An intimate take on the man and his music, Brahamanand Singh’s ‘Pancham Unmixed’ is a documentary long overdue. RD Burman, or Pancham, as he was christened, might not have been quite in the same league as his father, SD Burman, or even other greats of the golden era of Indian cinema, such as Shanker-Jaikishen and OP Nayyar, but for a whole generation growing up in the 70s and 80s, film music started and ended with Pancham. And for good reason – no other composer of the time (with the possible exception of his one-time assistants Laxmikant-Pyarelal) transcended genres as effortlessly as he did, moving from western influences to Indian classical with incredulous ease. And then, almost all of a sudden, in the late 80s and early 90s, the great man was nearly out of work, miserable and lonely, and craving that one commercial success. The success came soon afterwards and how…but sadly, ‘RD’ never lived to pop the bubbly.
Singh’s documentary takes a look at the rise, fall, redemption and legacy of RD Burman through the eyes of his colleagues and contemporaries, and cheerfully, he gets access to film luminaries like Shammi Kapoor, Asha Bhosle, Gulshan Bawra, Laxmikant, Rishi Kapoor, Javed Akhtar, Shailendra Singh, Bhupinder, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Vinod Chopra, Manna Dey and many more. Most of the interviewees share their personal memories of Pancham and many lesser known anecdotes come to light, such as the time in the 60s when he used to pass off his own tunes as his father’s, just to get producers to give him a serious listen (as narrated by Asha Bhosle) and his personal trauma when ‘Saagar’ failed at the box-office in 1985. Viewers are also introduced to devoted ‘RD’ accompanists, the likes of Manohari Singh, Kesri Lord and Louis Banks, with whom he made some of his most lilting soundtracks. These gifted musicians take us through Pancham’s music making process and describe his predilection for new sounds, new technologies and innovative recording techniques. For 1982’s ‘Satte Pe Satta’, when a suitably eerie background score was required to introduce the hero’s evil look alike, ‘RD’ asked singer Annette Pinto to gargle a tune to create the score! It’s a memorable piece of music and it is indeed difficult to think of any other composer who could have pulled this off with any degree of credibility. The film, fittingly, takes a look at some of RD’s background scores, which are in no way inferior to his more popular film songs; films like ‘Sholay’, ‘Satte Pe Satta’ and ‘Kitaab’ being cases in point.
And what of legacy? RD Burman’s ageless body of work speaks for itself and therefore, it is no coincidence that he remains one of the most remixed composers today. We also have some of
today’s leading music composers talking about the effect that Pancham’s music has had on them. In the often brash and irreverent world of Bollywood, it is refreshing to see a bit of ready admiration, especially where it’s overdue. Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, Vishal Bhardwaj and Shantanu Moitra, all enumerate instances of Pancham’s influence in their compositions. RD’s universal appeal is nowhere more aptly demonstrated than in this segment of the film.
But the film’s most engaging interviewees are easily Vinod Chopra, who stuck by the composer in the days he was out of work, and for whom he delivered the peerless ‘1942- A Love Story’ score in a fitting ‘coup-de-grace’ to the naysayers, and Gulzar, with whom ‘RD’ made some of his finest music. The lyricist and film-maker sparkles in the film, and with almost childlike enthusiasm, enumerates anecdote after anecdote from their legendary association, like a particularly stressful time during the recording of the song ‘Mera kuch samaan’ from ‘Ijazat’, when a harried ‘RD’, confused with the unusual structure of the song, had remarked to him, ‘What do you want me to compose next? The headlines of the Times of India?’ The Oscar winner is clearly emotional as he remembers ‘RD’ and his music and it is perhaps this shared emotional thread that combined to give us such breathtaking soundtracks like, ‘Libaas’, ‘Aandhi’, ‘Kinara’, ‘Parichay’ and ‘Ijazat’.
For all its virtues, however, ‘Pancham Unmixed’ is not a perfect product. In some respects, it just about whets the appetite. There is only a passing reference to his association with Lata Mangeshkar, who sang some of his best tunes (Perhaps Asha Bhosle had something to say about that?). There is also practically no reference to RD’s other great association, the one with the mercurial Kishore Kumar. While Amit Kumar is extensively interviewed, no questions about his father’s partnership with ‘RD’ are posed and a priceless opportunity goes a begging. While much is made known of his first marriage to Rita Patel and their subsequent divorce, and the ultimately melancholic effect it had on the soundtrack of 1971’s ‘Amar Prem’, we learn almost nothing new about his second marriage to Asha Bhosle. She chooses to remain tightlipped about their personal life, and provides refurbished standard-issue, instead of anything original or insightful about their relationship, which gives the film a certain run-of-the-mill eulogistic quality. But in the end, it is perhaps, as Pancham fans, our impatience to find that complete depository of all things Pancham, that we demand sun and the moon.
For RD Burman fans, the fact that this film never got a wider release is indeed a great disservice. But with the DVD release, this becomes a collectible. Even for those who aren’t ‘RD’-bhakts, this serves as an interesting primer to the man, his world, his music and his legacy. The linear, conversational narrative of the film manages to be engaging enough throughout and avoids flippancy and repetition. Its sharp editing does not necessarily compliment the film, as even the healthy running time of an hour and fifty minutes seems ever so brief. This one deserved to ‘Chalte Jaana’ some more.