Bollywood swinging

J. SRINIVASAN | Updated on July 20, 2011


Today, modernity and dignity have become an either/or matter. But you don't have that in RD's music. His music is modern, cool and has a certain dignity; there is nothing cheap about it.” Thus writes lyricist Javed Akhtar in his foreword to R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music that tells the story of the maverick who got Hindi film music swinging.

So right is Akhtar that the many innovations that Rahul Dev Burman introduced — mixed rhythm patterns, piquant chords and sound mixing — not just remain evergreen but are remixed extensively, the latest being Dum Maro Dum. As can be expected, at that time RD was criticised for his corrupting influence till he silenced his critics by using a confluence of music from different genre, including the classical ragas and folk, which changed Hindi film music like never before.

The soulful tunes of Kati Patang, the love songs of Pyar Ka Mausam, the breezy numbers from Padosan, or the emotional refrains of Amar Prem, Pancham, as RD was known, had more than enough to silence any critic. A quick aside. How did the name Pancham come about? There are two stories: One, that when veteran actor Ashok Kumar saw Sachin Dev Burman's newborn uttering the syllable ‘Pa' repeatedly, he nicknamed him Pancham. And the name stuck. The other, S.D. Burman himself named his son Pancham because as a child, RD would cry in all five notes. In retrospect, and going by RD's repertoire, the second seems mot juste.

Written with passion by two engineers who grew up on a healthy dose of Pancham's music at Jadavpur University, R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music packs in energy and information. Did you, for instance, know that Pancham came very close to acting when comedian Mahmood offered him first Sunil Dutt's role in Padosan, an evergreen comedy? Pancham, who never failed to make Mahmood laugh, was thought to have a career as a comedian, but RD remained true to his music. Of course, he scored music for the movie and the Manna Dey-Kishore Kumar number Ek Chatur Naar… still has people across generations tapping their feet and breaking out in a smile.

Or, of his simplicity, all the fame and name notwithstanding? The authors have many of his contemporaries on record about Pancham the person. As Doel Gupta, daughter of childhood friend Badal Bhattacharya, says, “with him, you would never feel that he was Rahul Dev Burman. He would help you with household work… sleep on the floor, open car doors for people, and carry packages on others' behalf…” And, according to her, Pancham had remarkable culinary skills too.

The book recreates vividly the life and music of Pancham with Bollywood as the main reference point. Interspersed are the many stories that paint Bollywood in flattering strokes. The passion of the authors is evident in the analysis of almost all of Pancham's Bollywood compositions contextualised in the films they were set in, the instruments he used, the lyricist, and even down to the musician for particular pieces of inspired performances. They have also dwelt on Pancham's unsung heroes — Manohari Singh, Homi Mullan, Kersi Lord and Ramesh Iyer.

The authors readily agree that Pancham drew much from the West, but hasten to point out that “he was never into the copy-and-paste business. Even if he got inspired, his song always had a different soul.” The initial classical training kept him grounded in good music. As the book wonders, who would realise that Chura liya… was inspired by If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium. Under Pancham's baton, East and West met smoothly and beautifully melded into the Hindi film music context. If Pancham enjoyed anything more than making music, it was singing. He sang occasionally, but when he did, it never went unnoticed. For instance, the sizzling Mehbooba Mehbooba… number for Sholay picturised on Helen and Jalal Agha.

Yet, this quirky genius hit a long bad patch post his first heart attack in the late 1980s, and in Pancham's own words to his doctor, that was because as the heart was not all right so also the music. Proof enough that for Pancham, unlike his peers, music though composed for a film, still remained personal. Then, in 1993, came 1942: A Love Story, and Pancham did a brilliant retro for this period film. The heart and music were back in sync. Only, the former did not continue to beat for long, not even till the release of the film that, everyone agrees, became a huge hit mainly on the music.

Today, Pancham is a brand, nay, a cult. His music anthologies still fly off shop shelves, there are numerous online communities, and RD Evenings are sell-outs.

And, RD who in his lifetime did not win too many awards, the Filmfare award being especially elusive, posthumously has a Filmfare award in his name, rightly for “New Music Talent”.

As Javed Akhtar says, “Time is kind to talent and class.”

Published on July 14, 2011

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