|Salim Merchant at The Park. Picture by Anindya Shankar Ray
Salim Merchant, one half of the Salim-Sulaiman duo, the Bollywood hitmakers of the moment, was in Calcutta last week as an Indian Idol judge. A chat with the Shukran Allah man…
What are you looking for in the next Indian Idol?
For me, Indian Idol is about finding the voice of the next Indian playback singer. The key element, apart from being a fantastic voice, is versatility. It should be the cinematic voice of India. A very good example is Sonu Nigam. He is so versatile. He can sing a Punjabi song, he can sing a western pop song, he can sing a song like Aal izz well. He is an overall talent and that is what I am looking for in my Indian Idol.
Why is every talent contestant vying to be a Bollywood playback singer?
Sadly, we have a film industry in India, we dont have a music industry. Great singers like Kishoreda, Mohammad Rafi saab, Lataji have always been associated with films. How many successful private albums did they have? We did have an Indipop culture, but even that couldnt sustain beyond a point. Even there the criterion for success was that they wanted to create popstars as big as playback singers.
|A still from the Shukran Allah song from Kurbaan
Fashion, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Luck, Kurbaan… Salim-Sulaiman can suddenly do no wrong…
Things have been good; great in fact. When I started out as a keyboard player and subsequently moved on to background scores, I always knew that my brother and I would compose music someday. I think we came in at a time when Bollywood had just started opening up to experimentation. We realised that and came up with some cutting-edge scores. And thats what worked for us.
I am on the panel of Blue Frog (an integrated music project in Mumbai) where I scout for new talent. I have collaborated with (Indian-American musician and producer) Karsh Kale on all his albums. Salim-Sulaiman was recently nominated for the Emmy Awards. So we are slowly branching out into the world music scenario. We scored music for a German film some time ago. We have also been associated with Merchants of Bollywood, which has been a successful musical for so many years now. There is definitely more to us than just Bollywood music.
You are also singing now…
Every composer has a songwriter and a voice within him. When I compose a song and sing it, sometimes the director likes it so much that he says, Arre, I want you to sing this song yourself. Thats what happened with Ali maula (from Kurbaan). We had composed it for Abida Parveenji, it was a song that was meant to be sung in a female voice. But then Karan Johar told me, Why dont you sing it yourself? Abida Parveen has sung so many Ali maulas. Your voice will give it a certain freshness. If the director gives me a push, I end up singing my own songs.
Who have been your musical influences?
I feel music is a spiritual thing and so what works for me is someone who is a great artiste as well as a great human being. My idol has always been Ustad Zakir Hussain. I started my career with him at age 16. For three years, I played keyboards with his band Tabla Beat Science. Abroad, as a singer it will be Seal; as a multi-talented musician it will be Richard Bona.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
Scorpions (breaks into Holiday…). In desi music, I wasnt too hot on 80s Bollywood, but I loved Madan Mohanjis compositions. And then of course there is Panchamda (RD Burman) who is god. I worked with him on a last project that never released.
Salim-Sulaiman are now going live. For the past four years, we have been thinking of taking our songs out to the people and now its finally happening. Our songs like Chak de! and Aashayein have become inspirational anthems. I am going to be playing keys and singing, my brother will be there and we will also have Anushka Manchanda and Rahul Vaidya on vocals. Karsh Kale will be on drums, Navin Iyer on flute… a lot of talented people. It will be a North America-Canada tour sometime in September 2010.
One very good thing that has happened now is that almost all the composers in Bollywood — Salim-Sulaiman, Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Pritam — have become like one family. We meet very regularly, we discuss music, we bounce off ideas… We are trying to resolve issues of composers. We have just had a chat about an album that will have two songs by Salim-Sulaiman, two songs by Vishal-Shekhar, two songs by Pritam and so on. We have also invited (A.R.) Rahman. I dont know how long it will take, but its a step in the right direction.
On the Bollywood front, there are two films we are working on now. One is a Yash Raj film, loosely based on The Wedding Planner. Then there is a Phonebooth adaptation with Sanjay Dutt and Irrfan. Then there is Kuchi Kuchi Hota Hai where we are reworking Kuch Kuch Hota Hai tunes for an animation format.