A new biography throws light on the life and times of composer S.D. Burman. This excerpt explores the competition between the composer and his gifted son
Father and son
The story of how he rebuked his son and assistant, R.D. Burman, for engaging twelve musicians instead of the eleven he had specified, and how he insisted on going ahead with only eleven, after paying off the twelfth and sending him back, is rather well known. S.D. Burman always gave simplicity in rendition great value, be it in the interpretation and unfolding of the music or the singer’s rendition.
In Majrooh’s words, from an interview by Peeyush Sharma, courtesy Moti Lalwani: ‘Dada did not like too many instruments, he would try and use as few as possible. At some point, Pancham took on the responsibility of arranging for the orchestration, but often Dada would remove some of the musicians, saying, “If you load a song with so much jewellery, you won’t see the song at all. Take it away." He would say, lessen a violin here, cut the percussion, things like that.’
Obviously, the director had to say this often enough. Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma adds that SD often compared the orchestration to the bindi on a beautiful woman’s face. She may be beautiful and dressed in lovely clothes, but if the bindi she wears is too big it will hide the beauty of her face, he would explain.
Yet, in his next film, Jewel Thief, he would do what he had done with the snake dance in Guide: use an entire orchestra to create a mood that was both eloquent and musical.
The composer was riding the crest of a wave again. His creativity was at a new high, the songs of Guide resounded from radios many times a day, and his next film for Dev Anand, Teen Deviyan, too was making waves. Though the film had three heroines and one hero who was quite a match for them all, it did not create any box office history; however, its music, alternating between the emotions of romantic love, hesitation, playful teasing and flirtation, proved winsome enough to stay in public memory. Dada Burman used Rafi as well as Kishore Kumar in the film, with Asha Bhonsle as the perfect foil in the duets. The range SD traversed, from the playful Kishore ditty ‘Khwab ho tum ya’, to the pensive Rafi solo ‘Kahin bekhayal hokar’, from Kishore’s drenched in mischief ‘Arre yaar meri’ to the utterly romantic Rafi number ‘Aise toh na dekho’, won for him yet another BFJA Award.
But it was with Jewel Thief that Dada Burman would make history again.
Jewel Thief had two heroines. Vijay Anand had cast the ebullient Tanuja as a foil to the more layered role for Vyjayanthimala, who would play the main lead opposite Dev Anand. Dev himself had Ashok Kumar’s weighty screen presence to offset his mischievous and mysterious role as the suspected jewel thief.
An engaging, fast-paced thriller, Jewel Thief was completely the kind of film that would bring out the best in director Vijay Anand, the theme giving enough scope for music of every mood.
And S.D. Burman was ready for the challenge.
If the song ‘Yeh dil na hota bechara’ came out of a viewing of David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai which he watched with his son, ‘Raat akeli hai’ emerged from a childhood memory, as did so many of S.D. Burman’s songs.
The story goes about ‘Yeh dil na hota bechara’ that on their way back after watching the film, the irrepressible Pancham kept drumming on the car’s dashboard and whistling his own versions of the signature marching tune from the film which in turn set off his father’s imagination, resulting in the song that Dev Anand sings as he walks on the road, blocking the way for an irate Tanuja’s car! Though the song is a perfect fit in its present setting in Jewel Thief, it was not really composed with Dev Anand in mind. More likely, if things had gone differently, Guru Dutt would have been the star on whom it would have been shot.
S.D. Burman had indeed composed the song for GD Films’ Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi, but both the composer and the song had been abandoned when the composer had his heart attack. Anxious to keep his film rolling, Guru Dutt signed on O.P. Nayyar, who had scored for Mr and Mrs 55 earlier.
When he found the situation working well for the song, the composer grafted it onto Jewel Thief.
Taking the personalities of the heroines as clear opposites, the composer decided to give them songs that would add brush strokes to the characterization.
Vyjayanthimala, confused, nursing a secret grief and an obvious love for the hero, would sing softer numbers like ‘Rulake gaya sapna mera’, and ‘Dil pukare’, the duet with Rafi. At the climax of the film, emboldened by the need to seek out her captive brother, she dances with a frenzy close to abandon, yet there is a classic majesty in her movements. The scene suited S.D. Burman completely. It gave him a chance to fall back on the rustic music he so loved, and use instruments that would recall the flavour of the regions of the eastern Himalayas.
Using a pantheon of percussion instruments like the Bangla dhol, Burmese dhol, tabla tarang, he created a dance number that had the climax almost built into its rhythm. Touches of Tibetan music were added and the Nepali drum procured for the right sound that he wanted to create. Such was his command on the medium and on the minds of his director and producer: what Dada Burman wanted for his song, Dada Burman got!
Manohari Singh recalled in an interview with Moti Lalwani and Richa Lakhanpal, also reproduced in H.Q. Chowdhury’s book, Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman: ‘Easily he used 60-70 musicians, it was amazing. He was his own example.’ When S.D. Burman wanted to bend his rules, he did it in full measure, and created magic in the process.
But it was the song that the maestro composed for Tanuja that proved his mettle as a composer who could compete with those half his age.
Vijay Anand’s prescription was for a song with a difference. And S.D. Burman decided to deliver just the right mixture!
Picture the scene: Tanuja, the boss’s daughter, has a crush on the young handsome man who is charming but seems not quite interested. Being a confident, spoilt brat, who cannot take no for an answer, she decides on an impromptu seduction. Which man, she thinks, can resist her combination of looks, sex appeal and money!
The song, ‘Raat akeli hain’, could have easily been one of the crooning numbers Asha Bhonsle had quite made her trademark. Great songs sung extremely seductively, but there would be no element of surprise. Also the roles played by the crooners were mainly either vamps or women with negative shades to their personality. Tanuja was different, her role was quite a breakaway from the other supporting roles in most films; the song demanded something sensational.
The childlike quality in Tanuja possibly inspired the composer to delve into childhood games, and come up with the form his song would take. Children in that era often played a game in which they would whisper in someone’s ear, and suddenly yell to startle them. Tanuja’s song would borrow from that innocent prank.
Asha Bhonsle’s rendition of the low whisper, spoken rather than sung, as a start to a song that would get feet tapping with its beat, is incomparable, even when placed against her own vast repertoire. The whisper, seductive and secretive, bursts into a crescendo, and even a resisting Dev Anand is forced to watch momentarily the shimmering, gyrating girl-woman vying for his attention.
And perhaps the most enduring accompaniment to the song came from the skilful blending of the saxophone, played by his assistant and ace instrumentalist Manohari Singh. How often does someone humming this song (a difficult number but so irresistible) find that the humming includes the saxophone interludes too! That’s how well the instrument was blended into the composition.
With this song, S.D. Burman proved that Western or tribal, rural or classical, when it came to music, he was lord of them all!
Excerpted from Sun Mere Bandhu Re: The Musical World Of SD Burman ( ₹ 499), with permission from HarperCollins. The book released last month.
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