used in literature and film.

I started mentally making a list of all the songs picturised inside a train in Hindi films. And there are so many!

steamlocoatdhn

Here is a list of songs remembered and much-liked. Two songs that promptly came to my mind have not been included – one because it is a song from the nineties and hence doesn’t qualify as an old song (Chaiyya chaiyya, Dil Se (1999)) and the other because the protagonist singing the song is not in the train himself (Mere sapnon ki rani, Aradhana (1969)).

And then there are others such as Teri hai zameen (The Burning Train, 1980), Hoga tumse pyara kaun (Zamaane ko dikhana hai, 1981) which have been left out simply because  they also felt too recent in my memory (years of watching Chitrahaar and Rangoli, you see)

 

  1. Gaya andhera hua ujala (Subah ka tara, 1954, Talat Mahmood and Lata Mangeshkar, C. Ramchandra): 

Evocative of a happier tomorrow, this sweet song is is in the mellow voices of Talat Mahmood and Lata M and picturised on a young Pradeep Kumar and Jayashree. They are in a train, looking out at the dark sky breaking into dawn, hopeful of tomorrow. This is a dim ray of hope and optimism in an otherwise tragic movie on widow remarriage by V. Shantaram.

2. Rahi matwale tu chhed zara (Waaris, 1954, Talat Mahmood and Suraiya, Anil Biswas):

Another Talat Mahmood duet, this time with Suraiya, also picturised on the singers. Composed by Anil Biswas, this song one appears in Waaris a number of times -happy and sad. One of the sad versions is also picturised in a train, as Suraiya remembers her first meeting with Talat Mahmood (who is presumed dead). Yes, the duet version is sung promptly after they meet.

3. Apni toh har aah ik toofan hai (Kala Bazar, 1960, Mohd Rafi, SD Burman)

My favourite starring a suave Dev Anand and a winsome Waheeda Rehman.  While the melody (SDB), lyrics (Shailendra) and singing (Rafi) are flawless, its the clever picturisation that stands out. Who is the “uparwala” being referred to? – God or Waheeda? 🙂

4. Hai apna dil toh awara (Solva Saal, 1958, Hemant Kumar, SD Burman)

Another Dev Anand- Waheeda Rehman number which is popular to-date. No ambiguity here. You know Dev Anand’s antics are targeted at Waheeda Rehman. In the movie, he plays a journalist who is accompanied by his friend (Sundar, playing a harmonica) on this local train. He suspects something is up with the couple in the seat behind them (Waheeda Rehman’s character is eloping with the guy she is accompanying who is indeed a slimy character) and keeps an eye on them when they get off the train. The singing and music (in this song and the whole album) is exemplary. The song is still remembered as one of Hemant Kumar’s finest songs (in Hindi).

5. Dil mera hai deewana, deewana mohabbat ka (Shart, 1954, Asha Bhosle, Hemant Kumar):

This melodious Asha Bhosle number, picturised on a supporting character played by Mohana Cabral, an actress in the 1940s and early 50s is unfortunately hardly known. A pity considering that this movie, starring Shyama and some unknown actor, is still remembered for Hemant and Geeta Dutt’s  Na yeh chaand hoga 

This lilting melody captures the romance of a train journey – long distances traversed in scenic locales – the mood is upbeat as the character looks forward to welcoming some romance in her life. Asha Bhosle’s breezy singing makes it worth a rewind.

6. Dil thham chale hum aaj idhar (Love in Simla, 1960, Mohd Rafi, Iqbal Qureishi):

Another romantic number, this time, where the hero (Joy Mukherjee) is excited and happy as he  will get to meet his then lady-love (Azra, whose photograph he is staring at), once his journey gets over. Of course, as the name of the movie suggests, he does find true love in Simla, just that it is not the lady in the photograph. Rafi brings out the much needed joie-de-vivre as Joy Mukherjee portrays the impatient man in love on screen.

