RD Burman could knit a sweater out of a devil's horn: Brahmanand Singh on the genius

The composer was a genius who saw music in everything around, says the director of the National award-winning Panchan Unmixed.

Shriram Iyengar

Photo: Mobius Films

"I feel his way of looking at things is very different. There was so much of creativity bubbling in his head that he could do anything," says Brahmanand Singh, director of the National award-winning documentary, Pancham Unmixed, and ardent RD Burman fan.

On a pleasant rainy afternoon, the filmmaker sat down to talk to about the inspiration that drew him to make a film on the eccentric genius who changed the direction of Hindi film music. "If you play an RD Burman original, you won't listen to the remix," he says.

Pancham Unmixed released in 2008 and won two National awards. The documentary was the first of its kind on the musical genius of RD Burman. A detailed video journal, the documentary included anecdotes and experiences by collaborators like Gulzar, Asha Bhosle, Louis Banks, Manna Dey, and composers like Shankar Ehsaan Loy.

The film delved into some of the unknown aspects of RD Burman's musical career. Talking about what set the composer apart from his peers, Singh says, "He could see music everywhere... from the creaking of a chair to the murmur of an air-conditioner. He could see things that nobody else could. That is the hallmark of great artistes... to see things only you can and extrapolate it into something everyone else can relate with. For instance, that gargling sound from Annette Pinto in Satte Pe Satta, or the spoon and the glass in 'Chura liya hai tumne'." The sound for Amitabh Bachchan's entry in Satte Pe Satta (1982) was a typical act of genius. Using the sound of a gargle, Burman created an iconic entry scene for the evil Amitabh. 

As the son of one of the more popular music directors of all time, RD had the classical education to rival his father. However, his mind and creative temperament were not limited to a set template of music. His inventiveness and restless energy created some of the most iconic numbers of Indian film music.

Singh agrees, "It needs a really wacky mind to look at a santoor and say I will make it sound like a rabab [for the 'Mehbooba Mehbooba' song]. The two sounds are so completely different, but he did that." The song picturised by Ramesh Sippy in the 1975 blockbuster Sholay remains an icon for the distinctive 'RD' touch, including that throaty yodel by the 'Boss' himself. 

RD's creative outlet was almost parallel to his infectious joy. His companions and fellow musicians have often remarked about the excitement of going to work and creating something new every day. "Things like these which he kept on working, day in day out, gave his music team a thrill...They didn't know what they would be doing the next day. A new composition has to have something magical. Though he would start from a set template, there would be something new in each attempt. This gave his team a sense of comfort, and excitement at the same time." This daring sense of adventure is one of the main reasons for RD Burman's evergreen popularity with audiences.

For someone whose musical knowledge could be traced back to his classical education with Brajen Biswas and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pancham's sounds and rhythms were also influenced by The Beatles and the Bee Gees. This creativeness is often attributed to his mischievous personality.

Brahmanand Singh disagrees. "It gives it a context," he says. "He was mischievous, naughty, a prankster, but he was also infinitely intelligent. There is no substitute to intelligence. He also had the ability to absorb the Oriental and Northeast folk tunes from his father, and the insight into raags from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, as well as the self-taught exposure to Western music. He could listen, analyse and adapt it to his own sound."

Photo: Mobius Films

This ability helped RD surpass peers like Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and his own father, SD Burman, among others. Teesri Manzil (1966) is considered one of the first points of the map which began Indian cinema's collaboration with rock guitars and drum solos in its background music. The director quotes Leslie Lewis as saying, "By putting his Western influences into his music, RD gave Indian listeners a new vocabulary." 

However, in a world where it is easy to access global music, RD Burman's influences have come under fire. It is easier today to underestimate the imaginative spark of RD Burman. Prod Singh a little about this tendency to lift tunes and he says, "Nobody ever creates without influences. If Santana were to adapt an Indian tune, you would not criticise him. There are about 200 songs that Pancham adapted. It is 10% of his whole career output. But look at the quality he brought to those songs. If you listen to 'Chura Liya', and then you listen to the original ('If it's Tuesday, it must be Rio'), you'll find that 'Chura Liya' is far more beautiful." This is a fact attested to by other musicians as well.

