Column | When a Bengali composer enhanced Malayalam film music

Column | When a Bengali composer enhanced Malayalam film music
Music director Sunil Chowdhury and writer ONV Kurup. Photo: Manorama
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A large number of Malayalis born in the late 1960s and 1970s were very familiar with the tune of Maanasamaine Varoo, a beautiful melody from the film Chemmeen. Many of these children who probably fell asleep to this song being sung by a parent would have probably not been aware of the fact that the music was the work of a legendary Bengali composer and the song was sung by a famous Bengali singer.

While the lyrics for the film’s soundtrack were penned by Vayalar Ramavarma, director Ramu Kariat, who had already displayed immense courage to bring a controversial theme to the Malayalam cinema, took another bold step of inviting a non-Malayali to compose the music.

After meeting Kariat in what was then Madras, Salil Chowdhury agreed to be a part of Chemmeen. The timeless melodies for the film were believed to have been composed from a room in the Hotel Woodlands.

Column | When a Bengali composer enhanced Malayalam film music
A still from the movie Chemmeen released on 19/08/1966. Photo: Manorama

By the mid-1960s, when Chowdhury agreed to work with Kariat, the Bengali composer was already world-famous thanks to his contribution to Hindi and Bengali films. His biggest success at that point was the soundtrack to Do Bigha Zameen, a film that won the International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954.

Kariat’s film, which forever changed the way changed the way Malayali filmmakers looked at the commercial cinema, also brought about a change in the way Malayalam music was composed. Maanasamaine Varoo sounds more like a typical Bengali melody than a Malayalam film song.  While all the songs from the film are still family favourites in the Malayalam-speaking world, the Bengali-sounding tune occupies a special place.

Column | When a Bengali composer enhanced Malayalam film music
Song recording of film Rasaleela of RGT films at Gemini Studio. Clockwise from L to F: Cartoonist Thomas, Vayalar Rama Varma, P Jayachandran, Manikandan, Carmal Johny film director N Sankaran Nair, Recordist Kodiswara Rao with music director Salil Chowdhury. Photo: Manorama

The song also stands out since it was sung by one of India’s greatest playback singers of all time, Manna Dey. Maanasamaine Varoo is the only Malayalam song that Dey ever sang. The talk is that he was given the song since Chowdhury felt Yesudas sang too many songs in the film, but this has since been denied by those who worked closely with the composer. They have often cited a long-term partnership between the two in many Malayalam films.

In a book titled Conscience of the Race: India’s Offeat Cinema, Bibekananda Ray said Chemmeen helped Malayalam cinema spread is reach. “It introduced Malayalam film with a bang outside Kerala with music by Salil Chowdhury; Mumbai’s ‘best cutter’, Hrishikesh Mukherjee edited it and Marcus Bartley wielded the cinema,” Ray wrote.

Column | When a Bengali composer enhanced Malayalam film music
Salil Chowdhury (L), A still from the movie Chemmeen (R) - Sheela and Madhu. Photo: Manorama

The success of Chemmeen also made Chowdhury a household name in Kerala and led to him composing music for more than 25 Malayalam films over a period that lasted almost three decades. This included Chowdhury working with Valayar Ramavarma and poet O N V Kurup. Literary and film critics joke that the relationship between O N V and Chowdhury was the best partnership ever between a Malayali and Bengali.

Chowdhury once famously said, “I want to create a style which shall transcend borders — a genre which is emphatic and polished, but never predictable.” Chemmeen was a fine example of what the great composer described. The film’s soundtrack drew heavy inspiration from folk music traditions from Assam, Nepal and Bengal.  While many Malayalis take pride in the fact that Kadalinakkara celebrates the culture of Kerala’s fisherfolk, they are not aware of the fact that the music was inspired from folk songs from other parts of India. However the song is very much a part of the cultural ethos of Kerala’s fishing community, and therein lies the genius of Bengali composer.

Column | When a Bengali composer enhanced Malayalam film music
Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Photo: Manorama

Since the passing away of Chowdhury in 1995, there hasn’t been a lot of standout music that has come from the Malayalam film industry. A large number of songs seem to be inspired from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, but (unlike Tamil music) we do not hear of songs that get dubbed into other languages from Malayalam.

Chowdhury’s entry into Malayalam films revolutionized the music that we heard in them.  The time has come for some fresh blood or ideas that can help Malayalam music go global. The language is sweet and poetic enough to be compatible with some fine music, yet we lack the kind of musical innovation that appeals to a much wider audience. Chowdhury managed to inspire other greats such as Illayaraja and A R Rahman. It’s innovation and experimentation that will help Malayalam music transcend borders.

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