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Phani Majumdar: A Journey Through Life…

October 6, 2021 | By

Phani Majumdar, the legendary filmmaker who directed classics such as Street Singer, Baadbaan, Oonche Log, Aarti, to name a few, had an illustrious career spanning films in several languages including Hindi, Bengali, Maithili and Malay.

In the first part of our 2-part Silhouette Special Tribute to Phani Majumdar, Ratnottama Sengupta pays a glorious tribute to the filmmaker, exploring his life and works and her own personal memories.

Radha Krishna statue

Radha Krishna statue copied from the Rangam Chitra logo

In our house in Malad, the Mumbai suburb that was home to Bombay Talkies from 1930s to 1950s, I grew up admiring a white murti of Radha Krishna. No, it wasn’t carved of marble, it was a statue cast in Plaster of Paris, from an image that was the logo of Rangam Chitra, the banner under which Akash Deep was made in 1965. This murti was one of three sculptures copied from the logo. One was used on the sets; the second retained by the director, Phani Majumdar, and the third gifted to the film’s screenplay writer my father Nabendu Ghosh because he came from a family nurtured in Vaishnav philosophy.

That this murti still holds pride of place in the Puja Room of our house in Malad speaks for the bonding between Baba and Phani Jethu – as I used to call him. Akash Deep, which had Ashok Kumar, Nanda, Dharmendra, Mehmood and Nimmi in the key roles, juxtaposed financial poverty against dearth of happiness and lack of love, through a young man reared in squalor. Seeing how poverty degrades the human soul, he turns toward a tall Mill chimney and his ambitions soar like a Chinese lantern. But more than a votive beacon for dead ancestors, it comes to signify his search for unseen horizons. His strong will and determination empowers him to work, plan and attain his objectives. He marries the owner’s daughter and comes to own the Mill. But his brother doesn’t share his ambition and goes on living in his father’s decrepit tea-stall; his sister falls in love with the labour leader; and even his wife is estranged by his driving ambition.

Phani Majumdar

Phani Majumdar

Phani Majumdar repeatedly returned to this theme of disillusionment with high life when it had no soul. It was at the core of Street Singer/ Saathi (1938), the New Theatres bilingual that had set the director on the path of glory while immortalising the singing stars K L Saigal and Kanan Devi with that single number – Babul mora naihar chhooto jaay. The storyline revolved around two street urchins who dream of singing and making it big in the glamorous world of theatre in Calcutta. The script follows them as they grow up, the girl finds employment but the boy does not, the disenchantment of their enchantment, misunderstanding, and final goodbye to ambition and return to rural roots.

Street Singer and Saathi

KL Saigal and Kanan Devi in Street Singer (L) and Kanan Devi and Sailen Chowdhury in Saathi (the Bengali version of Street Singer) (1938)

Akash Deep was the last of the five films Nabendu Ghosh wrote for his ‘Phani Da’. Their long association had started within months of Baba’s arrival in Bombay on February 6, 1951 as a member of Bimal Roy’s team. The first film they crafted together was Baadbaan (1954) produced by the workers of by-then disintegrating institution, Bombay Talkies. If I am not mistaken, Bombay Talkies Workers Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd was the first ever example in India of a cooperative set up to finance a film. And by many accounts, the theme of a young man raised abroad returning to his roots in Koliwada, bent upon improving the lot of his own people, had a freshness far ahead of its time: just remind yourself that this film about the life of fishermen and women of India’s Western coast spotlighted the hardships and woes of a marginalized lot before neo-realism had flown its flag with Do Bigha Zamin.

The crew of Baadbaan (1954)
(Pic: Old is Gold Facebook Group)

And more than a decade would go by before Chemmeen adapted from Thakazi Sivasankara Pillai’s fabled novel, to build upon the pre- and extra-marital sex between the daughter of an ambitious fisherman and the son of an affluent trader. The first notable celluloid creation from southern India, this Malayalam film was based on a popular legend among coastal Kerala’s fishing communities regarding chastity: If a married fisherwoman is faithless when her husband is out in the ocean, Sea goddess Kadalamma would consume him. When released in 1965 it received strongly positive reviews as a technically and artistically brilliant film. Screened at various international fests, it won awards at Cannes and Chicago. It was the first South Indian film to win the President’s Gold Medal for Best Film and was eventually dubbed and released in Hindi as Chemmeen Lahren and in English as The Anger of the Sea.

