BOLLYWOOD DREAM: OLD SONGS, NEW HIT
- BY JIM BESSMAN
(Appeared in Billboard USA, issue dated 02 April 2005)
Songs and songwriters are as much the hook in Bollywood cinema as actors and directors. Last year's award-winning "Veer-Zaara," in fact, played up the songs by the late Madan Mohan way above esteemed director Yash Chopra and a spectacular cast including male superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan and top actresses Preity Zinta and Rani Mukerji.
"Veer-Zaara," which was named best film at the prestigious Filmfare Awards in February in Mumbai, India, is now available on DVD. But the story of the soundtrack is as powerful a saga as the inspirational love tale at the heart of "Veer-Zaara."
Indeed, the soundtrack was a huge success even before the film was released. It is so unusual that it engendered a novel companion CD, "The Making of the Music," featuring commentaries by Chopra and legendary film music diva Lata Mangeshkar along with decades-old demos by Mohan himself.
The previously unreleased compositions by Mohan, who died in 1975, were discovered by his son Sanjeev Kohli, now CEO of Chopra's Yash Raj Films.
"He did 104 films in his 25-year career, of which maybe 10 were box-office successes," says Kohli, whose father was born Madan Kohli but chose a "more musical" surname. "The others are remembered only for their music."
"He never won a major award, but two films released after his demise - 'Mausam' and 'Laila Majnu' - became runaway hits," Kohli continues. "Suddenly, his name became the most revered among composer - and is still held in great esteem. None of his films would be listed in the top 100 of Indian cinema, but at least 10 of the 100 most-remembered film songs would be his."
When Kohli was 17, Mohan died from cirrhosis of the liver at age 51. The death of his father shattered Kohli.
"I had lost the opportunity to learn music and make music my career," he recalls. "But on some days when I missed him, I would listen to his songs on master spools - which we were never allowed to touch as children - and also cleared his 'music cupboards' and found some spool tapes and cassettes of some amazing compositions. Some he played on the harmonium or piano, some he just hummed or used dummy words, some went back to 1958 and were never used for want of an appropriate film. What a waste of such melodies!
So I fantasized: What if I could have these tunes recorded - and they could be a part of a new hit film?"
Kohli pursued an education in management but landed in the music business in Mumbai after all. Following a five-year stint as A&R manager at Polydor, he served 10 years at EMI as marketing and A&R VP (including three years in London). He produced all of Mangeshkar's albums at the time - she being his father's main female voice and muse.
This, however, was in the 1980s and 1990s, when popular music in India was absorbing Western influences.
"I found no time to fulfill my dream, and if I ever thought of it, wondered if my father's tunes would be 'old-fashioned' today," Kohli concedes.
Then, in 1995 he joined Yash Raj Films, India's most successful entertainment company. In 1997 he brought in Uttam Singh to compose the score to Chopra's "Dil to Pagal Hai," which became a huge-selling soundtrack.
"In 2003, Yash Chopra decided to direct a film that needed 'old-world music' - away from the Western influences," Kohli says. "Music that had a strong melody line, with acoustic instruments - music like that of the '60s and '70s. Instinctively, I blurted that I had some old-world melodies on tape, not heard for 28 years."
Using only three musicians, Kohli spent three months recording demos of 35 of his father's unheard songs.
"All through my career, I had been passing judgment on singers and composers as a powerful A&R person and album producer. Now my father and I were on test to see if his melodies were relevant in today's times," Kohli says.
Incredibly, Chopra and his son Aditya Chopra, who wrote the "Veer-Zaara" screenplay, chose 10 of the songs, and informed Kohli that they wanted to retain the organic sound of the demos.
"It was unbelievable," Kohli says. "Such a big film's score with the biggest producer and director of India and with the biggest star cast assembled in recent years - on my slender shoulders."
But Kohli took on the challenge "as if some divine force was guiding me," he says. He even cajoled Mangeshkar, now semi-retired at 75, to reprise her role as his father's star singer.
"It was daunting," he says, "but I kept on, employing his trademark sitar and string arrangements as much as the screenplay permitted. But I had to remember that this was not a tribute to Madan Mohan but the soundtrack of a film traversing 22 years over two diverse cultures.
"It was a filial duty, and through this entire endeavor I have rediscovered my father - as well as some of what I inherited from him - and I know I didn't let him down: I saw his name up there on billboards at the Empire in Leicester Square and at the Loews on Broadway. What more could a son ask for?"
© 2005 Billboard, USA