Composer, musician, audio innovator, singer, music director, teacher and a part-time actor Pankaj Mullick is a colossal figure not only in the field of Bengali cinema but ranks among the greatest cultural icons of Bengal.
He was born on 10th May, 1905. His parents Monimohan and Monomohini were devout vashnavaites and the young Pankaj often sang shlokas and devotional songs during family religious ceremonies. He took talim in dhrupad, khayal, tappa and other forms of Indian classical music under the tutelage of Shri. Durgadas Bandopadhaya.
In 1927, when India Broadcasting Corporation, the forerunner of All India Radio (AIR) was launched, Pankaj Mullick along with Rai Chand Boral joined in as one of its earliest employees. His association with AIR lasted for over four decades and produced the music–teaching program Sangeet Shikshar Ashar (1929-1975, excluding 1944). The programme was instrumental in popularising Rabindrasangeet among the Bengali middle-class for generations. Mahishashura Mardini, which was aired first in 1932, was a joint creation of Pankaj Mullick, Bani Kumar and Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The program, a musical evocation of the goddess Durga, used to be broadcast live on the crack of dawn on the auspicious day of Mahalaya (the first day of Devipaksha – the fortnight that includes Durga Puja). Eminent singers such as Angurbala, Suprabha Ghosh, Supriti Ghosh, Arati Mukherjee, Sumitra Sen, Sandhya Mukherjee, Hemanta Mukherjee, Pannalal Bhattacharya, Dwijen Mukherjee and Manabendra Mukherjee considered it to be a privilege to be invited to sing for this prestigious program. Mahishashura Mardini, is a now a part of the Bengali identity and cultural ethos. The recorded version which is aired even to this day is still listened to by millions.
Pankaj Mullick’s association with the cinema began as a conductor and music arranger for the orchestra at the Chitra cinema hall that played live ‘mood’ music during the screening of two silent films Chashar Meye (he also had a walk-in part in this film) and Chorkanta. Both films released in 1931, were produced by International Film Craft, the company floated by Birendra Nath Sircar in order to judge the prospects of the movie business. Later in the same year when Sircar formally launched the now legendary New Theatres, Pankajbabu was an obvious choice to join the galaxy of talents that gathered under its aegis. Dena Paona (1932), the first film produced by New Theatres was also the first Bengali ‘talkie’. Pankaj Mullick along with Rai Chand Boral composed music for this ground-breaking film. The following year 1933, he made his debut as an independent music director for a Hindi/Urdu film Yahudi Ka Ladki, a New Theatres costume drama directed by Premankur Atorthi. Pankajbabu was one of the first music-arrangers and orchestra conductors to extensively use western musical forms and instruments like the piano and the accordion in composing music for Indian films. The imaginative use of background music to emphasise the mood, action and tempo of the film scenes is one of Pankaj Mullick’s great contributions to music in Indian cinema.
In 1935, Pankaj Mullick along with RC Boral composed music for the New Theatres production Bhagyachakra (1935) the Hindi version of which was named Dhoop Chhaon. This film directed by Nitin Bose is generally considered the first film to introduce playback singing in India though rival studio Bombay Talkiesalso claimed to have invented playback. Before this, songs in Indian movies were sung live on-camera by the performers. While shooting a group dance of sakhis in Bhagychakra/ Dhoop Chhaon, the rehearsals took so much energy out of the performers that their singing went haywire during the actual shoot! Faced with this problem Nitin Bose, Madhu Bose, the sound recordist, Pankajbabu and RC Boral with the help of certain Mr. Demming (a visiting audio-engineer from Hollywood), came up with an innovation – they recorded the song beforehand and asked the performers to lip-synch during the real shoot. Thus history was made. The song in Bengali was Mora Pulak Jacchi and its Hindi version was Main Khush Hona Chahun. Suprabha Sircar (nee Ghosh), Parul Ghosh (nee Choudhury) and Umashashi were the all female chorus that recorded both versions of this song. Pankaj Mullick and RC Boral continued their collaboration and the duo composed music for some of the most memorable films – many of these had Bengali and Hindi/Urdu versions - such as Hem Chandra’s Krorepati/ The Millionaire (1936), Nitin Bose’s Didi/ President (1937), PC Barua’s Grihadaha/ Manzil (1936), Maya (1936), both Hindi & Bengali, 1936 and the classic Devdas (1935) in Hindi which had KL Saigal singing the immortal Balam Aaaye Baso Mere Man Mein and Dukh Ke Din Ab Beetat Nahin while the Bengali original had him performing Golap Hoye Uthuk Phute. In Manzil, Pankajbabu sang the Sundar Nari Pritam Pyari a song also rendered by Saigal. Pankajbabu was successful in persuading the egotistic Saigal to bring down his high pitch in order to control his nasal twang and the result was evergreen songs like the lullaby So Ja Rajkumari So Ja in PC Barua’s Hindi film Zindagi (1940).
PC Barua’s Mukti/ Mukti (1937) saw Pankaj Mullick make his debut not only as an independent music-director but also as an actor. He had a small role playing the character of an impoverished philosopher-singer. The Bengali version of the film had the distinction of being the first film to use Rabindrasangeet in its soundtrack. Pankaj Mullick thus became the first person outside the Tagore family to compose music for one of Tagore’s works. He managed to get the poet’s permission to set his verse Shesh Kheya to music and the outcome was the magical Diner Sheshe Ghumer Deshe- a song that is still on the bestsellers list in Bengali music charts even today! It is said that Tagore himself gave the film its title. Sharabi Socha Na Kar, a song rendered by Pankajbabu in the Hindi/ Urdu version of the film was popular all over the country.