Siblings Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, who’ve composed several Bollywood chartbusters, will be in Chennai tomorrow to enthral fans. Priyadarshini Paitandy catches up with the duo

While most children grow up playing with building blocks and puzzles, here are two brothers who spent most of their formative years playing with musical instruments. And during their teenage years when their peers were perhaps busy discovering the joys of video games, Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, at 13 and 16, composed their first song. "We haven't looked back since then," say the brothers, who have been performing around the globe. After Mauritius, Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam, the duo will be in Chennai for a concert on Sunday. Then they will fly to Thailand, Singapore, London, before returning to Africa.

“It’s tough travelling, but getting on stage and performing for fans gives us immense satisfaction. The audience can look forward to some of our biggest hits such as ‘Shukranallah,’ ‘Tauba Tauba,’ ‘Ainwayi Ainwayi,’ ‘Kurbaan Hua,’ ‘Ali Moula,’ and ‘Mar Jawaan,’” says Sulaiman, the older of the two. The duo will be joined onstage by singers Benny Dayal, Shraddha Pandit and Shadab Faridi. “We believe this is going to be one big concert of which people will take back great memories,” he adds.

Rooted in music

Belonging to a family firmly rooted in music, it was natural for Salim and Sulaiman to take it up as their career. Their father S. L. Merchant was a composer in the Madras and Bombay film industries. “He quit cinema in 1962 and started manufacturing musical instruments. He was also associated with a community band where he taught kids to play instruments, starting a band with them. We would watch him rehearse and wished we could perform like that one day. Dad was not just a source of inspiration, he was also our mentor. He taught us to play different instruments and later encouraged us to learn from professionals,” says Salim.

The Merchants started their career composing jingles. Their tryst with Bollywood commenced while they were working on a song for the CAG awards. “Film director Sanjay Gupta happened to be working in the edit suite next door. He heard our music and was very interested to know who we were. Over lunch, he spoke to us for a while, and by the end of the conversation wanted us to compose the background score for his film Hamesha and also produce a theme piece. That was the beginning. We soon got nominated for Best Background Score (for Hamesha) and started getting noticed as the new talent in the Bollywood music circuit,” says Sulaiman.

What followed was a spate of chartbusters for movies ranging from Kaal, Iqbal, Dor, Aaja Nachle, Fashion, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl to the latest Satyagraha. They have also composed the background score for a host of movies. Quite a few of their compositions have Salim doing the vocals. Is he a trained singer? “We are not trained singers. As a producer and composer, one has to sing. We’ve been a few years in the business and our singing has improved with time,” smiles Salim.

Global collaborations

Not just the Indian film industry, these musical Merchants of Bollywood have also worked their magic overseas. Apart from collaborating with South African singer Loyiso Bala and Kenyan singer and song writer Eric Wainaina to record the anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, ‘Africa - You're A Star’, they have worked on the remix of two of Lady Gaga’s popular tracks ‘Born this Way’ and ‘Judas.’ Up next is another international project — the Hollywood film Sold, that deals with the issue of human trafficking. “It is a powerful film. The subject is dark and intense and, therefore, the film required us to create lighter moments through the song sequences. The experience of working on a Hollywood film was enriching and satisfying. It gave us an insight into the professional etiquette and high standards set by the industry. Musically, we were given quite a free hand,” say the musicians. Be it film or non-film music or judging reality shows, they have done it all. What’s uppermost on their wish list is composing for a mainstream Hollywood film.

Salim, 39, and Sulaiman, 43, now, can well be considered seasoned players in the music industry with16 years of experience and many awards to their credit. What changes do they see in the industry? “The music scene is changing rapidly. Today, it doesn't matter what the song is, but who it’s picturised on. We are fortunate, though, to be doing a lot of indie and international work which is soul satisfying.”

(Salim Sulaiman Live in Concert, an event by The Hindu, presented by Urban Tree, will take place on September 1, 7.30 p.m. at The Music Academy. Tickets are priced at Rs. 1000, Rs. 750 and Rs. 500. For details, call 87545-12997.)