In 2009, filmmaker Brahmanand S Siingh released what appeared to be the definitive documentary on Rahul Dev Burman. Pancham Unmixed (the title is inspired by the music composer’s nickname) clocks 153 minutes and maps several areas of Burman’s life.
There was his relationship with his famous father Sachin Dev Burman and his efforts to crawl out from under the great man’s shadow, his broken first marriage and his second marriage to singer Asha Bhosle, the talented and committed team of arrangers and musicians with whom he composed some of his best scores, his relationship with his singers, his popularity among his friends, his penchant for experimentation and innovation, his generous spirit and love for food, his professional decline and slide into depression towards the end of his life, and his lonely death from a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 54.
The sprawling documentary, which has won two National Awards, also contains fascinating deconstructions of Burman’s musical style through interviews with collaborators and professional rivals and contemporary musicians as varied as table player Taufiq Qureshi and composer Shantanu Moitra. But there was apparently more left to be said on the inventive and eclectic composer, whose tunes continue to rule tea shops and dance floors years after his death. Pancham Unmixed has been reissued along with two discs of lengthier versions of the interviews Siingh conducted for the original documentary. The compilation, titled Knowing Pancham, was released at a function on Burman’s birth anniversary on June 27. A coffee table book is also part of the new DVD set.
“The discs contain everything that we had only touched upon in the documentary and had not developed beyond a few minutes,” Singh said. “It is like a video book on RD Burman. I felt, what are these interviews doing in my hard drive? I must share them with RD lovers and music scholars. We looked at over a hundred hours of footage and selected 15 hours that further went through many processes until they started looking like the kind of material that could be shared.”
The interviews, which total over five hours, are of the many personages featured in the original documentary. The mile-long list include Burman’s close collaborators, such as Bhosle, lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar, producer Ramesh Behl’s family, members of his team, including Kersi Lord and Manohari Singh, the men and women who sung for him, such as Bhupinder Singh, Amit Kumar, Usha Uthup and Kavita Krishnamurthy, and friends such as photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha and radio jockey Ameen Sayani.
The interviews appear alphabetically. “I felt that if I had to make another documentary, there would have to be a structure and a flow, so I divided the interviews into chapters that look at his life,” said Siingh, who is currently working on a biographical documentary on ghazal singer Jagjit Singh.
The extended set of conversations shed details on aspects of Burman that were mentioned in the passing in Pancham Unmixed, such as his love for a good meal, his sky-high energy levels, his obsession with music, whether in the bath or driving a car, his conviviality and garrulous personality, the constructive criticism with which he egged on his musicians and singers, and the darkness of his final years. Burman was down on his luck when filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra signed him on for what turned out to be his swansong, 1942: A Love Story.
Chopra’s account of how he rejected Burman’s early compositions and bluntly told the maestro that they were “shit” is one of the memorable moments in Pancham Unmixed. Burman died before the movie was released. In Knowing Pancham, one associate after another speculates on what could have been if Burman had lived to witness the richly deserved encomiums for his brilliant score.
One of the reasons Siingh embarked on Pancham Unmixed in the first place was the paucity of comprehensively researched material on Indian film personalities. “The film was triggered, among other things, by a sense of anger,” Siingh said. “Whenever there would be an RD Burman anniversary, television channels would run five to seven minute capsules on him, and I would always wonder as to what kind of a tribute this was to him. People said he was a genius, versatile and ahead of his time, and I wanted to know why this was the case.”
Siingh initially considered making a film with Bhosle and Gulzar, who was among Burman’s closest collaborators and friends. “But then I decided to try and speak to everybody RD had closely worked with and who understood him musically,” Siingh said. “I have always joked that the documentary was a very expensive way of buying a ticket for a film that I had always wanted to see.”
The filmmaker fought back his initial reservations about the number of talking heads that the documentary would necessarily feature and focused on trying to crawl inside the mind of the composer through conversations with his associates, professional rivals, and younger composers such as Ismail Darbar, Shankar Ehsan Loy and Shantanu Moitra. The final amount of footage required 2,500 hours of editing time – “most features take 600 plus hours,” pointed out Siingh, whose company, Mobius Films, has produced documentaries on a range of subjects, such as dhrupad singer Asghari Bai and ragpickers.
One of the inherent problems in releasing outtakes of interviews is the undermining of the balance between a tribute and a critique that is present in the original work. “I have tried to maintain the same balance in Knowing Pancham as I have in Panchan Unmixed,” said the 50 year-old filmmaker. Burman’s flaws, such his blind trust in his assistant Sapan Chakraborty, who misrepresented his access to the composer to kickstart his own career as a compsoer, get wider coverage in Knowing Pancham.
“One part of my heart says that there all these people, many of whom are featured in the film, who were not around when Pancham needed them,” Siingh said. “But then the other half of me says that we know that this how life is. You can’t blame others, they get busy with their own lives and their work. The extended interviews are, in a sense, about the dynamics of failure, and I sympathise with that.”
Among the more unusual revelations in Knowing Pancham is the number of people who claim to have met him or spoken to him the day before his death. Going by the varying and often contradictory accounts, Burman had dinner with and called several people on the eventful night before his death. “It’s a Rashomon-like thing,” Siingh said. “Everybody had a slightly different version, and I have left it like that. So many people worked with Pancham for such a long time, each one thinks he or she was the closest to him.”
Siingh had done his own research before he started his interviews for Panchan Unmixed, but he came away with enhanced knowledge on the music composer’s personality and working methods. “What I knew about RD before making the documentary on a scale of one to 10 was 4.5, and by the time I finished, it was at 8.5,” he said. “One of the things I came across was that you have to be very giving, loving and understanding with the people with whom you work, and you need to know a great deal yourself too.” Among the numerous places to which the film has travelled since 2009 is companies. “I have been called to show the film and talk about ‘resonance leadership’, which is based on tapping the emotional quotient between bosses and their employees,” Siingh said.
The archival importance of the documentary is underscored by the fact that some of the people interviewed, including scriptwriter Sachin Bhowmick, filmmaker Shakti Samanta, and actor Shammi Kapoor, died before and after it was completed. “We don’t have films on personalities like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nasir Husain, Mehmood and Majrooh Sultanpuri,” Siingh pointed out. “Would it not have been fantastic if I had made this film eight or 10 years ago?”
The sea of voices across the films is missing the most important one: RD Burman. “The interviews with him were few and far between, and when there were interviews, he would e talking about other people, such as Kishore Kumar, but not about himself,” Siingh explained. Both Pancham Unmixed and Knowing Pancham amply fill in the silence. Burman’s eclectic music endures, and Siingh’s films help us understand why.