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The Art Of The Musical Documentary

It isn’t easy to make a documentary film on a musician’s life, but two recent efforts prove that when done right, the result is outstanding.

If music is the most abstract of arts, making films on musicians is paradoxically difficult and easy. Classical music demands a different approach and skill set. It is popular music – filmi and non-filmi – that is the irresistible siren to filmmakers. One can cobble together clips interspersed with talking heads like TV does to fill the weekend slot, which is so predictably boring and eminently missable. Brahmanand Singh, on the other hand, proves that making a film on a popular musician can be creatively enriching, totally engaging and effortlessly educative – for the filmmaker and the audience. He invites you to join his discovery of the chosen genius and takes you along the musician’s journey, with marvellous insights from colleagues, connoisseurs and common folk. This applies to both Pancham Unmixed…Mujhe Chalte Jaana Hai, his first film in the genre that won a national award and now Kagaz Ki Kashti, an ode to Jagjit Singh, who made ghazal lovers of even those untutored in the intricacies and felicities of Urdu shayari. Zakir Hussain elaborates with simple clarity: traditional ghazal singing had hit a wall. What Jagjit did was to create a ledge to get past the wall and thus revived a dying form.

It is difficult to capture and convey the birth of a song, the creative crucible in which the melody simmers before it takes wing and soars free, more so when it comes to a composer like R.D Burman and ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh. Both are one of a kind, and demand passion that is one of a kind. Singh has the gift to make two memorable documentaries that do full justice to his chosen subjects, and to leave you asking for more even after the 2-hour plus films are over. Here is a filmmaker who was exposed to music from childhood, where a grand-uncle trained in the Aladiya gharana and Brahmanand himself became a shagird of Ustad Aslam Khan for five years or so. He is embedded in the nuances of classical music, then went on to discard this heritage for western rock and returned to Indian music through the accessibility of film music, thus finding a treasure trove.


Jagjit Singh

To his second film first. Jagjit Singh is the most popular and well-loved ghazal maestro, whose mellifluous voice and distinct diction seduced the non-cognoscenti into becoming fans of this form, where the poetry is as important as melody. Singh’s film flows like a ghazal, bringing alive the man, his music and the highs and lows of his life. Singh’s research is impressively thorough — family, friends, fellow musicians, collaborators, filmmakers, ordinary fans, the usual suspects — but the way he elicits their memories, insights and recounting of particular incidents is remarkable for its depth. He weaves these together seamlessly, and Jabeen Merchant’s editing — a brutal task when there is so much footage — is fluid, transiting to a new segment with grace.

The juxtapositions are organic: extensive clips of live concerts and the singer alone with his harmonium, effortlessly creating a melody to encase a poem he came across. Singh addresses the criticism often levelled against Jagjit Singh: he chose easy-to-comprehend, lesser-known poetry instead of the great masters Ghalib and Mir. There is a lovely story of how he read Urdu magazines and wrote down the poems that he liked, and then hunted for the poet to share the royalty for a ghazal he had already composed. Everyone talks with warmth and gratitude of his generosity, and the many ways he helped out colleagues as well as acquaintances with money, as well as how he used his contacts when the person was faced with a dire medical emergency.


Brahmanand Singh on set

It is with Gulzar’s Mirza Ghalib — a landmark in Indian television, for the way it brought out the complexity of the great poet, and recreated that era with a visual depth rare on the small screen – that Jagjit Singh finally crossed the intellectual bar that was invisible and yet present, despite all that huge popularity. The way Gulzar speaks about Jagjit is so uniquely his own: to the effect that the maestro’s voice evokes a similar pain and pleasure when the scab over a healed wound is scratched – it’s the grain under that velvety voice.

Singh’s film freely draws from TV shows — the inimitable Farooq Sheikh’s warmth and mellow wit on Jeena Isika Naam Hai and the faux trial mounted by the unbearably oily Rajat Gupta (I simply can’t understand his longevity) on Aap Ki Adalat. They showcase Jagjit Singh’s quick wit and disarmingly self-deprecatory humour. The inner strength of the man comes through when he faced the great tragedies in his life. He sought succour and redemption in music and in the process, he created a legacy that we hum along with.

In comparison, Brahmanand Singh’s first film marks the true breakthrough in this genre. Pancham Unmixed had no access to live interviews of RD, nor any clips of the genius at work. What Singh creates are word-pictures of RD through his searching interviews, where so many people open up with such spontaneous sincerity and eloquence that they set the standard for what an interview ought to be. From singers and composers Shankar-Ehsan- Loy and Shantanu Moitra to director Vidhu Vinod Chopra (who resurrected RD’s career with the magical music of 1942, A Love Story), tributes and memories pour out with candour, awe and abiding affection.


Pancham da and Md. Rafi

Singh is careful to show grainy clips of an interview with Gulzar and Asha Bhonsle halfway through the film. By then, we are totally hooked. Who can forget Taufiq Qureshi doingthe famous “Ha ha ha” that punctuates Piya tu ab to aaja for over a minute, to underline RD’s breathtaking, inventive brilliance? Shantanu Moitra’s take is more scholarly, but that is the magic of RD and the beauty of Pancham Unmixed. So many varied responses, from pundits (one of them elaborates on RD’s penchant for starting on the off-beat, like the 5th on a 16-beat cycle) and a layman’s total surrender to a song that enthralls him. What unites it all, runs through the entire film, is the passion Pancham evokes.

The inexplicable lows of his life, when he felt abandoned by everyone including those he held dear, are not glossed over. Singh gently but surely probes to get answers from many people, but certain things can never be clarified, even from the wisdom of hindsight. So along with love and abiding admiration, there is a strain of melancholy… the irony that RD did not live to see the triumph of 1942. Maybe, like my all time favourite, we just have to drench ourselves in the sweetness of Kuch na kaho, kuch bhi na kaho. Words are superfluous.