The Rhythm of the Sufi Saints: “My Name is Khan” Transcends Bollywood’s Musical Borders
A film drama that retools the mindset of Bollywood needs music that gleams like a fine-edged sword. The soundtrack of “My Name is Khan”—the genre-busting Bollywood drama phenomenon that follows an idiosyncratic hero, an Indian Muslim husband and father, on a transcontinental journey through the fog of America, post-9/11—brings the Mumbai sound back to basics. Veteran director Karan Johar and his trusted team of transworld Indian composers Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (SEL) have made this film as much a musical as a cinematic statement.
Six simple songs, custom-made for the movie, recast the role of the Bollywood movie and set aside the typical “item songs,” the fantastic dance numbers that sustain the Indian film industry. Instead, Johar wanted to create a musical counterpoint to the psychosocial drama unfolding on screen. In the film, Rizvan Khan, a Muslim man from India, moves to San Francisco and lives with his brother and sister-in-law. Rizvan, who has Aspergers, falls in love with Mandira. Despite protests from his family, they get married and start a small business together. They are happy until September 11, 2001 when attitudes toward Muslims undergo a sea-change. When tragedy strikes, Mandira is devastated and they split. Rizvan is confused and very upset that the love of his life has left him. To win her back, he embarks on a touching and inspiring journey across America.
Naturally, for the film’s soundtrack Johar turned to SEL, a motley trio from diverse backgrounds who have produced the music for several of his projects. After reading through the script, they started from scratch with a studio jam session. Johar adopted a set of sounds, which appear throughout the film as brushstrokes of watercolor harmony, from the motley array of sonic hybrids that are SEL’s calling card: Loy Mendonsa, a jazz pianist, has been working with Ehsaan Noorani, a rock-and-blues buff, and Shankar Mahadevan, one of India’s top singers and acclaimed collaborator with everyone from Jan Garbarek to Swans, for fourteen peaceful and productive years. Over 250 songs into their collective career, they are masters of blending unexpected genres and ancient traditions.
This blend formed the perfect musical platform for Johar’s tale of cross-cultural communication and passionate longing. In the film, established actor Shah Rukh Khan plays Rizvan Khan, a gentle Islamic man who sees the world in black and white, yet finds himself caught in the confused grey zones of the post-9/11 world. Khan the protagonist sets off on an epic journey to clear his name—and to transform the world’s understanding of his faith and fate.
Any Bollywood film starring the famously handsome Khan, here reunited with his erstwhile sultry screen partner Kajol, has to have a love story, but the romance in “My Name is Khan” is on hold: Khan and his wife are separated, and he begins his journey across America. His theme, a centerpiece of the soundtrack, is the rhythm of the country-western Sufi saints, of the restless whirling cowboy who wandered out of Mumbai with nothing but a prayer for a thread of sky-blue clarity. The music follows Khan as he plucks that thread and follows it along his striking trajectory.
Even before filming began, the soundtrack was in the spinning wheel, bound up in the very cloth of the film. “Every film has a sound that is ingrained in its genes,” opines Karan Johar, the director. “Even when I'm shooting a sequence, I always have background music playing in my head.” Here, he needed to communicate Khan’s journey through disorder to a simple point beyond the horizon along the absolute clarity of a line.
Yet, for “My Name is Khan,” simplicity was the watchword. Karan insisted on a strongly melodic background score, one that could eloquently support his powerful and serious narrative. “He feels that if he can sing it, then the public can sing it,” explains Ehsaan, invoking a maxim usually reserved for making a popular film score. Indeed, most of the tracks started off as improvised keyboard melodies from freehand moments in the studio. Ehsaan, who studied music in Los Angeles, and his partners aimed to create a restrained and illustrative backdrop, a palette of careful colors for a contained hero.
To ensure that their work stayed true to the spirit of the film, SEL collaborated with scriptwriter Niranjan Iyengar, who also provided lyrics. American audiences will be treated to subtitles translating the poetry of the music, though Karan Johar and SEL feel assured that the message of the words will come across, no matter what the language of the listener.
There is a universal call to worship in “Allah Ki Raham” (“God the Compassionate”), another piece in the style of a Sufi devotional chant that reaches out to crowds in the temple courtyard. “It addresses god in a very holistic way,” explains Ehsaan, “that you can worship god by being a good human being.” This is Khan’s credo, a childhood lesson from his mother: there are good and bad people, and he is a good one. In his most trying moments, this song links his mind to the viewer’s in a ritual of rhythmic worship, grounding us on the direct line to God.
However, if the audience leaves “My Name is Khan” humming as much as pondering, the song on their lips will be “Noor E Khuda” (“Light of God”), the song that Johar chose to be “the thread that runs through the film.” “Noor E Khuda” begins in the subcontinent Sufi style of qawwali with a skyward cry that places Khan in obeisance at the end of a ray of morning light. It is as much a song of love for a young woman, here the sweet voice of Shreya Ghoshal, as of love for God. Yet the melody soon crosses paths with a start-your-day country-western guitar, and the rhythms step together in ballad time. “Country music is so simple that it’s relatable to everybody,” explains Ehsaan, who performs on the track with Shankar and North Indian singer Adnan Sami. Even as Sami’s bright inflections recall the standards of Bollywood film music, his voice would be just as at home in a musical about Middle America.
Sami is one of several Punjabi, Kashmiri, and Pakistani singers who interpret SEL’s melodic scriptures. The team chose the Northerners for the “weight” of their delivery, a solemn rustic quality that suits the gravity of the music. They brought in Rahat Fateh Ali Khan for “Sajdah,” a song about the prostration to God that symbolizes the devotion of Khan and his wife, Mandira, to each other on the day of their wedding. Rahat, a Pakistani singer of qawwali, is no stranger to Hollywood where his reedy tenor has invoked the mystical in films like “Dead Man Walking” and “Apocalypto.”
The love of Khan and Mandira, however, is symbolized by “Khan Theme,” the movie’s title track. SEL’s scintillating string architecture, animated by the Bombay Film Orchestra, outlines a cage of thin threads that tangle and bunch.
The SEL team is assured that any listener with an open mind will hear the story in their soundtrack. Even as Khan makes his wending way across America, a land strange and transformed, the simple melodies, animated by rich vocals, tie his experience to a new safety line anchored on the rocks of human consciousness, a Sufi-inspired heartbeat.
<< release: 02/16/10 >>
Written by FlipSwitch, LLC