Titas Ekti Nadir Naam

A still from Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973)

Even more years went by before Ritwik Ghatak adapted the classic novel, Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), reflecting Adwaita Mallabarman’s lived experiences in a riverside Mallo (fishing) community. That was perhaps also the strength of Ghatak’s hyperlink film which the British Film Institute has termed the Best Bangladeshi Film ever made. For, it portrayed the river-linked life of multiple characters on the banks of Titas, the trans-boundary river that originates in Tripura and merges into Meghna in Bangladesh – from where Phani Majumdar originally hailed.

Recently my friend and kid bhai Sanjay Mishra brought me these two posters of Baadbaan which was first announced as Samandar and later christened Baadbaan, meaning the sail of a boat. An apt title for an emotion filled drama that revolved around an orphaned child adopted by rich parents as his fishermen parents perished in a storm in the seas. However, the title wasn’t the only thing that changed from the first announcement to the release. For one, star actor Dilip Kumar was replaced by Ashok Kumar, who was at the helm of Bombay Talkies since Devika Rani had remarried Svetoslav Roerich and bid goodbye to the institution founded by her late husband Himanshu Rai along with writer Niranjan Pal, German director Franz Osten, cinematographer Joseph Wirsching. And, Nalini Jaywant was replaced by Meena Kumari, then on the ascent with Baiju Bawra and Parineeta, again, scripted by Baba. Under Phani Majumdar’s direction Meena Kumari would touch histrionic heights in Aarti (1962), a film that gave Hindi screen an educated female lead capable of making her own life choices. For, the protagonist – a young doctor set on serving people – is engaged to be married to a senior doctor but when she falls in love with an unemployed poet, she breaks off the engagement with her boss who then plots her ruin.

Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari

Ashok Kumar Meena Kumari in Aarti where both play doctors

Phani Jethu’s knack for casting can be gauged by the fact that the endearing second lead was played by Usha Kiron. This budding actress from the Marathi screen was adjudged the Best Supporting Actress at the second Filmfare award where three of the winning films were scripted by Baba: Vijay Bhatt’s Chaitanya Mahaprabhu; Bimal Roy’s Parineeta, and Baadbaan. Four decades later Usha Kiron served Mumbai as its sheriff (1996-97).

Dhobi Doctor

Kishore Kumar and Usha Kiron in Dhobi Doctor lobby card (Pic courtesy: Osian’s)

Phani Majumdar had cast her again as a professor’s bubbly daughter in Dhobi Doctor (1954) – the second film Nabendu Ghosh scripted for him. Again, it was the story of a marginalized section of the land: a washerman’s son. Ramu, whose ailing sister dies as they could not afford the visit of a doctor, vows to become a doctor – but the journey towards the distinction is paved by skepticism, taunts and tribulations that fail to thwart his determination.

In fact, this concern for the well-being of the overlooked lot in the backwaters can be seen as a signature of the pioneer director. Think Kapal Kundala (1939), a girl raised in a remote forest by a tantric sage, who is the only human she has known until she meets Nabakumar, a city slicker, and enters matrimony that spells unhappiness.

The shiniest example is Doctor about a young doctor returning from his studies to serve his villagers. The story behind its making is as engrossing as the success story that entails it, I learnt from Pinakee Chakraborty, author of Chalachchitrer Itihashe New Theatres/New Theatres in the Annals of Cinema. “The year was 1939. Cholera had acquired epic proportions in India. Countless people were waiting for the last day of their lives. At that point Jawaharlal Nehru had come to Kolkata for some work. He met Sir Nripendra Nath Sircar, who was the first Advocate General of undivided Bengal. B N Sircar was then busy producing films, one after another, under the banner of New Theatres, and his fame had spread far and wide. Nehru was aware of this talent. At that meeting he told the father, ‘Your son is making very good films.  Please ask him to make a film on cholera which is taking a toll of so many lives. A film can spread the message in every home that it is very much possible to defeat cholera. Cinema is a medium that easily communicates with people and the message it spreads gains easy acceptance.’

