Vanraj Bhatia: A Man of Music

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By Prithvijeet Sinha

As a young person in his 20s, it feels like being privy to the music of Mr. Vanraj Bhatia is a triumphant act of going with the rhythm of those who define the Indian cultural scene. To know his versatility is to align one’s interests with the resurgent parallel cinema movement which gave him room to flourish. I have always admired the man of music that he is and so as we pay tributes to him after his recent demise at 93 years of age, I am here to uphold his place in the pantheon of greats who had a distinct sound to provide multiple soundtracks with. What’s unique about his contributions is that his background scores were enough to get noticed by the sheer dint of diegetic understanding of plot and storytelling style. He was working at the height of his prowess when mainstream filmmaking techniques were being rendered asunder by the new wave. That’s where his haunting film scores graced the pioneering oeuvre of Shyam Benegal in the 1970s. The meaning of diegetic music changed hence from shrill, overused, melodramatic necessity to one of dense complexity.

His natural ear for sounds is all too evident in the opening shots of Ankur where a group of women in silhouettes performing a morning religious ritual are shown in a file, walking at dawn. Their actions occupy the soundtrack, making way for this placidity on the surface to burst open as the film progresses. Mr. Bhatia, despite his training in Western classical music and international stints in London and Paris, was secure enough to know from his very first film that the power of silence punctuated multitudes. He was willing to accommodate that innate understanding of Ankur‘s social milieu. In Nishant, however, he was able to drum up a symphonic sense of dread and fear from the opening credits itself, cuing a priest’s reaction to desecration in a temple by way of a robbery. But he was able to tone down his instrumental backing when needed, like the scene in which Shabana Azmi finds herself in a room after her abduction by the loutish brothers of the zamindar. Bhatia’s score goes along with the expressive tone of this scene to grasp Sushila, the protagonist’s knowledge of her current status and inner turmoil. It is held parallel to her husband’s (Girish Karnad) own poignant plight, in a quest for justice. It is a similar musical cue, mirroring their common angst, divided by subtle layers of complexity. That churning reaches a pitch of commotion towards the end as a revolt is instigated by the village folk. That uncertainty and fear of the future remains in the score. Cue Preeti Sagar’s singing on “Piya Jaaye Na” as Sushila and Vishwam (Nasseeruddin Shah) wait atop the rocks, weary and disgruntled by their lives. The situational song achieves that same weariness, as if the spirit has had enough. That’s the way he composed his scores, free from the frills of making a statement or letting his talent take precedence over the proceedings on-screen.

Of course, his crowning career crest was Manthan‘s iconic “Mero Gaam Katha Parey”. It became not only a theme song for this uniquely crowd-funded feature back in the day but paralleled the milk revolution spearheaded by Amul, in multiple advertisements which used the song’s folk brio and the film’s footage to further that legend in continuum. I remember watching the Amul TV spot around 2002 as a child and it stuck with me ever since, till I watched the film in 2018. In “Mero Gaam”, Preeti Sagar was his choice to lend credibility to diverse vocal styles which she adapted beautifully with each new innings. Her seminal work in Bhumika (1977) was buoyed by Bhatia’s zest for the life story portrayed on screen. From the love songs “Tumhaare Bin Jee Na Lage” and “Saawan Ke Din Aaye”, set in the commercial mold to mimic the cinematic journey of the protagonist, to the energetic Lavani ethos of “Mera Zaskila Baalam Na Aaya” opening the film. For me personally, I loved how he uses the classical composition “Moondar Baaju Re” at different junctures of the screenplay, whether it’s at an audition by the young Usha in the past or when she practices the raag with her beloved grandmother and then its employment as a soothing background motif for the adult superstar. The raag is essential to her identity and this strategic placement in the film guides her intense exchanges or introspective moments. Silences abound even then.

