How did Sulaiman Merchant and Salim Merchant go from being prolific scorers of background music (they still do this) to among the top composers in Bollywood films today?
Yeh Honsla). They produced the nation's most enduring sports anthem on Chak De! India, which revitalized Shahrukh's mid-career slump. They mixed dance, emotion, masti and passion on Madhuri's comeback vehicle Aaja Nachle. Just as they were getting warmed up, Salim-Sulaiman created a bunch of polished gems on the sleeper hit Fashion, a movie which made an A-list star out of Priyanka Chopra.
Their last few releases? Kurbaan, Rocket Singh, Pyaar Impossible.
What's so special about Salim-Sulaiman? Their compositions are diverse (they do club, caberet, Hindustani, operatic, electonica, house, bare bones) but their songs are always drenched in emotion.
They have songs out for the new Amitabh Bachchan-Ben Kingsley starrer Teen Patti. Its five songs, three remixes, no fillers, massive entertainment. I invited Sulaiman to talk to the Drift about his music and the music of Teen Patti.
AspisDrift.com: Hi Sulaiman, welcome! You've been working with your brother Salim for a while. You've gone from being composers to BIG composers in Bollywood. How do you work together? I have two boys who are ready to kill each other at any given time! What is your process like?
Sulaiman: We now have an understanding. We've worked together for years now. So obviously there is a comfort zone on what to do and how you do it. We have our work cut out for us. Salim does musical arrangements, I do the percussion. Works perfectly!
We have our own studio - we have a great facility. We check in every day and create music. Its like any day at the office.
AspisDrift.com: Do you have a set of people you work with or do you handle your own production?
Sulaiman: 99% of the time we do our own production - unless its a collaboration on the international front. Otherwise its [just] Salim and me.
AspisDrift.com: What do you and Salim play in terms of instruments?
Sulaiman: I play the drums. I have very good knowledge of the tablas although I don't play it anymore. Salim on the other hand plays keyboards but he is also very well versed with sitars and guitars and bass. So he does all the string arrangements.
AspisDrift.com: You know, I hear Salim singing on your songs. You don't sing?
Sulaiman: I don't! But the way things are going, I'm going to start singing. [jokes] Its the only thing to do right? To be in the limelight, you have to go out and sing. When we do concerts I'll go out and sing.
AspisDrift.com: But will you record a song you think?
Sulaiman: I don't know - we'll see!
AspisDrift.com: Since Salim isn't around, I have to ask: Who is the better singer?
Sulaiman: Definitely Salim! He is a singer, I am the wannabe singer. Maybe if I sing a little more, he'll recognize the talent and give me a song to sing.
AspisDrift. com: Who is the bigger party animal between you two?
Sulaiman: We have our phases. Its Salim sometimes. Sometimes its me. I have a baby on the way so I'm lying low these days - supporting my wife. You'll see less of me on twitter and Facebook and other sites.
AspisDrift.com: I can't resist asking you this: what are your earliest memories of growing up with Salim? Was he always breaking your stuff or something?
Sulaiman: We used to fight a lot like brothers always do. Everyone does I think. We did all that for 27 or 28 years - fought constantly. But the musical aspiration always kept us going and together. We stopped talking for a little bit, but it was the music that brought us together.
AspisDrift.com: Your new movie Teen Patti has a female director (Leena Yadav) which is rare in Bollywood. Was it different working with her than other male directors?
Sulaiman: She was a little more understanding. I wouldn't say a lot more so - but she could understand what we were going on about. She is also quite intelligent and well versed with filmmaking. It was a breeze getting her to understand things. She was very open to ideas in terms of songs.
If you came up with a song with heavy percussion and rock elements - not an average song - it becomes difficult to convince a director or producer about the viability or sustainability of the song. But it really worked with [the producer] Ambika [Hinduja] and Leena.
We finished this music over a year ago. We came back and refinished the album and they had no problems with it. They just said 'Go ahead you know what you are doing'
AspisDrift.com: I don't know if you've noticed this but your music has great songs for women.
