Shakti Hasija’s 117-minute Rock Disco Tabla on Karsh Kale closely follows the musician’s relationship and engagement across genres as a tabla player, drummer, composer-producer and singer.

Hasija’s documentary starts off by looking at Kale’s upbringing in the cultural melting pot of New York and his development as a musician, with influences ranging from hip-hop to Zakir Hussain. Kale could hear “Bhimsen Joshi playing over The Police” and describes his formative years when he would be “falling asleep listening to one thing and waking up to another”.

The film moves on to provide the background on Kale’s albums, concerts, and collaborations with musicians, many of whom are interviewed here: Zakir Hussain, Salim Merchant, Bill Laswell, Anoushka Shankar, Midival Punditz, and Pat Berry and Bob Diskis of Six Degrees Records, which has published multiple Kale albums.

Produced by Kale’s frequent collaborators, the Hindi film composers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, Rock Disco Tabla won awards Best Film and Best Original Score at the Golden Gate International Film Festival in October. Kale himself has composed the score for the documentary.

Karsh Kale showreel.

It was Kale’s unique story of hailing from a “simple Maharashtrian family in New York” and then moving on to master drums as well as tabla and “be loved by Indians and Americans alike” that inspired the Merchants to take up the project, Salim Merchant said.

Sulaiman Merchant added, “Karsh started off as a rock drummer, moved into the club-disco scene, and then created the electronic tabla, which practically no one else does.”

Among the interesting observations Kale makes in the film is that he could hear “basslines” in Zakir Hussain’s tabla playing. He applied this touch to his electronic tabla, which is the regular instrument plus in-built mics and an amplifier. When Kale plays the electronic tabla, each stroke leaves a booming residue, much like how the bass sounds in a drum-and-bass song.

Karsh Kale explains his electronic tabla.

Hasija had previously directed the documentary Shukranallah, about Salim-Sulaiman. The film gave an overview of the composers’ work inside and outside the studio. The same approach informs Rock Disco Tabla.

Many interviewees speak highly of Kale’s ability to “see the big picture” as a music producer. Hasija’s name-checks every single highlight of Kale’s career, passing over the opportunity for an in-depth look into how Kale creates a song.

Hasija explained that the focus was strictly on Kale’s “musicality” and how he influenced international music. “Karsh Kale’s life is so colourful, one could make three different versions of the documentary,” he said. “We wanted this to be an emotional story. We wanted people to see that Karsh was always communicating what he was feeling at a given moment through his music.”

One such instance is Kale speaking about how he was forced to reconsider his heritage and culture after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. The sudden racism Kale faced makes him observe that until then he had been wanting to “share” his music, but now he wanted to “defend” it. This led to his second album, Liberation, in 2003.

After Kale began to frequent India for tours and projects once “things died down in the US”, he had turned from being “the youngest guy in the room to the oldest guy in the room”, trying to assess if he is “now playing their game or creating something new”.

Having rolled out two music documentaries, would Salim-Sulaiman be producing any more? “Being musicians, we will continue to make films in which music plays a big part and that won’t be just documentaries,” Salim Merchant said. “But it’s hard to get a good OTT platform interested in this, with the audience being more into fiction like drama and horror.”

Kajar Kare on Coke Studio India by Karsh Kale and Salim Merchant.

Also read: Why 2019 was a watershed year for Karsh Kale