This documentary on the late great RD Burman is a bit of a mixed bag (pun fully intended! sorry!!), but it is well worth watching. At its very best it is a primer for film music dilettantes (ie, me) in understanding Burman’s musical brilliance, and a rare chance to listen in on conversations of those involved in the industry then. Director Brahmanand Singh gives us insight into Burman as a man and a musician through lengthy interviews with his colleagues and peers (Manna Dey, Gulzar, Asha Bhosle, Shammi and Rishi Kapoor, and many others), and complements it with discussions on his long-term legacy from contemporary composers like Shantanu Moitra, Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Vishal Bhardwaj.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t plumb the depths as well as it might have, remaining a tribute to Panchamda rather than a comprehensive study. There is plenty of discussion on how he used influences gained from western music, for instance, but no discussion on how he also lifted tunes wholesale on occasion (“Mehbooba Mehbooba” being a prime example) (and before you send me hate mail, please let me point out that I am not saying that in judgment, but a relevant debate would have been interesting and possibly even enlightening). Key events and controversies in his life are glossed over, as are hints at some darker aspects of his character (we all have them!). Art in any form is colored greatly by an artist’s experiences and personality; I was not looking for prurient gossip, but I would have liked to see a more three-dimensional picture of him emerge. The lack of it diminishes the film’s credibility somewhat, and since after a point nothing new is being said, it goes on too long.
But there is so little opportunity as it is to access the stories and knowledge of these people who contributed so much to Hindi cinema that I am tempted not to complain. I cherish the hope that we as Hindi cinema fans can do better by them than we have, and this is a good start.
Some of my favorite things:
Lots of Shammi! He talks at one point about how Pancham came to give him a hearing of the songs for Teesri Manzil, and started with “Deewana Mujhse Nahin.” Shammi recognized it as a Nepali folk tune and began to sing along, annoying Pancham so immensely that he got up from his harmonium:
Ha ha ha! Burman at that time of course was just starting out, and Shammi a huge star. But thank goodness Nasir (Hussain) soothed his ruffled feelings, and the rest of Pancham’s tunes enthralled Shammi as much as they have the rest of us since.
I found Gulzar’s memories of Pancham particularly poignant: they had a sometimes combative but extremely close association, and Gulzar speaks with such affection and nostalgia about him that it is very touching.
Other aspects of his personality come through as well. Kavita Krishnamurthy talks about his perfectionism: he knew exactly how he wanted his songs to be sung, but made sure the singer’s confidence was not undermined.
Pancham himself was a very good singer, and had a knack for phrasing that singers would simply copy. Manna Dey says about “Aao Twist Karein”:
He was also a generous collaborator: the musicians who worked with him talk about how he was totally open to their ideas and incorporated them on many occasions. They all recall fondly that working with Pancham was not like work at all. Bhupinder Singh describes Burman’s imitation of a Bharat Natyam dance: he would flail about in his lungi, sending them all into splits of laughter.
These and many other anecdotes of how Burman spent his days, how he interacted with his friends and colleagues, give us a glimpse of the mercurial, creative, funny, generous, impatient person Pancham was. It is really too bad that opportunities for a deeper examination of him personally and insight into more controversial issues go unexplored. I do wonder how much of my dissatisfaction with the film stems from the fact that I am not Indian, and did not grow up knowing everything that went on in his life and career (although if the assumption is made that the viewer did, then it’s a very self-limiting one).
There is not a lot of extra help for non-Indians or Hindi cinema newbies either: films are not identified along with the song clips, and there is no attempt to place Burman in context with other music director-composers. But hey: at least it is subtitled! Plus, the chance to spend an evening with all the talented people involved (including Panchamda himself) make it well worth seeing, especially if you love RD Burman’s music (and really, who doesn’t?).