“The message duly reached B N Sircar. He instantaneously decided to make a film that could help his compatriots recover from cholera. He sent for Phani Majumdar, then riding the crest of success after Street Singer, and entrusted him the responsibility of directing the film from a Sailajananda Mukhopadhyay novel. When it released in November 1940, it helped save many lives.”

Phani Majumdar had worked with P C Barua in Mukti (1938) which had Baba’s film guru Bimal Roy on the camera. In fact he had joined New Theatres as Barua’s stenographer and after scripting Prafulla Ray’s Abhigyan (1937) he assisted Barua in scripting Mukti.  He was then entrusted with the direction of Street Singer and its super success was followed by Saathi, its Bengali version; Kapal Kundala (1939) from Bankim Chandra’s novel (which had earlier been directed in Bengali by Premankur Atorthi), and Doctor (1940) Bengali versionRemade in Malay as Doktor (1958), years later it formed the spine of Anand Ashram (1977) – the Uttam Kumar-Sharmila Tagore starrer that was directed by Shakti Samanta who had assisted Phani Da in both Baadbaan and Dhobi Doctor.

KL Saigal and others in Saathi

KL Saigal and others in Saathi

All these directors had catapulted into national limelight New Theatres, founded in Calcutta three years before Bombay Talkies and by then the symbol of artistic good taste, technical excellence, and social awareness. But the decade that resulted in the carving of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 saw many big names trek from Tollygunje to Bombay.

Phani Majumdar’s reputation was built in the short span of three years between 1938 and 1940 but in 1941 itself he left NT to join Laxmi Productions in Bombay. In a way he led the exodus that saw Gyan Mukherjee, Amiya Chakravarty, Satyen Bose, Nitin Bose, Bimal Roy, Hemen Gupta, even K L Saigal, Prithviraj Kapoor, and Jaddan Bai make their homes in Bombay. There, they added glory not only to their names with mega successes like Kismet (1943), Daag (1952), Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (958), Gunga Jumna (1961), Anand Math (1952), Do Bigha Zamin (1953). They chiseled the careers of Indian icons ranging from Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand to Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar.

film Kapalkundala - Durgadas Banerjee and Nibhanani in Kapalkundala

film Kapalkundala – Durgadas Banerjee and Nibhanani Devi in Kapalkundala (1939)

In Bombay Phani Majumdar first made Tamanna (1942) and then Mohabbat (1943). With names like P Jairaj, Jagdish Seth and K C Dey in the cast, Tamanna introduced Leela Desai to the Hindi screen. The renowned beauty who was also adept at dancing had acted in NT classics such as Debaki Bose’s Vidyapati (1937); in President (1937), Nartaki (1940) and Jiban Maran (1940) – all three directed by Nitin Bose; and in Kapal Kundala (1939). As a wealthy girl Uma in Tamanna she loves Ramesh but since he wants to devote himself to the service of the people, she marries a rich man so she can financially support his ideals.

A poster of Samandar

A poster of Samandar

Mohabbat, clearly another love story, paired Shanta Apte with Pahari Sanyal. The highest paid leading lady of Marathi screen then, the dynamic personality who had made a place in the annals of Indian cinema with Shantaram’s Manoos/ Aadmi (1939) paralleled the status of Kanan Devi. Singing stars Apte and Sanyal were in the good company of another songster – K C Dey, the uncle of Manna Dey. Despite these highs, these two films could not match the impact of the NT films. So Phani Da freelanced as a director, for Ranjit Movietone and Bombay Talkies: Insaaf, Hum Bhi Insaan Hain (1948), Andolan (1951) – if the titles are any indicator, these were all on social issues. He dedicated Andolan, “the story of our struggles,” to “the future of our country.” Featuring Kishore Kumar in the central role, the film was made – it is said – to promote the Indian National Congress.

In 1954, Phani Majumdar did something few of his peers did: After Baadbaan the pioneer went off to Singapore where reportedly he made eight features in six years for the Hong Kong based movie magnate Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Production Company. Only Doktor (1958), with music by Pankaj Mullick, was a throwback to his Calcutta years. Not the others. Though influenced by the traditions of Indian cinema he was raised in, the Malay films were rooted in the peninsula. Hang Tuah (1956) starred the biggest Malay star P Ramlee as a popular Renaissance era admiral who fought under Malacca sultanate and his rivalry with a close friend. Hang Tuah was nominated for the Golden Bear, then in its seventh year at Berlin. Again, Kaseh Sayang (1957) was a war film based in Malay history about the Japanese invasion.

