Biography on celluloid invariably makes a good watch, especially if the figure is from the public domain. The handling of such a retrospective is often tricky because the filmmaker, in most cases, suffers either from overwhelming adulation, which may be the reason for the production, or sometimes in anticipation of such a bias remains sadly detached. In both cases objectivity is at risk.
Brahmanand S. Siingh has managed to walk the tightrope well in his acclaimed, two-hour documentary on the legendary music composer, R. D. Burman, titled ‘Pancham Unimixed: Mujhe Chalte Jaana Hai'. Clippings of the film, were screened at the show ‘Pancham Unmixed' at The Hindu Friday Review November Fest.
Not a “crazy fan of RDB,” but one who grew up listening fondly to S. D. Burman's music and later to his son's, Siingh yearned to see a film on the man, who gave Hindi cinema songs like, ‘Piya tu ab tho aaja…' and later his signature song from ‘Sholay', ‘Mehbooba, Mehbooba…', songs that had a cult following in the late seventies.
The yearning lay buried until one evening in Karachi, after the screening of his documentary, ‘Ragpickers', a Sufi band played the melodious ‘Musaafir hu yaaro'. It fired the crowds and also Siingh whose desire to make a film on RDB firmed up. “It decided me,” he recollected and back in Mumbai started work on the film in right earnest. The film had a world premiere at ArcLight, Hollywood in 2008.
“It has been a very expensive way to watch a film on my musical hero,” he said, adding that he has no regrets but only immense satisfaction. Siingh is happy at the appreciation the film receives at each screening. In the city, as elsewhere, nostalgia consumed the viewers at the musical retrospective.
Siingh took the difficult route to explore the subject.
With an image in mind he worked around the figment, speaking to RDB's or Pancham's colleagues and contemporaries who shared space with him in daily life.
These conversations revealed new and fascinating aspects of the man. He explored the music through these nuggets of information, and finally what emerged was quite exceptional. The narrative threw up a poignant story of prodigious talent, of emerging from the shadows of a luminary father, of soaring success and heartless desertion.
“People could empathise with the fact that such a great maestro was deserted by the industry at some point, the same industry which once thrived on him,” said Siingh.
After sifting through collated and collected materials it took 2,500 hours of editing to reach a structure that he had in mind. The film has been shown at 40 international film festivals and has received two national awards.
“The making of the film has been a huge journey for me. He must have been an amazing human being,” says Siingh who has a fascination for biographies well told.
A sensitive tribute needs more than simple veneration, perhaps a deeper connect. The filmmaker revealed a common root, of an ancestral musical bonding between S.D. Burman and Siingh's granduncle. The two shared the same Ustad, Bheeshma Deb Chatterjee.
Regretfully RDB never won a national award. Siingh says that Gulzar, aptly put it when he said lyrically:kheer Pancham banata hai aur khaate hum sab hai. (Pancham prepares the pudding and we all savour the sweetness)
Currently Siingh is working on an Indo German feature, ‘Between Our Worlds', scheduled for release in 2013. It deals with the serious subject of farmer suicides, corporate greed, with a love story on another side. Two films in Hindi, ‘Surmayee Shaam' (A musical sunset) dealing with Alzheimer's and ‘Ek Aur Bachpan' on the issue of child labour are in the pipeline.
Difficult, serious subjects, but Siingh believes that it's the treatment that can save the subject from turning dark and maudlin and yet not lose the right perspective.
Wishing for wisdom of a 300-year-old and the spirit of one in his twenties, the operatives for the 46-year-old filmmaker are passion, sincerity and goodness. “The trick is in how you tell the story”, and going by that he seems to have got it right in ‘Pancham Unmixed'.