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Tagore's eternal music and its influence on cinema – Death anniversary special

Cinema offers probably the ideal medium to render a Tagore literary piece for the consumption of a multinational audience, and it hasn't failed to reach out to Gurudev every now and again for musical inspiration.

Shoma A Chatterji

Rabindranath Tagore's works — poetry, prose, music and song — offer many possibilities to the creative artiste to translate, narrate, interpret, relocate and contemporize through and within the framework of cinema.

Gurudev's works are universal in terms of time, space, emotions and human relationships. In a sense, the universal language of cinema offers an ideal medium to render a Tagore literary piece for the consumption of an international audience.

But few are aware of the deep influence Tagore’s music has had on Indian film music, both Bengali and Hindi. Viswabharati, the university he founded, held the copyright on his works after the poet passed away on 7 August 1941 and, therefore, every producer, director and music director had to seek its permission to use his works for their films.

Anil Biswas openly said he “pocketed” many Tagore melodies for his compositions because he considered Tagore his father and sons had the right to “steal” from the father. But otherwise Viswabharati did not permit any innovation or improvisation in the original compositions.

Once the copyright expired in 2001, Tagore became a fluid concept for adaptation, transliteration of his works and, most importantly, his music and songs, at least in Bengali cinema. Today, it is difficult to find a Bengali film without a Tagore song either in the original, in improvised form, or in fusion.

Recent Hindi cinema has not used Tagore’s music much, but one hopes it will soon be rediscovered the way Sufi music found a new identity in some films even when the content had nothing to do with Sufism.

Rabindra sangeet is a distinct genre of music. Tagore drew from all schools of music to create his own — Baul compositions sung by wandering minstrels, Western compositions based on symphony and harmonization of several scales, Hindustani classical ragas, and even Carnatic ragas that have now become special areas of research and exploration by Tagore scholars and exponents of Rabindra sangeet.

Tagore's early creations bear the influence of kirtan and Ramprasadi tunes popular in Kolkata, where the poet resided in the early phase of his life. In the following years, from his travels through Europe, Tagore picked up the flavour of the music of the West and blended it into his compositions. He also composed songs on the love of Radha and Krishna in Brijbhasha.

His songs are compiled in the Geetabitan. The three volumes of Geetabitan contain 2,232 songs, classified into sections representative of every human emotion from love (prem) to Nature (prakriti) to devotion (pooja) and so on. 'Aamaar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomaye Bhalobashi [My Golden Bengal, I love you]' is the national anthem of Bangladesh. "The strains of his 'Ekla Cholo Re' made popular at Gandhi’s prayer meetings still receive spontaneous response across the country,” says Dr Reba Som, erstwhile director of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Kolkata, and author of The Singer and His Songs on Tagore’s songs.

Tagore’s music, songs and poetry have been used generously by both mainstream and off-mainstream filmmakers in Bengal and Mumbai. Of the 2000+ songs he wrote and composed, at least 1,000 have been used in Indian cinema.

Hindi cinema has had its interpretations and adaptations of Tagore. Examples range from Kabuliwala (1961) produced under Bimal Roy's banner to the adaptation of Char Adhyay by Kumar Shahani in Hindi in 1997.

Pankaj Mullick for the first time rummaged through the treasure trove of Rabindra sangeet for adaptable Tagore melodies and tried to enrich film music with it. Under his baton, Kanan Devi sang Tagore’s songs, ‘Aaj Shobar Range Rang Meshaate Hobe’ and ‘Taar Bidaaibelar Maalakhani’ in New Theatres' Bengali film Mukti (1937), while Mullick himself rendered his own musical composition of Tagore’s poem ‘Diner Sheshe’ with the poet’s permission.

For Arzoo, the Hindi version of Mukti, Lucknowi saheb, an Urdu literary figure, captured the essence of Tagore’s poem ‘Diner Sheshe’ in his lyrics ‘Kaun Desh Hai Jana Babu’. The lyrics were masterfully tuned and sung by Pankaj Mullick.

After Mullick, eminent music directors like SD Burman, Anil Biswas and Salil Chowdhury continued to dig into Rabindra sangeet for inspiration and often came up with unforgettable melodies bearing the great poet-musician’s stamp. Sometimes they pinched just a musical phrase from Tagore, at other times the whole song.

