Baijnath Mishra accompanies his father’s group of bhajan singers, who walk into that area of the city where it is forbidden to sing while Tansen composes his ragas. His father is killed in the scuffle with the security guards and the young lad grows with embers of revenge in his heart. Baiju, as he is known to all, is taken care of by a village priest, who discovers his extraordinary talent and sharpens the boy’s musical skills. Years roll by and Baiju (Bharat Bhushan) falls in love with Gauri (Meena Kumari), the boatman’s daughter, who ferries passengers across the Jamuna everyday. Their love is interrupted by a raid on their village by a gang of dacoits, led by a female bandit. She falls for Baiju and spares the village on the condition that he surrenders before her. Baiju later learns that she was once a princess who lost her kingdom to enemies and was now wandering to seek revenge. The word revenge rings a bell in Baiju’s mind he sets off to kill Tansen. On confronting Tansen, he is told by the legendary musician that he can be killed only in a musical duel. Baiju wanders and falls at the feet of Swami Haridas in Vrindavan, the teacher of Tansen and implores upon him to teach him music. Haridas asks him to get rid of hatred as excellence can never be achieved with hatred and revenge in heart. Gauri comes searching for Baiju and pleads with him to return. But he refuses to rest till he avenges his father’s death. Haridas then tells Baiju that it is true pain that leads to the birth of purest form of music. Gauri overhears the conversation and gets herself bitten by a snake to induce sorrow in Baiju. On seeing Gauri faint, Baiju breaks into a mournful song and roams around aimlessly. Gauri is saved but people start calling him bawra (crazy) and he lands up near the palace of Tansen, where he is stopped by the royal guards. He is brought before Akbar, before whom he challenges the might of Tansen, who accepts defeat before the prodigious talent of Baiju in a musical duel. After having avenged his father’s death, Baiju rushes back to his village, where Gauri is being married off against her wishes. But the Jamuna gets flooded due to heavy rains and the boatmen refuse to ferry Baiju across. He leaps into the river to swim across. Gauri, on hearing that Baiju is swimming to reach her rushes out and plunges into the river. The romance, which began by the banks of the Jamuna ends there, as they both get sucked into the strong currents of the river.
Baiju Bawra works on a plot that revolves around revenge, a theme that was increasingly used in the 1970s to the hilt. It is revenge that drives Baiju to excel in music. His anger, intensity and passion are channelised towards music by his gurus to make him the greatest musician of his age. In spite of Baiju being the main character in this drama, Gauri shines throughout for the pathos she is able to evoke, even as she propels the story. The real life story of Baiju Bawra was apparently very different from what has been depicted in the movie. Baijnath Mishra was a legendary dhrupad singer who lived from 1542 to 1613 and much of his details are not recorded and verifiable.
Initially, there was a plan to cast Dilip Kumar and Nargis in the roles of Baiju and Gauri. But Naushad insisted that it would shift the focus of the film from its music to the stars. Thus, Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari, who were till then relatively unknown, registered their first blockbuster and became household names with this movie. By the time the movie was released, Meena Kumari got married to director Kamal Amrohi. Both of them gave a stupendous performance and won the hearts of the moviegoers across the nation. Sadly enough, Bharat Bhushan remained relegated to similar roles throughout his career, though Meena Kumari took giant strides to become a legend in her own time.
But the real hero of this movie worked behind the scenes. Naushad set a new benchmark in film music with this musical milestone. His songs went on to dominate Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala for several months. Mohd Rafi made a strong ground for himself with this movie. Songs like Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamuna ka dhaara, Man tadpat Hari darshan ko aaj and O Duniya ke rakhwale. Though it was an album dominated by Rafi, Lata found her golden moments in Bachpan ki mohabbat, the dulcet duet Jhoole mein pawan ki aayi bahar and the melancholic Mohe bhool gaye saawariya. But the crowning glory for Naushad was the fact that he convinced two doyens of Hindustani music Ustad Amir Khan and Pandit D V Paluskar. Till then, film music had been seen as a pariah by the purists. But with this foray, Naushad won the acceptance of the masses as well as purists for Hindi film music. Right from the time the titles roll to the last scene, you remain engrossed in the music of this maestro. The movie belonged to Naushad more than anyone else.
Vijay Bhatt went on to make may more works like Goonj Uthi Shehnai, Himalay ki Godh Mein and Hariyali aur Raasta. But none really captured popular imagination like Baiju Bawra. The movie ran for 100 weeks in Mumbai. On the day of the premier, Naushad had tears in his eyes looking at the road opposite to the cinema house. When Vijay Bhatt asked him the reason, he said, “When I arrived in Bombay, I spent many a night on the footpath along that road. It took me more than a decade to cross that road.”
Three years later, V Shantaram tried a similar experiment with Jhanak Jhanak Paya Baje, where classical dance formed the leitmotif through the entire movie. In 1953, in the inaugural Filmfare awards, Naushad won the award for Best Music and Meena Kumari won the Best Actress trophy. In 1972, when Meena Kumari passed away, theatres played Baiju Bawra once again to full houses. It has been 60 years since the release of the movie. But the music plays on…