A goatherd did his bit…

Our journey into the mythical Madhumati land was behind us, and this book on its last leg, when I heard the story how the song Suhana safar was created. One day composer Salil Chowdhury and Shailendra drove off to the Khandala Ghats. This hill station was a popular hangout in those days with people of the film industry. As I mentioned earlier, Madhumati s opening sequence was shot on one of those hairpin bends at Khandala Ghats. Add to that the new discovery about the creation of Suhana safar, thrilled me no end. It was Sonjoy, Salil Chowdhury’s son, who told me the interesting anecdote how the opening orchestra bar of Suhana safar was conceived: ‘Baba and Shailendra had driven up to Khandala one day. As they stood at the top of the Khandala Ghats they saw a goatherd rounding up his flock. The man was making a sharp sound which sounded like “urrrrrrrrrrrrr”. On the spot, Baba composed the opening notation for Suhana safar including the goatherd’s call.'

…And Mozart pitched in too

Madhumati’s outstanding orchestration, its musical movements from andante to allegro—the intensely poignant passages could have been scored by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The mention of Mozart brings to surface the stories I heard from music critic Kishore Chatterjee1 or Kishoreda, as we called him. Kishoreda was openly dismissive of mainstream Bombay cinema, in fact, he mischievously dubbed it oriental opera! He watched a Hindi film only if its music attracted him. After watching Madhumati in Dehradun, Kishoreda fell head over heels in love with its songs. The folksy composition Chadh gayo paapi bichua bowled him over so completely that he decided to watch the film a second time—an honour that he seems to have bestowed only upon Madhumati. Madly obsessed with this song, he haunted the music shops of Kolkata in order to buy the long playing record (LP) of Madhumati. Kishoreda recalls: ‘When I told my friends Bichua was intensely Mozartian, they brushed me off. I am fairly certain now that Salil did indeed, cleverly and creatively, mingle folk melodies with the Mozartian sense of perpetual movement, which can be termed a divine momentum. Salil must have studied Mozart allegros carefully before composing this song. In Bichua, I find the contest and interaction or struggle between the soloist and the chorus that recurs in a Mozart concerto…the connection between Mozart and Salil’s tune fascinated me. Only a classical symphony has this lilt, it is found in Mozart, Haydn and Schmitz. Salil Chowdhury romanticized Mozart. I am not a regular filmgoer. Yet the music of

Madhumati literally dragged me to the film.’

Mukesh wasn’t the first choice…

Suhana safar, the signature tune of Madhumati was sung by the golden-voiced Mukesh. It is believed that the singer originally intended for this iconic song was Talat Mehmood. Mukeshji, it seems, was going through a financial crunch. His situation prompted Talat Mehmood to suggest that the song be given to Mukesh. I have heard this story twice to be convinced about its authenticity—first from Mrs Talat Mehmood, later an independent confirmation by Sanjoy Chowdhury. Nitin Mukesh once announced that his father’s comeback song was Yeh mera diwanapan hai from a lesser known Bimal Roy film, Yahudi, starring Dilip Kumar. The 1950s period in the Indian film industry was marked by a generosity of spirit and well-being among fellow artists. The cut-throat competition of today was relatively unknown.

…And even Salil Chowdhury was suspect

Madhumati’s songs continue to enchant generations of listeners. Before I continue on the musical trail let me regale readers with another interesting story. It was strongly hinted that Salil Chowdhury was not amongst the original contenders considered to compose the music of Madhumati despite the fact that the composer’s brilliance was established beyond doubt with Do Bigha Zamin (his debut film). It is pertinent to mention here that he had also authored the story of Do Bigha Zamin.

However, the vagaries of the film industry caused Salil Chowdhury to be declared a flop music director by Bombay’s populist standards. Bimal Roy worked alternately with two composers and the two were Sachin Dev Burman and Salil Chowdhury. When Madhumati was still in the pipeline, S.D. Burman had already been assigned to compose music for Sujata which followed Madhumati. It was Salil Chowdhury’s turn therefore, to compose for Madhumati; he had been closely involved with the project, attending script sessions and going on locations. But in the final stage of the project, film distributors who advance funds, fiercely opposed Salil Chowdhury. Distributors had a big stake in films and their word was invariably law. They argued that in a project ostensibly designed for the box office there was no room for a flop music director. It was rumoured that Dilip Kumar, Madhumati’s hero, was vehemently opposed to Salil Chowdhury as a composer.

Gossip spreads like wildfire within the industry and when Dilip’s Kumar’s opposition became known, Salil Chowdhury and Shailendra were taken aback. Dilip Kumar’s resistance raised serious doubts about their talent, but the two refused to buckle and braced themselves to create magical music. Their determination was boosted by Baba’s infinite faith in them. And Baba confirmed his faith in Salil Chowdhury in his quiet manner, by signing Salil Chowdhury! The rest, as they say, is history.

After the release of Madhumati, the composer Salil Chowdhury signed no less than nineteen films.

Another anecdote, replete with the grace of that bygone era comes to mind. Salil Chowdhury enjoyed a warm relationship with veteran S.D. Burman. After Madhumati was released, he carried its 33 rpm long playing record as a gift to the senior composer. The record played on the three in one system as S.D. closed his eyes in rapt attention. When the music came to an end, S.D. came back to earth and shifted the paan in his mouth from one cheek to the other before turning to Sholil, as he called Salil Chowdhury to deliver his verdict: ‘Sholil, if they still call you a flop, just pack up and go back to Kolkata!’

Excerpted with permission from Bimal Roy’s Madhumati: Untold Stories from Behind the Scenes by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya published by Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.