7. Yeh rang bhare badal (Tu nahin aur sahi, 1960, Asha Bhosle-Mohd Rafi, Ravi):

This one is a romantic duet, sung by Asha and Rafi and picturised on Pradeep Kumar and Nishi. I included the song purely because I like the music and singing and then it is entirely shot inside a train. Listen to it – the singing is much better than the acting onscreen!

8. Badal jaaye agar maali chaman hota nahin khali (Baharein phir bhi aayengi, 1966, Mahendra Kapoor, O.P. Nayyar): 

A philosophical song which speaks about how everyone is dispensable – the world goes on, no matter what happens and how we need to continue moving on with hope, courage and kindness. In an ironic way, fitting. Guru Dutt died during the making of this film, and was completed by Dharmendra in the lead role. No one is indeed indispensable.

A lovely OPN composition sung by Mahendra Kapoor, this one has a young and a handsome Dharmendra in a train, being saccharine sweet to the other passengers!

9. Aao bacchon tumhein dikhayein (Jagriti, 1954, Kavi Pradeep, Hemant Kumar)

This one, a childhood favourite, written and sung by Kavi Pradeep and composed by Hemant Kumar ranks as one of the most patriotic numbers in Hindi film music. It was a played invariably before Independence Day and Republic Day year after year. Abhi Bhattacharya takes his students on a journey across India, educating them about the geography and history of the nation, instilling a sense of pride and love towards the motherland.

10. Main hoon jhum jhum jhumroo (Jhumroo, 1961, Kishore Kumar):

Kishore Kumar, as an actor, has had a few songs picturised on him in a train (two of which I did consider for this list- one being that crazy Cheel cheel chillake kajari sunaye (Half-ticket, 1962) and that equally nonsensical (in terms of picturisation), Yeh hai jeevan ki rail (Mehlon ke khwab, 1960). Ending the list with this extremely popular, happy lively song sung and composed by Kishore Kumar which plays in the background as the credits of the movie roll by and the heroine (Madhubala) is in a train. This was chosen simply because train journeys, for me, have happy associations.

Remembering Rahul Dev Burman – a song list – Part 1

This has been a long overdue post. The last two years, just before Jan 4 and June 27, I would make (mental) plans to come up with a song list of my favourite RD Burman songs, but the two days pass by; and the song list post never happened… up until now. Yes it is past June 27 this year also however, better late than never.

 

I guess no introduction is needed for the Boss. Rahul Dev Burman is the one Hindi music director that most of the younger generations know about. In fact, when I was growing up, a complete Hindi music buff, I would find it rather strange that most of my friends (who did not share my enthusiasm for Hindi film music) would wax eloquent about RDB and know nothing about his illustrious father, Sachin Dev Burman (who is one of my favourite music directors).

For someone who is now considered one of the most influential music composers of all time, this was not always the case. RDB or Pancham spent a long time under the shadow of his father (as his musical assistant, playing the harmonica. He is, however, said to have composed many compositions thought to be his father’s.).

Born on June 27, 1939, before starting out as an independent music director with Chhote Nawab (1961). Success proved elusive for a while, before a dream run that started with Teesri Manzil (1966) and lasted until the early 1980s. Financial and marital troubles plagued him and he is supposed to have died an unhappy man fairly early on January 4, 1994, leaving behind a legacy that is unmatched.

Choosing 10 songs was more difficult than I thought it would be. With my favourite music directors, SDB, and OPN, I have clear favourites (maybe because I do listen to their songs more often.) I know which songs I like and which wouldn’t make it to the cut.

As I started listing the songs for this post, I found there were too many of them I liked. Should I then restrict the list to just include solos or have duets? Should I restrict these to just Hindi (there are many of his Bengali songs that are lovely, and not to forget some melodious Malayalam ones). Should I have a cut-off range(say 1960-1975 only)?

