Mar 29, 2023
Mar 29, 2023
Some years ago, during one of our visits to my younger brother Shivram's place in USA we were listening to some old film songs on his car audio system, and I made a comment that set us discussing some lesser-known facts about films. Shivram said that I knew so many things that I should write a book. I replied in all modesty that others better informed than me like Raju Bharatan had already done so. He insisted that I should put down the things I know for the sake of the younger generation. On reflection, I realised that each of us has different memories of the progress of cultural events in one’s lifetime and over time one collects trivial information about cultural activities and the people involved in them that tends to be lost unless it has been recorded for posterity.
For example, very few people, journalists included, recall today a film correspondent of Times of India, and later Filmfare, called Clare Mendonca, who was known for her in depth coverage of events in Bombay filmdom and its celebrities. She died soon after the Times of India group instituted the Filmfare awards. In a tribute to the correspondent, the Times of India announced that the statuette of the Filmfare trophy would be known henceforth as Clare, corresponding to the Oscar awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, expressing the fond hope that in the foreseeable future both the awards would be won by one awardee, in a symbolic union of Oscar and Clare! However, the Times of India group dropped the idea of renaming the Filmfare trophy as Clare for unspecified reasons.
I have hazy memories of sitting in a cinema hall in my mother's lap when I was four or five years old, but I have a clearer memory of seeing a Laurel-Hardy silent film. It was called Swiss Miss. Long afterwards; we would recall the antics of the comic pair and roll with laughter. This was when my father was station master at Kanhan, a railway station near Nagpur. There were no cinema halls in Kanhan and Kamptee the neighbouring Cantonment town, separated from Kanhan by the Kanhan river, so we had to travel 12 miles by train to Itwari, Nagpur. Manik Talkies was about a mile from the station.
My parents were fond of films. When they were young, cinemas, as they were called, were a novelty. They were making inroads into the traditional forms of entertainment in rural India, like operas with mythological themes, burra kathas (folk tales) and hari kathas (Stories from scriptures). In music too film songs were competing with classical music, particularly light classical songs and ghazals. Sometimes, my father would see a movie and tell my mother the gist of the story. At other times, we would all go to see a movie together. Most of them were mythological films. I remember seeing Telugu classics, Swarga Seema and Bhakta Potana in cinema halls in Nagpur.
Media was synonymous with the press. All India Radio was still in its infancy. Owning a radio set was a status symbol. Most people in my father's income bracket could, however, afford a gramophone, with or without a horn, and a collection of gramophone records made of shellac. The songs were mostly classical, devotional and comic. Almost every Telugu family we knew also had a set of opera records, devotional and/or mythological. In my father's collection, there were Hindustani classicals by Narayan Rao Vyas (jago mohan pyare & sadho man ka maan tyago), Karnataka music classicals by Bidaram Rachappa (Rama nee yada), Devi Meenakshi and Vachamagocharundani by some female singers. Vachamagocharundani was rendered at a fast pace. We played the record repeatedly as we tried to keep pace with her.
Mythological and other operas on gramophone records were also common. We had several records of songs by opera singers called Kapilavai Ramanadha Sastri, mostly from Sri Krishna Tulabharam, and Choppalli Suryanarayana Bhagavatar, who were also actors. Thanks to modern technology, I could find some of these songs on the internet. Kapilavai Ramanadha Sastri’s Bhale manchi Chavuka beramu and Meera jaala galadaa from Sri Krishna Tulabharam were extremely popular. Ghantasala and P Sushila sang these songs in the movie of the same name made in 1966. Choppalli made his name with Bhadrachalam Ramadasu bhajans Ramajogi mandu and Ennaganu rama bhajana. My favourite Choppalli song was Ramachandra Sita manohara. I am attaching links to two of these songs to give the readers an idea of the remarkable quality of singing by these masters.
