From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
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# Subject: Anil Biswas - some questions
# Posted by: Kalyan Kolachala
# Author: Vish Krishnan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Anil Biswas - Some Questions
Good deal. I am sure you will have enough challenges using up the time at your disposal in the most interesting, enlightening, optimal value-add, entertaining etc etc way. Let me try and make it a little worse for you by adding a million of my own questions.
About 18 months back, I had started writing about the little big man of Indian music, but now that has become one of several abandoned projects. Be that as it may, even as Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Co have documented the master's work, their approach has been somewhat high level.
The following is just a very quick summary of what I can remember sitting here at work on what is turning out to be a rather slow Monday. Let us see how this evolves. The items herein are somewhat triggered by my own curiosities about an age gone by. So, onto a quick summary.
Anil Biswas (that is the real name) was born on July 7 1914 in the little town of Barisal (now in Bangladesh). Father (Jagadish Chandra Biswas) was probably a government employee, not very high profile. The youngster showed tremendous talent at the tender age of 4. It was his mother's idea to put him through serious musical training. Don't know about his gurus, but the classical and folk influence in his work is clear. I won't belabour that point. Like SO many of our Hindi movie composers, the master was an accomplished tabla player (Dattaram, Sailesh Mukherji, SD Batish, Vasant Desai??) and singer. Hardly a single neighbourhood music show went by without featuring the youngster's talents. Through his childhood and early teen years, the little man worked with amateur theatre groups - and freedom fighters. It is no longer on record how many times he went to jail or how many tortures he was subjected to.
After his father died (1930??), the teenager came over to what is now India. It was probably a steamer ride up the Poddo (Padma). With probably less than Rs. 5 in his pocket (a rather princely sum in those days, I imagine, but still ..), the 16-year old parked himself at the Hullaarhaat Post Office, slept on the floor of the Post Office hall, worked as a coolie, earned enough money to buy himself a ticket to Calcutta, and then one day, landed up at Pannalal Ghosh's house. Would he not remember that? This is not at all unlike Naushad Ali's description of sleeping out on the streets of Dadar (Bombay).
Now why did he actually leave Barisal? Was it a family situation? I am not suggesting you ask these questions, but I will remain curious. And where was sister Parul at this time? Back in Barisal? Was it his involvement with the freedom movement that forced him to disappear?
Now, was Pannalal Ghosh's family known to the Biswas's ? Or was it just another one of these chance findings? At any rate, I am convinced that Anil Da and Dr. Ghosh (how old was he then?) hit it off well. A few years later, the flutemeister would realize his ambition for doing movie music, and this emaciated but resolute 16-year old would play a part in it.
More than a 1000 miles away, Ardeshir Irani was getting ready to make history with AALAM AARA. He had unknowingly retained as an extra, among a horde of other non-entities, a little village runaway from Billimoria, Gujarat. I am sure regional affiliations had played a part here, but when Irani was putting out his quota of silents like MEWAAR NO MAWAALI (1927), he did not see 20-year old Ramjaankhaan Mehboob Khaan to be of any consequence to the movie industry, or to anything else for that matter. But things were to change, slowly. Irani disappeared from the scene, slowly and gracefully. Several of his students moved on into talkie studios chiefly Sagar Movietone (and another one whose name I cannot recall). Mehboob Khan tagged along, this time for more than bit parts. He had his eyes set on more glorious pursuits.
In 1930, a 16-year old Anil Biswas got his first assignment waiting tables (probably not even that - bus boy was more the likely job) at some local "mishti" and chaa stall. It was here that he met a magician who was well connected into the Dept of Education (some Rai Bahadur Agornath ???), and through that contact, found himself a slot in the concert circuit. I can just see him holding the listeners spellbound. What kind of singing was that? Bengali folk? Rabindra Sangeet? Nazrul Geet? After all, here is where Anil Da also met Kazi Nazrul Islam, and that connection got him Rs. 5 on a piecemeal basis for lyrics and music. The employer: the Megaphone Company of Calcutta. Wouldn't it be fun to just sit there and listen to Anil Da talk about those times and those grand people!
Soon thereafter, Anil Da became a full-time employee of Rangmahal theatre where he was IT. He became identified with singing, lyrics, music, orchestration, acting, dialogues - all of it. That is how he spent 1931-34. Perhaps his dream job it was. Worth exploring, definitely.
Even with its proximity to New Theatres', the Rangmahal stint offered no documented opportunity for Anil Da to work with his Tollygunge neighbours. Or did it? It almost seems as though the two were independently working on similar projects. Orchestration was Pankaj Mullick's favourite research area, and Anil Da is credited with the creation of what may regarded as the first true Indian orchestra (12 pieces ? Grand !). One would have liked to have at least one KL Saigal song composed by Anil Da. Once he came away to Bombay, the New Theatres' world became a bit distant.
