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Pankaj Mullick death anniversary: Kolkata once saw two big film music collaborations

Here is why Pankaj Mullick's association with RC Boral and KL Saigal was historic in nature.

Pankaj Mullick and Kundan Lal Saigal

Keyur Seta

Pankaj Kumar Mullick, better known simply as Pankaj Mullick, was a music composer who was greatly appreciated for his works in both Bengali and Hindi cinema. He began his illustrious career in the early 1930s and continued till the mid-1950s.

Mullick is known for his professional equation and personal friendship with the great Kundan Lal Saigal aka KL Saigal, a prolific actor, singer and director. As a singer, Saigal recorded some gems with Mullick. "Some of his best songs are with Mullick, like ‘So Ja Rajkumari’, ‘Do Naina Matware’, ‘Ek Bangla Bane Nyara’ and ‘Duniya Rang Rangeeli'," film music historian Pavan Jha said in a conversation with Cinestaan.com.

On Mullick’s 39th death anniversary today (19 February), we decided to explore his association with Saigal and how he made a mark in the nascent Indian film industry through composer Raichand Boral.

"RC Boral was a year senior [to Mullick]," Jha said. "He had auditioned Mullick for All India Radio way back in the 1920s." Later, Boral and Mullick worked together for a while. "Mullick composed a lot of songs with RC Boral in which you can't distinguish their individual contributions," Jha said. "Only when they started scoring music independently could you distinguish their work. [But] though Boral was senior, you cannot deny Mullick’s contribution [in their joint compositions]."

The Boral-Mullick combination provided a unique musical package. "Boral was well-versed with Western orchestration. Mullick’s specialization was Bengali folk, including Rabindra sangeet and light music which was mostly played on the radio. These elements made Boral and Mullick's music a complete package. Maybe the Western touch in Mullick’s compositions was Boral’s influence," Jha said.

Their combination gave rise to something historic as far as Indian film music was concerned. "It was path-breaking," Jha said. "This was to be the foundation for Indian film music for the next 100 years. Even the song structure today has its foundation in Boral-Mullick’s music. Later, the rhythm of a railway train and chariot was brought [into song] for the first time by Mullick."

Mullick’s other great and memorable association was with KL Saigal. Just as Boral had once auditioned him, it was now Mullick's turn to audition Saigal. "Saigal was auditioned by Mullick, who found something different in him because it wasn’t a typical Bengali voice," Jha said. "Before him, in New Theatres, more or less, only Bengali voices were heard. I think it was ‘Mohabbat Ke Aansoo’ which he made Saigal sing. But they tasted success for the first time in Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933). Its songs had Urdu shayari and the impact of Parsi stage. Saigal was also the first non-Bengali to sing Rabindra sangeet."

Soon enough, Saigal had another achievement to his name. "His voice had a purbi folk touch and he also sang Ghalib’s ghazals. It is said that Mullick brought Ghalib for the first time to Hindi films with ‘Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil’. Saigal is considered the best when it comes to singing Ghalib’s ghazals." 

Veteran theatre artiste Dr M Sayeed Alam is known for his biographical play on Saigal titled KL Saigal. During his research, he came across a moving incident that spoke volumes of Mullick’s admiration for Saigal. 

“Mullick was supposed to sing a couple of songs in the Bengali film, Devdas (1935). But he argued with Boral and made Saigal sing them. He felt that Saigal’s voice would fit [the songs] better. And since Saigal didn’t know Bengali, Mullick trained him. This is a rare example. Such instances cannot be seen in today’s times," Alam said. 

Alam also said that along with Mullick, other Bengali artistes like Pahari Sanyal and KC Dey also promoted Saigal. "It was the greatness of Bangla artistes of that time that they gave space to a Punjabi like Saigal, that too to sing Bangla songs," he said. "And these people learnt ghazal singing from him."

But there came a time when Saigal separated from Mullick as he decided to relocate to Bombay. Jha said, "Saigal left Kolkata for Mumbai as he got more lucrative offers from the likes of Bombay Talkies. Mullick never left New Theatres. He stayed on in Kolkata."

However, this wasn’t the end of the Mullick-Saigal collaboration. "In one film, Mullick recorded the songs in his voice since Saigal wasn’t there. But New Theatres only wanted Saigal. So, Mullick specially brought Saigal to Kolkata and he recorded the songs. Mullick released Saigal’s versions."

Mullick displayed true friendship through this action of his. "He released his own versions only after Saigal’s death. That was the kind of respect between them. Mullick and Saigal were very good friends. Mullick had a big role in shaping Saigal’s voice and his career in films," said Jha. 

Among Mullick’s enduring contributions is his composition of Mahishasura Mardini, which has been an integral part of Durga Pujo in Kolkata ever since. "It is still played at 4 am every year," said the historian. "Mullick himself played it till the 1970s. His composed version has been played ever since."