Now you Sami, now you don't

Adnan Sami’s song Bhar do jholi which he sang for Salman Khan’s new release Bajrangi Bhaijaan has kicked up a storm. Sonia Sarkar meets the composer-cum-singer 

  • Published 19.07.15

The verses of the Quran follow me from every corner of the house as I walk up to Adnan Sami's living room in his sprawling duplex apartment at Lokhandwala in Mumbai. "This is the background music of the house," the composer-cum-singer says. "I like to greet anyone who comes to my house with a lot of positivity and peace. Also, I want the house to be blessed with the verses of God."

Sami, 45, needs the blessings. His Bollywood debut - the song Bhar do jholi which he sang for Salman Khan's new release Bajrangi Bhaijaan - has kicked up a storm. Reports say that the music label EMI Pakistan, which holds the rights to the song sung by the Sabri Brothers of Pakistan, has sent a legal notice to Sami, Khan and the music company, T-Series, for using the song in the film.

But Sami denies having received a legal notice. "Music director Pritam along with the filmmakers have made it clear that this qawwali has been inspired by and recreated from an old folk qawwali," he says.

The controversy, he adds, is uncalled for. "Pakistanis want to create problems because I am involved in it. They just look for bahanaas (excuses) to irk me."

Indeed, sections of Pakistanis have often created problems for Sami. In 2013, he was attacked when he recorded an azaan (Call to Prayer).

"Many raised objections saying that only the muezzins of mosques were authorised to sing it. I told them, if I can sing much better than the muezzins, I will do it," an agitated Sami says.

The controversies hurt him because his father, Arshad Sami Khan, was from Pakistan, while his mother, Naureen, was from Jammu. Khan served as a diplomat in 14 countries and was close to former Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

"As a kid, I used to play with Pinky (Benazir Bhutto)," he says. In his living room, there is a framed photograph of Benazir with a signed message.

His father introduced him to jazz and Hindustani classical music. Sami, who studied in a boarding school in the UK because of Khan's foreign postings, started tinkering with musical instruments from the age of five. He also learnt the santoor from Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma during his India visits, and was soon playing Hindustani classical music on the piano and the keyboard.

His family's wide circle of friends brought him in touch with musicians from Bollywood. While he was living in London - where he studied journalism and political science at the University of London and law at Kings College - he met music director R.D. Burman and singer Asha Bhonsle, who were visiting the city for a concert.

He recalls that he was playing the keyboard at a friend's house, where Burman and Bhonsle were present, and surprised the musician. "He couldn't believe that I was playing the keyboard. So I played for him again," Sami says. "You'll be a composer one day," Bhonsle told him.

Years later, he teamed up with Bhonsle and released a collection of love songs in an album titled Kabhi to Nazar Milao in India.

Sami is never out of the news for long. His troubled marriage with Pakistani actress Zeba Bakhtiyar was fodder for tabloids for months. They had fallen in love while shooting for Sargam, where the two were the lead pair.

"Within two years, we fell apart," he says. He was not allowed to meet their son, Azaan, for 10 years. But now they are in touch, and Azaan is even following in the footsteps of his father, having composed a song for the 2010 release Bumm Bumm Bole.

Sami stresses that he has the capacity to face pain. "I believe in the philosophy of turning the other cheek," he says, pointing to his right cheek - once remarkably chubby, now even more remarkably chiselled.

The fact that he lost 167 kilos over four-and-a-half years is known to anybody who has followed Sami. But he holds that he was not an obese child. "I was very active. I used to play rugby, polo, tennis and cricket in school. It was only in the 1990s, when I used to live just opposite Harrods in London, that I started putting on weight. I used to have my breakfast there every day," says Sami, who now weighs 75 kilos.

His father nudged him towards losing weight. Once, in a London hotel room in 2007, after a doctor had warned him that his organs would pack up, his father voiced his worries. "I don't want to face the pain of having to bury you," his father said.

That was the turning point. Sami went to a nutritionist in Houston, where his father lived, and followed a strict diet. "I was on a high protein diet: no bread, no rice, no sugar, no alcohol. I could eat a horse, as long as it was barbequed or steamed," he laughs.

After the weight loss, he met his current wife Roya Faryabi, who was a telecommunications engineer in Germany. "She was visiting Mumbai on a project. We met through common friends and clicked," he says as Roya walks in to say hello.

Sami's love life has always been a rollercoaster ride. In 2001, he married an Arab, Sabah Galadari, divorced her after a year-and-a-half, married her again in 2008, and then again went for a divorce in 2009.

She charged him with violence and laid claim to the Rs 5.3-crore Lokhandwala house. Ironically, the Enforcement Directorate has said that Sami cannot be the owner of the house because he is a Pakistani. "I have put an appeal before the ED. Till the final verdict is out, I am allowed to stay here," he says.

Sami was a Pakistani passport holder, but surrendered his passport in May. He had twice applied for Indian citizenship and been rejected. He has now applied for it again. "I have been staying in India for so many years. It's my home now," he says.

It's time to wrap up the conversation. Before I leave, he shows me a piano, one of the five he owns, in his bedroom. "Sometimes, I make music in my sleep. So I get up, put on my headphone and compose it on the piano," he says. There's music in every room, and, clearly, through day and night.