Directed by Vijay Bhatt
This is a lovely story based on legend which was based on fact. When Baiju (Bharat Bhushan) is a young boy, his father, a classical/folk musician, is killed (in a scene that appears to be more of an accidental trampling than murder). Part of the reason for the circumstances that led to his death is the law that no one can sing within so much distance of the royal musician Tansen. The only way to be able to sing around Tansen is to challenge him to a singing duel; the one who loses dies, and the one who wins becomes the royal musician.
Since Baiju is now an orphan, another musician takes pity on him and takes him to a village to raise him. Baiju grows up with a village girl, Gauri (Meena Kumari), as his close friend; they have a call and response melody that they sing to each other based on the call people give across the river to the village that lets Gauri’s father know someone wants to be rowed across. Two things originally complicate their happy union and Baiju’s career as a musician: Gauri has been promised to another man since she was a girl, and Baiju cannot forget his grudge against Tansen (whenever Tansen is mentioned, Baiju’s face freezes, his eyes fix long and hard, and he seethes the name, “Taaanseeen.”). It is up to the village to decide if Gauri will be released from her betrothed, and events seem to be moving in that direction when Baiju saves the village from an attack by a band of vigilantes led (rather astoundingly) by a woman. The plot further complicates, and I won’t give it all away, but it’s always twisting and bringing in something new. The climax of the movie is the musical duel between Baiju and Tansen. When the winner is decided, the loser declares, “You did not win today; music won”—a sentiment that should be well-remembered in terms of most professions.
Song Highlights: Naushad pulls out all the stops to create believable music that feels organic (the call and response across the river), folk, and classical. Most Western ears will be entirely untrained in any type of Indian music, yet Naushad is still able to bring a distinction and meaning to all these types. To promote this believability (I can’t say authenticity, since I know it isn’t “real” classical music), actual Indian classical singers were used as playback singers for the musical duel.
Tidbits: The movie is in black and white and obviously shot on sound stages, yet the intensity of the acting performances brings enough vibrancy that these things hardly register. This was one of Meena’s first starring roles as an adult, and she brings her whole presence to the character, even if it is not as finely tuned as some of her later performances—her eyes speak volumes, even if her head movements feel staged.
Be on guard for some bad translation work, which sometimes results in quite the poetic phrase: “I want to singe in that flame.” Most of the time a viewer can overlook the translation work, since that’s a common issue, except when the lines are obviously stilted, such as, “He’s become mentally deranged!”
Rating: The movie has what I think is an unnecessarily tragic ending (i.e., it was easily preventable and not earned by the events leading up to it). In spite of this, it is very appealing cross-culturally—which is in part due to the legendary origin of the plot.
Library Collection: An excellent choice for a historical collection; it is significant in Bollywood history and it is a fine piece of storytelling.