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S.D. Burman – Interview (1959)

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Photo CaptionS.D. Burman with his son R.D. Burman

Not So Musical Escapades – by S.D. Burman

I was aghast at the thought of what my father would say to me when he came to know that I had been locked up for travelling without ticket!

We were returning to Comilla after winning a football match at a small town some fifty miles away. The last train for the day was about to leave when we reached the railway station, and all of us jumped into the train without purchasing tickets. We had enough money for our fare, and presumed we could pay when the ticket inspector came. Unfortunately, we did not think of the “excess” charges, from the last junction more than one hundred miles away!

The ticket inspector located us at a station only a few miles from Comilla. It was our misfortune that some of the boys of our college had thrown him off a train a few weeks earlier, and anyone from our college was therefore legitimate prey to him. We were marched off to the Station Master. This official ordered that we be locked up to be produced before a Magistrate next morning. The lock-up was the rat-infested luggage-room.

Only one member of our party seemed to be in high spirits, an irritating state of mind when the rest of us were mournfully thinking of the dual horror of the magistrate’s order and parental wrath. But this friend of ours was quite sure of himself. After surveying the lie of the land, he came over to me and asked me to sing the most beautiful bhajan I knew. His suggestion made me indignant. It was neither the place nor the time for devotional songs.

Our friend, however, insisted that the key to our salvation was in my grasp. The better I sang—and louder—the more chances we had of getting away. Feeling somewhat foolish, I fell in with the plan as other members of the football team nodded to me.

The young man then kept looking out of the window, and urging me to sing louder— and still louder. His vigil was rewarded when an elderly lady showed herself at the window, obviously moved by the music. She stood there, apparently spellbound, and our show went on. As the song came to an end, the schemer of our party dashed over to the window shouting— “Mashima” (Aunty).

Explanations followed fast and furious. We hurriedly hid our football kit when we heard our friend telling the old lady that we were returning from a Puja. She felt outraged that her brother, the Station Master, could be so heartless as to ill-treat a group of young devotees.

Our friend’s chance knowledge of the old lady’s bent of mind saved us. Telegrams were hurriedly dispatched to our parents, informing them that we were all right. Meanwhile, the Station Master, who had been our jailor only a while ago, became a lavish host. But, while the others were enjoying themselves, it fell to my lot to entertain the old lady and her family with bhajans till the first train left at dawn.

QUITE early in my career, in 1934 or 1935, I was thrilled one day to receive an invitation to sing at a music conference held at Allahabad. The organizers also sent me my railway fare, and I felt very important and proud. This elation, however, did not last long, for I soon found that I had been put down to sing on the third and last day of the conference, after all the giants of the music world had already performed. The folk songs of Bengal I was to put over were only an additional attraction.

I sat through the first day’s programme, enraptured by the performances of the great singers, but every time I thought of my turn to be in the spotlight, I felt a little more nervous. By evening, I was quite ill and took to my bed.

I told the organizers that I was too ill to face the audience. But they did not look upon my condition with sympathy. They were put out by the fact that I was going to disappoint them after they had spent a considerable sum of money on me, and they made it quite clear to me that, even if I had to be taken to the conference session on a stretcher, I was certainly going on the stage on the final day. They even took the precaution of bringing their own doctor to examine me. The doctor took one look at me and said, “He will be all right.” There was no escape now.

So, on the final day, I was literally dragged onto the stage. But I shall never forget the kindness of the audience. In the state of mind I was in, I could not have done my best, but they applauded my performance and thus gave courage to a very frightened and badly shaken young man. I often wonder what would have happened if they had acted otherwise and broken my spirit for ever.

When I returned to my seat, a little girl thrust a small book and a pen into my hands. I didn’t understand what she wanted. It was the first time anybody had asked me for my autograph. In the train, many miles away from Allahabad, I found that I had acquired an expensive fountain-pen. Then it dawned upon me that in the confusion I did not return the pen to the little girl who had asked me for my first autograph. Since then I have lost many fountain-pens to astute autograph-hunters, but never gained one.

THE aftermath of my first car accident was more alarming than the accident itself. It was in Calcutta, before the War. A couple of friends and I booked seats for a film at the Metro. I had a recording that morning, and by the time I came home and was ready only a few minutes were left for the picture to start.

Now the Metro was six miles away from my residence in Ballygunj. One of these friends had a ramshackle car but had no driving-license. Yet he was quite confident of taking us to the Metro in time for the show. I had my doubts, and later events justified them.

After weaving an uneven pattern down Ashutosh Mukerji Road, my friend came to grief near Jagubabu Bazaar and ran into a motor-cyclist. A hue and cry was raised by the passers-by. Crowds at such times are apt to create an ugly scene, and I urged my friend to drive away. He did not need a second bidding.

The car shot ahead, leaving the angry mob screaming revenge.

Looking back, I was horrified to see the traffic policeman commandeering a car to give chase! Obviously, our car was no match for the sports model behind us. Without another thought, I asked my friend to turn into the nearest by-lane. This would give us a better chance.

But our luck was out. We had chosen a dead-end lane! My friend groaned and brought the car to a stop. Our pursuers were already turning into the lane—we were trapped. Now the unexpected happened. Outside a house, a number of men were singing. They were collecting funds for flood relief.

I jumped out of the car and, before my friends knew what I was doing, joined the singers. Tying a handkerchief over my head, I prayed I would escape detection by the policemen, who were already at the car, and by the singers. The singers moved on, and I with them, slowly but surely towards the main road—and freedom!

I didn’t know the song they were singing, but I had been long enough in films to know that perfect lip-movement could pass off for actual singing. My lip-movement that afternoon was an unqualified success.

