Khayyam is no more. He was the last of those who lived the melody, who was intoxicated, and could intoxicate others. When people like him depart, the vacuum they leave behind can only be filled by their legacy. A legacy that speaks to the human soul. I may not understand the scope of his art, what he contributed to his profession and the medium. But he certainly enriched me and my work with what we did together. There is more to him than what meets the eye, than Umrao Jaan. For me, there is Anjuman, Gaman and Zooni. My entire journey with Khayyam had Shahryar for company — my favourite poet from Aligarh, so very alien to the ways of Bollywood. He could understand me better than I understood myself, as was the case in “Seene mein jalan…” from Gaman. Sharing my Khayyam is, therefore, difficult without sharing my Shahryar and understanding my films is difficult without understanding their music and poetry. Today, both the poetry and music are lost.
Gaman had won several awards, including for the best playback singer and music. Going back to Jaidev for Umrao Jaan seemed obvious. We worked together for a few months but Shahryar and I felt that it wasn’t quite working out. So, I went to the maestro Naushad Ali. But, I realised that he would be difficult to negotiate with if I didn’t like a melody.
We then went to Khayyam. His being the third choice weighed on my mind. He was not an easy man at all and what was needed most in this creative relationship was ease and understanding. In the final analysis, the music also had to come from my soul for it to speak through my images. I stood outside, waiting, having rung the bell, his melody “Sham e gham ki qasam…” from Footpath resonating in my mind.
The door opened, and there stood the gracious and talented Jagjit Kaur. We instantly took a liking to each other. I could read in her eyes the “subject to Khayyam sahab” look.
We were ushered in before the formidable man himself. Bollywood is full of people who look bigger than they are. And one had to be prepared to face the best and the worst of people at all times for your work.
The Khayyam I met was not the same Khayyam that I was afraid of confronting. He accepted Shahryar as a part of me, without my saying so. He was also open to reworking the melodies to suit my cinematic needs. He also acknowledged the nuances of Awadh and we took the help of Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan on certain classical renditions.
The music of Umrao Jaan took nearly two years to create. Each song was crafted as if it was coming from the soul of a poetess. Rehearsals with Asha (Bhonsle) ji brought a new resonance and Khayyam sahab made her sing a scale lower than her usual Bollywood fare. She had read the novel and felt Umrao in her veins. We gave a significant gap between each song so that it would be a little different from the other. The songs were the trajectory of Umrao’s life and had to be carefully crafted. Each time, a new world was born in Khayyam’s music room. The white chaandni stretched seamlessly through the room, which had images of Gurunanak Dev, Harmander Sahab and the Holy Kaaba to cast their blessings on what was happening there. The aroma of freshly-made coffee by Jagjit ji made the ambience welcoming for us. If the rhythmist was not present, she would sit with a hard-bound book to accompany Khayyam sahab who was on the harmonium. And as the bellows began to breathe, we waited with bated breath.
As the melody emerged, Jagjit ji would look carefully at me to judge my reaction and then at her husband to see if he sensed the same, in a way, fearful of my disapproval. Out of Khayyam’s deep confidence oozed out a melody that ripped the heart apart. “Ye kya jagah hai dosto…”. You know the rest.
What you don’t know is the music he created for a lesser-known — but in no way in less creative – film. In my film Anjuman, for which Shahryar wrote the lyrics, and Shabana Azmi sang, in which the last ghazal by Faiz Ahmed Faiz was sung by Khayyam and Jagjit Kaur at my insistence. I insisted because I knew in my heart that only they could do justice to the melody created for it.
Then came Zooni, my most ambitious project for which Shahryar created a series of poetic masterpieces for Khayyam to compose and for Asha ji to sing. The angst and joy in those songs became unforgettable for me as they echoed in the Valley, with Dimple Kapadia on screen. These unreleased melodies still haunt me as we wait for better days, when the film can become a reality. The ultimate tribute to my Khayyam.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 22, 2019 under the title ‘My Khayyam’. The writer is a film director.