As a young boy, Mandeep Singh Sidhu would be immersed in music for hours at his grandfather’s house in Bhatinda. He would be glued to the gramophone that would belt out old Hindi and Punjab film songs and carefully note the lyrics of the songs in his diary, wondering how he could get these songs. He would visit music centres to record them in audio cassettes.
This was an informal beginning of an archive of music that Sidhu started building in the late 1980s.
He collected records, VHS tapes, cassettes and DVDs. “I had built such a collection that I dreamt of opening a music centre to showcase it, but there wouldn’t be any sales. The only impediment was how would I earn my living, as my family was supporting me to pursue my passion,” says Patiala-based Sidhu.
The 45-year-old film historian, writer and poet has published his first anthology of the history of Punjabi cinema, Punjabi Cinema Da Schittar Itihaas (The Illustrated History of Punjabi Cinema). Released this week, the book chronicles the period between 1935 and 1985, and features accounts by several unacknowledged people in Punjabi cinema who fought against all odds to give the industry a strong foundation. When Sidhu began researching for the project, he realised there was hardly any information or written material on the subject. Many were not even aware of the first Punjabi film, production houses, actors, singers and filmmakers. “Punjabi is my maa boli (mother tongue), and I felt a certain sense of responsibility to document and archive this priceless part of our history for the future generations,” says Sidhu.
For the project, Sidhu travelled to villages, towns and cities across Punjab to find private collectors of films, music, magazines and literature related to Punjabi films. He also visited university libraries. The information was hard to come by and scattered. The format of the book is extensive and Sidhu did not want to miss any details, so he also travelled to Mumbai, Lahore, Kolkata and Pune, major centres for films made during the 1930s. Sidhu browsed through archives to discover that Ishq-e-Punjab was the first Punjabi talkie (Hindmata Cinetone) made in 1935. “Lahore was the main centre of production houses such as Pancholi Art Banner, Shorey Studio and Union Pictures. The first film made in independent India was Chaman in 1948. It was a blockbuster. It is part of my ever-growing collection. The songs of the film that were sung by Kuldeep Kaur were extremely popular and later they took the form of folk songs,” says Sidhu, who has written several articles on both Hindi and Punjabi films.
Sidhu says, the book was possible because of contributions of several people across the world. London-based historian Balbir Singh Kanwal, who has researched extensively on Punjabi folk people, couriered him booklets of several Punjabi films. He also introduced him to several other people. Balkit Singh Pesi from Canada gave Sidhu his entire collection of records, films and cassettes of Punjabi films and music.
Sidhu’s 296-page book has a record of 221 Punjabi feature films and 1,885 songs. It has detailed information on the pioneers of Punjabi cinema and many covers of 78 RPM records. “My perseverance was being rewarded and my prayers were being answered, as the information flowed. When I realised that there is a treasure trove in Pakistan, I travelled to Lahore several times, facing many difficulties with the customs. At the music centres in Hira Mandi I found several Punjabi films made since 1935,” says he. Sharing trivia, he adds, that while many films were based on the love legends of Punjab, Matwali Meera was the first Bhakti-dominated Punjabi film and Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai, made in 1969, won a National Award. “I hope this effort will prove valuable to many. I hope to work on another book, charting the journey of Punjabi cinema after 1985,” says Sidhu.