Dir. Brahmanand Singh
About ten years ago, before I ever watched a Hindi movie, I bought a CD called The Rough Guide to Bollywood - a brief compilation of hits spanning five decades. I had been interested in pop music from all over the world for some time, and often turned to the Rough Guide series when I wanted to explore something new to me. I had at that time only heard classical Indian music, and did not know what to expect from this CD. I loaded the music onto my MP3 player and took off for work. Then, I had a religious experience.
The first song on the CD was R.D. Burman's legendary "Dum maaro dum." By the time Asha Bhosle's first few notes danced into my ears, my entire musical universe was blown open. I had never heard anything like this before, such a mind-blowing bend of Indian sounds with western. The song is just two and a half minutes long, and in that brief time, I was hooked. I listened to the tune over and over again before I even got to the rest of the compilation.
I do not have the vocabulary to put into words just what it was about "Dum maaro dum" that made an instant fan out of me. Fortunately, in Brahmanand Singh's documentary Pancham Unmixed - Mujhe chalte jaana hai, you can hear from lots of folks who do. In interviews with R.D. Burman's contemporaries, colleagues, and friends, the film gives paints a vivid picture of Burman's personality and process. Even better than that, though, are the interviews with the new generation of music directors so profoundly influenced by Burman's innovations. These are deliciously technical. It is a treat to hear the likes of Shankar Ehsaan and Loy, Shantanu Moitra, and Ismail Darbar talk shop about what made Burman's music so different, unleashing their tabla bols and losing themselves in contemplation of Burman's rhythms and melodies.
The interviews with Burman's contemporaries are fascinating as well. Musicians who worked with him, such as Bhupinder Singh, Louis Banks, Pyarelal Sharma, and of course Asha Bhosle, describe his composition process and give a fascinating view into his prolific and creative mind. Kavita Krishnamurthy speaks reverently about his direction, the way he gently extracted exactly the performance he wanted from his singer. Many more - Gulzar, Shammi Kapoor, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and others - weigh in to praise Burman's skill as a composer and warmth as a friend.
Indeed, there is no shortage of effusive praise in this film, which is however somewhat light on biographical details and very light on criticism. Pancham Unmixed tells a few stories from Burman's life, but the focus is always on his music. Asha Bhosle describes meeting him for the first time when she was working with his father; he was then a skinny boy of fifteen eager to soak up every bit of music that he could. But the film does not even mention their marriage, some twenty-five years later.
Likewise for any less than reverent commentary on Burman's work. R.D. Burman is, fairly or not, infamous for generous borrowing of melodies from foreign sources. Most of these uses are inarguably transformative, and many were done at the insistence of directors or producers, so to mention them is not an automatic indictment of Burman or his creativity. Nevertheless, any overview of Burman's career should at least address them head-on. Pancham Unmixed errs a little too far on the side of coyness, mentioning this aspect of Burman's fame but sweeping it under the rug with an embarrassed smile - Usha Uthup's embarrassed smile, to be exact, as she dismisses any question of originality with the tired old assertion that no music is ever truly original.
Then again, Pancham Unmixed does not really make any pretense to objectivity - it is a paean, a eulogy, and a tribute, and as such, it need not dwell on anything other than praising and reverently memorializing the legend of its subject. Viewed in that light, it is a terrific watch for anyone who appreciates classic Hindi cinema and its music. And since the music of R.D. Burman was, for me, the overture to a great adventure with both, the affectionate memories of a score of Hindi cinema's greatest artists makes for a very enjoyable story indeed.
Pancham Unmixed is available for rent or download from iTunes and a few other online services as well.