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REVIEW: R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music

December 02, 2012


Reviewed by Peerzada Salman

ASK any modern-day Bollywood musician about the one composer who inspired them more than any other and an overwhelming majority will likely mention one name — Rahul Dev Burman aka Pancham-da. Be it the trio of Shankar-Eshaan-Loy or the duo Vishal-Shekhar or the uber talented Pritam who once ran an R.D. Burman fan club, all of them have said time and again that Pancham-da has had a lasting impression on their lives and careers. Why? Because R.D. Burman was a genius in every sense of the word.

Very seldom does it happen that a father-son pair achieves remarkable feats in the same profession. S.D. Burman, R.D.’s father, was and remains, a legend in his own right. Despite the fact that both had quite dissimilar, if not contrasting, styles of setting poetry to music, it’s not possible that R.D. was not influenced by his father. This also highlights that oftentimes it is the private lives of artists and incidents concealed from the public eye that shape their professional lives. The book R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal seeks to explore this.

Discussing his childhood, the authors tell us that R.D. got the name Pancham, the fifth note in music, because “as a child he wailed at the fifth note of the Saptaswara. There is another story: Rahul would invariably sing the note Pa whenever his father sang the note Sa. Thespian Ashok Kumar thus gave him the name Pancham”.

The book has many positives and some negligible downsides. For starters, it has been written by two men who know music, its language and its nuances. They are well-versed in western compositions and are familiar with Indian classical sangeet. This makes it easier for them to comprehend R.D.’s craft and skill. Also, they have tried to follow the great man’s life trajectory. He comes across as a flesh and blood person rather than just a famous composer, a lover, a husband, a person who has to struggle. Add to all of this his professional growth and pitfalls that would have dissuaded a lesser individual from believing in himself; but R.D. Burman always knew who he was and was proud of it.

The book starts with almost a movie-like scene from R.D.’s final few moments. The year was 1994 and he had just composed   music for the film 1942: A Love Story. When composing for the film, R.D. had predicted that the music would meet with unprecedented success. And he was spot on.

Bhattacharjee and Vittal map R.D.’s career graph from his very first film, Chhote Nawab, and actor Mehmood’s role in giving him his first break. Perhaps the best part of the book is tracing R.D.’s career from the modest recognition of Chhote Nawab to his first big hit as a composer and to date one of his most memorable projects, Teesri Manzil.

At the time when Teesri Manzil was being produced, actor Shammi Kapoor was a force to reckon with. When the producer of the film told Kapoor that he intended to sign up young R.D. Burman for the film, the actor hummed and hawed. But once R.D. played a few of his tunes (including “O Haseena Zulfon Wali”), the actor couldn’t utter the word no and the rest, as they say, is history.

The one thing that the authors must be praised for is their detailed description of how effectively R.D. used some instruments and made them a regular feature in his repertoire. When R.D. employed castanet in a certain tune, it sounded integral to the  composition. No different was the case with bossa nova (a type of South American music). This sounded all the more beautiful because R.D. had a profound knowledge of Indian classical music. So whenever he set out to compose a song, in spite of its ‘western’ feel, he would be aware of the subtleties of the world of ragas.

R.D.’s association (once he became a known figure and lived no longer in his father’s shadow) with playback giants Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar is dealt with in a befitting manner. He went from strength to strength, composing music for super hit films like Sholay and experimenting with both form and content. But the book is not about how R.D. Burman carved a niche for himself in Bollywood and assumed the status of a legend. It also gives a moving account of the times when he found himself financially challenged and was struggling with relationships.

However, I don’t quite agree with the authors when they suggest that R.D. as a young musician played a part in his father S.D. Burman’s success. The fact remains that S.D. Burman was a magnificent composer, one of the best that the Indian film industr y has ever produced. Therefore, even if R.D. did help him in a few projects it doesn’t take anything away from S.D. Burman’s art.

R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music


By Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal

Harper Collins, India

ISBN 978-93-5029-049-1

366pp. Indian Rs825