25 years of ‘Bombay’: The story behind the iconic theme that lingers on from Mani Ratnam’s classic

Arvind Swamy and Manisha Koirala in ‘Bombay’

Arvind Swamy and Manisha Koirala in ‘Bombay’  

Flautist Naveen Kumar explains how A.R. Rahman executed the ‘musical storyboard’ idea that he had visualised for the 1995 film starring Arvind Swami and Manisha Koirala

“Yes, I’m in Mumbai,” flautist Naveen Kumar tells me over a patchy telephone call.

He calls it ‘Mumbai’ now, just like most of us are used to, but 25 years ago, it was a film titled Bombay that gave Naveen Kumar a national platform. “I remember it so vividly,” he says.

Back then, the Vishakapatnam-born musician was part of Ilaiyaraaja’s troupe in Madras, and playing the flute for various film songs. AR Rahman was part of the group as well, and the two became friends then. “We (ARR and I) also used to regularly work for Ramesh Naidu back then,” recalls Naveen. The two worked on Yodha, Roja and multiple advertisement jingles, before their piece-de-resistance would be conceptualised... for a Mani Ratnam film titled Bombay.

Naveen Kumar with A.R.Rahman

Naveen Kumar with A.R.Rahman  

Naveen remembers the recording of Bombay theme at Kodambakkam’s Panchathan Record Inn like it was yesterday. “It was unusual because ARR called me to his studio in the afternoon, which he never does,” laughs Naveen. People aware of the Oscar-winning composer’s work schedule know that he always works at night, something that he continues till date. “Nevertheless, I went, and he wanted me to play a tune that he had composed.”

That recording session was uneventful, but the “magic” happened a few days later, when both Rahman and Mani Ratnam were present at the studio premises. They had chalked out something that Naveen was very unfamiliar with: a ‘musical storyboard.’ “Most recording sessions follow the same pattern: I play what the music director had composed, and wrap up. But this was different. Very different,” he says.


The ‘musical storyboard’ that Naveen heard that day had a descriptive brief: Imagine a time when a downpour has subsided, and the last of the rain drops are falling on the ground. Now, imagine the sound that a solitary rain drop would make if it were to fall on a leaf. “I closed my eyes, tried visualising that and started playing,” he says. Over the next hour or so was recorded the now-iconic ‘Bombay theme’, which starts off like an almost-hesitant whisper and turns into a lilting melody before allowing the grand violins to take over.

Naveen and AR Rahman might have got international acclaim with that theme they conceptualised that day — the composer even played it in the continuum fingerboard at Berklee College of Music in 2014 — but there’s another person who warrants equal praise: late sound engineer H Sridhar. “He was a genius. He created magic out of our sounds. There can be no replacement for Sridhar saab,” rues Naveen, whose personal favourites include his flute interludes in Evano Oruvan (Alaipayuthe) and the Cyclist’s Rhythm track from Hindi film Meenaxi.

Naveen Kumar during a performance

Naveen Kumar during a performance  

25 years on, Naveen has worked on multiple film assignments, with leading music composers. He remains one of the most sought-after flautists in the country, often conceptualises musical shows of his own and is currently collaborating with American composer Wayne Sharpe and Brooklyn-based record producer Joel Hamilton on international projects. He has about 500 flutes (“There are 5 boxes full of them”) and has invented nine flutes, in pursuit of different sounds. “I’m also doing covers of late, of Anirudh’s Darbar and GV Prakash’s Asuran songs,” he says. Naveen has not been approached by Kollywood for any music composition projects, but has worked on a few Telugu films in the 90s. “I’m still open to offers, but playing the flute gives me most happiness.”

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:20:55 PM |

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