The director mentions Louis Banks as saying that only Pancham's songs have the 'symphonic scope' that allows musicians to elaborate. "If you listen to the original of 'Chura Liya', it is so threadbare. There's no similarity," he says. "Same for 'O Hansini'. Just the prelude for it is better for 'On a summer's day'. It's brilliant."

RD Burman's most famous lift remains 'Mehbooba Mehbooba' from Sholay, which can be traced to Demis Rousso's famous number 'Say You Love Me'. Brahmanand Singh adds "It is the only song where the groove, beat and tune are similar to the original. It is a 60% similarity, but it is the 40% he wove around that makes the difference." 

Yet, every great artiste suffers through that inevitable dry patch. RD Burman's struggles can be tracked through two periods. Yet, the relentless pursuit of creation did not stop even at the cost of the breakdown of his first marriage with Rita Patel. "It happens, I guess. It did not have much of an impact on his creative output," says Brahmanand Singh "The only known problem was that he spent three years living in a hotel room in Caesar's Palace."

It was during this period that RD Burman created one of his best works, the soundtrack for Shakti Samanta's Amar Prem (1974). It was to be the jewel in the crown.

The director adds that the second phase of depression for RD was more disastrous, and caused by his own insecurity. "It was during this time that he tried to create music to fit in... wanting to please the music companies. It made him forget who he was. The greater the artiste, the more emotionally weak they are sometimes. They need to be supported. I think people deserted him."

Even after this phase, Pancham left a mark with his final work. Working for Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 1942: A Love Story (1992), he created a sensuous, lyrical soundtrack that won him a posthumous Filmfare nomination. It was a genius signing off, with the same flourish as when he had arrived.

Talking of flourishes, no talk about RD Burman would be complete without a mention of one of his most successful collaborations, with lyricist Gulzar. Brahmanand Singh, who has also directed a documentary on Jagjit Singh, another of Gulzar's close friends, says, "It was great fun since these creators were looking to break the mould. It must have been difficult. But people who do it, they are hardly bothered about difficulties."

RD Burman famously called Gulzar's lyrics for Ijaazat's 'Mera Kucch Samaan' "paragraphs from The Times of India newspaper". Gulzar, in Pancham Unmixed, remarks, "I knew he would find a way to compose it. It was a challenge for him. And his tunes would be a challenge for me to compose lyrics even more difficult." This collaboration resulted in some spectacular compositions like the songs for Aandhi (1975), Masoom (1982), and Ijaazat (1987).

Photo: Mobius Films

Pancham Unmixed was expanded into a larger documentary of five hours, Knowing Pancham, in 2013. The director explained that this was done to include the unused recordings of various personalities. "It was a costly way of buying a ticket to watch a movie I loved," he says.

"I knew something of Pancham to begin with, but it expanded threefold once I started working on this documentary. The world's perception of him as a composer and music director is already well known, but as a human being to have influenced so many people, filmmakers, musicians is phenomenal." 

As we conclude, Brahmanand Singh mentions that RD never gave up on his music. "He was supposed to compose for a Guru Dutt movie, but it never came through. Then Mehmood, who knew his antics on sets, offered him Chhote Nawab (1961). The film led him to Nasir Hussain and Shammi Kapoor who were looking out for the music of what would become Teesri Manzil."

RD tried to impress Shammi Kapoor with a riff of a Nepali folktune. Unfortunately, Kapoor was only too familiar with the tune and told him to show him something new. "That's when he showed them the rest, and they were floored. Anil Biswas is reported to have said, 'If RD Burman was not younger than me, I would have touched his feet.' Such was his genius. When you do something different, something new, people will lap it up."

On his 77th birth anniversary, RD Burman and his relentless creative energy remain the hallmarks of musical genius.