Now, since I could just not decide, here are 10 songs that came to my mind, all solos sung by female protagonists (5 by Asha Bhosle and 5 by Lata Mangeshkar) in no order of preference.

Asha Bhosle sings for RDB:

AshaRDB

While the Burman father-son duo (other than OPN and Ravi) were largely responsible for Asha Bhosle’s rise to fame, her complaint was that their best songs went to her elder sister. Probably true. Asha Bhosle did get to sing for the vamp, and side character more often than not; and its another tale of how she capitalised on the opportunities presented to her! I have avoided including her super-duper cabaret numbers (solos and duets with Pancham da) on purpose – they could fill up an entire list.

Here are 5 songs sung by Asha Bhosle for Pancham da, that I am very fond of:

  1. Logon na maaro ise (Anamika, 1973): This Sanjeev Kumar -Jaya Bhaduri starrer had memorable music with blockbuster songs such as Meri bheegi bheegi, Baahon mein chale aao. Asha Bhosle sings this mischievous number with much innocence and liveliness, aptly conveyed by Jaya Bhaduri on screen
  2. Hamein raaston ki zaroorat nahin hai (Naram Garam, 1981): A gem of a      number that completely got lost in this small-budget movie starring Amol Palekar, Swaroop Sampat and Utpal Dutt. Panchamda re-used the tune resulting in that superhit Lata-Kishore duet, Saagar kinaare dil yeh pukaare (Saagar, 1985).
  3. Katra katra behti hai (Ijaazat, 1987): This Gulzar directed movie starring Naseeruddin Shah, Rekha and Anuradha Patel had four fabulous songs, all sung by Asha Bhosle, each one worth including in this or any other list.  Gulzar and Asha Bhosle won the National Award for lyrics and singing respectively for Mera kuch samaan. It is a pity that Pancham da did not win an award for this marvellous soundtrack – which ranged from Mera kuch samaan to the ghazal, Khali haath shaam aayi hai. I was torn between Chhoti si kahani se, that brilliant number celebrating the rains and this one. Picked this one because of the sensitive lyrics and that amazing voice-over-voice effect that takes this composition to another level.
  4. Bechara dil kya kare (Khushboo, 1975): Picturised on an adorable Farida Jalal and Hema Malini, this is a typical sakhi song. In the context of the movie, Hema Malini’s bethrothed or (was it) husband (?) (a child marriage story) is coming back to the gaon from the shaher, if I remember right. So the heroine is happy and her best friend is teasing her. Playful and zestful, Asha Bhosle’s peppy singing is fully brought out by Farida Jalal on screen.
  5. Phir se aaiyo badra bidesi (Namkeen, 1982): Another soulful number from the Gulzar-Asha-Pancham trio. Not too popular actually If I remember right, Shabana Azmi plays a speech-impaired woman living with her mother (Waheeda Rehman) and sisters (one of whom is Sharmila Tagore) who falls in love with a truck driver,(Sanjeev Kumar), who enters their lives. This haunting melody with its poetic lyrics and soft tune gets the longing, hope, promise and question mark of love right (she does not know her love is unrequited – there is the belief, mistaken, that maybe he loves her back.)

Lata Mangeshkar sings for RDB:

Lata_Pancham

In the late 1950s, Lata Mangeshkar had a fallout with SD Burman. During this period, SDB used Asha Bhosle as his main singer. Pancham, who was then branching out as a separate composer, wished that Lata Mangeshkar sing his official first song as composer but was not comfortable to approach her directly. The ‘rapprochement’ between SDB and Lata Mangeshkar was effected by Pancham da’s wish. For the sake of his son, SDB called and spoke to Lata Mangeshkar and the rift ended and the song, Ghar aaja ghir aaye from Chhote Nawab (1961) was composed and an association was formed. Lata Mangeshkar sang a number of songs for Pancham da (lesser in number perhaps, when compared to the no of songs Asha Bhosle sang but memorable nonetheless.

