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A fog of reverence surrounds the documentaries about Hindi film personalities, and few film-makers manage to stay clear-eyed. Documentaries about personages expired or extant can be predictable to a fault: They contain fond and uncritical reminiscences, repeated assertions of the genius-level talent of the subject, and at least one tear-shedding moment. The emphasis is on celebration rather than contemplation, and any attempt at deconstruction or analysis is regarded as an act of disrespect. Thus it is with some trepidation that one approaches The Musical Journey Of Khayyam, a short history of the composer of Hindi film music, ghazals and television shows.

The fact that producer Films Division has often churned out well-meaning and earnest, but also dogged and unimaginative, biographical documentaries is also discouraging, but Suresh Sharma’s effort is full of surprises. The 63-year-old former journalist and critic has previously made films on music composer Ravi and actor Shammi Kapoor—the latter neatly judges the difference between respect and awe and provides a good measure of the actor’s personality. So it is with the latest documentary, which has the usual elements, such as an extended interview with the composer and his collaborators and clips from his greatest hits, but eschews other typical features. There is no “Voice of God" intoning on Khayyam’s achievements; rather, we hear from the great man himself, as well as from his wife Jagjeet Kaur, who has sung in some of his films.

The 58-minute film provides a context for his early work and includes rare clips from his early films and non-film music, judiciously utilized interviews with Muzaffar Ali, Asha Bhonsle and Gulzar, as well as two delightful meetings between the couple and singers Talat Aziz and Bhupinder Singh. The film will be premiered in Mumbai on 13 September. Edited excerpts from an interview with Sharma, who heads the department of dramatics and film studies at the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha, Maharashtra:

Why did you decide to make a documentary on Khayyam?

I first met Khayyam sahab while I was filming the documentary on music composer Ravi. While talking to him, I realized that he had a lot to say about the evolution of Hindi cine music—and that’s not surprising, given that he’s been in the industry since the 1940s. So that’s when I decided to do my next documentary on him.

It took me eight to 10 months to make this film. We shot through April 2013. Editing, sound and colour correction took a lot of time. Khayyam sahab is a perfectionist. We wanted the documentary on him to be as perfect as his musical scores. This meant that we had to put in a lot more time than is generally required. Arranging music sittings with singers Bhupinder and Talat Aziz also took a lot of time. They were very supportive.

While Khayyam is one of Hindi cinema’s greatest music composers, did he get the praise he deserved?

Khayyam sahab is the last music composer of the great golden age of Hindi cine music. He has developed his own school of music. You can feel an ideological undercurrent in all his works. Along with C. Ramchandra, Naushad, S.D. Burman, O.P. Nayyar, Ravi and Madan Mohan, he took Hindi cine music to its greatest heights. His compositions have a classical foundation, but he has simplified it to a great extent. Umrao Jaan is a great example of this. However, his compositions for Noorie and Trishul were completely different and catered to an entirely different audience.

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Khayyam and Suresh Sharma.

What are the challenges of making documentaries on Hindi film personalities, of gaining access to them and getting them to be honest with memories and anecdotes?

The biggest challenge is to make them agree to the idea of a documentary on them. The originality of the director’s vision and the freshness of his idea make them say yes. In my documentaries on Shammiji(Kapoor) and Ravi, I tried to experiment with the genre of documentary. I wanted these legends to tell their life stories and anecdotes on their own; as if writing their autobiographies for the screen. I consciously decided to not use any voice-over or commentary of any sort. The Musical Journey Of Khayyam builds on the same form.

The biggest challenge is to tell the complete life story of the legend in the allotted screen time. While preparing the script, you have to very carefully choose only those incidents and anecdotes that have had an impact on their lives. The director has to justify these choices to the personality. Only if they like your vision as a director do they trust you.

To Shammi Kapoor, I had narrated the idea of driving from Mumbai to Lonavala. He had to share the journey of his life during this small journey. He agreed to the film only because he loved this idea. Similarly, I told Ravi that in the documentary, he would be composing and recording a song while also telling us the story of his life. His composition for my documentary was his last before he passed away.

Do you do off-camera interviews first before starting to film?

No, I don’t. For instance, in Khayyam’s case, my research associate, Radhika Sharma, and I did thorough and comprehensive research. Once he agreed to do the documentary, I asked my associate directors, Tathagat Prakash and Navagat Prakash, to work on its treatment. A lot of inputs regarding the structure came from my editor, Aseem Sinha. That was it! We just rolled after that. The producer, V.S. Kundu (director general of the Films Division), advised us to keep the documentary as simple and approachable as possible.

Documentaries on Hindi film personalities tend to be overtly flattering, often at the cost of their craft.

Documentaries on personalities do tend to be flattering. Sometimes, they even try to deify the personality. For me, it is not the personality that is important, but their contribution to history—our common history and the history of their craft. The personality is only a medium to understand and analyse their work in the larger historical context. That is how I am able to stay objective. Sometimes, you also have to politely disagree with the suggestions or input that they give.

What is next?

I am writing a film based on one of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s stories. Om Puri has agreed to play its lead role. I am also planning a few documentaries on a few prominent personalities from the world of music.

The Musical Journey Of Khayyam will be screened on 13 September, 4pm, at the FD Zone, Films Division, Mumbai. It will be preceded by a 17-minute film on Begum Akhtar by N.K. Issar.

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