Inspired creations include such all-time hits by SD Burman as ‘Tere Mere Milan Ki Yeh Raina’ (Tagore’s ‘Jodi Tare Nai Chini Go Sheki’), ‘Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya’ (‘Rodon Bhara e Basonoto’) and ‘Nain Deewane’ (‘Shedin Dujone’) as well as Anil Biswas’s ‘Rahi Matwale’ (‘Orey Grihobashi'), Salil Chowdhury’s ‘Saawan Ki Raaton Mein’ (‘Jete Jete Akla Pathe’), and Kishore Kumar’s ‘Panthi Hoon Mai Uss Pathka’ (‘Pather Shesh Kothai’).

Did these borrowings amount to plagiarism? Tushar Bhatia revealed how, when Anil Biswas was once accused of stealing Tagore's melodies, he retorted laughing, ‘Toh kya hua? Maine apne baap ke pocket se hi toh churaya [So what? I only stole from my father].

Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) made telling use of a scene from the Tagore dance drama Chandalika to bring across the acceptance of an ‘untouchable’ by Ananda, the Buddhist monk, to juxtapose this against the ‘untouchable’ Sujata. Sujata also used the original tune of a Tagore song, 'Ekoda Tumi Priye', for a song with Hindi lyrics but not a translation of the Bengali original. Musical adaptations were rife in Hindi cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

Satyajit Ray broke the unwritten rule of choosing noted Tagore singers like Hemanta Mukherjee, known to Hindi film fans as Hemant Kumar, and Debabrata Biswas by choosing Kishore Kumar to sing 'Ami Chini Go Chini Tomaare' in Charulata (1964) and 'Bidhir Bandhon Bandhbe Tumi' for Ghare Baire (1984), both based on Tagore’s classics. Ray also used the tappa-style number 'Baaje Koruno Shoorey' in Monihara from Teen Kanya (1961).

For the strikingly dramatic use of Tagore compositions in cinema, the credit goes to Ritwik Ghatak for Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961). Subarnarekha (1965) had the lovely grassroots ode to Nature that went 'Aaj Dhaaner Khetey Roudra Chayyaye' while Meghe Dhaka Tara had the moving 'Je Raate Mor Duarguli Bhanglo Jhorey'.

Ghatak said, “I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all of my feelings from long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.”

In both Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak used Tagore songs at climactic moments to express the joy and sorrow of the post-Independence Bengali woman who must bear the burden of rebuilding the family in the aftermath of Partition.

Rituparno Ghosh made aesthetic and meaningful use of Tagore’s songs and poetry in many of his films. In Chokher Bali (2003) and Noukadubi (2011), Ghosh successfully adapted the many worlds of Tagore in a manner that reflects our past filtered into our present. In Naukadubi, the music imaginatively and aesthetically replays the varied Tagore themes to fit into the different moods of the film. In Asukh (1998), he made situational use of the song 'Deep Nibhe Gaachey Momo', a very slow number among Tagore’s compositions that exudes a mood of sadness and loss.

Tapan Sinha made three films based on Tagore’s works. These were Kabuliwala (1957), Kshudita Pashan (1960) and Atithi (1966). In his other films, he used Tagore songs often and to good effect. Strains of a popular Tagore song, 'Kothao Amar Hairya Jabaar Nei Mana, Mone Mone', forms the theme music of Kabuliwala.

In Bicharak (1959), directed by Prabhat Mukherjee, based on a Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya novel, Mukherjee used two rare Tagore songs. One was the theme song, 'Aamaar Bichar Tumi Kawro', used as leitmotif, effectively expressing the inner conflict that never stops haunting the hero after his wife's death in a fire. The other, 'Aamaar Mallika Boney', used as playback within a flashback sequence, underscores the bubbly nature of the second woman in the hero’s life, juxtaposed against the solemn, serious and traditional nature of the first wife and, later, the second woman who becomes his new wife, now silent, sad and suppressed.

Tarun Majumder demonstrated his rich sense of cinema through his use of the Tagore song in many of his films. His recent film Alo (2003) has seven beautifully rendered and imaginatively positioned Tagore songs structured into the cinematographic space of the film. In Nimantran (1971), Majumder used Tagore’s 'Purano Shei Diner Kawtha Bhulbi Ki Re Hai' as the theme music. Another Tagore song, 'Doorey Kothai, Doorey Doorey', was placed beautifully in a picnic sequence to establish the loneliness of the young girl.

Aparna Sen has also used some select Tagore songs in some of her films, mainly Paromitar Ek Din (2000).