Hang Tuah

Hang Tuah poster

In Singapore – as in Calcutta – Phani Da made bilinguals: Long House/Rumah Panjang (1957) was an English-Malay bilingual about Borneo headhunters, shot on location. Sri Menanti/ Moon Over Malaya (1958) in Malay and Mandarin, adapted from the novel Fatimah, was an intercultural romance inhibited by racial prejudice and segregation, religious conservatism and repressive social mores. Simultaneously released in the two languages, it was an unprecedented success in Singapore as it cast both Malay and Hong Kong Chinese actors. Circus (1959), a Chinese-Malay bilingual, was his last before returning to India as Shaw Brothers were then in decline, faced with competition from black and white television as much as colour films from Hollywood.

Malay and Mandarin were not the only off-the-track languages he made films in. While still in Kolkata, Phani Majumdar had made Chambe Di Kali (1940) in Punjabi, perhaps because New Theatres had a studio in Lahore. I was pleasantly surprised to find the film online. The 1940 film had Mumtaz Shanti and Habib Kabuli in lead. The later version had Ravindra Kapoor and Indira Billi and was directed by B S Glaad. After his return to Bombay, even before he returned to Hindi hits with Aarti, he directed Bhaiya (1961). This Magadhi film in the Saratchandra mould centered on Parmanand, an honest young man who supports his family and makes many sacrifices including foregoing his love, to raise his two step siblings – who turn out to be thankless souls.

So, even as he was releasing Arati and Oonche Log and Akash Deep, he made Kanyadaan – the first film in Maithili. This was rooted in Sahitya Akademi award winner Harimohan Jha’s novel which continues to be read as much for its satire as for its strong criticism of social and religious ills in this pocket of Bharat Mata reportedly from where came Satyabala Devi – the mother of Monica, Ramola and Leela Desai. The eldest of the three sisters – all of whom were actresses – was married to Phani Jethu but more of that later.

Dil ka diya jala ke gaya (Akash Deep, 1965) Chitragupt / Majrooh Sultanpuri / Lata Mangeshkar

Baba – perhaps because he was raised in Bihar since he was four? – was Phani Da’s choice for scripting both Bhaiya and Kanyadaan. The Maithili film was produced by S H Munshi who was from Gaya and so was keen to make a film in a language of his soil. Munshiji had earlier produced Kafila (1951) directed by Aravind Sen and Baap Beti (1952) directed by Bimal Roy with Tabassum – then a Baby – and Ranjan, the superhit action hero of Chandralekha, who had acted in both these films that were scripted by Nabendu Ghosh. Baap Beti, based on his own Bengali story Meenakshi, had provided succour to Bimal Roy’s team when Maa was floundering as Bombay Talkies was in doldrums. Since then Munshiji had formed a bonding with Baba which resulted in his producing Dagdar Babu, based on Maila Aanchal by Phaniswar Nath Renu – again, set in Bihar – but unfortunately it remained incomplete when the producer passed away.

Oonche Log poster

Oonche Log poster

However, of the four films bearing Phani Majumdar’s name released in 1965, Oonche Log proved the most rewarding for the director and his viewers. Exploring how the families of both, a wronged woman and the man who wronged her, deal with the wrong, it not only worked wonders for Feroze Khan, then a young actor cast with the veteran Ashok Kumar and the dashing Rajkumar. The “brilliant movie with a captivating plot and about strong human values and emotions” won the National Award as the Second Best Feature Film. It built on Major Chandrakanth written in Tamil by K Balachander – then only a playwright. Much like Greek dramas, the complicated interpersonal relationships actually oscillated between love and duty, trust and honour, vengeance and guilt. With much scope for action, the film actually provided Insights into human nature and provoked viewers to ask, how far can even an educated man from a good family be trusted in love? Does family bonding matter more than personal integrity?

