Music is the Way

A film song can quickly become a classic, not only because it is portrayed by the famous actors and actresses of the day, but because the best of the songs have an enduring meaning that each member of the audience can take as their own. From my childhood until now I have been very drawn to the music of Bollywood, especially when the beauty of the melody is reflected in the lyrics, which can often be extremely profound. Even today, I can still recite some of the popular songs from the cinema of my youth. Undoubtedly, the significance of music in Indian culture, as a third thread of narrative beyond images seen and words spoken, has played a crucial role in how I have approached filmmaking.

Music has played a very important part in all the Merchant Ivory films beginning with The Householder. This score was composed by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a great sarod maestro of Indian classical music. Our next film, and the one to bring us international acclaim, was Shakespeare Wallah, which tells the story of Lizzie Buckingham, a member of her parents' roving troupe of Shakespearian actors, who meets and falls in love with Sanju, a wealthy young Indian playboy. The music for Shakespeare Wallah was scored by Satyajit Ray—this was the first time he had composed a soundtrack for any film other than his own.

Our next film, The Guru, takes for its theme the meeting of East and West through music and the exceptional score by Ustad Vilavat Khan was superbly simulated by Utpal Dutt, who played a guru trying to instruct a Western rock star in the spiritual dimension of music. The music for Bombay Talkie, itself a film set at the heart of the Indian film world (before they had thought to call it "Bollywood") was by Shankar-Jaikishan, the most popular composer duo, whose hits are sung all over the world including Russia and China. Bombay Talkie once more explored the theme of East meets West and features some extravagant set pieces, including one where an English novelist is shown around a film set and watches a song and dance routine performed on a gigantic typewriter.

Throughout the years our Indian based films have utilised Indian music. Our long-time musical collaborator, Richard Robbins worked with Ustad Zakir Hussain, the classical tabla virtuoso—who also made a cameo appearance—for the film Heat and Dust. The musical ensemble for this film also featured Sultan Khan, Nishat Khan and Pandit Chaurasia. The sound of Indian music is so evocative to my ears that we have often used Indian instruments in our European and American films. The sarangi in particular is an instrument that we have used to underline profound emotional feeling and changes of mood and character. Perhaps it is because the sarangi is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice that I find it so useful to create another layer of emotional meaning in film.

The sarangi was very well utilized for the soundtrack of my first directorial feature film, In Custody, about an ageing Urdu poet who clashes with a young college lecturer despite their shared passion for the beauty of words. The sarangi is the perfect instrument to illustrate the theme of poetry, and again Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan worked together to produce a haunting score worthy of the greatest ghazal.

Music, with the help of a little imagination, really can transcend cultural boundaries. Whilst helping to make a film accessible beyond its own cultural setting, such as In Custody, we have sought to use music in a way which brings the worlds of East and West together. Part of the soundtrack to Mahatma And The Mad Boy for example, includes Vivaldi's Winter Concerto played with Indian instruments, which wonderfully evokes the depth and complexities of the central character in that film. The film The Mystic Masseur is a classic example of musical fusion reflecting the cultural fusion of the Caribbean society of its setting. Richard Robbins worked again with Zakir Hussain using Western, Caribbean and Indian instruments to create a resounding score. Their collaboration was especially appealing because of their synchronicity: to see them working together in the studio, Dick with his immaculately prepared orchestrations and Zakir with his intuitive improvisations—all created a unique harmony of sound with vision that is entirely original.

©2003 Landmark Theatres