Anjan Dutt, who is better known in West Bengal as a singer, music composer and lyricist than as an actor and director, has been freely playing around with Tagore songs and music through fusion of Tagore’s original numbers with his own creations or some Western fusions. His Bong Connection (2006) had a beautiful Tagore number belted out by Shreya Ghosal. The original number 'Pagla Hawar Badol Dine' was fused with the refain ooh-la-la-ooh-la-la- to work out a beautiful symphony.

Rajesh Roshan and Amar Haldipur chose the same song in Partho Ghosh’s Yugpurush (1998). That song, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri, opened with the line 'Bandhan Khula Panchhi Uda' picturized on a happy, cheerful, dancing Manisha Koirala while the slightly off-track Nana Patekar watches her with confusion and wonder.

There is another Tagore number, 'Tumi Kemon Korey Gaan Koro Hey Gooni' which Majrooh Sultanpuri changed to 'Koi Jaise Mere Dilka' sung by Asha Bhosle keeping the spirit of the original intact.

Mainstream Hindi cinema, long before it assumed the identity of 'Bollywood', offered many examples of films inspired by Tagore’s works and generously drew from his music, song and poetry. The credit for this goes to Pankaj Mullick. Among the earliest Hindi hits he created were – (a) 'Hare Re Re Re Re', (b) 'Phool Kahe Dhanya Hoon Main', (c) 'Yaad Aayen Ke Na Aaye Tumhari' and (d) 'Pran Chahe Naina Na Chahe' (a private disc). Mullick dedicated his life to the cause of Tagore’s music and song on film, radio and gramophone.

Tagore’s music also influenced great music directors such as Naushad, SD Burman, Anil Biswas, Hemant Kumar, RD Burman, Bappi Lahiri, Ravindra Jain and Rajesh Roshan. Inspired by Tagore’s famous song 'Jokhon Podbe Naa More Payer Chinho Ei Baatey', Anil Biswas in 1943 created the immortal music for Kismet in the song 'Ab Tere Siwa Kaun Mera Krishna Kanhaiya'.

Manna De sang the Hindi rendering of 'Mamo Chitte Niti Nritee' in Hamdard (1953), which went 'Mere Man Ki Dhadkan' while Naushad composed 'Bachpan Ke Din Bhula Na Dena' for Deedar (1951) from the lovely 'Churi Hoye Gacchey Raajkoshe', which is a part of Tagore’s dance drama Shyama.

'Tomaar Holo Shuru Amar Holo Shaara' inspired Rajesh Roshan to compose the tune for the song 'Chhoo Kar Mere Man Ko' while SD Burman’s Abhimaan (1974) number 'Tere Mere Milan Ki Yeh Raina' was based on 'Jodi Tore Nai Chini Ko Sheki'.

“Rabindra sangeet is eternal," said filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta. "The popularity of the songs has been consistent from the time these were written and will remain the same because Tagore has woven every emotion in them through his works and music. The result can be seen not only in Bengali, but also in Hindi.”

One may sum up with the beautiful fusion done by Neel Dutt in Anjan Dutt’s The Bongs Again (2017) in which, in a duet by Anjan and Somlata, the famous Tagore song 'Tomaaye Gaan Shonabo' has been fused with an English number, 'Hold Me In Your Eyes'.

Rabindra sangeet is certainly back with a bang — but in Bengali cinema. Contemporary Bengali filmmakers such as Atanu Ghosh, Indrasis Acharya, Suman Ghosh, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Srijit Mukherjee and Kaushik Ganguly are venturing into Tagore’s music even in their theme tracks alongside the songs.

Even in modern Hindi film music, which has almost been colonized by Western influences, now and then you hear an echo of Rabindra sangeet as in Parineeta (2005) where the heroine lisps the lilting Tagore song, ‘Phoole Phoole Dhole Dhole Bayu Keeba Mridu Baaye'.

But who can beat the ingenuity of Sujoy Ghosh, who got Amitabh Bachchan to lend his voice to 'Jodi tore daak shune keu naa aashe tobe ekla cholo re' for Kahaani (2012), which wins three aces in Tagore, who wrote and composed the music for the song, Mahatma Gandhi, who counted this among his favourites, and, of course, the golden voice of Amitabh Bachchan, never mind the heavily Hindi-accented Bengali.

Shoma A Chatterji is a journalist, film critic and author of 24 books, including 13 on Indian cinema.