Why does Sanjay Leela Bhansali want to remake a film that turned 70 this month (it was released in October 1952)? I doubt if younger viewers have heard of it, let alone seen it. Even old-timers probably have only vague memories of the movie.

Of course, Bhansali is at his best when handling a grand-old-Bollywood-style magnum opus set in the past. Baiju Bawra was a mega-hit when it was released. It’s also a fast-moving, dramatic tale full of strong emotions and interesting characters, with a truly magnificent music score.

Film scholars call it one of the foundational texts of mainstream Hindi cinema. It contains diverse hallmarks, many of which are instantly recognisable today: A dying father who makes his young son take a vow of vengeance. A childhood love that blossoms into full-blown romance, with fairytale moments of joy in a pastoral setting, on flower-bedecked jhoolas, the banks of a river, or a gently moving boat. A girl making the ultimate sacrifice for her beloved. A crazed lover, mad with grief; a bit reminiscent of folklore hero Majnu. A beautiful, dangerous woman with a painful past. The final, tragic climax in the swollen waters of a river in spate.

Soaring above it all, a heavenly soundtrack and a climactic musical challenge centered on Hindustani classical music. This climactic challenge featured the voices of the legendary Amir Khan and DV Paluskar and remains unique; there are musical face-offs aplenty in Hindi films, but I don’t recall any others that feature classical music.

Baiju Bawra has a tousled-haired, dhoti-kurta-clad Bharat Bhushan in the titular role. Bhushan was a prominent actor in his time, playing lead roles in films such as Mirza Ghalib (1954) with Suraiya and Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) with Madhubala. Then he just faded away. Dwarfed by the towering trio of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, he couldn’t make a lasting place for himself. (Even Baiju Bawra was first offered to Dilip Kumar.)

Bhushan lived out his final years in tragically straitened circumstances, dying penniless in 1992, aged 71.

In this classic, the young Bhushan shines, alongside a 19-year-old and radiantly beautiful Meena Kumari, who plays his loyal-to-the end beloved. This would be Kumari’s first big hit as an adult. Fittingly it was with director Vijay Bhatt, who cast her in her first film, Leatherface (1939), at six.

The beautiful and dangerous dacoit queen was played by yesteryear vamp Kuldip Kaur, who goes through most of the film with only her fine, flashing eyes in view, since the rest of her face is masked. This is an alluring character, full of fire and spirit, calling out to be developed more fully.

The climax of the film depicts a musical face-off between Bawra and Tansen in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar, to determine who is the superior singer. I can imagine Bhansali constructing a dazzling set-piece around this epic contest. But it’s going to be tough getting a music director of the caliber of Naushad, who composed for the film evergreen songs such as Tu Ganga Ki Mauj, Mohe Bhool Gaye Sanwariya, Bachpan Ki Mohabbat and a gem of a bhajan, Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj (Muhammad Rafi at his finest).

Was there a real historical character named Baiju who challenged Tansen to a vocal duel? No one really knows, though there are plenty of legends and stories. In the end, it doesn’t matter in the realm of storytelling. What matters is the film itself, and whether it can revive the great narrative traditions of Old Bollywood.

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