  1. Kya janu sajan hoti hai kya (Baharon ke sapne, 1967): Starting with this absolute gem from his early phase, which was picturised on Asha Parekh and a very young Rajesh Khanna (a nobody back then). The film, a non-Nasir Hussain like movie, with a serious theme, flopped at the box office, despite the memorable soundtrack which has survived to this day. Chunri sambhal gori, Aaja piya tohe pyaar doon remain antakshari favourites and then there is that amazing cabaret Do pal jo teri. I picked Kya janu sajan for its brilliant use of the voice-over-voice effect and the orchestration.
  2. Raina beeti jaaye (Amar Prem, 1972): While Pancham da may have been known more for the Western touch he introduced in Hindi music, he did excel in composing some classical Hindi songs as well. This is a classical composition, in Gurjari Todi, which describes Radha’s anguish as she waits for Krishna (Shyam) to come to her, as promised but half the night  is gone and the clock is ticking. Sung to perfection, Raina beeti jaaye is a masterpiece. Not just this song, the entire soundtrack is filled with musical gems (Yeh kya hua, Kuch toh log kahenge, and Chingari koi bhadke and Bada natkhat hai krishna kanhaiya) remembered even today.
  3. Chori chori chupke chupke (Aap ki kasam, 1974): Another hit semi-classical number from a film that had several hit songs (Paas nahin aana, Karwatein badalti rahein and that Kishore Kumar classic Zindagi ke safar mein jo guzar,)
  4. Kajre badarwa (Pati Patni, 1966): Many Pancham’s finest compositions did not get the name they deserved, simply because they have gotten lost in small films that bombed at the box office. This superb, melodious song picturised on Nanda as she waits for her husband is one such example. Romantic, sweet and absolutely magical.
  5. Rimjhim gire saawan (Manzil, 1979): Ending the list with another song celebrating the rains, simply because the rains have finally arrived here. While the Kishore Kumar version is probably more popular, I prefer the Lata Mangeshkar version of the song. Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee do share a cute chemistry.

This does feel incomplete. There are so many duets and solos by Mohd Rafi and Kishore Kumar, which should feature in a song post. So I guess this calls for a couple more posts eventually.  Or maybe I should just say, this is the plan as of now!

 

 

Book Review – Kanan Devi – The First Superstar of Indian Cinema by Mekhala Sengupta

KananDevi_The first

I came across this book sometime last year when I was trying to educate myself on the early days of Indian cinema. Since my interest in Indian cinema is in movies from 1950s and onwards, when it comes to the two preceding decades, barring certain iconic names such as K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Devika Rani, Himanshu Rai, I know nothing more.

Which is why this book stood out.

Kanan Devi was a name I had heard, courtesy, Lata Mangeshkar’s album from the 1990s, Shraddhanjali: My Tribute to the Immortals wherein she had reprised a couple of Kanan Devi’s superhit songs from Jawab (1942) – Aye chand chhup na jaana  and Duniya yeh duniya….Toofan mail  .And it was about a time period I did not know much about.

I finally got around to reading this book earlier in the year.

Since yesterday (April 22, 2018) was the 102nd birth anniversary of Kanan Devi and today is celebrated as World Book Day, it seems apt to commemorate these days (and yes keep the blog active) with a post about this book.

Written by Mekhala Sengupta and published by HarperCollins in 2015, this is a well-researched account of a superstar, who “spelt charm, glamour, dazzle and grace to the fledgling Indian middle classes (of the 1930s and 1940s)” but one whose name rings no bells these days. Retracing the life and times of someone about whom countless tales abound must have been a challenging task, but the author succeeds in doing so to a large extent. By the time, one is done with the book, the reader is acquainted with Kanan Bala or Kanan Devi, a fascinating personality, who through her single-minded focus and independent thinking scaled heights in both the Hindi and Bengali nascent film industries despite having no lineage or pedigree. An inspiring rags-to-riches story, the book details the achievements and journey of this Diva who donned many hats – child-artiste, internationally recognised superstar of both silent movies and talkies, singer par excellence, producer and fashionista.