His love for those tender silences as conveyor of emotional value was glimpsed in a scene from Bhumika itself when Usha (Smita Patil) moves in with Kale (Amrish Puri); it’s almost like a music box guides the soundtrack, blossoming with their mutual attraction. That tenderness extended to his stellar work in 36, Chowringhee Lane and Pestonjee, two cinematic studies of loneliness centered on unmarried middle-aged protagonists from minority backgrounds, who while revealing the composite fabric of the nation, get subsumed in its forgetfulness regarding them. Piano notes catch the drift of their gentle, selfless natures as well as their solitary existence. Cue also the use of the sitar in a scene where Jennifer Kendal feels at home with others for the first time in years in 36, Chowringhee Lane or the final scene where violins accompany her lonely walk on a deserted road, with just a stray dog by her side and Shakespeare on her lips. Mr. Bhatia knew how to mould their inner worlds. His score for Benegal’s Trikal (1985) too revels in the use of piano, like in the opening shots where the narrator’s journey back home to Goa is emblematic of nostalgia. It also becomes a part of several indoor scenes of social interaction. But Mr. Bhatia infuses the typical Goan credo to the soundtrack when needed, such as one of the earliest appearances of Remo Fernandez and Alisha Chinai singing a robust ditty and conjuring up its magical realism with a heightened soundscape when ghosts, such as Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s Konkan chief, are sought and a colonial history of the place is invoked. And then scenes with minimal to no music are comfortably accommodated.

He is one man who could capture the vapid consumerism of capitalism through a jingle like “What’s Your Problem?” while structuring a pensive, drone-like score, using the flute, within the same film, Kalyug (1981) and have the lilting Banno Ritu grace a feminine touch for a Godbharai ceremony while using permutations of religious fervour and dogmas within the complex morality of a Kondura (1978).

We also must not forget that his unusual soundtracks, rich in the social context of the films, introduced us to many future legends. Alisha Chinai and Remo Fernandez notable in Trikal, while Deepti Naval entered the cinematic radar while lip-syncing to “Saawan Ki Aayi Bahar Re” in the 1857 saga Junoon (1978), the song matching her quintessential serenity. He could have the wistful “Ishq Ne Todi Sar Pe Qayamat” from Junoon itself, reach epic proportions with Mohd. Rafi on playback and let Lata Mangeshkar’s expertise colour the love-lorn melancholy of “Barse Ghan Saari Raat” from the underrated Tarang (1984); “Ye Shaame, Sab Ki Sab Shaame” from Suraj Ka Satva Ghoda was sung in the most mellifluous tone by Kavita Krishnamurthy and Udit Narayan. Who can forget Ishq Ne’s operatic extended opening strains or the lines “Priyatam Aao Re” coming from the depths of a desperately lonely soul from “Barse Ghan Saari Raat”? They are unforgettable melodies. A man with an exquisite chameleonic ability to adapt and impress, he could just as easily give us the Liril soap theme.

For me, Vanraj Bhatia benefited from the exemplary content that was produced by the filmmakers he worked with. It was very much a give and take process where pure creativity was a response to the evolved landscape of the cultural realm. With the likes of director Shyam Benegal, cinematographer Govind Nihalani, dialogue writer and costume designer Shama Zaidi and editor Bhanudas Divakar, he became synonymous with the resurgent cinematic team behind the New Wave, who stuck together as a solid unit, beginning in the 1970s and lasting till the 1990s.

As I conclude this essay, I am reminded of the piercing cry of “O, Rabba” and Uttara Baokar’s intense singing voice and facial earnestness while dedicating a paean to the Lord, kirtan style inside the gurudwara, before atrocities of the 1947 tale afflict them. That’s just a fraction of the aural impact of Tamas (1988), calling out through the corridors of history to remind us of an independent nation’s fractious foundations. A man of Mr. Bhatia’s calibre embodied multiple worlds and with his music, collective filmography available on YouTube and streaming services, it’s time we gave this musical pioneer his due. It falls on our shoulders to have a present generation gravitate towards his approach and of others of his ilk. This essay is just a small step in that direction.

Bio:
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow. After completing his MPhil, he launched his writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad in 2015 and on his blog ‘An Awadh Boy’s Panorama’. He has published in several journals such as Gnosis JournalReader’s DigestCafé Dissensus EverydayCafé Dissensus MagazineConfluenceThe MedleyThumbprint MagazineWilda Morris’ Poetry BlogScreen QueensBorderless Journal, encompassing various genres of writing, ranging from poetry to film reviews, travel pieces, photo essay, and culture.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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