It’s a busy day at the studios for Salim and Sulaiman Merchant. They’re wrapping up the background score for Kites, the Hrithik Roshan-Barbara Mori starrer that is slated to release this year. The brothers have been hot property for a decade now, known for their shape-shifting background music and winning soundtracks across an eclectic canvas from Bhoot to Iqbal to Fashion. The Emmy nomination for their score for Nickelodeon’s Wonder Pets: Save The Bengal Tiger, prepped for prime time as a special episode, has given them a global platform.
Brothers grin: Sulaiman (right) and Salim have worked out a harmonious working relationship. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
“The whole episode is like a musical opera and we knew this was going to be something special,” says Salim, of the animation show featuring a chick, a turtle and a pup who save endangered animals in every episode. Wonder Pets came along even before Yash Raj’s Roadside Romeo last year, so it turned out to be their maiden score for an animation project.
“We had a 30-page script with music for every paragraph. When we started out, it was challenging to figure out how to Indianize it,” adds 38-year-old Sulaiman. So flutes, tablas (but naturally), the sitar and the santoor were incorporated along with vocals, while their Western counterparts in the US were working on adding more classical instruments such as violins, cellos—the works. The composers logged on to iChat and Skype for the next few days to “video conference, re-edit, and correct” and sent all the music online to the studios in the US.
“This is the first time that we fully used the potential of the Internet,” says Sulaiman. Salim recalls how schizophrenic it got, with them scoring music for Vipul Shah’s Namaste London simultaneously. “We were pushing the barriers and doing something different, which is why this was so fulfilling,” he says of the episode that was wrapped up in 20 days.
India, as Salim puts it, is the flavour of the planet. Refashioning music to reach the international audience is an important step, he adds, pointing to the A.R. Rahman-Pussycat Dolls Jai Ho! collaboration. “If you look at iTunes, Indian music is under the World Music genre, while you’ll find Spanish or music from another country have their own category,” Salim says. “Eventually we can give the world our music as it is,” says Sulaiman.
The brothers have worked out a pattern over the years. Salim programmes the keys and Sulaiman does the drums. “But we bleed into each other’s space and I might have a rhythm idea or he might have an idea for the keys,” says Salim. The unit is tight—sibling Sulaiman’s easy calm complements Salim’s super-caffeinated energy, and while Salim has always been more vocal, Sulaiman now knows how to have his say.
This year, they have 13 films lined up for background score alone; 8x10 Tasveer was their first release of the year. “We’re booked till September,” says Salim, sounding incredibly pleased. Kites, they tell us, has a far-out range, from orchestral sounds to flamenco to opera, and Kambakkht Ishq, the Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar starrer with Sylvester Stallone stealing the thunder, has a crazy, spicy soundtrack that includes the Rocky riff. “We have the rights for using it,” Salim adds quickly.
The Merchants, if you’ve noticed their background music, love working with silences. “A lot depends on the director and sometimes we have to fight to keep the silences,” says Sulaiman. Salim explains why a director may be wary of keeping it quiet. An intimate scene, say the intense Ash-Hrithik kiss in Dhoom 2 (Salim and Sulaiman scored the background music), could have been destroyed with catcalls in the theatre. “So we find ways to build and balance the intensity on screen even without silences sometimes,” he says. They also have two Yash Raj films in hand this year—Pyaar Impossible, with a “rock/pop sound”, and Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year, with Ranbir Kapoor in the lead. “We have an acoustic, unplugged sound planned for Rocket Singh. It’s just an idea right now. We still don’t know how it will be received by Adi (Aditya Chopra) and gang. But it will not be normal,” promises Salim.
What’s it like working with some of the biggest directors in the industry? “Adi pushes us the most and is the most vocal, tries to get the sound which is as close to what is in his head,” says Sulaiman. “Karan Johar is an extremely sensitive guy,” says Salim, “He gets into your psyche and gets the work done, which is a beautiful way of working.” Ram Gopal Varma, they tell us, is also completely sure of his music and speaks his mind. “Nagesh (Kukunoor) has his own sensitive approach—he will first show his appreciation and then bring up the ‘but’,” says Sulaiman. Although one film that both composers wish they’d scored for is Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, especially because it seemed like it offered a clean slate and the freedom to experiment.
The two are looking forward to a 20-day vacation in the US before the Emmys are announced in August in Los Angeles. “Not together,” says Sulaiman. Holidays are time to get out of each others’ heads.
Their big inspirations are Hans Zimmer for his emotive scores, Seal and Sting for their songwriting skills, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for his Sufi magic, electronic whiz BT, producer William Orbit and A.R. Rahman for his path-breaking music.