In 1955, the songwriting duo Shankar-Jaikishan approached singer Manna Dey to record a musical duel with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for an upcoming film “Basant Bahar”. The streak forced Dey to score against the pillar of Kirana Gharana. Hearing this, Manna Dey blatantly declined the offer saying he couldn’t understand Panditji’s defeat, even on screen. It took a long time to convince the veteran singer and that’s how Ketaki Gulab Juhi, one of the most iconic songs in Indian cinema, was recorded. Despite millions of movie songs based on classic ragas, we have seen very few Hindustani classical music themed movies. Popular perception goes: it’s hard to blend classical music into contemporary stories. Last year, Anand Tiwari attempted to tap into this largely unexplored genre with Bandish Bandits. Despite its inconsistent pace, the Amazon Prime series created a musical impact. Here we have compiled a list of 8 musical dramas where classical music is the key element of the storyline.
1) The Disciple (2020):
Chaitanya Tamhane’s feature film Marathi is a unique film in many ways. It explores the journey of Sharad Nelukar, an avid practitioner of Hindustani classical music, who seeks unblemished perfection but fails to meet the expectations of the people around him. Tamhane, who was to critical acclaim for his feature debut, Court, once again marks with introspective introspection into a musical tradition that has largely resisted any change and challenges its culture of reverence and submission. With Alfonso Curan as executive producer and Michal Sobocinski as cinematographer, The Disciple presents the ethical dilemma as music meets market.
2) Baiju Bawara (1952):
Baiju Bawara is the story of a little-known singer who challenges the legendary Tansen to a musical duel at the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. At its core, Baiju Bawra is a love story, but it’s her music that binds them together. The period drama is best known for the exemplary music of Naushad. Each song is based on classic Ragas including Mann Tadpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj (Malkauns), O Duniya ke Rakhwale (Darbari) TU Ganga Ki Mauj (Bhairavi) among others. Baiju Bawara is also known for his famous musical duel ‘Aaj Gaawat Man Mero Jhoomke’ where Ustad Amir Khan and Pandit DV Paluskar.
3) Sankarabharnam (1980):
The Telugu musical drama highlights the divide between classical and Western music based on the perspective of people from two different generations. The film is about Sankara Shastry (JV Somayajulu), a Carnatic music purist, who gives refuge to Tulsi, the daughter of a prostitute who has been forced into the same profession by her mother. Society raises questions about their relationship, forcing Tulshi out of her life. She is reintegrating her life at a time when pop music made her irrelevant. The rest of the story revolves around the episodes that lead to the reincarnation of classical music. The film was a commercial and critical success. Sankarabharnam has won four national cinema awards, and JV Somayajulu’s portrait of the musician is still considered one of the greatest performances in Indian cinema.
4) Katyar Kaljat Ghusali (2015):
Adapted from the popular Marathi play of the same name, director Subodh Bhave revolves around the battle between two musical gharanas in the kingdom of Vishrampur. The Shankar-Ehassan-Loy trio recreated the compositions of Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, a famous Hindustani singer and songwriter. The film is remembered for its great performances, opulent artistry and costumes and, of course, haunting music. Effective interpretations of classics like ‘Ghei Chhanda Makranda’, ‘Soorat Piya Ki’ and ‘Dil Ki Tapish’ are sure to touch you. The film also won the Mahesh Kale National Film Award for Best Playback Vocalist.
5) Bharatham (1992):
The Mohanlal-starrer is interpreted as a modern adaptation of the Ramayana from the point of view of Bharata. The film tells the story of a family with a long musical tradition and how the younger brother takes the reins of the family into his own hands after the elder becomes an alcoholic. The film was widely praised for its largely classical and semi-classical Carnatic music. The film won three national film awards: best actor for Mohanlal, best male reading singer for KJ Yesudas for the song “Rama Katha Ganalayam”, and special mention for music by Raveendran
6) Sardari Bégum (1997):
Director Shyam Benegal focuses on the tumultuous life of a singer from Thumri who was accidentally killed during community riots in New Delhi. With Kirron Kher in the lead role, the film portrays the love, career and struggles of the famous eponymous 20th century singer. It is more an exploration of the artist than of art. The excellent musical score by composer Vanraj Bhatia and the melodious voice of Aarti Ankalikar make Sardari Begum more captivating
7) Khayal Gatha (1989):
Directed by Kumar Shahani, it is an experimental film retracing the history of the Khayal genre of Indian classical singing. The film also explores the relationship between the Khayal genre and the classical dance form. With Rajat Kapoor and Mita Vashish, the film reconstructs popular stories linked to the evolution of classical music. It is considered to be an important documentation of the tradition of Indian classical singing.
8) Thillana Mohanambal (1968):
One of the most famous Tamil classics, Thillana Mohanambal is also credited with showcasing the traditional arts of South India. With Sivaji Ganeshan and Padmini in the lead roles, the musical drama tells the story of a Nadaswaram player who falls in love with a Bharatnatyam dancer. The immortal competition of music and dance as depicted in the film has left an indelible mark on the minds of the previous generation. The film won two national cinema awards: Best Feature Film in Tamil (President’s Silver Medal) and Best Cinematography.