In the end, it was moviemaker Hiren Bose (how does he connect into the New Theatres scheme?) who urged the 20 year old to move on to Bombay, and get a real job! All credit to visionary financier Ram Daryani whose Eastern Art productions became the next stop for this phenomenon from Barisal. I think the song "tere poojan ko bhagwaan banaa man mandir aalishaan" was the one that propelled the singer/composer into headlines. Movie: BHAARAT KI BETI. Probably a Ram Daryani production - not sure. Does Anil Da have a recording of it? Will he sing it just once? Just for old times' sake?
At this time, Sagar Movietone was fading away (again, I don't have the chronology right), and was due for a merger with National Studios, an upcoming group of studio employers. Ram Daryani, money-man and talent scout, was very highly respected for his discerning eye. He was also very well connected.
And all of a sudden, Anil Biswas was working for a major production studio (National/ Sagar) under the watchful and supportive tutelage of Ashok Ghosh and Pransukh Nayak, the composer duo that was to National/Sagar what Tembe/Bhole/Phulambrikar were to Kolharpur Cinetone and Prabhat, and what Mullick/Boral/Bhattacharya were to New Theatres.
A hard-working and violently ambitious Mehboob Khan was also on the payroll assisting directors and others on and off-stage.
So now we have assistant composer and handy-man Anil Biswas working not far away from assistant director and handy-man Mehboob Khan, both motivated by the exact same goal in abstraction. Some day, they would be at the helm of things. Perhaps Anil Da's goal had a gentle, well-rounded sophistication to it, and by contrast, perhaps Mehboob's brash and uncouth ambition unflinchingly stepped on others as necessary. What did the two have in common? What drew them and kept them together? What in heaven's name? Anil Da must have adored the "mawaali", a term he affectionately directed at Mehboob every time the director addressed him as "bangaali". Otherwise, how does one explain this friendship and one of the strongest professional associations known in the history of Indian cinema?
Now I don't remember this very well. The first couple of movies were the work of Ashok Ghosh and Mr Nayak (Manmohan?? etc), but Anil Da's first headline venture was (someone help me here) DHARM KI DEVI??? Something like that. And not too long thereafter, Mehboob came along with his first solo assignment (was that Manmohan?). The interesting movie here is JAAGIRDAAR, the first Mehboob movie to feature Anil Da's music. And off they went.
Together, Anil Da and Mehboob launched some big names. Surendranath (BA LLB) was all at sea with Bombay cinema, and they gave him every opportunity to build a nest. Others, perhaps not topnotch singers, but still making an impact, were Bibbo, Manju, Arun Kumar, Wahidan Bai (Nimmi's mother), Jyoti (Wahidan's sister who later started her own studio called Jyoti Pictures) and a host of names not shown here, all thrived under this sanguine partnership that was still a good 4-5 years away from summary termination. What were those days like?
The best was yet to come. Other, much better performers, like Sardar Akhtar (later Mehboob Khan's wife), a beautiful star Nalini Jaywant by name, Akhtaribai Faizabaadi (later Begum Akhtar) perhaps all sang their first movie song for the same partnership. Wasn't this the Golden Era! Does it get better? Where have the likes of AURAT, ROTI and BAHEN gone?
In 1941-42, freelancers' disease caught the Bombay movie industry in its grip. A few other events took place too. National was shaky, Devika Rani was losing interest in things Indian, and Saraswati Devi was packing her bags (leaving a few job opportunities open at the risk-ridden Bombay Talkie), Mehboob would simply not work any longer for anyone but himself, and Master Haider had already defined the Hindi movie song for us. Competition was at its height, and the fundamental recipe for box-office successes tacitly accepted music as its key ingredient. Playback singing was on. Suraiyya made sure of that.
Mehboob asked the bangaali to join him in his new production venture (Mehboob Studios), and was shocked at the answer. Anil Da (politely, I am sure) declined. Why? At any rate, the master movie director was slighted, and never raised the question again. He struggled to find his musical base through NAJMA, TAQDEER, and HUMAAYUN. He had to go through Rafique Ghaznavi and Ghulam Haider to get to his nirvana.
For Anil Da, it was now Bombay Talkie. He is probably less shy now about who really did the music for BASANT, a movie credited to brother-in-law Pannalal Ghosh. Great movie, great songs. In particular, did 9-year old Mumtaz Jehan Begum know at that time that she was not going to be a singer after all? Who composed and conducted those 2 beautiful songs for BASANT? Later, did Madhu Bala ever discuss the BASANT items with Anil Da? Those 2 songs are a collector's item now.
KISMAT is unparallelled in the history of box-office cinema. How does the maestro remember Amirbai Karnataki?
And all along, was he watching the Ghulam Haider revolution? Did he ever have an opportunity to work with Noorjehan? When was the first time he heard about, and heard this diminutive rage called Lata Dinanath Mangeshkar?
Here is where the master turned truly freelance. Although he did a few more movies with Bombay Talkie (JWAAR BHAATA, MILAN aka NAUKAA DOOBI, a Tagore story), he was now available to the industry at large. PEHLI NAZAR is one example of a musical success outside the Bombay Talkie scheme (I am not sure who the production company is).