Bhale manchi chavuka beramu Kapilavai Ramanadha Sastri
Ramachandra Sita manohara Choppalli Suryanarayana Bhagavatar
My father’s collection also had a few Telugu comedy songs by a singer who would proudly announce at the end of each song, "My name is SV Subbarao". We children loved the way he said it and would eagerly wait to hear it. I learnt later that after each song was recorded on a metal sheet it used to be sent for pressing on shellac discs and labelling. Singers were asked to announce their names to identify their recordings. There were a couple of Hindi film songs too. I can only recall two songs of Shanta Apte from Amar Jyoti, Suno Suno bana ke prani and Ab maine jana hai. In the former we were amused by the singer’s rendering of Tum ped khade kya karte as Tumape dakhade kya karate.
One of the first songs I learnt to sing from my mother was Nirdhan ka tu hai dhan from the movie Gopal Krishna produced in 1938 with Shanta Apte in the lead. Here is a recent recording of the song by me.
When I was seven my mother would ask me to sing Chal chal re naujawan and march to it a la the boy in the Bombay Talkies movie, Bandhan. Bandhan starred Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis, who were then the most popular pair in Hindi films so much so that their fans named their newborns after them. Ashok Kumar was perhaps the first star of Hindi movies.
The next milestone in my musical journey was the New Theatres' film Doctor starring Pankaj Mallick as hero, singer and music director. Two songs from this film Chale Pawan ki chaal and Ayee Bahaar become immortal. My eldest maternal cousin Telikicherla Ravindranath, later my brother-in-law, was also fond of these songs, He sang the former in a gathering of students in Harvard in 1948. I attach the YouTube link for the song.
chale pavan ki chaal - Pankaj Mullick
We were in Kanhan near Nagpur where my father was station master from 1938 to 1943. I was the fourth of four siblings growing up together. We all tried to sing these songs but the elder two did better. My eldest brother Viswanadha Rao (Viswam) was so good at them that he was in demand, specially by a group of teenaged girls from a Bengali family who lived close by. A shy teenager himself he would impress them with a soulful rendering of Guzar gaya wo zamana, kaisa kaisa. I am attaching a link to this soulful number.
Guzar gaya wo zamana, kaisa kaisa Pankaj Mullick
Mohan, my third brother and I had limited success. We tried to sing a duet, badi Suhani bhor from doctor. In the stanza, we struggled to get the aalaap at the end of the line koyaliya jab geet sunaye. We solved the problem by counting the number of times ye was repeated and simply saying ye, ye, ye seven times.
The next stage were the songs from a movie called Jawab. It was a bilingual Bengali/Hindi movie featuring the stars of the Bengali screen. Kanan Devi was a singing star who later married BN Sarkar owner of New Theatres. She was a respected member of the film community when I landed in Kolkata in 1957. The second female lead was Jamuna, who had played Parvati opposite Saigal in Devdas, and the male lead was PC Barua who had directed Devdas and now directed Jawab. Duniya, O duniya toofan mail and Aye Chand chhup na jana were our favourite songs. Apart from the songs, we related to the movie because the story was located at a railway station. Here is the link to Toofan Mail.
Duniya, O duniya toofan mail Kanan Devi
The situation for the song Aye chand chhup na jana is that an absent-minded rich man gets off a train at a small railway station where he has to spend the night in the station master's house. It was common for children of railway staff to take care of their father's work in his absence, although it was not permitted by the rules of safe working. The station master's daughter does likewise, and for this reason the rich man calls her "Masterni". He cannot sleep without a lullaby. Back home his servant plays a gramophone record to put him to sleep. He asks "Masterni" for gramophone and she tells him they don't have one because they are poor and offers to sing instead. He agrees but only after testing her! I am attaching an audio file of my attempt to render it.
