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Though He Actually Never Met Her…

February 22, 2022 | By

Gulzar voices his “deepest regard” for Sandhya Mukherjee, the Geetasri who never needed any Padma to become the voice of romance for generations. Ratnottama Sengupta explores how Gulzar connected with the iconic actor-singer foursome of Bengali cinema – Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Hemant Kumar and also Sandhya Mukherjee.

Sandhya Mukherjee

Sandhya Mukherjee (Pic courtesy: Collections of Sounak Gupta)

No, he actually never met her. And the mention of Sandhya Mukherjee in his recently published book, Actually… I Met Them? That’s a goof-up, admits Gulzar Saab in a chat over the mobile one morning. “I meant Sandhya Roy, then wife of Tanu Da – Tarun Majumdar – and inadvertently wrote Sandhya Mukherjee.” The error escaped him until it was in print – as part of the celebrated poet-lyricist-writer-director’s anecdotal memoir, 18 intimate word-portraits of icons of cinema and literature who have inspired him, published last October by Penguin Random House. And days after the 90-year-old ‘Geetasri’ was admitted to a hospital in Kolkata, Gulzar Saab told me, “Please convey to her my deepest regard and my best wishes for her to return to health.”

That, alas, was not to be. After battling for three weeks, she slipped into eternal sleep, joining the other melody queen who exited the earth on February 6. Yes, Lata Mangeshkar and Sandhya Mukherjee are names that inevitably come up when one talks music on the Indian screen – of 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. It was Anil Biswas who gave Lata a hit in Anokha Pyar (1948) by honing her voice modulation, her pronunciation, her breath control and also gave Sandhya her first Hindi film song. With Lata, Sandhya sang the lilting Bol papihe bol re, the song from Tarana (1951) that has renewed currency and gained countless admirers since she breathed her last. Hardly surprising that the two melodious artistes struck a quiet friendship that endured gossip of jealousy and rivalry.

Bol papihe bol re (Tarana, 1951) Anil Biswas / DN Madhok / Lata Mangeshkar and Sandhya Mukherjee

****

Gulzar Saab may not have actually met Sandhya Mukherjee but his deep regard for her stems from her close association with two persons whose presence have been very important in his life and work: Suchitra Sen and Hemant Kumar.

saptapadi

Eyi path jodi na shesh hoy (Saptapadi)

Sandhya Mukherjee was to Suchitra Sen what Mukesh was to Raj Kapoor – and Hemant Kumar was the voice of Uttam Kumar, the other half of the magic known as Uttam-Suchitra in Bengali cinema. Hemant Da paired with Sandhya Di and their voices breathed life into Ei path jodi na sesh hoy, that evergreen classic of romance embodied by the matchless Uttam-Suchitra pair in Saptapadi (1961).

Ten years before this, the Hemant-Sandhya duo had given us their first duet Gupchup gupchup pyar karein under the baton of SD Burman. I have not seen Saza (1951), directed by cinematographer Fali Mistry with Dev Anand, Nimmi and Shyama whom he later married. But I remember this dreamy romantic song from my earliest years, in which Burman Dada had punched in “naake mukhe chunkaali” (funny Bengali idiomatic words meaning a blackened face) in the garb of tribal words Tangoly o tangoly in the interlude. 🙂 And that unforgettable melody, Tum na jaane kis jahan mein kho gaye in Lata’s voice. Rut hai suhaani raat jawaan hai (Manohar, 1954) is another delectable Hemant-Sandhya duet in Hindi film music.

In Manek Premchand’s The Unforgettable Music of Hemant Kumar, Antara Nanda Mandal and Sounak Gupta follow their track before the baritone and the dulcet voice moved to Bombay, the hub of the Hindi film industry, around the same time, at the invitation of SD Burman. “They had already recorded at least four songs. Sandhya had sung a non-film song, Hriday tomaar bhoriye debo, and Ore jhora bokuler dol for Swami, both composed by Hemant in 1949. In 1950 they sang the duet Shono tobe boli for Apabad. The next year Hemant composed the beautiful Shivranjini-based Aandhar aami chhaya aami in her voice, for Jighangsa.” This song was reincarnated as Kahin deep jaley kahin dil in Lata’s voice for Bees Saal Baad.

Ami andhar ami chhaya (Jighangsa, 1951) Hemanta Mukherjee / Gouriprasanna Mazumdar / Sandhya Mukherjee

Between them Hemant-Sandhya ruled the air waves and emerged as the voice of an entire generation, whether they went to the movies or not. For love then was expressed only through songs — not dialogues, not dances, and certainly not physical intimacy.

And these songs were the staple of every music programme on Anurodher Aashar and Vividh Bharati, at Pravasi Durga Pujas in Bombay and Delhi, Dhaka and London. Some memorable songs of Sandhya under Hemant Kumar’s baton in Bengali films include Keno e  hriday  chanchal holo  in Nayika Sangbad (1967) and Akasher astarage (in Raag Vrindavani Sarang) in Suryamukhi (1956).

