I had been toying with the idea of this post for some time and the demise of Suchitra Mitra was the sad - but appropriate - trigger that forced me write it down.
Having spent a lot of time out of Calcutta, I found that Rabindra Sangeet is by and large considered as the mandatory art form to be perfected by Bengali women (and displayed when prospective grooms come calling) that is also to be accompanied by Bengali men on the tabla. It is also considered slightly soporific, slightly maudlin and therefore, slightly boring.
To correct - or more accurately, try to correct - this notion, I thought I will put down a list of my favourite Tagore songs as depicted on film. This is not pristine Rabindra Sangeet but interpretations by filmmakers from different genres and brought to life on screen by extremely charismatic actors.
Kharo bayu boi bege - Kabuliwala
The first on the list is also my earliest memory of a Rabindrasangeet on screen. Chhabi Biswas - in the title role - sees his daughter in Mini, one of the cutest child actors ever to grace the silver screen (played by Tinku Tagore, Sharmila's younger sister). And in one sequence, Mini performs in a dance programme that has her Kabuliwala and the audience enthralled.
For the life of me, I cannot locate the movie clip so you will have to make do with the audio.
Ami chini go chini - Charulata
This is as masterly as it gets. Probably the greatest Bengali actor lip-syncs to the voice of the greatest Bengali singer under the helm of the greatest Bengali director - in a story by Tagore himself.
Satyajit Ray was hell-bent on getting Kishore Kumar to sing this song. Kishore - Bollywood's busiest playback singer - did not have time to go the loo, let alone Calcutta despite being terribly keen to sing. He requested the mountain to come to Mohammed. To solve the small matter that Kishore Kumar could not read a score sheet, Bijoya Ray (Satyajit's wife) recorded the song which he heard and sang in one clean take.
And just in case you are wondering, the piano was played by Ray himself.
Je raatey mor duaarguli - Meghey Dhaka Tara
As a life-long devotee of Ray, it is a little difficult for me to accept that the best picturisations of Rabindrasangeet is not done by him. But the case Ritwik Ghatak puts up is unassailable. And this is the prime example.
The tragic story of the eldest daughter of a refugee family would have degenerated into melodrama with any lesser director. In the film, this song happens on the eve of her sister's wedding to her boyfriend as she tries to learn it and sing it at the wedding. The male & female voices are simultaneously mellifluous and tragic while the camera moves as a lurking shadow on her misfortune. And in a sort of first, Ghatak cut the song with a sound effect of lashes - a leit motif in the film of the protagonist's misfortunes.
Bhalobashi bhalobashi - Shwet pathorer thala
Indrani Sen's magical voice transforms this song to a different level altogether, which is performed on screen by the very beautiful, Aparna Sen.
This is supposed to be a run-of-the-mill song picturisation with a giggly, happy couple singing love songs on a boat. But there is something about the music, the words, the setting and Aparna Sen that takes it a level or two higher.
Akash bhora shurjo tara - Komal Gandhar
This is the second exhibit in the list of Ritwik Ghatak's brilliant filming of Rabindrasangeet.
The song - rendered by the inimitable Debabrata Biswas - has all the qualities of a hymn. He is the most well-loved among all artistes of Rabindrasangeet and this is - in my book - the song that benefits the most from his sonorous voice.
The relationships within an idealistic theatre group form the basis of this movie and in some ways, this becomes a 'romantic' song in the movie while in isolation, it is anything but.
Ei kathati money rekho - Chowringhee
I had to sneak in an Uttam Kumar song and this is the one.
Uttam Kumar plays a suave front office manager at a Calcutta 5-star hotel and this is a romantic interlude with an air-hostess who stays in the hotel.The film is based on one of the most popular Bengali novels (now available in a very good translation).
Purano shei diner katha - Agniswar
This is the ultimate nostalgia song. Inspired from Auld Lang Syne, this is the staple song to be performed at all farewells. And reunions.
In the film, the protagonist (Uttam Kumar) brings together his old friends and one of them sing it (in the magical voice of Hemanta Mukherjee). Nothing really happens during this song but the voice and of course, the words are too strong to not get it into the list. I wish some new filmmaker just uses this soundtrack and picturises the video better.
Or I should just ask Bishwaprasun to sing it at our next school reunion.
Pagla hawa badal diney - The Bong Connection
This is the best remix of a Rabindrasangeet. Shreya Ghoshal picks up the baton from iconic performers as Raima Sen takes over from her grandmother Suchitra Sen in a wonderfully peppy rendition of an already wonderful song.
Anjan Dutt - the director - has a very strong music sense (being a composer and lyricist himself) and his son, Neel Dutt - the film's composer - adds the 'jhankaar beats' with just the right mix of exuberance and restraint.
And uh - ignore Shayan Munshi's tomfoolery. But that's part of the song's energy, I suppose.
Tomar holo shuru / Chhoonkar mere manko - Yaarana
Bollywood has never shied away from lifting great tunes from anywhere. And Tomar holo shuru is as good as they get! The original is about a passing of the baton from the older generation to the newer while the lift is an out-and-out romantic song, where Amitabh woos Neetu Singh in the empty expanse of Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta.
As a kid when I saw this film with my mother, I remember thinking "Oh my god, they copied that Bengali song from Amitabh" but then, hey!
Jana gana mann - Rann
And this is my final - and most controversial - entry to my list.
Tagore's most famous composition is the second-most popular song in the world - with nearly a billion people knowing it and singing it (though a little unwilling, I am sure, in some cases). Ramgopal Verma's take on modern media had a scathing re-working of our national anthem, in line - he claimed - with the toxic times. Guardians of our morality and patriotism felt it was too 'seditious' (ah! that word again!) and censored it from the movie. But I think, Tagore - the original modernist - would have approved.
Honourable Mention: I was thinking of a good picturisation of Shokhi bhabona kahare boley, a big favourite of mine. An earlier version in Balika Bodhu (Bengali) was filmed with too much nyaka-ness. This is a rather interesting mix of video and audio, though I have no clue about the film or the actors.
Now - quick, tell me what I missed!