It is interesting to note that it was only after the success of Oonche Log that Balachander directed Major Chandrakanth. Featuring Jayalalitha in the female lead, the Tamil film made the lead actor Sundarrajan so popular that he came to be known as ‘Major Sundarrajan’!

And talking of National Awards: He won it a second time, for Savitri (1961), which he made for the Children’s Film Society of India.

Phani Majumdar with Indira Gandhi

Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi presenting the Certificate of Merit to Director Phani Majumdar for Oonche Log. In the centre is Nandini Satpathy, Deputy Minister for Information & Broadcasting (Pic courtesy: Personal album of Nabendu Ghosh)

The relationship between Phani Majumdar and Nabendu Ghosh remained very cordial till the end. He would often visit the director in his house in Santa Cruz, opposite Sacred Heart School and close to the chamber of Dr Rebeiro who was physician to many filmwallahs in Bombay. I have fading memories of visiting Jethu along with Baba but I distinctly remember his gentle ways and endearing smile. With his tall and robust frame, his cultured voice and thick lensed glasses he seemed most imposing – and so I would wonder why his wife was always sitting in a chair while he fussed over ‘Monica Jethima’. He was a perfect host to me, a negligible entity of six-seven years, but why was he in deference to the lady on a wheelchair?


Poster of Tamanna, starring Leela Desai and Jairaj

Years later, perhaps when she passed away, I learnt that she, Monica Desai, was a busy actress between 1940 and 1948. She had played Vishnupriya in Nimai Sanyas (1940). She had acted in Bhakta Surdas (1942), a grosser which was K L Saigal’s first film after he moved to Bombay. In both, Aparadh (1942) and Devadasi (1945) – which had Prithviraj Kapoor in the lead – she was directed by her husband. Kidar Sharma directed her in Gauri (1943) featuring Prithviraj Kapoor, and Bhaunra (1944), a musical comedy about two friends who arrive in the city to find a job, again featuring Saigal. She was seen in Chittor Vijay, which had Raj Kapoor and Madhubala in the lead. She was in Chitralekha (1941) which was remade in 1964 by the same director – Kidar Sharma. And in Kaliyan (1944) Monica Desai had acted with both her sisters, Ramola and Leela Desai – who later was the executive producer for Bimal Roy Productions’ Kabuliwala directed by Hemen Gupta.

At some point she had met with a nasty accident that left her bound to the wheel chair. The wonder of wonders was that Jethu had married her after it became clear that she was impaired for life…

(Pictures are courtesy the author unless otherwise mentioned)

Don’t Miss Reading the 2nd Part! 

Nabendu Ghosh’s tribute to Phani Majumdar

Excerpts from Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat
autobiography of Nabendu Ghosh

Remembering Phani Da

More to read

Meeting Ray: The Nawab of Sight and Sound

Dancing with Ray… An Unparalleled Celluloid Experience

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

Should Phalke, 150, Be Forgotten?

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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2 thoughts on “Phani Majumdar: A Journey Through Life…

  • Peeyush Sharma

    You always bring about very interesting anecdotes and they make reading anything written by you, Ratnottama, really with in-depth information. Thanks for the write up.
    Phani Majumdar (28 Dec.1911 – 16 May 1994) directed over 55 movies. Kishore Kumar, in one of his interviews had stated that the natural comic act that he put in with ease in film after film was inculcated in him by Phani da and Mohan Saigal.
    Though, I wish a little effort to check finer details could avoid distractions in this write up. To mention a few, that probably should be corrected:
    1. Nalini Jaywant was introduced to films in 1941 by Mehboob Khan in Sister (Bahen).
    2. Chambe Di Kali (1940) had Mumtaz Shanti and Habib Kabuli in lead. The later version that had Ravindra Kapoor and Indira Billi is directed by B S Glaad.
    3. Gauri (1943) by Kidar Sharma had Monica Desai with Prithviraj, but there was NO Raj Kapoor in this film.
    4. Meena Kumari when signed to play lead in Baadbaan had laid the condition that Asok Kumar would do the parallel main role.
    My effort is only to place things in right perspective. Thanks again really for this lovely piece on Phani Mazumdar.

  • Ratnottama Sengupta

    Thank you for all these corrections Peeyush Ji. It immensely adds value to the write up. We have incorporated the corrections.

    Thank you so much once again. 🙏


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