In 1994, Channel Four of the UK, telecast in the middle of
the night a black-and-white Hindi movie that had been released more than 50
years earlier. Derek Malcolm, one of the internationally renowned British film
critics of the day gave a five-star rating to the movie in Radio Times—a rare
rating for an Indian movie that had melodramatic content.
What is so special about Baiju Bawra? That it was just a melodramatic love story became incidental and even forgotten amid the grand music which stood out in the movie. When the film was released in 1952, many parents started sending their children to learn music—an inspiration they got from watching this musical repeatedly. That is an accurate measure of its influence. All the songs were composed by the maestro Naushad Ali in classical ragas, making them enjoyable to the common man. It was his magnum opus.
The story is a fictional one, about Baiju, who wants to take revenge on Tansen, the legendary musician in the court of Akbar. The mood of the film is set and is evident even when the titles are playing, with the silhouette of Tansen practising a classical raga.
There is a marvellously picturised scene which puts you in a trance. Tansen is singing raag Darbari and as the alaap builds up, with Tansen elaborating on each swara or note of the great raga, the Swar Devatas are shown dancing in ecstacy. It is at this moment Baiju enters sword in hand to kill Tansen but forgets himself listening to the music, and the sword drops from his hand. He collects himself and breaks the tanpura… the artiste in him will not allow him to kill. Tansen is brought back to this world his trance rudely interrupted …what wonderful acting by Tansen.
He tells Baiju that he has to conquer him through music—that, he says, is the real revenge. Mere killing will not do. The enchanting alaap and the sober characterisation and acting of Tansen enhance the impact.
aiju goes to Tansen’s Guru Swami Haridas, requesting him to teach music but he refuses. There can be no music in a heart filled with hate and anger. What follows again is a wonderful scene with Baiju sitting under a tree and imagining that Haridas is teaching him. In his imagination, the guru appears to him and explains the grammar and significance of each raag.
There is a beautiful number in raag Shubh Pantuvarali. The dacoit queen who has come to plunder the village is moved by the music when he sings the song Insan Bano. She agrees to spare the village on the condition that Baiju comes with her.
In another scene, Baiju goes to get the blessings of Haridas before he ventures into a competition with Tansen but he is not allowed to meet him as the guru is ill, lying paralysed. He sings from a distance seeking his blessings the song Man Tadapat in raag Malkauns. Before he ends the guru slowly gets up walks towards him… cured of his affliction by the soul-stirring Malkauns. Raag Malkauns is at its best and even the late Mohammed Rafi said it was the toughest song he had sung.
The main raga employed in the movie is Darbari “Aie dunia ke rakhwaale” sung by Mohmmad Rafi is still popular and no one has done a piece like this in the film industry so far. “Tu Ganga ki mouj me” in raag Bhairavi or Sindu Bhairavi in Carnatic is set in happy mood as a love song .This is a favourite raga of Naushad and I still remember the two episodes of a special “Jaimaala” programme which Naushad presented on this raga in AIR’s Vividh Bharati more than three decades ago.
The finale is the competition between Tansen and Baiju. Here, Pandit Dattatreya Vishnu Paluskar and Ustad Amir Khan—two of the giants of Hindustani music—take over and finally Baiju wins. Both the greats willingly came forward to sing in a competition in which one gets vanquished. This is the climax of the movie, with Paluskar singing for Baiju and Amir Khan for Tansen. The raga they elaborate in the competition is a morning raga, Desi Todi. The competition starts at a serene pace but as the tempo builds, Akbar and the audience go into a stupor.
ollowing the success of Baiju Bawra, there were several musicals but all failed at the box office. Basant Bahar with Shankar-Jaikishan composing the music was one of them. Films like Abhimaan in Hindi, Thillana Mohanambal in Tamil, Hamsageethe in Kannada, His Highness Abdulla in Malayalam are some of the films where music played a major role. But they succeeded because of the story and not because of music.
Hamsageethe was entirely on a musician’s life. Dr. Balamurali Krishna scored the music and sang a few songs. He won a national award for the film. But the movie itself flopped. It could not attract the public because it was slow paced. Even an earlier avatar of Hamsageethe in Hindi (Swan Song) Basant Bahaar failed miserably. Baiju Bawra stands out because the music composer Naushad used the essence of classical Hindustani ragas deftly to suit the mood of the film, made them lighter without sacrificing their characteristics or classicism. The music is intertwined seamlessly with the simple love story while in other movies the use of music is a bit contrived.
Sankarabharanam is a Telugu movie which also revolves around a musician. It was a great hit because of the story. The music was classical and composed by the great K.V. Mahadevan. It has popular Carnatic keerthans of Thyagaraja and Shyama Sasthri, liberally used in in their original raga and form. If it is Darbari in Baiju Bawra, and Bhairavi in Hamsageethe, in Sankarabharanam it is the raga by the same name that is featured as the main raga. Sankarabharanam has a strong story line which takes over with a liberal dose of classical keerthans.
n 1964, director C. V. Sridhar attempted a theme based on music in Tamil and made the film Kalaikovil. It was about a great Veena artiste who adopts a poor orphan and teaches him the art. The pupil at one point feels that as long as the guru is alive he cannot get fame or name. He makes the guru promise not to touch his veena …a great sacrifice by the maestro. Veena maestro Chitti Babu rendered the recitals in the film.
The music was composed by Viswanathan and Ramamurthi but bombed at the box office. The songs were impressive, especially the one in raag Abhogi…“Thanga ratham vandadu veethiyile”. Incidentally, Abhogi is a Carnatic raga that went to the Hindustani system with the name Abhogi Kannada. A glimpse of the raga is beautifully employed by Laxmikanth-Pyarelaal in the second stanza of the song “Ek ritu Aayee” in the film Sau Saal Pehele. The raga has been the favourite of great singers like the Dagar brothers.
The Tamil movie Thillana Mohanambaal is about a competition between music—by the typical Carnatic instrument Nadaswaram—and dance. Music composed by K.V.Mahadevan is great but it was Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini who stood out for their performances rather than the music.
Sindhu Bhairavi, directed by K. Balachander, has nothing to do with the raga but about two women—Sindhu and Bhairavi—in the life of a famous musician. Bhairavi, the musician’s wife has no interest in music. Sindhu, an illegitimate child, challenges the musician during his concert in which he sings only Telugu and Sanskrit songs. She demonstrates that Tamil songs can be equally if not more, appealing. She sings a song which is almost a folk song, Paadariyen Padippariyen. She says music should reach the common man (a la T. M. Krishna).
She even sings the Thyagaraja keerthan which is usually sung in the Carnatic raga Kambodhi by traditional Carnatic musicians. The music composer Ilayaraja set the same keerthan in a different raga, Saramathi, which was resented by Carnatic musicians .They argued that the composer had no authority to change the traditional tune of the keerthan. But one cannot deny the fact that the raga, he used was lighter and was more suitable to the mood of the movie and has greater appeal to the common viewer. In Sindhu Bhairavi Ilayaraja was at his best. Even when the musician is drunk the song he sings is soaked in emotion and classicism. It was a great success at the box office but again it was also because of a good though melodramatic story line. The music only added to it.
For me, Baiju Bawra is an all-time great as a musical and I must admit that I won’t tire of watching it many more times.