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Why did Vasant Desai turn to music from acting? – Death anniversary special

On the famed music composer’s 42nd death anniversary, we collect a few special anecdotes from his career that highlighted his modesty.

Sonal Pandya

The talented music man, Vasant Desai, was immersed in cinema from a young age and was part of one of the most important studios of early Indian cinema — Prabhat Film Company. He joined the studio at 16, wanting to become an actor. But he became filmmaker and actor V Shantaram’s office boy instead.

That went on for eight months. Slowly, Shantaram began to involve the young man in different aspects of filmmaking, from scripting to editing.

Desai’s nephew, Vikas Desai, a filmmaker himself, recalled his Kaka’s (paternal uncle's) journey, “From the age of 16 and a half, he became [the go-to guy on the floors of Prabhat]. So when he started getting his pay, it was from the acting department in Kolhapur.”

Vasant Desai and his enduring music – Birth anniversary special

Morning to night, there was no spare moment for the young Vasant. He was learning and absorbing everything from his surroundings.

When Vasant Desai was 21, Prabhat shifted to Pune and so did the hub of moviemaking. “Kaka, in the morning, he was a Mughal, after lunch, a Maratha, any role that came his way. Mr Shantaram had his eye on him,” Vikas said.

Vikas shared a priceless photo with Cinestaan.com. It has Vasant Desai in a costume sitting with the musicians at Prabhat.

Photo courtesy: Vikas Desai

“[The photo] is completely staged," Vikas said. “Kaka is on the xylophone, the vibrophone in full makeup [and costume].”

Vasant Desai came for the photograph directly from the sets. The music composer Keshavrao Bhole can be seen in the foreground wearing a suit.

Further, Vikas said, “Any new instrument went through ‘Desai’ [the name every called him by]. He used to open it, check it, then master it and then tell people what it is. There was immense faith that these people started having in him.”

He would have probably stuck with acting until he was replaced by Shahu Modak as hero in Shantaram’s Manoos (1939). Years later, Modak continued to take credit for turning Vasant Desai towards the path of music for a career.

As a music composer, Desai never sought out fame and credit. He did it all out of his love and devotion for music.

“He was a pioneer in background music," Vikas revealed. "He had a system which he had worked out of how to do it, which we still follow. People don’t realize that that’s the standard system which he must have started. Very few people know he has done background music for OP Nayyar and C Ramchandra, without getting [credit].”

In fact, Desai is probably the only composer whose films and their music went to Cannes twice, once in 1952 and again in 1956. The first film was Shantaram’s Amar Bhoopali (1951), the second was a short film by documentary filmmaker Fali Bilimoria, Growing Coconuts. Both were shown in competition at the famous festival.

Desai was also instrumental in introducing new voices. For Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi (1971), he was inspired to look beyond the usual singers, especially the ubiquitous Lata Mangeshkar, for the film’s new actress, Jaya Bachchan (then Bhaduri).

Vikas explained why. “Coming from the institute [the Film and Television Institute of India], Jaya was junior to us. She used to come to Mumbai for her auditions, meet Vijay Anand and [other directors] and she used to stay with us. So he was familiar with Jaya.

"When Guddi was announced with Jaya in the titular role, he said, ‘How can I use Lata Mangeshkar for this girl? Such a fresh girl, unknown, there hasn’t been anyone like her. Apne ghar ki larki hai [She is one of our own].’ So he auditioned, he even got Parveen Sultana one day. He was not getting anyone till one day his tabalchi [tabla player] said, ‘There is this girl in Chembur, why don’t you hear her?’ And that was Vani [Jairam] and that was the voice for Jaya.”

The famous song ‘Bole Re Papihara’ went through one month of rehearsals under Desai and was okayed in one take at the recording studio. It became the singer’s breakthrough in the music industry.