When I began this blog, it was with the intention of reviewing films, and doing the occasional song list. I had never read a book on cinema, and had no real interest in doing so, either: my perception of the genre, so to say, was a world of sleaze: biographies laying bare lives about which I did not want to know the sordid details.
I am happy to say that, over the years, I’ve been proven wrong. I’ve read several biographies, of film personalities all the way from Balraj Sahni to Fearless Nadia, Mohammad Rafi to Kidar Sharma, Asha Bhonsle to Rajesh Khanna to Nasir Husain—and most have proven entertaining, informative, and definitely non-sleazy. A hat tip is due to biographers like Akshay Manwani, Sidharth Bhatia, Gautam Chintamani, and Jai Arjun Singh.
… and to Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, whose biography of RD Burman was the main reason I wanted to read this, their biography of Pancham’s illustrious (and, in my opinion, even greater than his son) father, S D Burman. S D Burman: The Prince Musician (Tranquebar, Westland Publications Private Limited, 2018; 344 pages; ₹799; ISBN 9789387578180) is an exhaustive detailing of the career of S D Burman, beginning from his days as a singer in Calcutta, till his death—while still far from having hung up his boots—in 1975.
Bhattacharjee and Vittal begin by tracing Burman’s antecedents. How his family (the royal family of Tripura) traced its lineage centuries back in Burma, how their domain changed, and how the family itself was split by schisms. From Comilla (in present day Bangladesh), they trace Burman’s passage to Calcutta, where he was sent to study, and where his long-standing love for music, birthed and nurtured by the many rural singers and minstrels he grew up amidst, finally became his career of choice.
The authors divide the book into four distinct sections, each named for the name by which Shachindra Kumar was known at different phases of his life (and appropriately enough; each phase is a different one).
Karta, the name by which he was addressed in Tripura and later in Bengal, is the title of the first section, which is mainly about the start of his career in Bengali cinema, and up to his wedding with Meera, his student and fellow singer. Varman (how Bombay spelt Barman) is the second section, which covers the years 1944-49. The comes Sachin Dev Burman, when, thanks to Navketan and Bombay Talkies (who christened him that, starting 1950), Burman composed what are to me some of his most iconic tunes, for films like Pyaasa, Bandini, Paying Guest, Munimji, and Guide. The last section, SD, is ample evidence, in its very title, of the stature this man had attained by the late 1960s: such a stalwart that only his initials were enough for people to recognize his name.
Bhattacharjee and Vittal follow a strictly chronological sequence throughout, examining SD Burman’s music from his first films to his last, interspersing their comments on the songs of each film with notes about the film itself, trivia, and contemporary reviews (Baburao Patel’s acerbic comments about some of SDB’s early music make for surprising—or should that be unsurprising, given Patel’s caustic pen?—reading). There are interesting tidbits about films that fell by the wayside and never got completed, about grand ventures that never got off the ground, and about long-forgotten films that are known among connoisseurs today only for Burman’s music.
Throughout, the focus is on the man’s profession, his deep passion for music and how he expressed that passion. This does not mean that there is nothing about his personal life: there are glimpses of it, but discreet and brief glimpses. The most interesting glimpses for me are of SD Burman the paan-chewing football fan, the avid fisherman, the man who insisted that, when Lata (who already owned a car) gave him a lift late one night after recordings, he should be dropped off well away from his home—and that nobody should breathe a word to Meera Dev Burman about Lata giving him a lift!
There are little incidents that tell of Burman’s devotion to his art (an anecdote regarding Jaanu jaanu ri kaahe khanke hai tora kangna is especially illustrative of SDB’s dedication). There are amazing little bits of trivia (for example, I had no idea that Anoop Kumar, the brother of the more famous Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar was so good at whistling that his whistling skills were used in both O nigaah-e-mastaana and Hum hain pyaar ke hum se kuchh na boliye. Or that the only song that Shammi Kapoor ever sang for a film was for SD Burman. Or that, if Dev Anand hadn’t picked Rangeela re for Prem Pujari, Megha chhaaye aadhi raat would have probably not been part of Sharmeelee.
Of course, with a career as long and in the limelight as SD Burman’s, there were controversies and disagreements: the rift with Sahir Ludhianvi, with whom SD Burman had done some of his very best work; the rift with Lata Mangeshkar, which resulted in her not singing for him for many years; and the supposed rigging of the Filmfare Awards that gave the Best Music Director Award to Shankar-Jaikishan for Suraj, bypassing SD Burman’s outstanding score for Guide.
These controversies, in themselves, are dealt with in a dignified and non-gossipy style that SDB himself (from what he appears to have been like) might have approved of.
On the whole, an interesting and very useful book. It’s an excellent tracing not just of SD Burman’s career, but of Hindi cinema from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. The research done by the authors is obviously both wide and deep: they quote from interviews, from magazine articles, from books, from cinema itself, from people met on trips to Bangladesh. This is a book that has been written with much care and diligence, and it shows. (The bunch of photos halfway through the book are also good).
In addition to that, I liked the fact that the authors have been pretty unbiased in their assessment of SD Burman and his work. They do describe some of his music as ‘lacklustre’, they acknowledge that many of his tunes were inspired from bhatiyali or Rabindra Sangeet or other sources. They acknowledge that Burman perhaps neglected to recognize his own wife’s talent sufficiently. In that sense, they offer a balanced view of SD Burman: a great musician, a dignified gentleman, yet one who—like any other human being—had his own shortcomings.
As in Bhattacharjee and Vittal’s other books, here too the technical terms used put me off a bit, but I acknowledge that for that I am to be blamed. Other than that—and the occasional typo that a good editor and proof reader should have weeded out—this was an enjoyable and informative book. Definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Hindi film music.