When seven-year-old Mehezbin Naaz walked onto the sets of Leather Face,a 1938-action film starring Jairaj,director Vijay Bhatt was struck by the innocence of her face. He immediately cast her in the film as Baby Meena. The name stuck and little Mehezebin,with a bulky name,grew up to become Meena Kumari,the leading lady in another Bhatt film,Baiju Bawra. The story of a musician,Baij Nath Mishra,who believes that Tansen,one of the navratans of Mughal Emperor Akbars court,is responsible for his fathers death and wants to defeat him in a music duel,struck an emotional chord.
The parallel story evoked the universal story of two doomed lovers. My father would tell me that the climax of the film,where Tansen and Baiju fight for the top spot,was a huge attraction. People would come in hordes and stand inside halls to watch that particular sequence, says Pauravi Bhatt Pathak,granddaughter of Vijay Bhatt,as Baiju Bawra turns 60 this year. Some grainy prints are available with National Film Archives of India and the movie was converted into digital format some years ago.
The film was iconic in many other ways too it had music by a new composer,Naushad,who had convinced purists such as Ustad Aamir Khan and DV Paluskar to sing in a Bollywood film. As Baiju romanced boatmans daughter,Gauri (Kumari),by singing Tu ganga ki mauj,main jamuna ka kinara,a young nation was hooked to the twists and turns in the lives of the young lovers. The film also introduced Bharat Bhushan (as Baiju),and fetched Kumari her first major film award.
Pathak says Bhatt was a little superstitious about the release of Baiju Bawra. A day before the release,he left for a hill station far from Mumbai,worried that the film might not be liked by the audience. His brother had to send telegrams,telling him that it was being loved by people and he needed to come back to experience the magic, says Pathak,about the film that ran for 100 weeks a record-breaking feat in 1952. When Bhatt did return to Mumbai,it was to serpentine queues outside cinemas. He watched them from across the road,and said,When I came to Bombay,I spent many nights on this footpath. It has taken me more than a decade to cross the road, remembers Pathak.
Bhatt and his brother had arrived in Mumbai lured by the glitter of tinseltown. He would sell gelatin halwa on the streets to earn some annas to watch films at local halls. Eventually,he began writing scripts and was turned away from many studios till he met Ardeshir Irani,who encouraged him to start a production house. Many years later,Bhatt would meet the iconic Cecil B DeMille,a Hollywood filmmaker who had made Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah. DeMille wrote a note for Bhatt,which said,Greetings from one director who is still trying to make good pictures,to another director,who will make great ones long after I am gone. Pathak cherishes that note even today.
There has been no documentation of the film,which concerns Pathak. I have tried to collect some information and run a website so that people do not forget this great work, says Pathak. Some members of the film industry are said to be considering releasing Baiju Bawra in colour,and Pathak isnt pleased. I do not own the rights to this film and authorities may not even ask me. I dont want this film to be coloured,its magic lies in the way it is, she says.