He was called Bombay Ravi, but he came from Delhi, spending his first few nights in the city sleeping on the platform at Malad railway station.
He had no formal training in classical music, but he worked for years with veteran filmmakers such as Guru Dutt and BR Chopra, churning out hits that still strike a chord almost half a century later.
Ravi Shankar Sharma, who died on March 7, aged 86, had an amazing ear for hit songs, his mentor, the late composer Hemant Kumar, often said.
Kumar discovered him buried in a Bollywood chorus, singing other people’s tunes. Noticing that the young man, then in his mid-20s, had a natural flair for music, he decided to take him under his wing, and soon discovered that he could frame a lilting, catchy tune in less than three minutes, then pick out with uncanny accuracy the ones that would catch on. “Play a slew of compositions for him and he could immediately tell you which ones would click,” Kumar would say. “The first time it happened was when I was working on Nagin (1954). Of the 30-odd compositions, Ravi asked me to give preference to three, including ‘Man dole mera tan dole’ and ‘Oonchi oonchi deewaron ko’.” The songs Ravi picked not only catapulted Hemant Kumar to the position of top composer, but also proved to be evergreen.
As word spread of his talent, director-producer Devendra Goel approached Kumar, pleading with him to spare Ravi for his upcoming film. Kumar readily agreed, but Ravi was reluctant to set out on his own and had to eventually be ‘fired’, for his own good. Thus, in 1955, Ravi scored the songs for Goel’s Vachan (1955), including ‘Chanda Mama Door Ke’, ‘Jab liya haath mein haath’ and ‘Ek Paisa De De, O Baabu’.
The film, and its soundtrack, were blockbusters and catapulted Ravi into the big league, pitting him against celebrity music directors such as Naushad and OP Nayyar. Ravi, who started out as technical employee in the Post & Telegraph Department in Old Delhi, had come into his own and was established as a hit composer.
His style was unique, inherited from the winding bylanes of Delhi. His music, with its roots in western UP and Punjab, was folksy, lilting and easy on the ear.
Where other music directors crowded their soundtracks with 100-strong orchestras and scores of instruments, he usually limited his ensemble to a shehnai, santoor and guitar, allowing the minimalism to highlight the lyrics and the beauty of his melody.
Ravi went on to produce a slew of hits while scoring for producers such as BR Chopra (Waqt, Gumrah, Hamraaz), OP Ralhan (Gehra Daagh, Phool Aur Patthar), SD Narang (Dilli Ka Thug, Shehnaai) and Ram Maheshwari (Kaajal, Neel Kamal).
By the mid-1980s, he was also making a mark in the Malayalam movie industry, where he became known as Bombay Ravi and composed for 15 films — a rare achievement for a north Indian composer with no knowledge of the language.
Naushad would say Ravi “amazes and harangues me at the same time”, because the latter unabashedly set out to emulate songs that struck him as beautiful, including some of Naushad’s own hits.
But Ravi was unapologetic, recalls his filmmaker son Ajjayy Sharma.
“Surs are not private property,” Ravi would respond. “Does a composition lose its charm in any of my songs, even if they sound familiar? Do they sound jaded? They don’t.”
The only regret Ravi had, in a career spanning more than 200 films, was that he could not do more films for Guru Dutt, after Chaudhvin Ka Chand. He was all set to compose for a number of Dutt’s forthcoming films when an overdose of sleeping pills put an end to Dutt’s career.
“Guru Dutt was the only filmmaker who gave me a free hand to compose and choose tunes for him,” Ravi would say. “If he had not died, I would perhaps have been one of the greatest music directors of our time.”
Ravi’s greatest hits
Baar baar dekho, hazar baar dekho (China Town, 1960)
Chaudhvin ka chand ho (Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960)
Husnwale tera jawab nahin (Gharana, 1961)
Ae mere dil-e-nadan (Tower House, 1962)
Aaj duniya badi suhani hai (Nartaki, 1963