I often wondered who filled in when New Theatres stalwarts led by KL Saigal headed for Bombay in the early 1940s? I got my answer while searching for songs from the New Theatres era, when an unknown voice held me spellbound for its incredible charm. Then some videos turned up on the YouTube. So here was not only an excellent voice but also a young and handsome face by the name of Asit Baran who had some very successful movies and outstanding songs during 1941-43. For a long time I could not find any material on him – several friends, whose knowledge I admired, seemed to know nothing about him beyond having heard his name. Then sometime back, on my request, Mr Sharad Dutt, a well known writer and short-film maker on music personalities (you would have seen his films on Naushad, Mukesh, Anil Biswas, Talat Mahmood, Pankaj Mullick etc on Doordarshan), was able to locate a very old clipping of the Screen magazine, which contained an obituary on Asit Baran. Thus I am presenting this tribute to Asit Baran, one of the unknown stars of the New Theatres, on his death anniversary November 27 (he passed away on November 27, 1984 at the age of 69).
Born in a lower middle class family, Asit Baran Mukherji could not pursue his studies further because of his family’s difficult circumstances and took up a job in the Telegraph Workshop at Alipore. But music was in his veins. He joined the Orphic Club in Serpentine Lane near Sealdah where he learnt to play the tabla from the leading maestro Jnan Prakash Ghosh. Then he found his way to the Gramophone Company and AIR Calcutta to join as a tabla player. Because of his lilting voice he was often called upon to sing at music performances. At one of such shows he was noticed by Pahari Sanyal, who brought him to the New Theatres. There director Hem Chunder cast him as a romantic hero in Bengali film Pratishruti, which with its Hindi version Saugandh created a sensation. Next four years were a period of great success for him with several super hit films in Bengali and Hindi, some of which were made in double versions. His other notable films were Wapas, Kashinath and Wasiyatnama.
He was very active in Bengali theatre as well. Gradually he switched to character roles. One of his memorable roles was sensitive portrayal of the character of Girin in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta (1953). He earned acclaim for his graceful, easy style of acting and fine singing. In personal life he endeared himself to people around him with his affable temperament and inborn culture.
Here are some of the lilting songs of Asit Baran.
1. Tumne mujhse prem jata kar duniya se begana kiya from Wapas (1943), lyrics Zakir, music RC Boral
This is the kind of song which, if you hear once, sticks to you forever. It is ahead of its times. RC Boral creates a kind of bridge between Saigal and later-to-come Mukesh and Talat Mahmood. It also has a strong resemblance to Jagmohan, especially in the second stanza. With all this, it is surprising how could this song be off the radar screen of All India Radio. AIR’s New Theatres stopped at the quartet Saigal-Pankaj Mullck-KC Dey-Pahadi Sanyal. How lucky we are to have the wonderful gift of the modern era, the Internet without which such gems would have been lost forever.
2. Man phoole nahi samaye from Wasiyatnama (1945), lyrics Zakir Hussain, music RC Boral
The same team creates another romantic song.
3. Hum chale watan ki ore from Kashinath (1943), lyrics Pt Bushan, music Pankaj Mullick
Pt Bhushan was an important part of the New Theatres team, credited with having penned some of their landmark songs. Here Pankaj Mullick recreates the train song he composed for himself in Doctor (1941), Aha ayi bahar aaj aayi bahar. Another terrific early train song. Burdened by the great legacy, Asit Baran seems to be consciously trying to imitate Pankaj Mullick style.
4. Hum kochwan hum kochwan from Wapas (1943), lyrics Pt Bhushan, music RC Boral
You would not come across a more handsome and dapper coachwan, a perfect bhadralok, with no pretension of looking the part. Nevertheless the song is outstanding.
Mr Ashok Vaishnav in his last post on multiple version songs mentioned one of the categories as two versions of a song by the same singer in a film, depicting different moods – typically one showing happy and the other sad mood. Lo and behold, now I come across the other version of this song, fitting his definition. If a song could tell a story, this short version of Hum kochwan tells the whole story of the film. Asit Baran is a transformed coachman, now in a designer liveried uniform, which could have been tailored in Saville Row. He is wearing an equally impressive saafa. He excitedly opens the door for Bharati Devi, whom he was apparently expecting. But just behind her, a third person comes in view (Dhiraj Bhattacharya? So we have an early triangle). Without waiting for the guests to climb in, he grumpily goes around and jumps into his seat. Bharati Devi looks surprised at this discourteous behavior, but the third man is indulgent and tells her, the guy is new and otherwise nice, he would soon learn the manners of a coachman. He adds, the coachman is also a good singer and goads him to sing, you guessed it, Hum kochwan. As a tense Asit Baran sings this song, Bharati Devi becomes restless, apparently tormented by the association of this song with her past. Troubled by this turn of events, Asit Baran takes out his silent anger on the poor horses, whiplashing them furiously. The tonga goes out of control and turns turtle, throwing the three of them all around. No one seems to be any worse for this terrible fall. The third man pulls the whiplash to give the coachman a sound thrashing, when Bharati Devi comes in between and tells him she will save him with her life. The third man is now bewildered and gradually comprehends the state of affairs.
Hum kochwan (short and sad version)
5. Ab ayi basant bahar from Saugandh (1942), lyrics Pt Natwar, music RC Boral
One of his earliest Hindi film songs, the tune is simple and the singing style effortless.
6. Raja beti ke karala gunthlu tu, a duet with Shanti from Saugandh
Asit Baran is more confident in this outstanding duet in folk style with Shanti. It should rank as one of the best RC Boral duets. Considering that this was the first Hindi film of Asit Baran, this is some achievement.
7. Bhool na jana aaj ki batein, duet with (?) from Wapas (1943), lyrics Zakir, music RC Boral
I guess the lady voice must should be Binota Roy singing for the heroine Bharati Devi, who was also said to be romantically linked up with Asit Baran off screen.
8. Jeevan hai bekar bina tumhare, duet with (?), from Wapas (1943), lyrics Pt Bhushan, music RC Boral
Another great New Theatres duet. Hindi Film Geet Kosh does not identify either of the singers. But my guess is they must be Asit Baran and Binota Roy.
9. Door desh ka rahnewala aya desh paraye, duet with Kanan Devi from Jawab (1942), lyrics ‘Bekal’, music Kamal Dasgupta
Jawab is famous for Kanan Devi’s iconic train song Toofan Mail, ye duniya Toofn Mail. Here Asit Baran sings a duet with the most famous New Theatres lady, Kanan Devi. Asit Baran’s name does not figure among the film’s actors’ names. This is quite interesting. In that case, contrary to the trend of the time Asit Baran must be giving playback for some other actor (Barua?). Even though the playback technology had evolved, the norm was the actors singing their own songs.
10. Toota hai nata meet ka from Parineeta (1953), lyrics Bharat Vyas, music Arun Kumar Mukherjee
Now it seems he also sang a song in Parineeta (1953), obviously for himself (playing Girin). A sad song, which must have come after the realisation that Lalita (Mena Kumari) belongs to Shekhar (Ashok Kumar). By this time the era of actor-singers was over, and Rafi-Mukesh-Talat Mahmood held sway as independent playback singers (though Talat and Mukesh also forayed into acting, but not with much success though).