Last week I got a musical shock while riding a raft. A dozen of us were going down the Dunajec river that meanders through southern Poland and marks a length of its border with Slovakia. Possibly to drown out our jabbering oarsman, our Polish hosts burst into a folk song midway on the course.
I leaned forward to listen as the tune sounded all too familiar. It took just a few seconds to pair it with ‘Dil tadap tadap ke’, the Salil Chowdhury song for Madhumati. They are the same, note for note.
Now we know that Chowdhury had an eclectic taste. Apart from subcontinental folk and classical, he was steeped in a range of foreign music that included Western classical. But a Silesian folk song titled ‘Szla dzieweczka’ (‘The girl was walking’) that’s popular in Poland?
It bathed Chowdhury’s pre-Internet eclecticism in a brighter light. Then it made me think of the expectations heaped on music directors in the world’s biggest playback nation. We are not stung by their use of raags or Indian folk melodies; it’s ‘foreign influence’ that gets our goat. Why do we expect their scores to be original every time?
Forget Anu Malik and Bappi Lahiri. Even the great S D Burman was often ‘inspired’ — for one, his ‘Jeevan ke safar mein rahi’ shadows the ‘Mexican Hat Dance’. His son R D took cross-cultural pilferage to a new pitch. Sample his range: ‘Mehbooba’ is a twang-for-twang copy of Egyptian-Greek singer Demis Roussos’s ‘Say you love me’; and ‘Tera mujhse hai pehle ka’ begins with the opening bars of the Texan state song, ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. In recent years, Shantanu Moitra borrowed from Louis Armstrong’s ‘A kiss to build a dream on’ to score ‘Kaisi paheli hai ye’ for Parineeta. The difference between these stray examples and some of the better-known ‘lifts’ by Anu Malik and Bappi Lahiri is our level of familiarity with the originals.
Then why is Pritam-bashing a regular drawing-room contact sport? In light of our ‘rich’ past, isn’t it a bit too rich to call him the ‘prince of plagiarism’?
True, he has taken to inspirations all too abundantly — from the West, South, North and the Near East. He has also bought the rights to at least one re-used tune. He is, essentially, a marketing man who strikes deals, picks melodies, and then gives them out a set of ‘programmers’ to flesh out track by track. (To put it in context, A R Rahman was once a programmer for Ilayaraja.) But pertinently, Pritam seems to have a finger on the public pulse — an uncanny ability that has landed him a string of hits.
Not at every attempt, though. His latest release, Badmaa$h Company, fails to inspire. Even KK’s zesty ‘Ayaashi’ or Benny Dayal’s peppy ‘Badmaash company’, both set to 1970s’ action background standards not unlike ‘Dhan-te-nan’ in Kaminey, fall flat. And the lack of any female voice is quite odd. As to whether the tracks are ‘inspired’, well, I’ll need a grog of rum and Waterbury’s Compound to get up and indulge in a spot-the-original game on them.
But that’s no reason to call Pritam names. Rather, the righteous indignation he’s evoking is reason enough to call for an end to this hypocritical silliness of ours — once and for all.
We confuse ourselves by calling people like Pritam ‘music directors’. We take the term to be something akin to ‘composers’, and hence expect originality. Let’s call them ‘music producers’ — those who spot, buy, re-record and mix tunes.
Most of Pritam’s peers will fall under this label. And the real composers will heave a sigh of relief.