A young Gulzar, reclining against a bookshelf, explains a situation to an aspiring playback singer. “Har pati premi ho sakta hai. Har patni premika ho sakti hai. Har makaan ghar ho sakta hai. Lekin aisa hota nahin hai.” The singer’s wife and their friends, a couple, are in attendance. The singer picks up his guitar and starts humming. The couple goes into reveries of their own - the man about a girl from work and his wife about her dream home they plan to buy. Thus begins one of the most underrated Hindi songs ever composed:
Logon ke ghar mein rehta hoon, kab apna koi ghar hoga
Deewaron ki chinta rehti hai, Deewaar mein kab koi dar hoga
Ichchhaon ke bheege chabuk chupke chupke sehta hoon
Dooje ke ghar yun lagta hai, mozey pehne rehta hoon
Nange paon aangan mein kab baithoonga, kab ghar hoga!
Very few Hindi film composers knew the art of taking a backseat when the lyrics were supposed to push the narrative forward. Sachin Dev Burman allowed Sahir’s poetry to breathe in Pyaasa. In this song from Griha Pravesh, Kanu Roy’s minimal composition lets Gulzar do what he does best. And yet the minimal arrangement - a hallmark of Kanu’s music - elevates the song. Griha Pravesh contains other brilliantly evocative compositions, such as Boliye sureeli boliyan, Zindagi phoolon ki nahin and Aap agar aap na hote.
Since the advent of social media and reality television, a curious concept has emerged. Every few years, an ancient, forgotten song re-emerges, and before you know it, everyone on Facebook - and their mothers - are trying to make cover versions. One such song is Geeta Dutt’s Mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan. Another brilliantly minimal composition by Kanu Roy, this one also features lyrics by Gulzar. Music fans go into raptures whenever the first line falls into their ears. If in Logon ke ghar mein Kanu allowed Gulzar to take the lead, here he allows Geeta Dutt’s voice to dominate the song. What adds to the allure of the song was that it was one her last recordings before she passed away. She had stepped away for a while after her husband’s demise, which devastated her completely. It was with Anubhav that she made a grand comeback.
Legend has it that Kanu Roy made use of just two instruments while recording the song: the sound of raindrops and a curious percussion called the vibraphone. The beautiful - and ironic - fact about Kanu Roy’s music was that this minimalism was often compulsion rather than a deliberate creative choice. In a career spanning 17 years and 8 films, he mostly worked with just one filmmaker. Basu Bhattacharya was known for his parsimonious ways of filmmaking. The kind of cinema he made rarely made any money, so he had to find ingenious ways of making movies without spending a lot on cast & crew. Gulzar saab once managed to get paid Rs.200 for writing a whole film for him. Obviously, he had very meagre resources assigned for recording the songs. While most composers those days had a whole orchestra of musicians and arrangers at their disposal, Kanu Roy was often stuck with just seven or eight players to work with.
Gulzar later reminisced in an interview, “I remember there were times when he would literally beg Basu to give him an extra violin or two. Kanu and Basu were great friends too. So whenever Kanu asked for an extra musical instrument, Basu would tell him to get it with his own money. Ab uske paas kahaan paise hote thhe! After much persuasion, Basu would relent about adding another violin or sarod.” This is how that man managed to compose such abiding gems like Aaj ki kali ghata (Uski Kahani), Mujhe jaan na kaho, Mera dil jo mera hota (Anubhav), Machal ke jab bhi ankhon se (Griha Pravesh), Hansne ki chaah ne mujhe kitna rulaya hai and the oh-so-gorgeous Naina hain pyase mere (Aavishkar).
Kanu Roy was always wanting for money. Many sources claim that he was an actor too. The confusion stems from the fact that there was a prolific character actor of the same name, who featured in such movies as Mahal (1949), Kismet (1943), China Town (1963) and Pagla Kahin Ka (1970). But these were two different people. The composer Kanu Roy was an introvert and besides, he wasn’t half as well-to-do as a prolific actor active for more than 30 years should ideally be.
There are just two instances where Kanu made music for someone other than Basu Bhattacharya. The first was for a film called Shyamla, which had its music release in 1979, but later had a theatrical run as Woh Phir Nahi Ayee, two years later. It was a pseudo-arthouse picture about conjugal discord, and seasoned film buffs would find endless amusement in the fact that the film was directed by Joginder Shelly! For the uninitiated, Joginder was the king of campy B-movies, known largely for films like Bindiya Aur Bandook, Ranga Khush, Pandit aur Pathan and Teen Ekkay. Apart from Joginder and Basu Chattacharya, Kanu Roy also worked with a lesser known director called Birendra (Mohanty?) on an obscure film called Mayuri, which came out in 1985. Today no trace can be found of Mayuri (looking for it, one would almost always bump into Sudha Chandran starrer Nache Mayuri), but it is a special album because it had as many as four songs by Nutan - the veteran actress. She had three solos - Mera jeevan ek barfeeli dhara, Mera dil jawaan hai, Yeh kaisi hai khamoshi, and a duet with Amit Kumar, Tum tum na rahe.
Mayuri was Kanu Roy’s swansong. He didn’t have it in himself to go around scouting for work. Basu Bhattacharya was the one who gave him a break, and he stuck with him right till the end. Like many artists of his ilk, Kanu Roy died in penury and relative obscurity.