Hindi films have been few and far between in 2020, but Bollywood composers Salim-Sulaiman had been releasing new songs almost every single month.

The brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant launched their label Merchant Records in July. Nine songs have been released so far under the label. The Merchants are also ready with a seven-song solo album Bhoomi 2020. The first single, Saanwal, was released on November 23. Six songs will be rolled out on a weekly basis.

Saanwal, Bhoomi 2020.

Meanwhile, Salim-Sulamain backed Rock Disco Tabla, a documentary on frequent collaborator Karsh Kale. The film bagged two awards at the Golden Gate International Film Festival in October. In 2019, the duo had scored and provided original tunes to Rajeev Goswami’s musical play Umrao Jaan Ada, based on Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Urdu novel of the same name.

These projects are part of Salim-Sulaiman’s long-term plan to chart a career independent of the Hindi film industry, which hasn’t been kind to composers in recent years. Salim-Sulaiman’s contemporaries Amit Trivedi and Vishal Bhardwaj also launched their own record labels during the pandemic.

Hum Rahein Ya Na Rahein, Umrao Jaan Ada (2019).

“The reason we started our label is that the giant record labels became film producers and began dictating the kind of music to be made,” Salim Merchant told Scroll.in. Chief among them is T-Series, whose productions feature template-based albums filled with rehashed Hindi and Punjabi hits, mawkish ballads or a mix of both.

“These days, producers think songs with lyrical or melodic value will be boring, unless you make them like [T-Series production] Aashiqui,” Merchant added. “People are switching off from Bollywood music because creators are being stopped at the creative level. Our label will give artists not only a platform to express themselves with freedom, but also have them retain the rights to their work.”

This means “that the intellectual property rights to the song are co-owned by Merchant Records as well as the artists themselves instead of just being owned by the record label”.

The siblings have released their own tunes along with compositions by Vijay Prakash-Tapas Relia and Nikhl-Swapnil. They cover a range of styles. Allah Hu is a qawwali, Jab Tum Paas Ho a ballad, Jagadambe a devotional song.

Jagadambe, Salim-Sulaiman.

Besides tying up with a host of music streamers, the duo smartly timed their releases. Jagadambe was out a week before Navratri. Nikhil-Swapnil’s reworking of Jana Gana Mana was an Independence Day special. Prakash and Relia’s Jogi Re was a Daughter’s Day special. The peppy Party Kar Le featured rap from YouTube celebrity CarryMinati.

Sulaiman Merchant explained that these releases are not gimmicks, but represent intelligent marketing nonetheless. “We had a Gujarati song Jagadambe ready, and Navratri felt like the right time to release it,” he said.

Since Prakash and Relia had made Jogi Re with their daughters, it made sense to release it on Daughter’s Day so as to celebrate the spirit of the occasion, Salim Merchant added.

The brothers have expanded their revenue model by launching a fashion line consisting of t-shirts featuring artwork based on some of their most successful film songs such as Shukhranallah (Kurbaan) and Dance Pe Chance (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi).

Haule Haule, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008).

“We didn’t have to ask [Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi producers] Yash Raj Films for permission because we are not using Shah Rukh Khan’s face,” Salim Merchant pointed out. “We are just using the song titles. We created these songs and they mean a lot to us.”

Salim Merchant, 46, and Sulaiman Merchant, 50, have been composing for Hindi films since 1997. Their first project was Sanjay Gupta’s Hameshaa (1997). Background music is a prominent aspect of their body of work. They have also programmed and arranged songs for other composers.

A short spell of Hindi pop albums in the late 1990s was followed by popular Bollywood soundtracks in the 2000s. These include Kaal (2005), Iqbal (2005), Neal ‘n’ Nikki (2005), Dor (2006), Chak De! India (2007), Aaja Nachle (2007), Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), Fashion (2008), and Kurbaan (2009).

The ability to compose and produce the entire music for a film gave them the ability to “know exactly what a song needs”, Sulaiman Merchant observed.

For instance, with Kaal (2005), director Soham Shah was unable to find a composer who could deliver the kind of “big sound” required for a song in which “Shah Rukh Khan would perform bare-chested and with a six pack,” Sulaiman Merchant said. They delivered the super-hit Kaal Dhamaal.

Kaal Dhamaal, Kaal (2005).

For Neal ‘n’ Nikki, they decided to use incorrect English. Anvita Dutt’s lyrics go, “I am the Neal, I’m the man, rockstar, superstar” to fit it with the film’s cocky Punjabi hero, Salim Merchant explained.

At the peak of their Bollywood career, they composed some of their best songs within just a day. These include Aashayein (Iqbal) and Haule Haule (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi). Others were worked out after a lot of back-and-forth. The Chak De India! title track was finalised after producer Aditya Chopra rejected seven iterations.

As for Yeh Honsla (Dor), which is probably their most-loved song, the brothers first came up with a tune that eventually became Maula Mere for Chak De! India. Director Nagesh Kukunoor found this tune “sad and baul-like”, Sulaiman Merchant said. Kukunoor wanted a “song for travelling”. Salim-Sulaiman were on point this time.

Yeh Honsla, Dor (2006).

“These songs became what they are also because of teamwork,” Salim Merchant pointed out. “Only because everyone were in the same studio spending time on it did they work. Now tunes are sent online, and the singer dubs on Skype or Facetime”.

This period also produced a staple of their live performances, Kurbaan Hua. Originally a rock song, it sounds great live. “If a song has qawwali elements or say dhols and dholaks, if you don’t have the right instruments and musicians on stage, it won’t click,” Sulaiman Merchant said. “That’s not the problem with Kurbaan Hua, although we have tried to reinvent it every time we play it live”.

Kurbaan Hua (live) by Salim-Sulaiman.

In the past decade, their soundtracks were either forgettable or supported blink-and-miss productions. However, the quality of their independent work remained steady, as is evident by their appearances on Coke Studio India between 2012 and 2015.

The changing landscape of the Hindi film music industry has made the composers shift their interests elsewhere. “In Aaja Nachle, the title track was a hit,” Salim Merchant said. “But Ore Piya, a non lip-synced song with not very dramatic choreography, was even a bigger hit. That’s because both songs were marketed prominently. Today, an Ore Piya won’t stand a chance.”

Ore Piya, Aaja Nachle (2008).

Merchant Records gives Salim-Sulaiman a chance to have everything from song creation to song distribution in their hands. Their 2020 songs Jab Tum Paas Ho and Mann Mein Aman are pleasant enough, but are layered with electronic flourishes as if to conform to whatever’s in.

Salim Merchant reasoned: “It’s a choice. Mann Mein Aman is a quiet tune. But the drama is done strategically. There’s a lot of pain and anger in the world, and we wanted to portray that, while Jab Tum Paas Ho, a song about having your lover close, had to express the euphoria of that feeling”.

Combining folksy tunes with electronic razzmatazz is the feature of Salim-Sulaiman’s new album Bhoomi 2020. The star-studded list of singers includes Sukhwinder Singh, Jonita Gandhi, Shreya Ghoshal, Arijit Singh, Kaushiki Chakraborty, Raj Pandit, Osman Mir, Nikhita Gandhi, Salman Ali, Swaroop Khan and Vipul Mehta.

“Twenty years ago, we had cut an album of the same name,” Salim Merchant said. “Since we tour a lot, we were toying with the idea of songs we could perform live along with our Bollywood repertoire. We ended up producing songs which were kind of folk and classical-driven but with a modern electronic sound. There are seven songs in line with seven days, seven musical scales, seven colours in a rainbow.”