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Hemant Kumar: The first Indian music composer to go international

The renowned singer scored the music for Conrad Rooks’s English adaptation of the Hermann Hesse novel, Siddhartha.

Sonal Pandya

The singer-composer Hemant Kumar began his musical journey scoring for Bengali films in 1940. He became a singer of choice for many, and composed music for around 55 Hindi films. Although not as popular as he was in the 1950s and 1960s, Kumar continued with his compositions till the late 1980s. One film, in particular, from his resume stands out – Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha (1972).

The late American film director Conrad Rooks made only two films before retiring permanently from the business. His debut was with Chappaqua (1966), an autobiographical look at his experiences using drugs during the decade. A few years later, he decided to take up Hermann Hesse’s influential 1922 novel, Siddhartha, for the big screen.

After watching Shashi Kapoor in The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Rooks cast Kapoor to play the protagonist in his film. Some other early cast choices were Waheeda Rehman for the role of Kamla, later played by Simi Garewal, and Amitabh Bachchan as Govinda, but newcomer Romesh Sharma went on to make his debut with film instead.

While he scored fewer films in the 1970s, Hemant Kumar embarked upon film direction along with production for the Bengali film Anindita (1971). While it wasn’t as successful as he would have like it to be, his music for the film was some of his best. He followed that up with a Hollywood assignment, one of the first music directors from the industry to sing and score music internationally.

According to Kumar’s daughter, Rano Mukherjee, actor Simi Garewal recommended his name to Rooks as he was unaware who to approach for the music. After production ended, Hemant Kumar and Conrad Rooks became good friends.

Kumar composed and sang his Bengali compositions for the film’s soundtracks. Two of the songs ‘Pather Klanti Bhule’ and ‘O Nodire Ekti Kautha’ were previously used but Kumar made them new again in Siddhartha. His music perfectly complemented the mood and atmosphere of Siddhartha’s changing priorities in life.

The Hindi-dubbed version of Siddhartha was a big hit in India, bolstered by the familiar locales and sensual content. The film's overseas reception was mixed; not many were enthused about its eventual message. The New York Times review stated, “Mr. Rooks has resisted any temptation to employ the fractured style of his first film, "Chappaqua," and instead has made a small-scale "Ten Commandments" for flower children.”

While acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “I was expecting to emerge from the theater in a sort of mild metaphysical glow; instead, I felt like seeing another movie.”