Born on April 22, 1916 (or 1912 according to some accounts) in Howrah, Kanan Devi’s origins are dubious. Many accounts exist about her lineage (or lack of it). It is not clear as to who her parents were,  but she was under the care of Rajobala Devi and Ratan Chandra Das whom she considered her parents. There is also a mention of an elder sister, Amiya. Kanan Devi in her own autobiography, apparently recollects her early childhood as being happy when her father Ratan Chandra Das was alive. Ratan Chandra Das, in a brief time, played an important role in her life, recognising her talent for music and encouraging it.

As a child, Kanan Bala was said to be quiet and much of a loner, lost in her own world of daydreams, triggered by books she had read and the melodies she heard (of Baul singers, local pooja pandals, jatra theatre.) She was attracted to music and would often get lost, drawn by music and would have to be brought back home. Calcutta, in those early years, was a happening place and attracted popular entertainers, be they circus artistes, jugglers, musicians, dancers and actors. There indeed was much to see and hear.

However, Ratan Chandra Das fell ill and died shortly after. Rajobala, while not being married to Ratan Chandra Das, took upon herself to repay his debts and sold all her jewellery and household articles in the process leaving both her and little Kanan destitute and homeless. Kanan was hardly six years old and from then on the rest of her childhood was difficult, filled with penury, hardship and humiliation. Rajobala had taken to doing chores in homes of wealthy people in Calcutta and Kanan would help her. At an age when she should have been going to school and getting some kind of an education, Kanan Bala was getting real-life experience, working as a maid and living in a notorious neighbourhood.

There is a rather telling anecdote in the book. At one point, Rajobala and Kanan were forced to live with well-to-do relatives in Chandernagore (according to an account the relatives were this elder sister Amiya and her husband Bhim Singh). Instead of living there as family, the mother and daughter were forced to work long hours as unpaid domestic help and were treated badly. Things came to head one day, when Rajobala broke a saucer and was badly reprimanded and humiliated by these relatives. This was the last straw for Kanan Devi. She took her mother and left the house. Despite not knowing where to go and what to do, one thing was clear in the young seven year old Kanan’s mind. It was better to die of starvation than to suffer this kind of humiliation.  A  lesson that she learnt and followed life-long. Her self-respect was prime and that was one thing she would not compromise. Incidentally she never lived in someone else’s house again. Even after her marriage (both times), it was her husband who moved into her house. Self-respect, dignity and independence were the guiding principles of Kanan Devi’s life – a feminist in the true sense of the term, much before the term had gained prominence. (Ironically, this Amiya and her husband were to come to Kanan, once she became a big star and seek her help. While she did not wish to help them, it was Rajobala who insisted that Kanan forgive them. She did and the couple lived off Kanan’s money thereafter.)

After this brief Chandernagore sojourn, the mother and daughter were back in Howrah, in a notorious neighbourhood, known for its brothel, somehow trying to make ends meet. It was a period of extreme financial distress, one during which she remembered being perpetually hungry and near starvation. Kanan Devi was on the lookout for any opportunity to get out of this rut, without compromising on her self-respect.

She was just ten when she met Tulsi Banerji, a character actor in theatre and nascent film industry. Even at that age, Kanan Devi is said to have possessed striking looks, one that got Banerji to notice her. It was Banerji who introduced Kanan to his contacts at Madan Theatres Limited. Her screen test was successful as the owner of Madan Theatre and the director spotted the budding diva in her and she was selected. Kanan Devi made her debut in the silent film Jaidev (1926). She earned a princely sum of Rs 5 per month for the movie, which solved their financial hassles for a while. Kanan was to find out much later that she had been contracted for Rs 25 per month but the staff at Madan Theatre happily whittled off the rest!