Singers Pratima Bandopadhyay, Alpana Banerjee, Sandhya Mukherjee and Bela Mukherjee with Hemant Kumar.

Singers Pratima Bandopadhyay, Alpana Banerjee, Sandhya Mukherjee and Bela Mukherjee with Hemant Kumar.

Sandhya Mukherjee, born and raised in Kolkata, was groomed in Hindustani music by vocalist A T Kannan – a disciple of Girija Shankar Chakraborty – and Chinmoy Lahiri, remembered for his khayal and dhrupad singing as much as for thumri and tappa. She then went on to train under the Patiala gharana legend Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. However, Indian cinegoers outside of the Bengali film circuit would perhaps more readily identify her with Bol papiha bol re, the duet she rendered with Lataji, and lip-synched by Madhubala and Shyama – both singing for heartthrob Dilip Kumar. Tarana had spelt the beginning of Sandhya Di’s playback career in 17 Hindi films but her presence on the Bengali screen far outshines that slim list.

Hemant Kumar, on the other hand, played a crucial role in Gulzar’s early years as lyricist, working with him in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Biwi Aur Makan (1966), Debu Sen’s Do Dooni Chaar (1968), Tarun Majumdar’s Raahgir and Asit Sen’s Khamoshi (1969). Barring Do Dooni Char, which was a Bimal Roy Production, all the others were produced by Hemant Kumar’s home banner Gitanjali. In fact, the singer-composer was Gulzar’s mentor after Bimal Roy passed away in 1966.

As Manek Premchand documents in the same volume, Gulzar was chief assistant in Kabuliwala produced by Bimal Roy, who had given the lyricist his break in Bandini. One day, since the film’s lyricist Prem Dhawan was away on a tour, the legendary director asked Gulzar to meet Salil Chowdhury and write a song, which later became the sonorous Ganga aaye kahan se.

“Salilda made me hear the Bengali version which he had written and composed for Rajen Tarafdar’s Ganga. I wrote the lyrics and Kanu Ghosh (not to be confused with Kanu Roy, the assistant who later composed music for Anubhav) sat at the piano and together we started creating the song. Once it had shaped up, Hemant Da was chosen to render it. What a wonderful choice that turned out to be!” – Gulzar Saab gushes. “Half a century later his singing still touches millions of Indian heart.”

Ganga aaye kahan se (Kabuliwala, 1961) Salil Chowdhury / Gulzar / Hemant Kumar

Ganga… was the only one of the 45 songs Gulzar wrote for him for which Hemant Da did not score the music. “One of the songs I wrote for him in Uss Raat Ke Baad,” Gulzar Saab often recalls, “Hemantda sang what many think represented his own life. The words were: Meri awaaz kisi shor mein agar doob gayi, Meri khamoshi bahut door, bahut door, bahut door sunayi degi… “The song was written for a situation, but since it is about a voice, it sounds almost autobiographical.” Perhaps the impact is heightened by the fact that the baritone used minimal instrumentation. Repeatedly. Think Tum pukar lo, tumhara intezar hai… or Ya dil ki suno duniya walon!

It was indeed a “resounding silence” when Hemant Kumar did not sing for Uttam Kumar. Their association had started with Sahajatri (1951), not a single print of which reportedly exists. Effectively then, their joint career took off with Shapmochan (1955). Their voices matched so perfectly that Hemant Kumar seemed the most natural choice to ‘dub’ – put in words – in place of the actor at a crunch during recordings.  After this, if the ‘spontaneous-but-muted’ Mahanayak outshone every other star of the Bengali screen, Hemant Kumar took on the mantle of Pankaj Mullick as the most resonant Rabindra Sangeet exponent and the male playback.

Hemanta Kumar and Uttam Kumar

Hemanta Kumar’s deep, soulful music was the perfect playback voice for Uttam Kumar’s own rich baritone. They worked together in several films starting with Shapmochan, creating everlasting golden hits.

If the actor is the body and the singer the soul of any screen song, then Hemant-Uttam-Sandhya-Suchitra formed a foursome that will continue to enliven Bengali movielore for decades to come. Sandhya’s voice became Suchitra’s so seamlessly that, after the actress passed on, her daughter Moon Moon Sen would reportedly call the singer to hear her mother’s voice!

priyo bandhabi

Priya Bandhabi – the last film that saw Uttam, Suchitra, Hemanta and Sandhya team up

Hemant and Sandhya, Uttam and Suchitra – the four legends came together one last time in Priya Bandhabi (1975). That was also the year Aandhi released pan India. In the second phase of their life, when the magic of Uttam-Suchitra was waning in Bengal, Gulzar gave a new lease to both the super stars. Aandhi saw Suchitra dedicate her sophistication, her glamour, her wit in such a way that a thespian like Dilip Kumar had gushed, “She’s not only extraordinary, she’s great.” And Kitaab offered Uttam the opportunity to turn out a controlled, understated performance that did justice to his reputation in Bengal and set the record straight in Mumbai.

