On the advice of Ken Patel, owner of Wilma’s Cafe in Naperville (one of my favorite local hangouts), I sought out Baiju Bawra, Ken’s favorite movie when he was a kid. Thank goodness it’s available on Netflix, because Baiju Bawra is a real gem. This black-and-white classic is renowned for its amazing soundtrack, but its story is as epic and dramatic as a Greek tragedy.
Baiju Bawra tells the story of a singer named Baiju (Bharat Bhushan). As a young boy, he witnesses his father’s murder by guards at the palace of Emperor Akbar. His father made the mistake of singing on palace grounds, an act forbidden by the royal singer, Tansen (Surendra). Before he dies, Baiju’s father begs his son to avenge his death and kill Tansen.
Baiju’s vengeance is delayed when a kindly man takes him in and teaches him music. In the man’s village, Baiju meets a little girl named Gauri who becomes his best friend and, eventually, his sweetheart.
The love between Gauri (Meena Kumari) and Baiju grows despite Gauri’s betrothal to another young man. That problem takes a backseat when the village is overrun by bandits. Baiju’s singing entices the bandit queen, who makes Baiju an offer: she’ll spare the village if he comes with her. Baiju agrees, leaving Gauri behind.
It’s only when he’s away from Gauri that Baiju remembers his promise to his dead father. He turns his attention from romance to revenge. All this before the movie’s even half over.
The story touches on broad themes such as the destructive nature of revenge and the pain that often accompanies love. But more than anything, the movie is about the bewitching power of music. Baiju and Tansen are both magicians of a sort, able to hypnotize crowds and make the gods weep with their songs.
The classical Indian style of music that dominates the soundtrack differs greatly from typical Western music, yet Baiju Bawra is organized like a typical Hollywood movie musical. Many of the songs are about the events onscreen, and there is at least one dance number. While the music may sound different from what American audiences are used to, the format feels familiar.
Because of the dramatic nature of the story, the actors’ performances feel overdone at times. Baiju’s Pavlovian response to hearing Tansen’s name — which causes him to clench his fist and grumble, “Tansen, Tansen,” repeatedly — is a bit much. And the amount of vigorous, affectionate shoulder rubbing Baiju endures at the hands of his male mentors is comical.
That said, Baiju Bawra is terrific. I understand exactly why it captivated Ken in his youth. I’m also not surprised that plans are underway to remake the movie. Producers reportedly offered the role of 20-something Baiju to 46-year-old Aamir Khan. Do they plan on calling the remake Baiju Grandpa?