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Decoding Shankar review: Deepti Sivan gets a few notes right, but misses a few as well

Release Date: 18 Sep 2018 / 58min

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Mayur Lookhar

The documentary on Shankar Mahadevan offers few insights into the life of the charismatic singer and composer, focuses more on his career highlights.

In a country that thrives on feature films, the very mention of the word documentary would turn people away. That explains how few documentaries get a theatrical release in India. The few that merit attention mostly tell tales of popular actors or sportsmen. But these stories, too, tend to be told in docudrama form.

 A documentary on the underrated or an unknown quantity can be compelling. So, when it was announced that there was one on the underrated but gifted composer-singer Shankar Mahadevan, it did pique this writer’s interest.

We all know Shankar Mahadevan's achievements in music, but the human aspect of this popular artiste has mostly remained unexplored. So corporate executive Deepti Pillay Sivan, currently business head of Zee TV Malayalam, decide to decode the man’s life in a documentary.

Ideally, a good documentary is one that covers the ups and downs in its subject's life. But as a society, we Indians mostly like to hear only good things about ourselves. And so our documentaries, especially those on celebrity individuals, also tend to have a pattern to them.

Most filmmakers depict the events in a person’s life in chronological order: birth, passion, hardship, success. No matter who the celebrity, there is an air of familiarity with such films.

Deepti's Decoding Shankar follows the same route. Early life, career breakthrough, rise, and a whole lot of good things shared by family, friends, and colleagues.

While praise from friends and colleagues is only to be expected, Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, too, is among the admirers of this singer-composer and it is indeed refreshing to see him talk about musical notes for a change.

Tendulkar stands as the odd man out in a long list of appraisers that includes Amitabh Bachchan, Javed Akhtar, Aamir Khan, ad guru Prahlad Kakkar, lyricist Prasoon Joshi, Gulzar, Shreya Ghoshal, and, of course, Shankar’s partners in crime, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa.

All that is fine and on expected lines, but Deepti Sivan errs by emphasizing on one too many career highlights of Shankar. Though meant to be a documentary on Shankar Mahadevan, the focus invariably shifts from him to the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio.

Yes, the trio reflects India’s strength and cultural diversity, for it is a team of Hindu, Muslim and Christian musicians. However, this aspect has been spoken about umpteen times before. Besides, highlighting each hit composition of the trio from Hindi films only brings the actors who performed to those songs and the films in which those songs were featured into focus. Was Shankar trying to be nice to those filmmakers who gave him those coveted opportunities?

These popular tracks certainly needed to be woven into Shankar Mahadevan’s journey. But save for the title track of Lakshya (2004), Deepti Sivan merely presents the marquee tracks in chronological order. The documentary tends to drag at such moments.

It is Shankar Mahadevan's performances at concerts that brings the film back on track  Where Deepti does well is when she showcases the singer's passion for Carnatic classical music. While classical music doesn't have as much traction in cinema, the composer uses his international concerts to create a fusion of classical notes and Western instruments.

It is amazing how Shankar, described by colleagues as a master of melody, has crafted endearing numbers such as the Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) title track by using the seven musical notes of sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni.

Deepti Pillay Sivan throws light on Shankar's versatility and how the singer is adept at singing in various Indian languages. One track that she misses here, however, is the 'Shree Ganeshaya Dhimahi' devotional song in Marathi. 

The last part of the film is devoted to decoding Shankar Mahadevan the person. He has an interesting love story. That the musician is married to a woman named Sangeeta only proves why the term, 'cosmic connection', exists.

Hailing from a middle-class family in Chembur, Mumbai, Shankar Mahadevan perhaps did not have much footage to share from his childhood and early years. But we don’t get to hear either from people outside the film industry who may have had an influence on his life. Or do we assume there were none?

Deepti Pillay Sivan is perhaps close to Shankar Mahadevan and his family, but that does not necessarily help one to give a fair account of the subject's life and work. Not that a neutral observer might have pointed out Shankar's faults, but Decoding Shankar leaves you with mixed feelings.

We do get some insight into the life of this largely underrated artiste, but it doesn’t leave you ‘Breathless’, like Shankar's marathon track from nearly two decades ago. Deepti Sivan has got only a few notes right.

Decoding Shankar was screened as part of the Indian Panaroma (Non-feature) at the 49th International Film Festival of India on 21 November 2018. 


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