He was always a bit of an outsider in the Hindi film industry. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha is all many remember of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s work in Bollywood. While Hindi filmmakers were guilty of not appreciating the true genius of Pandit Ravi Shankar, the peerless Satyajit Ray commissioned some outstanding work for the Apu trilogy, thereby saving Panditji from being completely lost to the rarefied confines of classical music.
But the Apu trilogy that began with Pather Panchali in 1955, and continued with Aparajito and Apur Sansar, was not Panditji’s first foray into cinema. That was Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar in 1946. Neecha Nagar, however, was to remain a single memorable venture for many a summer as Panditji spent more time with Indian People’s Theatre Association activists than at recording studios. (Panditji met Chetan Anand during these IPTA days.) He did, however, give the music score for ‘Sare jahan se achcha’ when he was all of 25. And he struck a fine rapport with Khwaja Ahmed Abbas around the same time, which ensured that most of his films derived from literature.
If Neecha Nagar was inspired by Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths, Dharti ke Lal was based on a short story by Krishan Chander. Pather Panchali and Kabuliwala were based on the works of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore, respectively.
For the music of Neecha Nagar, Panditji came up with a blend of classical ragas and folk. Considering the film had an anti-imperialist subject, he generously used the dholak and the sitar. Neecha Nagar won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946, though it did not do too well at the box office.
Then came Dharti Ke Lal. Directed by K.A. Abbas, the film’s subject was too serious for its music to be noticed, and Panditji came into the limelight only a few years later, with Pather Panchali, a film whose music was described as “at once plaintive and exhilarating.” It is also said to have influenced The Beatles.
When Panditji met Ray, he hummed a tune which became the signature theme of the film. The music of Pather Panchali evolved over long sessions, with Panditji making abundant use of the bamboo flute and giving a free reign to the ragas Bhairavi and Todi in his compositions. Ray, despite frequent differences of opinion, gave Panditji his space and time. That was not the case in Hindi cinema. His forays were few and far between.
After associating with Ray in the trilogy and with Tapan Sinha in Kabuliwala, Panditji worked with Hrishikesh Mukherjee in Anuradha, where he made abundant use of the sitar and got the best out of Lata Mangeshkar, though he did not always share a great rapport with her. Once when she failed to turn up for a recording at the appointed time, Panditji got his assistant Vijay Rao to record the song. With his prowess he was able to overcome Shailendra’s less-than-brilliant lyrics and produce an evergreen music score.
Such was his aura that when music director Ravi (of Chaudhvin ka Chand and Nikaah fame) entered the film industry, he happily gave up the last part of his name. Initially, he was called Ravi Shankar. He did not want Panditji to be confused with him.
A little after Anuradha, Panditji worked for Godaan, a Raaj Kumar-Kamini Kaushal starrer based on Munshi Premchand’s work of the same name. The music caused mere ripples and Panditji decided to devote his energies to classical music. He returned only to give the music of Meera, Gulzar’s directorial venture, where he preferred to use the voice of Vani Jairam instead of Lata in all the songs, helping the singer win the Filmfare award.