Resurrecting Baiju Bawra
As Sanjay Leela Bhansali prepares to remake the evergreen musical, the author revisits its original glory
On May 12, 1907, a son was born to a humble railway guard in the sleepy village of Palitana, in the hinterland of Gujarat’s Kathiawad province. Little did its inhabitants know that he was chosen to be the messiah of India’s biggest creative arena — its film industry.
Indeed, Vijay Bhatt, born Vrajlal Jagneshwar Bhatt, is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the Hindi film industry. An engineering graduate from the prestigious Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI), he worked at BEST (Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways Company Limited) before deciding to follow his passion for drama. After scripting many successful Gujarati plays, he met yesteryears stalwart Ardeshir Irani, credited with India’s first talkie Alam Ara. Irani introduced him to Abu Hussain, the owner of Royal Film Company Studio which laid the foundation for Vijay’s debut film as a screenwriter. Soon, in partnership with his elder brother Shankarbhai, Vijay Bhatt founded Prakash Pictures, one of India’s earliest film banners.
After several successes like Leatherface (1939), Narsi Bhagat (1940), Bharat Milap (1942) and the colossal Ram Rajya (1943) — which saw Mahatma Gandhi attending its private screening in Mumbai — Vijay Bhatt finally conceived a one-of-its kind musical that bridged India’s ancient classical musical heritage with its cinema. It was the saga of the historic Baiju, nicknamed ‘Bawra’ or crazed, and the legendary Miyan Tansen, the pre-eminent figure of Hindustani music. Critics sarcastically called Vijay ‘Viju Bawra’, as he dared to explore a subject nobody would tread, risking time, money and creativity. Yet, his conviction had him firmly grounded.
The film Baiju Bawra took India by storm. “I was a school-going kid when Baiju Bawra was being made way back in 1952,” reminisces Vijay Bhatt’s only surviving son, veteran cinematographer Pravin Bhatt. “I remember my father’s intensive research in the field of classical music, his collection of rare books and manuscripts and meetings with experts. It would thrill me to see Naushad Sahab’s car parked outside our Mumbai home, announcing another absorbing meeting with my father.”
According to Pravin, while the grandeur in Bhansali’s films is eye-catching, he may not do full justice to Baiju Bawra. “Indeed, Bhansali will spend a lot of money on remaking my father’s masterpiece. I respect him for being the perfectionist that he is, but will he be able to do justice to Baiju Bawra’s soul? Resurrect the purity of Naushad’s music? I doubt it. If he does outdo my father however, that would be his real success. I wish him all the best,” Pravin says.
Research, passion and conviction blossomed into one of Hindi cinema’s biggest successes. The film Baiju Bawra was noted for its simplicity, its bold and unabashed declaration of love, the unparalleled musical genius of composer Naushad Ali, the lyrical magic of Shakeel Badayuni and Vijay Bhatt’s cinematic excellence. It was also the first time the glory of Indian classical music was exemplified on the big screen with some of the greatest Hindustani legends not only rendering their heart’s best but also performing together.
The film opens with a Khayaal rendition of Ustad Amir Khan in Raga Puriya Dhanashree, ‘Tori Jai Jai Kartaar’, depicting Tansen’s soulful solo. Rafi masterpieces in Malkauns and Darbari soak the film in the nectar of classical ragas, and the finale is the earth-shaking, one-of-its-kind duet between giants Pandit D.V. Paluskar and Ustad Amir Khan. ‘Aaj gaawat man mero jhoom ke’ plays in the afternoon Raga Desi as Tansen and Baiju have their final face-off in the presence of Emperor Akbar.
In 1959, Vijay Bhatt for the second time epitomized classical music’s glory in cinema through his super hit Goonj Uthi Shehnai, as legends Ustads Bismillah Khan, Amir Khan and Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan got together and made pure magic. While Baiju Bawra’s Rafi and Lata hits still resound in the hearts of millions, the film on YouTube continues to receive views and likes.
THE HEIR SPEAKS
“I remember my grandfather took me to watch Baiju Bawra when I was very little,” shares Bollywood filmmaker Vikram Bhatt, grandson of Vijay Bhatt. “It was a theatre near Kalbadevi, Mumbai. I have a faint memory of it, but a rather concrete memory of him being very proud of the film and wanting to show it to me and my cousins. It made little impact on me until I grew up and heard from the film fraternity at large what a great filmmaker my grandfather was and what a grand film Baiju Bawra was.”
He adds, “I saw the film again and I saw the magic this time. I understood that all great work of art comes from a deep place within, a place of love. It was only the fortunate filmmakers that found it. I have no idea what it is about love that flies out of the screen and into the hearts of the people watching. I suppose love is that kind of language and my grandfather knew it well.”
Remembering Vijay Bhatt won’t impact the modern generation, Vikram feels. “I remember going to Egypt and talking about Khafu and the man in the museum saying, "Who’s Khafu?" I looked at the great pyramid outside and said to myself, "Sorry Khafu! Making one great pyramid was not enough to be remembered.” Still, he believes Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the chosen one to remake Baiju Bawra. “Bhansali is a fantastic filmmaker. If there’s anyone who can remake my grandfather’s classic, it's him,” Vikram says.