When Bimal Roy decided to adapt the Bengali novel Tamasi as Bandini in 1963, it was a given that he would turn to his regular collaborator Shailendra to write the film’s songs. But there was one small problem: SD Burman and Shailendra had had a fight and were not on speaking terms.

So Shailendra asked a talented, young poet he had befriended at the Bombay Youth Choir to go and meet the director. The young man, who was then doing odd jobs at a garage, demurred; he dreamt of being a litterateur, not a film lyricist.

Shailendra would probably have smiled to himself. Years earlier, a young Raj Kapoor, having heard Shailendra recite one of his poems at a soiree, had approached him to write for his next film. Shailendra had refused; my poems are not for sale, he had imperiously declared. Shailendra was then employed as an apprentice at the railway workshop in Matunga. The young poet’s defiance would surely have reminded Shailendra of this incident from his past. He persisted and managed to persuade the poet to go and meet Bimal Roy.

About the meeting, Gulzar later told an interviewer, “Bimalda ran an eye over me and asked Debu [Roy’s assistant] in Bengali, “Bhadralokki [Boishnob] kobita jaane?” (What does this gentleman know about Vaishnav poetry?) When Debu smiled and told him that I knew Bengali, Bimalda actually blushed in embarrassment.”

Roy then explained the song situation to Gulzar and dispatched him to meet Burman, who made him listen to the tune. (This was also the writer’s first meeting with RD Burman, who was then assisting his father.) Gulzar says he came back and wrote the song quickly, but it took him a week to polish it.

His efforts paid off as Burman loved it. “When he approved it, I told him I’d now show it to Bimalda. ‘Can you sing?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘my talent extends only to writing.’ So he forbade me from going to Bimalda. ‘Arre, tum kaisa bhi sunaiga, aur hamara tune reject ho jayega,’ was his reasoning. I was struck by his humility; here was such a great music composer who seriously feared his tunes could be rejected.”

Mora Gora Ang Lai Le.

Mora Gora Ang Lai Le is the only song Gulzar wrote for Bandini. By then Burman and Shailendra had made their peace, and the latter wrote the remaining songs. [A concerned Bimal Roy then asked Gulzar to join in on his next production, which was being directed by Hemen Gupta. Kabuliwala, for which Gulzar wrote Ganga Aaye Kahaan Se, went on to release earlier than Bandini.]

Bandini is also significant because it marked the return of Lata Mangeshkar to the Burman fold. The two stalwarts had stopped working with each other in the late 1950s after Mangeshkar took offence to a comment allegedly made by the composer. Years later, speaking to a journalist, she explained: “He was quoted in an article saying, ‘Who made Lata’s career? We did. We gave her the songs.’ I don’t know if he was misquoted but we didn’t talk for three to four years. Till his son Pancham [RD Burman] mediated. When Burman Sr called, I was still very angry and spoke to him very curtly. Then he said, “Lata, tu aaja, tujhe gaana hai” and my anger evaporated. We broke the ice with the song Mora gora ang layee le in Bandini.”

Like Mora Gora Ang Lai Le, the other Mangeshkar solo in the film, Jogi Jab Se Tu Aaya Mere Dware, also features the central character Kalyani (Nutan). In the film, Kalyani and her father are depicted as being Vaishvanites. This biographical detail, which probably had a lot to do with the personal background of the film’s writer, Nabendu Ghosh, informs both these timeless melodies.

Both these songs also provide us with the opportunity to see how two of our finest film lyricists – one at the beginning of a glittering career, the other hurtling towards a tragic end – responded to what was essentially the same brief. Note, for example, how they bring out the confusion and indecision in the mind of the woman who has fallen in love for the first time.

Mora Gora Ang Lai Le: “Ek laaj roke paiyyan, ek moh kheenche baiyyan, jaoon kidhar na jaanon, humka koi batai de.”

Jogi Jab Se Tu Aaya: “Jaa ke panghat pe baithoon main, Radha diwani, bin jal liye chali aaoon, Radha diwani, mohea jab yeh rog laga re.”

In the period during which Mangeskar and Burman were having their little cold war, inevitably it was Asha Bhosle who became the composer’s mainstay. (However, it is pertinent to recall that, during this period, Burman also gave a handful of songs to Suman Kalyanpur, the only time he worked with this singer whose voice had an uncanny similarity to Mangeshkar’s. That probably tells us something.)

