In the 2014 Bengali film Jaatishwar (The Reincarnate), a young Gujarati named Rohit Mehta falls in love with Mahamaya, his co-student at the university. Rohit was born and brought up in Kolkata but is unable to speak the language well. Mahamaya, on the other hand, “is Bengali with a vengeance”. She is willing to consider Rohit’s proposal only if he composes a Bengali song for her and manages to sing it “with proper Bengali pronunciation”.
While Mahamaya becomes an radio jockey at an FM station – where she plays only old Bengali songs, much to the consternation of her boss (the film’s director Srijit Mukherjee in a cameo) – Rohit heads off to America for higher studies. But he has not given up on Maya yet.
Looking for a dissertation topic, he comes across a reference to Hensman Anthony, the son of a Portuguese salt trader, who lived in Bengal in the nineteenth century and became one of the main proponents of a popular folk form called kobigaan. Excited, Rohit meets his doctoral advisor and seeks permission to go to India to find out more about this man. “There is very little information on the internet,” he explains, “apart from mention of a fictionalised Bengali film.”
This “fictionalised Bengali film” is not as obscure as this conversation might have us believe. In fact, it has a special place in Bengali popular cinema, not least for its songs, and is an important milestone in the filmography of its biggest star, Uttam Kumar.
Writer-director Sunil Banerjee’s Antony Firingee (literally, Anthony the Foreigner) is supposedly based on Madan Bandopadhyay’s serialised novel Kobiyal Antony Firingee, though there are many divergences from the text. The film is told entirely in flashback. Unlike his brother Kelly (the versatile character actor Haradhan Mukherjee in a brief appearance), Anthony is not shy of his native roots – their mother is Bengali. He hangs around with his workers by the riverbank, often entertaining them with Bengali songs. Anthony’s actions are a cause of considerable consternation not only to Kelly but also to Marina (Lolita Chatterjee) who wants to marry Anthony and tries, in vain, to get him to socialise with denizens of the white town –his “own” people.
After the death of their mother, Kelly emigrates to Portugal. Anthony is saddled with the affairs of the estate. But he has no interest in such practical matters. To assuage his grief, some of his workers persuade him to accompany them to a performance by a new baiji who has arrived from Murshidabad. But Shakilabai (Tanuja in her second Bengali film, after a successful debut in Deya Neya) refuses to entertain the sahib.
As they are leaving, Anthony hears her sing. He is entranced. He begins to spend most of his time hanging outside her house and slowly endears himself to her. Shakilabai, he soon learns, is Nirupama, a Brahmin woman who was married off to an elderly man. Rendered a widow, she had run away to escape from death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Her saviour, a man named Ratikanta, turned out to be a rogue who sold her off to a brothel owner.
Anthony and Nirupama, two outsiders with a passion for music, are drawn towards each other and soon get married. If this union wasn’t complicated enough, Antony begins to develop an interest in kobigaan, a popular folk form then in which the singers, called kobiwalas or kobiyals, engaged each other in one-to-one musical battles, often around, but not restricted to, religious themes.
Anthony wants to learn kobigaan and approaches senior practitioners, including the legendary kobiyal Bhola Moira, to teach him. They are intrigued but insist that kobigaan involves learning the shastras and a foreigner can never master it.
Anthony is initially dejected. But, with Nirupama’s emotional and material support, he begins to diligently study the religious texts. He forms a group and starts participating in kobigaan contests. The fame of the firingee kobiyal spreads, and soon he finds himself battling the same men who had once refused to teach him.
Though the singing contests ostensibly centred on religious texts, the contests also had enormous scope for personal attacks. And Anthony with his background proves a soft target for vicious barbs from his competitors, the poetry proving inadequate to cushion the sharpness of their blows. In a famous scene, a kobiyal pokes fun at Anthony’s clothes and manners, saying that however much he might try to be a Hindu, he could never conceal his real identity. Anthony retorts:
“Khrishtey ar Krishney kichhu bhinno naire bhai
Shudhu naamer phere manush phere
Ae kotha to shuni nai.
Amar khoda je, Hindur Hari shey.”
(There’s no difference between Christ and Krishna, dear brother/I haven’t heard of men running after mere names/The One who is my God, is the same Hari of the Hindus...)
Another remarkable face-off occurs earlier in the film. Anthony has again been persuaded by his friends to attend a mehfil, this time graced by a famed singer from Lucknow. After a dazzling performance (classical vocalist Malabika Kanan doing the playback honours), her mentor applauds and praises her to the skies. Anthony, still in thrall of Nirupama’s singing, gets up and tells the ustad that while he appreciates his protege’s art, he believes her singing has “taiyyari” (training) but no “dil” (heart). The ustad dares Anthony to come up onstage and prove his point. Anthony accepts the challenge. What follows is one of the great Bangla film songs, the brilliant Aami Je Jalsaghare.
While Manna Dey first sang for Uttam Kumar in Sankha Bela (1966), the stupendous popularity of songs such as Aami Je Jalsaghare and Aami Jamini ensured that the singer would become the favoured singing voice of the star, a mantle that had so far rested with that titan of Bengali film music, Hemant Kumar. This development probably helped slightly mitigate Dey’s dissatisfaction at being typecast as a classical singer or the singing voice of comic actors and older men in Bombay. (Incidentally, Jaatishwar is dedicated to Manna Dey, as also to Henry Derozio.)
While the songs from Antony Firingee remain hugely popular even today, they are remembered chiefly for Manna Dey and Sandhya Mukherjee’s vocalisations and Gauriprasanna Majumdar’s lyrics. Sadly, the film’s composer Anil Bagchi remains largely forgotten.
Ultimately, of course, Antony Firingee is owned by Uttam Kumar. The year 1967 was eventful in the extraordinary life of Bengal’s Mahanayak. Apart from the success of Antony Firingee, it saw the star reunite with Satyajit Ray (after Nayak) to play the detective Byomkesh Bakshi in Chiriakhana. His work in both these films secured him a National Award for Best Actor the following year, the only time he received this accolade.
But 1967 also saw the release of Chhoti Si Mulaqat, a reworking of the star’s 1954 Bengali smash hit Agni Pariksha. The Hindi film, co-starring Vyjayanthimala, was meant to be his passport to Mumbai, and the actor, who was also producing it, was trying to leave no stone unturned. But the project ran into myriad production hassles and caused him immense distress, eventually leading to a heart attack on the sets of Chiriakhana. When Chhoti Si Mulaqat finally saw the light of day, the audience rejected it.