Those were tough days. She was a mere child who found the arc lights of the studio very harsh. Waiting in full costume for the director’s instructions was also tough, especially when one could climb fruit trees or just day dream in a corner. There is an amusing anecdote of how the ten-year-old child had once climbed a guava tree to pick fruit, as she had gotten bored waiting for her shot and had promptly fallen asleep, triggering a studio wide hunt for the missing child. Jyotish Banerji, the director slapped and reprimanded her when she had been located for wasting everyone’s time. It was yet another lesson she learnt. Kanan Devi thereafter made it a point to reach at least 10 minutes before any appointment. She had learnt to value people’s time and recognised the need to be disciplined and professional. Her career saw a brief hiatus between 1928-31 due to reasons unknown. It was a period where she continued with her music training and collaborated with the music composer Hiren Bose and lyricist Dhiren Das and the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam and brought out several recordings.

At the age of fifteen, Kanan Bala returned to the movies with the talkie Jorebarat (1931) and this was the phase when she transformed from a cute child artist into a beautiful girl approaching womanhood. Her  expressive eyes, long limbs, and aristocratic mien contributed to the oomph factor. As a young girl in a notorious industry, she had to face much harassment from known directors of those days, thanks to her charms.  Kanan Devi, who valued respectability, maintained her distance and was very clear in her stance. She would not give in to any relationship that was not respectable, nipping several admirers in the bud. She lost many opportunities and rejected several monetary offers because of this adamant stance. She recounts that in one particular case, the director, considering himself an aggrieved party, vilified Kanan and made her life miserable on the sets of a movie they worked together in. It was during her stint at Radha Film Company (from 1933 onwards) that Kanan Bala became Kanan Devi the superstar, “the highest paid woman artiste and Bengal’s best-known female singer-actor” She had also started gaining popularity as a fashion icon becoming the pin-up girl of those times.

Kanan Devi had arrived. The rest of the book is about her iconic career, where in she donned several hats – singer, actor, producer, activist and her turbulent personal life, taking us through her two marriages, one with Ashok Maitra (1940- 1945) and with Haridas Bhattacharjee (1949-1992).

Several things stand out about this remarkable lady.  At her peak, in the 1930s, keenly aware that she could not get a traditional education, Kanan funnelled some of her money and hired a Panditji to teach her the epics and the Puranas. At the same time, she hired a teacher to teach her English and another tutor to educate her in Bangla, Maths and History. It was a phase where she spent her time on the sets, reading voraciously, in between shots. She also made it a point to learn music formally from stalwarts such as Alla Rakha during this phase.

It seems that her low and dubious origins and lack of any lineage did play on her mind, considering her counterparts such as Devika Rani and Sadhana Bose were from cultured, well-known families. But through her single-minded focus and discipline, Kanan Devi transcended her origins through education. She did credit her first husband, Ashok Maitra (who hailed from a reputed family) to give her social recognition and status in conservative Bengali society. Despite the marriage being short-lived, Kanan Devi maintained a good equation with Ashok Maitra’s mother and sister, Rani Mahalanobis and her husband P.C. Mahalanobis, through her life.

By the late 1940s, when it was clear that the old studio system had given way to independent film makers and most opportunities were either in Bombay or Lahore, Kanan Devi took an interesting decision. In order not to relocate to Bombay, she decided to quit acting and turn producer. This is what stands out about Kanan Devi’s personality – she was bold, decisive and gutsy enough to take unconventional decisions through her life. Her discipline and forward looking focus all paint the picture of an independent, resilient, sensible woman who did not rest on her past laurels but instead went ahead and took whatever opportunities came her way. Admirable indeed.

Crammed with numerous interesting anecdotes that help unravel the personality of a performer who may not be well-known today, but one who is, arguably considered, the first superstar of Indian cinema, Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema is a fascinating book. Definitely worth a read!

 

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