Society

Songs of freedom: On the making of ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ 

A still of M Balamuralikrishna from the film

A still of M Balamuralikrishna from the film

A little over three decades ago, I worked at Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) Advertising, Madras, as a film executive. During my time there, I assisted in the making of two iconic films on national integration — Spread the Light of Freedom (also known as the Torch Song or Freedom Run), and Mile Sur. The first film shows famous sports personalities running while carrying a lit torch, passed from hand-to-hand, till it reaches the hands of little children. The visuals shot all over India, were set against a rousing soundtrack which gradually built up to a crescendo, ending with the final notes of our cherished National Anthem

When it was first aired on August 15, 1987 it took the country by storm. Suddenly it was ‘cool’ to be Indian. This was exactly what the then Government led by Rajiv Gandhi was trying to achieve. Tired of the uninspiring films churned out by conventional production companies, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided they needed something modern and soul-stirring, and the Torch of Freedom was born

This film was conceptualised by the brilliant Suresh Mullick who was then Creative Head of O&M, who was partnered by Kailash Surendranath of Far Productions. High on the unprecedented success of the film, Suresh and Kailash put their heads together to create a worthy successor the following year. Once again, they decided to follow the winning formula of a music track culminating with the last notes of our national anthem.

Kamal Haasan and M Balamuralikrishna

Kamal Haasan and M Balamuralikrishna

The making of ‘Mile Sur’

But this time, they chose the Indian classical route. The lyrics were a collaborative effort by the late Vinod Sharma and Piyush Pandey; simple and memorable, they would not get lost in translation.

‘Mile sur mera tumhara, toh sur bane hamara

Sur ki nadiya har disha se beheke sagar mein mile

Baadalon ka roop leke barse halke halke’

The soundtrack was recorded first. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was to sing for about two minutes, but went on for 40. Kailash and the sound recordist had the task of cutting that performance down to the required 50 seconds. That final edit was the seed from which the rest of the track grew. It was sent to M Balamuralikrishna, Louis Banks, and PP Vaidyanathan. Louis and Vaidyanathan had to flesh out the rest of the track in the various Indian languages and create the transitions. Kavita Krishnamurthy sang on the guide track, and Lata Mangeshkar sang her part over it later. Kavita’s voice was retained for some actors, and Poornima Shreshtha did some parts too.

Actor Revathy and KR Vijaya

Actor Revathy and KR Vijaya

I got a call from Suresh Mullick, requesting my help for the Madras leg of the production. I had just 10 days in hand. We managed to bring together KR Vijaya, Revathy, Ramanathan Krishnan, AV Ramanan, cricketer Venkataraghavan, Pratap Pothen and a couple of others. SP Balasubramaniam was away on tour and couldn’t participate. Balamuralikrishna also confirmed his presence. But one person remained elusive.

Enter Kamal Haasan

Kamal Haasan was the most sought-after star at that point of time. Nayakan had swept every award worth having the previous year, and Kamal had won the National award for the title role. Suresh’s every call would end with ‘get Kamal Haasan’.

(from left to right) Geeta John, M Balamuralikrishna, Suresh Mullick and a friend

(from left to right) Geeta John, M Balamuralikrishna, Suresh Mullick and a friend

After tracking Kamal down and meeting him on the sets of Unnaal Mudiyum Thambi, the shoot was fixed at Fisherman’s Cove. Balamuralikrishna’s shot was at sunrise. He was ready for us at 3.30 am! In the afternoon, the remaining stars reported to the location. Kamal was the last to arrive, and politely waited his turn. There was a little unplanned entertainment when he took off his black tee-shirt to try on a white one belonging to Kailash. For the final shot though, he wore his own. That wrapped up the Madras section.

Of beaches and camels

I got to speak to Kailash at length to get tidbits about the rest of the shoot through the length and breadth of India. As with the Torch film, the cinematographer was RM Rao. The first shot was of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, sitting by a waterfall in Khandala. In keeping with the lyrics, many of the sequences — Mallika Sarabhai, Shabana, Tanuja, Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Mario Miranda.. were shot on a beach or riverside. There were also some stunning aerial shots; Suresh Mullick used his connections with the Air Force to hire a helicopter to shoot the Taj Mahal. No drones back then!

A still from ‘Mile Sur’

A still from ‘Mile Sur’

There was no script. It would be the sur and geet.. lip-synched by famous personalities in the language of the State they belonged to.

Piyush Pandey (today Chief Creative Officer Worldwide) helped organise the shot of camels by a well in Rajasthan and Vicky Bangera, my counterpart in Mumbai took on the challenge of getting the Hindi film stars on board. Mithun Chakravarthy playfully agreed to come only if Amitabh Bachchan would too. Jeetendra joined them. Shabana Azmi, Hema Malini and the cast members of Tamas were shot at Film City.

Lata Mangeshkar charmed everyone by arriving in a white sari with a green and orange border. In one more nod to the Torch film, the final shot of Mile Sur again featured school children from Ooty. A significant detail: the main crew, musicians, celebrities, everyone participated free of charge. However, the technical assistants, studios, travel and production costs were covered by the I&B Ministry.

A still from ‘Mile Sur’

A still from ‘Mile Sur’

Looking back

‘Mile Sur’ was first aired on Doordarshan on August 15 1988. We were elated by the response to the Torch film, but euphoric at the reaction to Mile Sur. I was immensely fortunate to have got a chance to work on both. 34 years later, it is still played on some channel or the other every Republic Day or Independence Day.

M Balamuralikrishna in the recording room

M Balamuralikrishna in the recording room

Today, I write this to honour some of those who have passed on - Suresh Mullick, PP Vaidyanathan, Pratap Pothen, and Vicky Bangera among others. The film’s three main singers, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Balamuralikrishna, and Lata Mangeshkar are no longer with us, but their voices will live on for years to come. 

Geeta John runs an interior design practice in Bengaluru and dabbles in film styling, writing and playback singing


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Printable version | Sep 16, 2022 10:06:04 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/making-of-mile-sur-75-years-of-independence/article65753319.ece