Often, when a film struggles to convey ideas of its theme, its songs channel them with ease. This is particularly applicable to some of our directors who make partially successful, imperfect films but have wildly ambitious ideas, have a great ear for music and forms an excellent rapport with a composer and lyricist. Two such examples are Imtiaz Ali (Rockstar, Tamasha) and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra(Delhi 6). Mehra may have underwhelmed since his defining film—Rang De Basanti — but his albums, thankfully, have been largely consistent. He worked with A.R. Rahman on two films and collaborated with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, with Prasoon Joshi as the lyricist.

In Mirzya Joshi gives way to Gulzar, who has co-written the film with Mehra. This new collaboration is an exciting prospect—the already potent team of SEL-Gulzar under Mehra’s solid, singular vision. It is a much more thematically driven album than Bhaag Milkha Bhaag which was a bit of a formulaic mixed bag with songs for all moods. This is a whole world of sounds born out of one idea—the tragic, epic Punjabi love legend of Mirza-Sahiban.

Mehra’s film is set in the modern world. But it constantly recalls the past, as suggested by the surrealistic visuals of the gypsy tribe in the promos. The music captures all these elements: the flavours of North India, the mystical essence of the folklore, the theatricality of the story. The songs warrant a blend of different genres. But more importantly, the fusion of Mirzya feels organic. It creates marvelous moments of improvisation, such as Shankar Mahadevan’s moody turn toward the end in Aave Re Hichki. The song is spun around the adage that says that, “If you got a hiccup, it must be that someone is thinking of you". It has a demureness and the rhythm of a lullaby—qualities we normally expect from a song sung from a female perspective by a female singer. But Gulzar subtly subverts it. The song, in its chorus portions, sounds like the spiritual brother to the devotional Khalis Makkhan from Coke Studio, Pakistan. The interludes are filled with classical guitars, there is the sarangi too. But nothing screams for attention. You realise these are such contrasting musical styles once you begin unwrapping the song over a number of listens. The same applies to Doli Re Doli, sung by Mahadevan again. It is as though a light Hindustani classical vocal recital was set to a jazz-laced piano accompaniment on a particularly balmy summer evening. The other Hindustani number Kaaga is a tricky bandish that hardly gives the singer space to breathe. But Kaushiki Chakraborty, one of the leading practitioners of the Patiala gharana, glides through it effortlessly. What makes the song, though, is the operatic arrangement that plays with all the drama of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali Broadway musical.

You can listen to the album here:

Theatricality is in full swing in the kaleidoscopic Mirzya title track, that introduces singers like characters from a play—Sain Zahoor, Akhtar Chinnal, Daler Mehndi, Nooran sisters— while Taufiq Qureshi has great fun with the percussions. My favourite part, though, is the chorus that plays out like a large-scale all-female aarti processed through surround sound speakers. Perhaps the album’s most modern song is Teen Gawah that invokes the free-spirited, acoustic guitar-based songs of the SEL oeuvre(Kholo Kholo, Kabhi Socha Hai Kya). It is sung by the fresh-voiced Siddharth Mahadevan who is fast becoming an extension of the trio, featuring regularly in their albums. But the song’s most beautiful touch is the unexpected addition of The Salvation Singers. The choir group from the Portuguese church in Dadar, Mumbai, adds a halo around the hook line that speaks about the Sufi idea of the lover and God in the same breath. It also makes space for the Mirzya theme- Broken Arrows, that has all the poetry and pain of a tragic romance (and that somehow reminds of the composers’ score for Kal Ho Na Ho).

SEL use the mystical, raw music of the Manganiyars to great hypnotic effect in Chakora. It is in line with the few “item numbers" Gulzar has written—Kajra Re, Beedi Jalaile and Chhaiyya Chhaiyya. These are songs with a seductive rustic crudeness. While the mentioned songs were cleverer in terms of wordplay, all the poetry in Chakora is slightly cryptic, more phonetic. And it melds with the way the song is mixed and sung: the pulsating electronic beats, the Balochi incantations of a fakir and the reverb, overlapping effect of Mame Khan’s singing, that sounds like a raunchy Rajasthani number remixed by a DJ who has dropped acid.

Like any folklore, the story of Mirza-Sahiban has been passed down generations through oral tradition. Fittingly the album casts Mehndi as the balladeer who tells the tale. The seven pieces that appear in regular intervals are couplets sung and composed by Mehndi. If you discount these, Mirzya, with eight tracks, is still a big album. Some of the other songs like Ek Nadi Thi or Hota Hai, are yet to form an impression on me. But overall, Mirzya achieves a beautiful balance rare in current film music. A melting pot of genres, there is a lot going on in the album. Yet SEL doesn’t let that overwhelm us by maintaining a a touch of lightness, a hallmark of the composer trio. They have delivered an inspired album with a legendary poet and a musically passionate filmmaker. It was long overdue

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