Street Singer (1938)

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.

30 thoughts on “Street Singer (1938)

  1. Madhu,
    I remember Doodrdarshan in their golden days showed this film. I had taken its recording on VHS tape, and I could revisit it later. Therefore, DD Archives or NFAI must have it. I don’t know whether it was released on commercial DVD. The poor print quality was frustrating, and the acting was stilted which was the case in our early films. The music is, of course, eternal. But more importantly, its theme was far ahead of its time. You can see its inspiration in many films, such as Part 3 of ‘Mera Naam Joker’ and ‘Rangeela’. You have done well to remember this historical film and the legend Saigal on his birth anniversary. Incidentally, many experts regard 4 April 1904 as his date of birth.
    AK

    • I think you were the one, AK, who first told me about this film being telecast on DD years ago. I remember having gone searching for this one after you mentioned that (I think till then I had been under the impression that it was pretty much lost).

      Sundeep Pahwa also mentioned to me, on Facebook, about the disagreement about KL Saigal’s birth date. But since Sundeepji himself had indicated to me – in an earlier comment on Facebook – that Saigal’s birthday was on the 11th – I had stuck with that.

  2. An extensive review about Street Singer and touching all aspects of the film, journey and music. A beautiful and engrossing post. I hope the film archive conserves such piece of art.

  3. The movie has a cult status now mostly because of the Music.
    Theatrical acting was the rule and not the exception in that era.
    Barring exceptions like Shyam and Prithviraj a bit earlier, the heroes were weird and Sehgal is not great to look at either.
    Quaint is the word that comes to mind.

    • Hehe. I agree completely about most of heroes being nothing much to look at. Shyam and Prithviraj Kapoor were definitely the exceptions (though, by looking at very early photos of people like Wasti and Surendra, one realizes that they looked fine in their very early films, but continued to act as leading men when they were well past their prime – which, of course, is a phenomenon that has endured).

      • Partially true, but not completely. Saigal ofcourse was no charmer when it came to looks, but then he didn’t need to. His music was enough to mesmerize each and everyone.
        Rest all the other leading heroes of the 30’s to early 40’s were often very handsome. Prithiviraj ofcourse was a sculpted marvel, but Kumar and Motilal were more charming. Chandramohan was regal to say the least. Surendra didn’t knew how to act but he was a looker too. Najmul again was a non-actor for most part, but he was drop dead handsome too. Pahari Sanyal was very attractive too in a very cutiepie way. Which leaves us with the biggest star of the 40’s-the evergreen Ashok Kumar, who wasn’t conventionally handsome, but was a highly energetic performer, someone whose zest , naughty eyes and that hard to describe smile, could just leave people dazzled (People who have seen films like Naya Sansar, Anjaan, Jhoola, Najma etc will get what I am saying here perfectly). So, to cut it short, most of the leading heroes were rather attractive, though today the public at large continue to hold a rather contrary opinion, simply because most of them haven’t been really exposed to the films of 30’s and 40’s (esp in a good print).

        P.S: Shyam doesn’t count here because he came much later in the mid-40’s, and was more a contemporary of Raj, Dev and Dilip, than the stars of 30’s and 40’s.

  4. I love the music from the 30s, it’s so unique sounding. I especially love the different vocal techniques for women. But then I really love stuff like throat singing, traditional Eastern European singing, and also that old fashioned style of soprano singing in Western opera (tin pot soprano lol). It’s difficult to find film recs, especially with subtitles, though, so I don’t know the films really.

  5. It’s good to see that you finally found this film, Madhu! (I know that you have mentioned your search for it in the past.)

    I have also enjoyed a few songs that I heard from this movie, and I have liked watching and – especially – hearing both KL Saigal and Kanan Devi in some other films. I also remember the basic plot, though I kind of skipped through the film because it was very difficult for me to watch without subtitles and then the DVD copy that I had got lost or damaged or something. (It was not a prerecorded DVD. A copy was sent to me by…someone…and I recall that I deeply regretted losing track of that copy sometime later.)

    I did know about the basic plot, and I know that AK is correct about the similarity to Mera Naam Joker – specifically, the Padmini part (very similar for a while, though different in places, too, especially at the end).

    • Yes! This is one of those “finally I get to see it” films. :-) I’ve been searching for it for a long time.

      I can imagine that it’s a difficult film to watch without subtitles – there’s a lot that happens only through dialogue. But yes, the songs are lovely.

  6. I’m probably the lone holdout against Saigal – as actor or singer. :( He just doesn’t appeal to me, and believe me, I’ve tried very,very hard to like the singing. (Acting, I steer clear of! PC Barua’s Devdas scarred me for life!)

    Funnily enough, S and I found an uncut copy of Mera Naam Joker and we’re in the middle of watching it – all 4 hours and 9 minutes of it. Not your cup of tea, I know, being RK, but both S and I were struck by how well it had aged. We still have the Part 3 to go, though.

    • As far as I remember, I have only seen KL Saigal in two movies – Shahjehan (he was dreadful in that) and this one (where he was all right, perhaps it was because his character was relatively well-written, a truly ‘nice’ man). As for his singing, I really like some songs, and really don’t like others. Baabul mora is perhaps the only song of his that I admire with so much passion. :-)

      • I thought KL Saigal was quite good in Tansen. I actually really enjoyed his singing in that film (as well as Khursheed Bano’s), and while his acting was not exactly compelling, he played the role well enough.

        To Anu, if you got the uncut version of Mera Naam Joker, I would assume that included the two best song squences in the film, which were mysteriously cut from the copies that almost everyone saw. (One has fantastic singing by Rafi for Raj Kapoor; the other has delightful Kathak dancing by multiple Padminis.)

        I really liked Mera Naam Joker, even if it was too long. But I undersand opinions about this film vary a lot.

    • Hehe.. Frankly speaking Anudi, I too prefer Pankaj Mullick and KC Dey over KL Saigal as singers. But Saigal was great in his own way. One must always remember that when Saigal came, there was little to no market for modern Indian music. It were the likes of RC Boral, Saigal, KC Dey, Pankaj Mullick, Basant Kumar Dubey, Agha Hashr Kashmiri etc who created this market, and mind you this was no mean task. I still think that these people don’t get their due credit and are increasingly being erased from the history books, which is a pity considering that these were the people who were the masterminds behind Puran Bhagat, Yahudi Ki Ladki and Chandidas-our Indian cinema’s first chartbusting albums.

      P.S: Barua’s Devdas was hailed not for its acting, but for its various other qualities. That film was a trendsetter in the real sense, though of course its not Barua’s best by any yardstick. It’s sad that people remember Barua mostly for Devdas, whereas the truth is that some of his other films like Manzil, Adhikar, Mukti etc are actually far better. I can’t vouch for the other films but Adhikar, in my view, has stood the passage of time rather well and remains a very good watch even now.

  7. I have not seen the movie but of course have heard Babul Mora a thousand times. Not
    only in this film, but a few others
    (Including Shatranj Ke Khiladi, where
    Amjad, playing the Nawab of Oudh,
    recites a few lines). A film of the seventies, Sitara, starring Zarina Wahab and Mithun
    Chakravarty, was very similar to Street
    Singer!
    Nitin

  8. I don’t know why, but I am so curious about early Hindi movies! They are ridiculously hard to come by. I would kill to watch some extraordinarily named movies like “Gramophone Singer”, “Three Hundred Days and After”; etc. or movies starring Jahanara Kajjan, Bibbo and Sabita Devi. At least, I got to watch Jahanara kajjan in “Prithvi Vallabh”.

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