How RD Burman transformed Hindi cinema music not once but twice
Pancham Da would be one of the few creative geniuses who would be equally at home in the 'late bloomer' category.
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The reason why RD Burman is undoubtedly considered the most prolific composer in the context of Indian film music could be not only due to the fact that RD ushered in a new standard for the Hindi cinema compositions that changed the playfield forever, but also that even after defining the change, he persisted to compete with the same enthusiasm throughout his life.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell once commented that "Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity", and RD's career trajectory is one of the best testimonies to this point. Like Pablo Picasso, Orson Welles, Raj Kapoor and later AR Rahman, RD, too, was in his early 20s when he began assisting his father, SD Burman, as well as establishing himself as an independent composer with Chhote Nawaab (1961) and Teesri Manzil (1966).
Through the late 1960s, RD made it more than evident that for the perception about the creation of something truly creative to take root in popular culture, as we're inclined to think, it requires freshness, exuberance and the energy of youth. But, at the same time, like Beethoven or Alfred Hitchcock or Paul Cèzane, RD, also presents an equally strong case for old masters striking higher notes towards the second half of their creative life. RD Burman would be one of the few creative geniuses who, interestingly enough, would be equally at home in the "late bloomer" category too.
In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, the economist David Galenson argues that prodigies usually tend to operate "conceptually" and possess an extremely clear idea of where they want to go and execute it. Looking at RD's initial solo work such as Teesri Manzil, one can be rest assured that while the sound might have been experimental in the context of the Hindi cinema, it was as natural as breathing for the composer. Similarly, when it came to comparatively more traditional sounding scores such as Baharon Ke Sapne (1967), Pyar Ka Mausam (1969), Kati Patang (1970), Mela (1971), or Amar Prem (1972), there is an intuitiveness that is unlike any other composer.
Considered a prodigy from the word go, there was rarely an instance when RD wasn't trumpeted as one and although he didn't burn himself out in the conventional sense of the word the mid to late '80s did see him reinvent himself. It is here that RD initiated a second coming, which interestingly meets the parameters that David Galenson suggests about late bloomers.
Unlike his previous prodigal self, RD's music in this phase appears to be created the other way around, where the approach was more experimental and, therefore, more tentative. The elements were still the same as was the gusto with which RD might have approached his work, but the result resembled the work of some experimental artist perfected over many efforts.
Sure, the argument could be brushed away by hardcore RD fans with examples of how Ijaazat (1987) and Parinda (1989) were composed as instinctively as some of his earlier works. Yet, these compositions bear an undeniable subliminal feeling of a trial-and-error process, where RD seems to search for something in the course of creating, as opposed to knowing what to create. One look at 1942: A Love Story (1994), a score that unknowingly ended up being his swansong, ratifies this late-bloomer-like search for perfection over long periods.
When he died in 1994 at the age of just 54, RD was on the precipice of what could be best defined as the "second life cycle" of his artistic creativity. Although it had more than manifested itself in 1942: A Love Story, this second coming had been in the making for a while.
RD was excited about the possibility of working on Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) with Mansoor Khan, the son of Nasir Husain, a filmmaker with whom he created some of his best scores. But it was out of sheer reverence for "Pancham Uncle" that Mansoor couldn't imagine working with the stalwart. The young filmmaker believed the mere presence of the legendary music composer would be far too intimidating for him to even think straight. Although later Mansoor and RD did have a few sittings for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), the association was limited to a couple of sessions before Jatin-Lalit took over.
In between Subhash Ghai had approached RD to compose the score for Ram Lakhan (1989), a film he'd only be producing, as he was busy with Devaa, his opus with Amitabh Bachchan. It didn't matter to RD that initially Ghai wouldn't be directing Ram Lakhan as he thought this could be his shot at a comeback into the big league. He was elated when Devaa hit a dead-end and Ghai decided to direct Ram Lakhan but as bad luck would have it Ghai opted for his regulars Laxmikant-Pyarelal over him.
In a career spanning over 330 films and non-film music across eight languages, RD's music is truly evergreen but had it not been for these red herrings between 1986 and 1992 perhaps the RD saga would have had a different ending.