This is a rare distinction that Gulzar can justly boast of, saying “Actually I gave them scripts sensitive to match their timeless artistry!”

***

In Actually… which has been translated from the Bengali Panta Bhaate – a compilation of columns for a Sunday newspaper – Gulzar reveals the philanthropic core of the baritone: “Hemantda made the down payment of my first house.” This, in Bombay, was as important a support as defending his poetry when critics questioned the incongruent metaphors in Humne dekhi hai un aakhon ki mehekti khushboo. “Perhaps it is solely due to his encouragement that the word ‘Gulzarish’ exists,” he places on record.

Like Hemant Kumar, Sandhya Mukherjee had her share of philanthropy that those who heard Bangabandhu phire elo swapner Banglay will recall – and those who’ve heard only Aye mere watan ke logon might not know. Sandhya Di had rendered the gentle yet arousing song on Swadhin Bangla Betar / Free Bengal Radio. The motivational recapturing of the suffering and sacrifices of the liberation army, Mukti Bahini, had instilled patriotic fervour in every ‘Bangaal’ and turned Banga Bandhu Mujibur Rahman’s dream into the reality – Bangladesh.

She had joined other Bengali artistes in raising money for millions of refugees fleeing the border although – unlike Suchitra – she herself was not born in ‘Opar Bangla’. Yet, such was the empathy with the people and the emotion in her words that listeners who heard her perform in Dhaka to celebrate ‘Amar Ekush’ – the state language day that is now the International Mother Language Day – still cherish the memory.

Bangabandhu phire ele tomar swapner swadhin Banglay — Sudhin Dasgupta / Abidur Rehman / Sandhya Mukherjee

***

There’s one other area where Sandhya seems to echo Hemant’s notes.

Days before she was hospitalised on January 27, ‘Geetasri’ had turned down the Padmasri offered to her as part of the Republic Day Honour. Outrageous, the junior most Padma? Certainly, insist most singers like Kabir Suman and vocalists like Rashid Khan who himself received the Padma Bhushan, while vocalist Prabha Atre was honoured with a Padma Vibhushan!

Geeta Dutt, Hemant Kumar, Sandhya Mukherjee, Lata Mangeshkar, Alpana Banerjee

Geeta Dutt, Hemant Kumar, Sandhya Mukherjee, Lata Mangeshkar, Alpana Banerjee and others (Pic courtesy: Pinterest)

“It was mindless,” agrees Gulzar Saab who knows that Hemant Kumar had turned down the honours twice over: the Padmasri in 1978 and the Padma Bhushan in 1987. Too late, too little: these honours had been given to their juniors long before they came their way, both the icons rightly felt – and both had the courage to express their dismay by rejecting the honours.

Incidentally Sandhya Mukherjee’s alter ego, Suchitra Sen too did not finally receive any national honour – not the National award, not the Dadasaheb Phalke award, no Padma whatsoever. Excellent actor, riveting personality with abiding appeal, famed beauty, super successful at the box office, best actress at Moscow, unifying the two Bengals with a museum in her birthplace, Pabna… Why was this denied the legitimacy of a national recognition for her undying contribution to Indian screen?  The astounding performance as Aarti of Aandhi went under our skin as we watched her layer the character with shades of reality that invariably put her co-stars in the shadow — be it Sanjeev Kumar or Ashok Kumar in Mamta. “And made real life political icons feel insecure,” some would add. And the reason she was deprived of the honour? Because the reclusive actor would not appear in public to receive it in person! Bunkum.

Sandhya Mukherjee now, Hemant Kumar then, Uttam and Suchitra in between: the government of the land has strangely overlooked the immeasurable greatness of all four legends. But as Gulzar Saab observes, the entire city came out to bid adieu to Uttam Kumar. And when Suchitra Sen was on ventilator, channel after channel counted every rise and fall in her breath. Because “she was, is and will remain Mrs Sen.”

I can only echo Gulzar, himself decorated with Padmas and honoured with Phalke, to say that a Padmashri for a peer of Bharat Ratna is assinine. For, Sandhya Mukherjee will remain Geetasri in every heart. And the path her voice travelled with never end.

(The views expressed are personal)

More to read

Gulzar: Redefining Poetry and Purpose In Cinema

Simple, Soulful, Sublime: The Music of Hemant Kumar

Eyi Path Jodi Na Shesh Hoy: The Immortal Songs of Uttam-Hemanta

Two Legends and Their Lives: Uttam Kumar Suchitra Sen

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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 CineBengal.com. 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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