Look what I found!
Considering some of you might not understand the reason for all the fuss and excitement, I ought to back up and provide some context.
I must admit that till fairly recently, I’d never been a huge fan of 1930s Hindi film music. My first brush with the decade was when I watched Main ban ki chidiya banke as a teenager—it was showing on Chitrahaar—and was in splits because it was so funny. Ashok Kumar was so awkward, the singing was so nasal, the entire song was so far removed from what I liked (the songs of the 50s and 60s), that I couldn’t bring myself to regard the song with anything but mirth.
I still know very little about the songs of the 30s, and would be hard put to it to name even ten songs from the decade. But if asked to name just one song from the decade, the song that I would name without even stopping to think would be the utterly brilliant Baabul mora naihar chhooto (I actually went out on a limb and named this song as my pick for the 30s in this article I wrote to commemorate hundred years of Indian cinema).
Baabul mora is for me such an iconic song that I had been looking out for the film in which it featured, Street Singer, for the past several years. I checked Induna. I would, every now and then, search YouTube to see if anybody had uploaded it. And then, finally, hallelujah—a month or so back, I saw that it had surfaced. MM Video appears to have a copy (though, as is sadly normal, others seem to have jumped onto the bandwagon and strategically plastered their own watermarks across MM Video’s to pass it off as their own). The print quality is bad, a chunk of ten minutes lacks audio altogether—but even then, I sat through this film, of for nothing other than because it’s such an important part of Indian cinematic history (more on this anon).
Since today is KL Saigal’s birth anniversary (he was born on April 11, 1904), I figured this was an appropriate film to review for today.
Street Singer begins with a play being staged. Backstage, bossing over a bunch of urchins who are trying to wheedle him into allowing them through, is Bhulwa. Bhulwa (?) is odd-job boy at the theatre company (such as it is), being ordered around and mistreated by pretty much everybody. The only people he can get to throw his weight around with are these children. He snaffles a cigarette from one, lets another through…
… and generally rules the roost, until he is summoned to work.
Later that evening, a fire breaks out in a nearby orphanage. The fire engines come, the children are rescued, and one firefighter manages to bring down one girl, Manju (?), who had been stuck upstairs, and deposits her next to the tree under which Bhulwa is standing. Bhulwa and Manju watch as the manager of the orphanage takes his charge in hand, pushing and shoving them about, cursing them.
When Bhulwa tells Manju to go back to the orphanage, she flatly refuses. The manager’s ruthless. Bhulwa, who has personal experience of ruthless managers (the manager at the theatre was equally nasty) commiserates. He has no-one of his own; neither does she, says Manju.
The end result is that Manju and Bhulwa set off together. He is intent on going to Calcutta to earn a living in the theatre there, and since Manju has no other option, she goes along with this plan. It takes them several years to do so, and they make their way singing in the villages as they travel to Calcutta.
When they’re approaching. Calcutta, Manju develops cold feet. She doesn’t like the city and its cold aloofness. In the villages, people were friendly and warm, they were welcomed and feted everywhere they went. In the city, no one will even notice them. Bhulwa scoffs at her fears, and assures Manju that everything will be fine. They will get employment with a good theatre company and they will make it big.
They arrive in Calcutta, and Bhulwa goes from one theatre company to the other, asking for a job. All of them send him away, some more politely than others. Manju pleads with Bhulwa: let’s go back to the villages, it’s better there, we’ll be happier there.
[At this point, the audio disappeared for ten minutes, as a result of which I only have a somewhat sketchy idea of what happened. Bhulwa and Manju go out onto the streets singing in a desperate bid to earn some money. In the process, they end up singing outside the house of theatre owner/producer/actor Amar (Jagdish Sethi), who is so completely bowled over by Manju’s beauty and talent that he immediately decides he must offer her a job with his theatre].
Bhulwa and Manju don’t realize that the offer is only for Manju, and are excited and very relieved at finally having got a break. It’s only when Amar arrives at their home with the theatre manager, Trilok (?) in tow, that they discover the truth. Manju and Bhulwa both try in their own ways to convince Amar and Trilok to give Bhulwa a chance too, but Amar uses delaying tactics to soothe them: of course, of course. Not in this play, because they have no parts for Bhulwa here; but the next play.
Bhulwa takes it in good spirit. He even helps prepare Manju for her role, teaching her the songs for her part (oddly enough, there seem to be no rehearsals at the theatre itself). On opening night, Manju is a bundle of nerves, so jittery that she even comes to the stage of wanting to back out.
Eventually, she agrees on one condition: Bhulwa, who has accompanied her to the theatre, will sit in the wings, where she can see him. Where she can draw encouragement and motivation from the affection and friendship of her old comrade.
Sadly, this does not last. As Manju’s fame grows—from her very first performance, once she’s found her footing—her attitude changes. The nervous Manju who wanted to run away to the villages is replaced by a piano-playing actress, self-assured and even somewhat brusque. Bhulwa sees Manju slipping away, drawn ever deeper into the glittering web of the life he had wanted her to enter, but now realizes is not anywhere as wonderful as he had imagined it to be.
Street Singer was Phani Majumdar’s first Hindi film; he made it simultaneously in Hindi and Bengali, retaining KL Saigal and Kanan Devi for both versions (though, from what I can tell, the rest of the cast was not necessarily used in the films of both languages). The film was a huge hit, and both Saigal and Kanan Devi cemented their popularity—and added to it—as a result of Street Singer.
What I liked about the film:
The music, especially Baabul mora. RC Boral composed the music to Arzu Lucknawi’s lyrics (barring, of course, Baabul mora, which was written and composed by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the ill-fated Nawab of Awadh, whose exile in the wake of the uprising of 1857 was commemorated by him in the form of this poignant song of leaving one’s home for another). Before I watched Street Singer, my favourite song from it was KL Saigal’s rendition of Baabul mora; Kanan Devi’s rendition, to a ‘new’ tune (as opposed to the original composition, which is how Saigal sings it) was good, but not as wonderful, I thought, as Saigal’s. However, now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that my favourite rendition of Baabul mora from Street Singer is the two-line bit Kanan Devi sings right at the end. She sings it in the original way, and she sings it superbly.
And, the fact that I got to see a young Chaman Puri! This was his very first film; he was given a small role in it (as a lyricist) by virtue of his being KL Saigal’s cousin.
What I didn’t like:
So much, sadly. First of all, there’s the acting, which is pretty theatrical. KL Saigal and Jagdish Sethi are all right, but the rest of the lot—even Kanan Devi, to some extent—come across as theatrical and hammy.
Then, the writing, which is a bit flawed when it comes to characterization (especially Manju’s). The rift between Bhulwa and Manju is shown, but Manju’s outlook and her behaviour struck me as somewhat inconsistent. Manju veers inexplicably between being snooty and successful actress and Bhulwa’s old pal; one moment she’s sweet and kind, the next, she’s being snobbish, and without sufficient reason for the change, either way. That said, Bhulwa comes across as a really nice character: gentle, quiet, patient—actually, he’s more like the longsuffering Sati Savitri one sees women portraying!
On the whole, a film that’s worth watching for its historicity, its place in Hindi film history. If that doesn’t interest you, just listen to the songs, and leave it at that.