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60 years of Goonj Uthi Shehnai: The unique instrument, Ustad Bismillah Khan are the real stars of this tragic love story

The musical interludes in the romantic drama directed by Vijay Bhatt are still considered timeless today. We revisit the sorrowful romance starring Rajendra Kumar, Ameeta and Anita Guha.

Sonal Pandya

Music maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan only ever played his shehnai for one Hindi film, Vijay Bhatt’s Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959). Khan and his instrument are the real highlight of Bhatt’s doomed romance.

Filmmaker Vijay Bhatt had a real ear for music, having helmed Ram Rajya (1943) and Baiju Bawra (1952) earlier. The latter film featured composer Naushad at his best. In Goonj Uthi Shehnai, too, the musical team of lyricist Bharat Vyas and composer Vasant Desai created another gem.

The black-and-white film opens, naturally, with music, as Raghunath Maharaj (Ulhas) is doing his riyaaz (musical practice) in a temple. Suddenly he is accompanied by the melodious, dulcet tones of a shehnai. He goes to check who the player is, and discovers it's a young boy, Kishan. The overjoyed musician immediately takes Kishan home, and under his wing, to train him in the ways of music.

Kishan, who grows up to be Rajendra Kumar, has the gift of music. When he plays the shehnai, most people come under his spell. They include Gopi (Ameeta), his faithful childhood friend, and Ramkali (Anita Guha), Raghunath's daughter. Gopi and Kishan are devoted to each other, even at a young age.

As they come of age, the two have eyes only for each other. This causes distress to others, especially the broken-hearted Ramkali, who suffers quietly, and Kanhaiya (IS Johar), the village postman who vows to break them apart. Gopi’s mother (Leela Mishra) wants her daughter settled properly and not with a musician. She is determined to see Kishan play the shehnai at Gopi’s wedding.

But Kishan has dreams that it will be him as Gopi’s groom. The couple is blissfully unaware that Gopi's marriage is being arranged with Shekhar, a family friend’s son from Lucknow. One night, as the lovers meet atop the village temple, Kanhaiya shames the pair in front of everyone.

Kishan, the orphan with no money or name, feels humiliated and leaves, determined to come back when he has both. He connects with Shekhar, a music aficionado working at All India Radio, who is spellbound when he hears Kishan’s music.

Surprisingly, Ramkali follows him in his quest, to better take care of him. Most people in the village think the worst of the duo, that they have eloped together. Gopi, too, thinks so. The rest of the film has the audience wondering how and when the meant-for-each-other couple get together again.

Renowned Marathi litterateur GD Madgulkar puts the lovers through the wringer. There is family pressure, misunderstanding, deception and forced separation for the pair. And through it all is the sublime, almost ethereal music of Vasant Desai.

In the book, A Journey Down Melody Lane, Raju Bharatan states that the first day of recording on the film did not go well. Ustad Bismillah Khan had not expected Desai "to be making the calibre of classical demands he had not anticipated from 'a mere film composer'."

According to Raju Bharatan, Desai "sensed the delicacy of the situation in a trice and diplomatically attributed Bismillah Khan's failure to get going (that crucial morning) to the off-putting rain-patter outside." The recording was rescheduled for the next day, where things went according to plan and the end result is there for all to see and hear.

The musical interludes in the film, where the shehnai has a jugalbandi with Ustad Amir Khan (as the voice of Raghunath Maharaj) and other instruments like the tabla and the sitar, are timeless. The romantic melodrama has competition from the music here.

Bhatt’s film made a star out of its leading man, Rajendra Kumar, who, in the second half, descends into full Devdas mode. His Kishan is a Pied Piper leading the young women in his life on his tunes. He went on to earn the nickname Jubilee Kumar in the coming decade.

Ameeta and Anita Guha both vie for Rajendra Kumar here and while Ameeta gets more screen time (and songs), it’s Guha, as the sacrificing, magnanimous Ramkali, who has the better role. She scored her only nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Filmfare Awards that year.

Anita Guha and Rajendra Kumar

And while Shankar-Jaikishen were recognized for Chhoti Bahen and Anari, and SD Burman for Sujata, Vasant Desai was once again ignored.

Another bit of trivia for movie buffs: actress Asha Parekh, who was trying out for leading roles, was almost confirmed for the film.

"I had even shot for the film for four or five days when the veteran director told Mum that I was being dropped,” she recalled in the book, Asha Parekh: The Hit Girl. “[Bhatt] felt that I wasn't star material. Around that time, Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) had become a major hit. Its leading lady, Ameeta, was cast as the heroine of Goonj Uthi Shehnai. She had reduced her fee by half. She was a star. I was a rank newcomer.”