Sulaiman: I haven't noticed that at all! Can you give me an example?
AspisDrift.com: Well women have maybe one great song to sing on most CDs. As item numbers have become less popular, women have less and less hit songs to sing. But for some reason on your CDs - Luck had great songs for women, Teen Patti does, so does Pyaar Impossible, Shruti Pathak and Neha Bhasin got great songs on Fashion.
Sulaiman: Its just that we like to try different voices. Whenever we find a good voice, we desperately want them to sing for us. With men we haven't had much luck.
We've also heard a lot of these voice before. We've recorded with Neha back when she was with Viva (Channel [V] Popstars). We know her since then and for that song we said 'lets try her' and it really happened.
Same thing with Shruti when we brought her in for Mar Jaawa. We knew she could sing, we didn't know if she could sing that song. But we brought the song down low and she sang it really low. It worked for her and it worked for the song!
AspisDrift.com: Ok, let's talk about the songs on Teen Patti and start with Neeyat (vocals: Sunidhi Chauhan)
Sulaiman: We've used cellos and double bass - basically a string orchestra - to start off the song. Leena and Ambika wanted a European track - which is why you hear all the accordions. That turned into a cabaret.
We picked Sunidhi to sing because I don't think anyone else could have done that song. She jumps an octave in that song - its very difficult to do.
She is singing this song everywhere these days! We just saw her recently on the Mirchi Awards and she did that as the first track. It really showcases her talent!
[Be sure to check out: The making of Neeyat]
AspisDrift.com: Intezar (vocals: Naresh Kamath)
Sulaiman: Naresh is a really dear friend and we needed a rock voice. But we needed the voice to be gruff and younger. The picturization is on a 17, 18 year old guy. So the voice casting had to be younger. We initially thought of KK, but he wouldn't work that well - he has a more mature voice. We tried a couple of people before we had Naresh do it.
AspisDrift.com: Teen Patti (vocals: Salim Merchant)
Sulaiman: This song was a last minute addition into the album. We wanted a club track. Clubby tracks are easy to make but very difficult to formulate because they need a hook to take the song forward. Irfan [Siddiqui] wrote a great hook for us - 'Ikka Badsha Rani Queen / Yehi hai bajate Teen / Patti ke ghulam hai sab'
When we finished the song - Salim sang dummy vocals to see if the lyrics worked. When Leena heard it she liked it and we decided to keep it. It has more of a casual get with an Indian and bit of a Western touch.
AspisDrift.com: Life is a Game (vocals: Sonia Saigal, Sonia with Anushka Manchanda on the Hindi version)
Sulaiman: This was the first song we laid down for the track. Mr. Bachchan's voice was a later addition. This song set the mood for the entire film for us. It was just a song - all about the game, no situation, nothing. It's one of the very few songs around you will hear that is completely in English. We have a Hindi version of it for the marketing.
When we finished composing we realized no one had the right English accent to pull it off. There is always that bit of Hindi instruction that comes out even when singing in English. Sonia just did it perfectly, she rocked.
She's sung a song before this for us in Aaja Nachle. You know when Madhuri gets introduced during the dance practice - that was an English song that Sonia sang. It went unnoticed I guessed. [Much embarrassment on my part here for not remembering Sonia]
AspisDrift.com: Summertime (vocals: Joey Alvares)
Sulaiman: Summertime is a very old song by Joey Alvares - we wanted a familiar song on this CD. It started off as a small bit that needed to be picturized. Initially we thought we'd do it ourselves but then we thought let's try to recreate that song differently.
Summertime is a very jazzy song. So we redid it as a breakbeat, electronica song. To keep the authenticity of the track, we got Joey to do the vocals. Its a nice blend of a jazz rythmn and a modern production.
AspisDrift.com: Cool, what else are you working on?
Sulaiman: We are working on a couple of films but we can't talk about it - so I won't. We are finally getting on the road to do live shows. So we are doing rehearsals. There is some talk about being in the US.
AspisDrift.com: Let me know if you come to Chicago for a show. Thanks so much for doing this and good luck with the baby!