Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman is at the center of a heated controversy involving his latest work, a rendition of a popular Bengali patriotic song, “Karar Oi Louho Kopat” (Iron bars of prison).
Rahman, who received the Padma Bhushan honor in 2010, composed and produced the song as part of the music album for a recently released movie, “Pippa”.
The movie revolves around the heroic war of Garibpur village in 1971, fought between Bangladesh-India allied forces and Pakistan. It is based on real-life events that happened during the 1971 Liberation War that eventually led to the birth of the Bangladesh nation.
Now, Bengalis all over the world are really upset with Rahman after he posted the recreated song on YouTube, calling it a huge blow to their emotions connected with this song.
What’s the song all about?
The iconic song is believed to be one of the best rebellion songs from pre-independence era.
It was originally penned in 1922 by legendary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, who is also the national poet of Bangladesh. Nazrul is believed to have written the song after the British rulers imprisoned freedom fighter Deshbandhu Chittranjan Das (political guru of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose).
The song calls on people to destroy the powerful iron bars of prison and revolt against oppression.
Its lyrics are quite powerful – in some places, asking the masses to demolish blood-stained stone altars of the prison, play the war drums, and burn down all the (British) prisons. The music is highly revolutionary in nature.
In fact, the song was widely used as revolutionary mass music and the stirred the masses during the Indian independence movement and Bangladesh Liberation War.
Many Bengalis even today, identify it with strong emotions of their forefathers’ fight for an oppression-free independent land. It was not an easy fight – it is one that includes the horrors of mass murders and genocide.
Such a blood-stained song of people’s sacrifice has therefore, landed on the wrong side of people’s sentiments in the new, lighter version by celebrated composer Rahman.
What’s so wrong about Rahman’s version?
According to music critics, the new version doesn’t carry the essence of the original tune – which was given by Nazrul himself.
It carries a lighter tune and right at the top, begins with a happy, cheerful tune that sounds more like a Bengali boat dance. Progressing few minutes into the track, the song turns into a chorus that sounds like a fishermen’s village celebrating a festival or an occasion, rather than the blood and the sweat of freedom fighters that the song stands for.
Comments from people on YouTube where Rahman posted the new composition, heavily criticize the light-hearted melody that Rahman has given it.
“Deeply shocked! We do not expect such a hideous distortion of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s song… Nazrul has been insulted, his creation has been disrespected,” wrote one YouTube user.
Another user posted: “Your composition made it into a “shadi Ki gana” (wedding song), when actually it was written for the oppressed people inside the jail of the British colonial government. The “la la la” of your composition destroyed the strength and the spirit of the lyrics.”
Even Nazrul’s family reacted to Rahman’s rendition, calling it an “insensitive” act by Rahman.
According to Anirban Kazi, noted painter and Nazrul’s grandson, he never expected Rahman to “murder the song like this”.
Speaking exclusively to PressXpress, Anirban said, “I have been telling everywhere for the song to be removed from the movie immediately.”
Anirban also revealed that his mother Kalyani Kazi, Nazrul’s daughter-in-law, was approached by the film’s producers in 2021.
“She gave permission to use the literary work of Nazrul but never told anyone to change the lyric or the original tune,” he told PressXpress. “Maa being the head of the family in India granted permission, just as my sister Khilkhil Kazi in Bangladesh grants permission for works published there.”
Kalyani passed away in May 2023 without listening to the final song, which released a few months later.
Speaking further about the legacy of the song, Kazi shared, “It was originally penned by my grandfather upon a request by Chittaranjan Das’s wife Basanti Devi, when Das was jailed by British forces. It was recorded in 1949, sung by Girin Chakraborty.”
Anirban has asked for his family’s name to be removed from the line of credit in the film.
Apologies from filmmakers, not accepted
“Pippa” film’s makers have issued an apology saying they are sorry if their recreated song hurt people’s sentiments.
In a statement issued on social media platform X on 13 November, the production house said that their rendition of the song is a “sincere artistic interpretation”.
“Our intent was to pay homage to the cultural significance of the song while adhering to the terms set forth in our agreement, which permitted us to use the lyrics with a new composition. We understand the emotional attachment that audiences may have to the original composition, and while all art is inherently subjective if our interpretation has hurt sentiments or caused unintended distress, we offer our sincere apologies.”
Read the full statement here:
In response, Kolkata-based Anindita Kazi, celebrated singer and granddaughter of Anirban Kazi, refused to accept the apology.
“No letterhead, no signature of anyone??” Anindita questioned in a social media post.
“This can’t be an official statement,” she wrote. “It is only just written in plain white paper.” She said, “I am not accepting this apology.”
She also demanded that the filmmakers issue an official apology letter signed by all members of the core team, and also asked to look at the agreement in full that the filmmakers claim to have signed with Kalyani Kazi.
Recently, in Bangladesh, Nazrul’s granddaughter Mistee Kazi also addressed the matter at a press conference at the Kabi Nazrul Institute in Dhaka. Several eminent Nazrul proponents from Bangladesh such as Sadya Afreen Mallick, Nazrul singer Shaheen Samad, singer Bulbul Islam were also present at the event. They shared official statements against the “distortion” of the song penned by their State poet.
Mistee Kazi, who is the General Secretary of Bangladesh Nazrul Sangeet Sangstha (BNSS) Khairul Anam Shakil, said that from a legal perspective, she wasn’t sure if the filmmakers could ignore other members of the Nazrul family when signing an agreement with Kalyani Kazi, media reports quoted her as saying.
Anindita also questioned that the rest of the family wasn’t aware of the contract, which was with her grandfather, Anirban. In response, Anirban told Anandabazar that everyone in the family knew about it, as mother (Kalyani) told them about it.”
The controversy is causing a storm in the cultural circles of India and Bangladesh. Nazrul Geeti, which holds special place in the heart of all Bengalis, often gets scrutinized minutely when any poem or composition gets improvised.
And this isn’t the first time that Nazrul’s songs have received massive attention.
Last year, Coke Studio Bangla created a song called “Bulbuli” based on Nazrul’s famous poem “Bagichai Bulbuli Tui”.
It went viral on Bangladesh social media, mostly getting positive reviews.
“It keeps happening time and again. With ‘Bulbuli’, the makers had added three lines at the end of the song,” Anirban told PressXpress.
“That is neither written nor composed by my grandfather!”