It was a time when film scripts were inspired by national issues. The 1934 Hindi film Chandidas, starring K. L. Saigal, was one such

New Theatres’ 1934 Hindi version of its 1932 Bengali film Chandidas has a strong ballad-like feel to it as it musically lays before the audience the story of the legendary poet-saint from 15th Century Bengal. Reminiscent of the Romantic poets, Chandidas was quite the recalcitrant figure of his times who opposed orthodoxy, rituals, and social stratification; favouring humanity as the only true religion.

The Bengali Chandidas, directed by Debaki Bose, with Durgadas Banerjee in the lead role, was a runaway hit that played for 64 weeks at the Chitra theatre in Calcutta. Two years later, the Hindi version directed by Nitin Bose and starring K.L. Saigal — his first major success — was released.

With his dreamy eyes, Saigal is a convincing Chandidas, who belongs to the upper caste and is in love with Rami (played by Umashashi), a washerwoman. Early in the film, Rami, while at her washing chores, sings ‘Premnagar men banaoongi ghar main,’ when Chandidas comes by to the ghats and joins in, in a very memorable duet by the two actors.

Music composer R. C. Boral pioneered the use of background music to heighten the film’s lyrical movement. The music is a character all by itself as it helps drive the narrative forward in this film filled with poetry from medieval Bengal. Indeed, Boral’s music and Chandidas’s poetry together create an aesthetically significant film that has, at its heart, the theme of liberation from the clutches of organised religion.

The film depicts a time when temples were closed to the lower castes. Chandidas, an apprentice to a temple priest, flouts the rules by insisting that the lord’s bounties are for everyone. His egalitarianism irks Gopinath, the local merchant, who, in true filmi fashion, lusts after Rami.

When Gopinath traps Rami in his house, Rami mockingly wonders about the irony of such an action by a supposedly incorruptible upper caste man. Rami’s outspokenness angers Gopinath, who sets fire to the house she shares with her brother Baiju (Pahari Sanyal, who sings quite a few songs in the film). Chandidas rescues Rami, and the priest rules that Chandidas will have to atone to be accepted back into his caste. An aghast Rami goes to meet Chandidas, when Gopinath’s goons assault her. When Chandidas sees the battered Rami, he is disgusted enough with the rigidities of his orthodox roots. No longer bound by any societal shackles, at last he is free. Chandidas, Rami, Baiju and Baiju’s wife make a foursome as they walk away, singing “Prem ki ho jai jai,” vindicating the religion of love.

It would be a more sombre ending for the lovers — the low-caste girl and the upper caste boy — two years hence in Bombay Talkies’ hit film on the evils of caste in contemporary India — Achhut Kanya (1936). The lesson was the same. According to Chandidas’s credits that commented on the lingering national problem of caste, the film is “based on the life problem of the poet Chandidas — a problem India has not been able to solve.”