Though he is known most as one of the best music directors that Indian film industry has seen, Salil Chowdhury was much more than just a music composer.This poet-playwright-composer-instrumentalist-intellectual was born on November 19, 1922 in Gajipur village, which came under the 24 Parganas district in West Bengal and spent most of his childhood in the tea gardens of Assam, where he developed his taste for folk music, as also for Western Classical music, which his father was rather fond of.
From a young age he showed a keen ear for good music and learnt to play many a music instrument like the flute, piano and even the ancient string instrument, esraj. During his graduation from the University of Calcutta, he developed an interest in both Leftist ideology and performing arts. He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and composed songs for their theatre productions that soon became popular, for instance, the song Gaayer Bodhu, which he composed at the age of twenty.
His first film as a composer was the Bengali “Paribortan” (1949), though he did not stop at composing music. In fact, his short story titled ‘Riksawala’ was turned into the phenomenon we all know as Bimal Roy’s “Do Bigha Zameen” (1953), which he also composed songs like “Mausam Beeta Jaye” and “Ajab Tori Duniya Ho Morey Rama”. Films like “Biraj Bahu” (1954) and “Jagte Raho” (1956) and songs like “Jaago Mohan Pyare” and “Zindagi Khwab Hai” followed, which further strengthened his hold over the film industry. His one most famous film, “Madhumati” (1958), perhaps brought out the best in him, from where, he moved from strength to strength. Be it the peppy “Suhana Safar Aur Ye Mausam Haseen”, the emotionally loaded “Toote Huey Khwabon Ne” or the ever freshly etched in public memory “Chadd Gayo Paapi Bichhua”. The year 1962 saw the release of the film “Half Ticket” and songs like “Cheel Cheel Chillakey” and “Aake Seedhi Lagi Dil Pe”; in fact, going by Kishore Kumar’s convinction, a rather experimental Salil Chowdhury allowed him to sing in both male and female voices!
All through the 1960s’, Salil Chowdhury had his hands full with films like “Chand Aur Suraj” (1965), “Pinjrey Ke Panchhi” (1966) and “Ittefaq” (1969). The 1971 blockbuster “Anand” brought with it some extremely hummable songs in the form of “Maine Tere Liye Hi Saat Rang Ke Sapne Chunay” or the mock-philosophic “Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli”. Some memorable numbers of this era were “Koi Hota Jisko Apna” from “Mere Apne” (1971), “Rajnigandha Phool Tumharey” from “Rajnigandha” (1974), “Dil Dhoondta Hai Phir Wahi Fursat Ke Raat Din” from “Mausam” (1975) or even the delectable “Na Jaane Kyun” from “Chhoti Si Baat” (1975). Not only is he known to have composed for Hindi and Bengali films, but also the music for award winning Malayalam films like “Chemmeen” (1965). In fact, most of the films he composed music for in his latter years were critically acclaimed as examples of cinematic excellence - be it “Mrigaya” (1976), Bengali films “Shrikaanter Will” (1979) and “Akaler Sandhaney” (1981), “Trishagni” (1988), “Kamla Ki Maut” (1989) or even the film made under the banner of Children’s Film Society of India in 1991, “Netraheen Sakshi.”
He is not only remembered as a music composer of unmatched calibre but also as someone who could pull off a philosophic “Dil Dhoondta Hai” and a whacky “Jungle Mein Mor Nacha” (“Madhumati”, 1958) with equal aplomb. It is for this very quality that he bagged the Filmfare Award for the Best Music Director for “Madhumati” in 1958, as well as the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1988. He breathed his last on September 5, 1995.