Crowds were already streaming into the lane, and their threats to the rascally motorists made my blood run cold. I decided to remain with the “begging” party although we were out on Ashutosh Mukerji Road. Even now recognition could be fatal.

After we passed Elgin Road I hailed a taxi. The cinema tickets were with me, and it seemed foolish to waste them. Also, the Metro Cinema would be a pretty safe place even if half the film had already been shown.

Incidentally, I never came to know fully about the fate of my two friends that afternoon. It was months before they would speak to me again, and any reference to the accident was like a red rag to a bull.

I HAD just returned to Calcutta and was excited to learn that Uday Shankar, the famous dancer, was in town. I had not seen any of his performances, and on that day he was giving the last performance of his Calcutta season at the New Empire.

As I had half-feared, all seats had been sold out by the time I arrived at the theatre. I went from one box-office to another in the hope that a ticket of one denomination or other might be available. I was bitterly disappointed, and was about to go away when a young man beckoned to me. He was one of the cashiers at the theatre. He asked me if I was Sachin Dev Burman, and when I said “Yes” he told me if I was keen about the show he had a ticket. I jumped at his offer and bought the ticket.

After the show, I found the same young man waiting for me, and I took this opportunity to thank him again. As he too lived in Ballygunj, we went home together. On the way he told me an interesting story.

“I was married a few months ago,” he said. “Came our first big quarrel, and for days my wife wouldn’t speak to me. Every night, after the last show, I would go home and find her in the same sullen mood. One day I was passing a gramophone shop where they were playing one of your records. I was attracted to the music, and since I had an old gramophone I bought the record.

“After dinner, I played it. Immediately my wife came up to me—she thought I had bought the record as a peace offering, and it was just the song she was longing to hear. So your beautiful song made our home happy again.”

I felt very proud of myself, but the young man was still fidgety. Then he blurted out, “When is your next record coming out?” I told him it may take about two weeks. But why was he so anxious? Looking crestfallen, he said: “We have quarrelled again!”

MY first big success in Bombay was with Filmistan’s “Shabnam,” but the film gave me many anxious moments both before and after its release, and indeed the consequences were almost disastrous.

Most members of the staff at Filmistan assured me that my music score was excellent, but Mr. S. Mukerji, my Number One critic, was for ever expressing doubts. One afternoon, Mrs. Mukerji came to the studio and saw all the song sequences in the projection theatre. She was pleased with them and told me that most of the numbers were certain to become hits. Then I let her know of her husband’s misgivings. This amazed her and she said, “Yet from morning till night at home he hums your songs.”

When I remonstrated with Mr. Mukerji, he wanted to know why his wife had been shown the song sequences. But for all his mock anger, the cat was out of the bag. He smiled and said: “Let us wait and see.”

The music of “Shabnam” was a great success, and I felt very elated when I saw that everybody was talking about it and that the songs were being played at all the restaurants. I was living in Sion at the time. One afternoon, I was going to King’s Circle station to catch a train when a group of men accosted me on the street and one of them asked me if I was S. D. Burman.

I nodded and, with thoughts of autographs, my hand automatically went to my pen. Suddenly I found myself grabbed by the scruff of my neck, while one of the men held me by my “kurta.”

“So you think you can make fun of our music,” they said angrily. “We will teach you what South Indian music is really like!”

One of the songs of “Shabnam” was a parody on the music of different parts of the country, and evidently the South Indian verse in it had not appealed very much to my assailants. I apologized to the gentlemen as best I could, and they made me promise I would never again satirize South Indian music.

FOR the first time in my career, I made a notable change in my style in the music score of “Baazi” which Guru Dutt directed for Dev Anand’s Nav Ketan. Many of my friends expressed serious doubts about the advisability of the risk I was taking. But I was determined to go ahead and face the consequences.

The most important experiment I made in that film was to have playback singer Geeta Dutt, then Roy, to put over the ghazal “Tadbir Se Bigri Hui Taqdeer Bunale” in the Western style. But when the film was ready for release, I too began to worry if I had not made a serious mistake after all!

Records of the songs of “Baazi” had come into the market when I went to Calcutta for a holiday. A couple of days after my arrival, a friend arranged a fishing jaunt to Ichapur, twenty miles away. I have always been an ardent angler, and you can say that I have been guilty of dividing my love between football and fishing. My friend assured me that the fish were just waiting to be caught. I left my house early in the morning full of hopes.

Ten hours later, I came to the unhappy conclusion that my friend’s view was slightly exaggerated. For the first time I came home without a single bite, let alone a catch. I realized that the cause was not the dearth of fish, or their disinclination to be cooked, but the diving, swimming, and romping of a number of youngsters in the pond some distance away. Continuous disturbance frightens the fish and makes them keep close to the bottom.

As dusk approached, I angrily strode over to the other side to see if I could admonish the kids and get them out of the water. As I came closer, I heard them singing, and never was music sweeter to my ears. All thoughts of fishing vanished and I enjoyed the deep satisfaction of having been right in my experiment. The song they were singing? “Tadbir Se Bigri Hui Taqdeer Bunale!”

But my troubles were not over. My wife, quite certain that I was coming home with a great load of fish, had invited a dozen friends for dinner that night. “Fresh fish! Straight from the pond,” she had told them. Rather than admit failure, I rushed to the market and bought whatever fish I could get. If I am an excellent judge of fish in their natural state in the water, I am a poor judge of fish sold in the market.

Our guests felt pretty sore and not a little hungry when my wife, having thrown my purchase into the bin, suggested that we go to a restaurant for dinner. This was one occasion when music was not helpful (This interview was conducted in 1959).

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