We were fond of mythological, historical, period films or costume dramas. I remember watching Sant Gyaneswar (1940), Bhakta Kabir (1942) among others. In 1942, Gajanan Jagirdar produced a film called Vasantasena based on the Sanskrit play Mrichchhakatikam. Shashi Kapoor's Utsav is based on the same play. When word reached Kanhan that the film was released in Nagpur, my mother took us to Nagpur. We went to the house of my uncle AS Prasada Rao, who was employed in the Narrow Gauge workshop of BN Railway in Nagpur and was a budding communist. Following his leftist ideas, he dissuaded my mother from watching Vasantasena and instead recommended Bombay Talkies social film Basant that was running successfully in the nearby Minerva Cinema. Basant was the debut film of Mumtaz Shanti, who starred with Ashok Kumar later in the legendary hit Kismet. It was the first big break for hero Ulhas who was well known later as a character actor. There were two other Mumtazes in the film, dancer actor Mumtaz Ali, father of actor Mehmood and eight-year-old Baby Mumtaz, the future Madhubala. There was also child actor Suresh, later hero of Dulari, Jadoo and Yasmin. The film was written and directed by Amiya Chakravarti, who later directed Dilip Kumar starrer Daag and Patita. Famous flute player Pannalal Ghosh scored the music. Parul Ghosh, Pannalal's wife and Anil Biswas's sister, sang the songs. We learnt to sing several of the songs that became popular.
Kismet, the next stage of our musical journey was a legendary film. It was the first megahit, the first blockbuster from Hindi filmland, now called Bollywood. It played in Roxy cinema in Calcutta continuously for more than 3 years!
It took the country by storm. For the first time songs of a Hindi film were on the lips of South Indians. When we visited my grandmother's village Lakshmi Narasu Peta in the summer of 1944, one of the girls told my mother proudly that she had learnt a Hindi song and when asked, sang Chhor bulbul Chho rahahai and so on, as we siblings giggled uncontrollably. One of the highlights of the film, directed by Gyan Mukherjee with a musical score by Anil Biswas, was the song Door hato ai duniya walo Hindustan hamara hai written by Pradeep. It was meant to be a patriotic song to rouse the people against the British rule. The words, tum na kisike aage jhukna, german ho ya japani were deliberately included to divert the attention of the censors, because the second world war was in progress. The censors passed the song but later the government issued an arrest warrant for Pradeep forcing him to go underground. The film was successfully remade in Tamil and Telugu.
When we lived in Kanhan, Telugu films were occasionally shown in Nagpur and, like other Telugu families in the neighborhood, we went to see them. I recall seeing Malli pelli, Bala Nagamma, Swarga Seema, Bhakta Potana and Thyagayya. Chittoor V Nagayya, the singing star of the last three films was also the music director of the last two. P Bhanumati made her debut in Swarga Seema. We used to sing some of the songs.
In 1997, when I was in Calcutta in a post-retirement assignment, we participated in an Antakshari competition in the Andhra Association. A young girl in my team who seemed keen to win tried to dissuade me saying that I may not know new songs. She wanted her brother to replace me. I was quite willing, but the organizers objected. Each of the four teams won points in their turns and my young teammate resigned herself to being on the losing side. At this stage the anchor asked one team to sing a song by Nagayya. I was the only one to recall a song. Our team got bonus points that eventually took us to a win!
Here is the winning song from Bhakta Potana.