Also interesting is the musical work he has done with Ashalata Biswas, his first wife. How many songs has she sung? I know there is at least one duet with Lata.
I guess it was just another normal day with nature doing its thing when Bikram Kapoor, a character actor from the Bombay Talkie group, went to visit Ninu Majumdar (a strong composer who was also assitant to Anil Da) took his daughter Meena Kapoor along, and that was that.
Where and how did the two meet?
When and how did he meet Lata Mangeshkar? What did he teach her, and in turn, what kind of inspiration did she become for his music? What, in his opinion, are his best Lata songs? And about Asha, she did dominate one of his movies (SANSKAAR??). Was that different, somehow?
The post-1948 Lata age, while never well-enough documented, is at least discussed a lot. But what is not discussed much is the maestro's partnership with K.A. Abbas, starting with RAAHI. My list of favourites puts RAAHI way up on top (if not at the top). In fact, I would suggest that it is distinctly more honest than MADHUMATI in its Assamiya presentation. Other than Hemant, Lata and Meena Kapoor, is it not Ira Majumdar and then Anil Da himself singing? I suppose Ira Majumdar is related to assistant music director Ninu Majumdar. I am also sure Meena Kapoor will remember "chaand so gayaa, taare so gaye", a most wonderful lul- laby, with nostalgic affection.
Then there is the songless MUNNA, and yet again, PARDESI. Knowing fully well that Anil Da did not have an opportunity to work with Noorjehan, it is all the more fortuitous that when the melody queen returned to India for the 2-day concert event at Bombay's Shanmukhananda Hall (Feb 10/11 1982), Meena Kapoor was one of the guest singers. A good friend of mine was at the hall, and according to him, while Lata brought the ceiling down with "aayega aane waala" and Noorjehan took care of the rest by her latter-day singing of JUGNU and ANMOL GHADI, it was Meena Kapoor's "rasiyaa re man basiyaa re" that brought tears to the discerning listener's eyes. If she is there, you have to ask her about that. These were the gems of the KA Abbas-Anil Biswas partnership. And finally, CHAAR DIL CHAAR RAAHEIN had her singing the savagely sophisticated "kabhi to sudh letaa jaa". Even Meena Kumari, normally choreographically challenged, comes alive with Meena Kapoor's singing.
Through the '50s, the master had his share of box-office headlines. It is so easy to get non-mainstream with people like Anil Da. But even the better knowns e.g. TARAANA, AARZOO, AARAAM etc were great music providers.
How many movies did he do under the pen-name "Haribhai"? Then he has some partnerships - Chitalkar and Hansraj Behl come to mind. In general, which composers stand out in his mind as great music makers? And how can I resist asking about his view of Sir Salil Chowdhury's work? Did they ever collaborate on any project?
ANGULIMAAL is way up there too. Whatever happened to Meena Kapoor's "moray chanchal nainaa", one of two times the maestro adapted Rabindra Sangeet for Hindi movie purposes? Are there others? This one is better known to Rabindra Sangeet listeners as "madhu gandhe bharaa...". The other one, as I recall, is "raahi matwaale". Which brings us to all sorts of questions about Suraiyya, and her work in GAJRE, JEET, WAARIS all from the previous couple of decades.
Has he adapted any of Kazi Nazrul Islam's work? I don't recall anything offhand, but SD Burman borrowed quite a bit ("ghaayal hiraniyaa", "main albeli" (BUZDIL), "jaane kyaa toone kahi" etc) as did Sir Salil ("roj akeli aaye"). Of all Hindi movie composers, Anil Da was probably the closest to the great poet and patriot?
And what about Bengali movies? It is not entirely surprising, but even so, how did it come to be that he drifted almost completely away from Bengali cinema? Perhaps there were less than 5 in his Bengali repertoire. Even that many? We should probably find out.
The 10 odd movies in the '60s were ALL remarkable, without exception. I shouldn't say ALL. Haven't ever heard any songs from HUMEIN KHELNE DO or RAJU AUR GANGAARAAM. But LUCKY NUMBER, THE RETURN OF MR SUPERMAN and one other all had wonderful music and singing (particularly by Meena Kapoor). Even here, as the Lata- featured movies like SAUTELA BHAI and CHHOTI CHHOTI BAATEIN became more popular (not by much though), Anil Da's other entries for the '60s were lost, hopefully not forever.
It has been more than 30 years since he left Bombay cinema. He was quite busy until the mid-'80s. I don't believe his work has been well documented. Any non-film releases ? Meena Kapoor has surely got some cassettes out. And what about his work with the Indian Films Division, or Doordarshan (besides HUM LOG)?
In July 1994, it was announced that the maestro would be awarded the Lata Mangeshkar award for the year. He must have come down to Indore in December the same year. Perhaps Meena Kapoor was up there on stage at the Rabindra Naatya Graha. Perhaps she sang.
The grandmaster laid the foundation of orchestration in Indian movies, mentored an entire generation of master composers, helped guide Lata's voice into the dulcet tone that one uses to define good singing, and God alone knows what else.
Have a great time.