The dazzling duo

As “Street Singer” turns 80, let’s revisit the abiding charm of K.L. Saigal and Kananbala who gave Hindi cinema’s first musical hit

Published - March 16, 2018 01:00 am IST

A TIMELESS CREATION A still from “Street Singer”

A TIMELESS CREATION A still from “Street Singer”

The eternal classic song “Babul Mora Naihar Chhuto Hi Jaye” by K.L. Saigal from New Theatres’ “Street Singer” (1938) is far more famous than the film itself. It continues to enchant millions of music lovers all over the sub-continent even after a lapse of 80 years. Penned by Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, this thumri has been sung in raga Bhairavi by a number of singers but K.L. Saigal’s rendering remains unsurpassed. He had an extraordinary ability to convey pathos in the shades of raga Bhairavi. This was also the ruling melody of “Street Singer”, possibly the greatest musical hit of Indian cinema.

An interesting episode of this song is that on Saigal’s insistence it was recorded live with Saigal walking the streets, singing and playing the harmonium, while a mike followed him in a truck just behind. Saigal wanted to highlight the truth of the character of a street singer. Saigal’s co-star in the film was Kananbala, the nightingale of Bengal who had enthralled the cinema-goers with her successive hits such as “Vidyapati” and “Mukti”. No wonder, with the astounding success of “Street Singer”, Saigal-Kanan duo emerged as national icons. The film was the rage of that period and ran for months at a stretch in leading cinema houses in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and elsewhere. The radio broadcast of film songs was still unknown and very few could afford owning a gramophone. So folks went to see “Street Singer” again and again to listen to its popular songs.

A still from “Street Singer”

A still from “Street Singer”

The creator of this film’s enchanting music was New Theatres’ ace composer R.C. Boral, the founding father of Indian film music. He played a pioneering role in offering a new genre of songs penned by eminent lyricists in tune with the theme and script of the film. His creative genius is visible in his adapting Rabindra Sangeet and folk music of Bengal to film music. R.C. Boral’s 30 piece orchestra included the later celebrities such as Pannalal Ghosh, Khemchand Parkash, Jaidev and Anil Biswas as instrumentalists.

Dadasaheb Phalke Award being presented by President N. Sanjiva Reddy to R.C. Boral

Dadasaheb Phalke Award being presented by President N. Sanjiva Reddy to R.C. Boral

Childhood buddies

The plot of “Street Singer” revolves around two childhood friends Bhulva (Saigal) and Manju (Kanan). Thrown together by circumstances, they develop strong attachment growing up together singing, dancing and begging on the streets. Bhulwa dreams of joining a theatre in Calcutta to earn fame and fortune. They save the alms collected from village to village, buy a harmonium and set out for Calcutta. Bhulwa knocks at the doors of different theatres only to be thrown out. So they resume their old vocation of singing and begging on the streets of Calcutta.

One day their singing catches the attention of one Amarchand (Jagdish Sethi), the actor-manager of Diamond Theatre. He is captivated by Manju’s beautiful face and also her golden voice. Manju gets a job in the theatre while Bhulwa is given a vague promise. Soon, Manju becomes a popular theatre star with her debut song ‘Preetam se preet nibhaungi’. There is a change in Manju’s outlook as she is carried away by Amarchand’s attention and munificence.

Bhulwa continues struggling and gets an opportunity to sing on the radio. Manju hears his debut song, “Jeewan been madhur na baje, jhuthe pad gaye tar” and gets annoyed with Bhulwa for not informing her about it. In order to spite him, she sings at the theatre, a song composed by Bhulwa in a different tune. Bhulwa rushes to the stage and interrupts Manju’s performance on the stage but he is driven out. Humiliated and disheartened, Bhulwa, picking up his harmonium and an old costume of Manju, sets out towards their village singing the signature song “Babul Mora…..”. Not finding Bhulwa at home, Manju gets upset and asks Amarchand to come quickly. Amarchand thinks as if she wants to elope with him but is disappointed when she tells him to drive towards the riverside across which their village stood. Unmindful of the wind and storm Manju cries and shouts for Bhulwa and finally finds him in a boat dashed against the banks and the two are united.

After the phenomenal success of “Devdas” (1935), B.N. Sarkar’s New Theatres Calcutta had emerged as one of the most elite film banners of the country. It introduced new standards and concepts in the field of film production. Sarkar entrusted the direction of “Street Singer” to his team member Phani Majumdar whose debut venture marked a triumph in his career. Phani regarded Saigal as a completely dedicated actor who needed few retakes and of course an incomparable singer.

According to a contemporary critic, “Saigal did not merely sing but his whole role reflected that mysterious ‘something’ lying behind the kind of soulful singing that relates its charm for generations”. Coming to Kanan, the Indian screen has not known a personality more charming than her, a dynamic figure whose songs are characterised by her infinite variety of expression. In “Street Singer”, she portrays the dream of glowing youth with unbelievable charm. The lust of love is reflected in “Preetam se preet”. There is a notable ghazal sung by both Saigal and Kanan, “Sukoon dil ka mayassar gulo-samar”. Other hit melodies include Saigal’s “Jeevan been madhur na baje” and Kanan’s “Lachhuri mooret daras dekha” and “Sanvariya prem ki bansi bajaaye”. It is interesting to note that as Kanan and Saigal had contractual obligations with different recording companies their duets could not be released on discs but recorded as solos by two recording companies. The overwhelming success of “Street Singer” inspired New Theatres to follow it up with a Bengali version under the title “Sathee starring the Saigal – Kanan duo. The famous thumri “Babul moraa…” (Hindi version) was also included there in.

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