Like her sister, Asha Bhosle also has two songs in Bandini. The deeply moving Ab Ke Baras remains one of her finest songs, a mark of her amazing versatility as a playback singer. A married woman’s lament about the home she has left behind and her lost childhood, Ab Ke Baras is said to be based on a Raksha Bandhan folk song sung in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Shailendra’s words gain further poignancy as the song is sung by an inmate of the female prison ward. To get Bhosle into the right frame of mind, the wily music director is said to have asked the singer to put herself in the young bride’s shoes. It sure worked.

The other Asha Bhosle solo is the more upbeat O Panchhi Pyare. The song opens with the sounds of grain being winnowed and pounded. I recall attending a programme featuring the late Homi Mullan, a percussionist who was a sitting member with the Burmans, where he gave a demonstration of how the winnowing sound was created in the studio: they actually used traditional bamboo winnowing fans and rice to produce the effect.

Its rhythm – and the timing of its occurrence in the film – suggests that O Panchhi Pyare is a song signifying hope, represented by the call of the bird, the harbinger of spring. But inside a prison ward, hope can be fragile and fleeting, as Shailendra is quick to remind us: “Main toh panchhi, pinjre ki maina, pankh mere bekaar; beech hamare, saat re saagar, kaise chaloon uss paar.”

O Panchhi Pyare

If Bandini had an alternate title, then it would probably have been Uss Paar. In fact, it would be fair to say that the film’s songs are about crossings, real and imagined, literal and metaphorical. This, of course, is obvious in the case of Ab Ke Baras and O Panchhi Pyare, where the suppressed desires of the prison inmates find their release in song.

One can also make a strong argument that the two Lata Mangeshkar solos mark the central character’s passage from adolescence to adulthood.

In Manna Dey’s stirring Mat Ro Mata, we again come across a character embarking on a voyage. The song is being sung by a prisoner on death row as he makes his final journey, the walk towards the gallows. The condemned freedom fighter’s mother watches on, but it is amply clear that the “mata” in the song has a dual meaning. In the face of imminent death, the man shows no sign of despair, however. This is not the final exit; there is the hope of regeneration: “Phir janamungaa us din, jab aazaad bahegi Ganga; unnat bhaal Himaalay par, jab laharayega tiranga.”

Mat Ro Mata.

Like Ab Ke Baras, where Shailendra ingeniously transmutes a folk song about the bride missing her childhood home into a prisoner’s lament, in O Janewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana the lyricist cleverly uses a bidaai (a song traditionally sung when the daughter gets married and leaves her home) in a crucial scene where Kalyani runs away from her father’s house.

It is pertinent to recall another bidaai song (this one written by Majrooh Sultanpuri) from an earlier SD Burman film: Chal Ri Sajni from the Dev Anand-Suchitra Sen starrer Bambai Ka Babu (1960). Apart from the fact that both these songs are rendered by Mukesh, what is striking is the composer’s use of the chorus. But O Janewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana is much darker in tone; there’s almost a funereal aspect to it, exemplified by the wailing chorus. There is no turning back from here.

O Janewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana.

Early on in a fascinating, but perhaps misguided, essay on Shailendra, the anatomist Ashraf Aziz quotes the poet-critic Malcolm Cowley: “Poets in particular, among whom suicide is almost an occupational disease, are likely to write messages to the world that neglected them.”

Inspired by Cowley, Aziz hunts for coded messages about Shailendra’s impending suicide in his film songs. Inevitably, the Bandini soundtrack becomes, for him, the veritable smoking gun. Especially its final song, the bhatiyali-inspired O Mere Manjhi, sung by SD Burman himself in his inimitable voice.

O Mere Manjhi.

“The proximate ‘space’ of [Shailendra’s] poetry,” writes Aziz, “was defined by the banks of the Ganges; the problem of life was to get from one shore to the other…The other bank [‘uss paar’] was more than physical territory; it connoted the other side of life.”

If you subscribe to this line of thought, then let me also point out that it was the same Shailendra who, not bound by the demands of a screenplay, once wrote:

“Tu zinda hai tu zindagi ki jeet mein yakeen kar
Agar kahin hai swarg tu utaar la zameen par
Tu zinda hai
Yeh gham ke aur chaar din, sitam ke aur chaar din
Yeh din bhi jayenge guzar, guzar gaye hazaar din.”