In 1943, my father was transferred to Koka a station midway between Bhandara Road and Tumsar Road stations. It was 44 miles (70 km) from Nagpur. We were admitted to a school in Dhantoli, Nagpur and we commuted to school and back, leaving home at 7-30 AM and returning home 12 hours later. We heard popular film songs sung by beggars on the train on our way to and from school and those played on loudspeakers including Noor Jehan hits, Mere Liye Jahan Mein Chain Naa Qaraar Hai and Tu Kaunsi Badli Mein Mere Chand Hai Aaja from "Khandan" (1942), which was her first film as leading lady. This was the period when Kundan Lal Sehgal sang his best songs in Dushman, Zindagi, Devdas, Meri Bahen, Bhakta Surdas and Tansen. It was also the time when the great music directors of later years, Naushad, C Ramchandra and SD Burman began their careers and great singers like Suraiya, Shamshad Begum, Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar made their entry. We were blissfully unaware of these developments, but we would hear many of the songs of the day and try to sing them. Two songs I recall are unka Ishara jaan se pyara from Pehli Nazar (1946) tuned by Anil Biswas and do dilon ko ye duniya milne hi nahin deti from Chand (1944) tuned by Husnlal Bhagatram
unka Ishara jaan se pyara
do dilon ko ye duniya milne hi nahin deti
During this period, information about films, particularly about singers and music directors was not freely available. Newspapers and periodicals had only advertisements of the films. Filmindia edited by Baburao Patel, the only publication exclusively devoted to films, was not accessible to us till much later. All India Radio played the songs with minimum information about their credits. Labels on gramophone records credited the songs to the actors or characters in the movies. Many of the actors sang for themselves. Ashok Kumar, Karan Dewan, Arun Kumar (not the music director), Surendra and Pahari Sanyal were singing stars. Kanan Devi, Khurshid, Noorjehan and Suraiya were the female singing stars. In one of her interviews, Durga Khote recalled that in those days, leading actresses had to sing and dance themselves. There were no stand-ins and no playbacks. She said they managed to learn the few dance steps needed for a sequence, but it was tough to sing. In fact, singers and lyricists had to agitate to get their share of credits and royalties for their songs.
Cinema halls were confined to the larger cities. Smaller towns and rural areas were served by “Touring Talkies”. The exhibitor carted all his equipment including tents and chairs by train and set up a temporary cinema hall in an open area in the town or village. When I was about 10 years old, we visited my uncle in Amgaon a railway station about 180 km from Nagpur, where he was an assistant station master. The highlight of our stay in Amgaon was seeing a movie in a touring talkie in the town located about 5 km from the railway station. After our evening meal we walked the distance in the company of my uncle and aunt and a group of railway staff. When we arrived, we found that everything had been set up for the show, but they were waiting for us to show up. Since they moved their stuff by rail, the exhibitors were very respectful towards railway officials, particularly station masters. My uncle was not only given a free pass for the family but was treated as a VIP and the show started only with his consent. The viewers were seated on durries spread on the ground, but a couple of benches and a few chairs had been arranged to seat us, the sarpanch of the village and the headmaster of the school. The movie was Baagbaan, which had been released in cities about five years earlier. Baagbaan was a hit of its time but there is a story about the hero that reflects the conditions under which movie artistes worked in those days. The film’s hero Nandrekar was on contract with Prabhat Studios and had worked in Baagbaan without taking permission from his studio. His employers tried to stop exhibition of Baagbaan on this ground but the producers of Baagbaan obtained relief from the court. In later years, we saw Telugu movie Chenchu Lakshmi in a touring talkie in Jami, my grandfather’s village near Vijayanagaram.
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More by : Ramarao Annavarapu
|Thank you very much KL Pande for your comments. Writing a book may be a tall order but I intend to continue the narration to subsequent years. Let’s see how it pans out.|
|Thank you Mr Swaminathan. It is doubly reassuring and pleasing when someone outside the family and friends circle expresses his appreciation for one's work. As I continue my narration further, I am sure you will find yourself related in one way or another. Thanks again.|
|Thank you very much Krishna. Films and film songs were Indeed a part of our lives. They continue to dominate the culture development of young minds today.|
Glad you liked my piece
|Sir, this is a wonderful write up. It can surely take the shape of a book. Please do elaborate it to 50s, 60s and later years. It will be a book of memoirs about Cinema and its music and it will be a book that has not been written till now. Regards|
|The songs and names and movies are older than my memory goes. But, nicely written with a feeling of personal touch with each event and song. Very nice!|
|This is a very well documented and well focussed narration of your recollection of a single dimension of our Indian culture depicted in our Indian movies and songs. |
Your write up coincided with the timing of my own thought on the possibility of reconstructing the Indian society and its culture from the Indian movies.
Your blog brought back my own childhood memories of my eldest brother Ravindranath singing Pankaj Mallick and KL Saigal’s songs so melodiously during my childhood.