I will always treasure my experience of working with Khayyam saab, through the rest of my life. I remember how he was never in a rush, and how he took a long time, working intensely to create each note, while composing the music of “Umrao Jaan”.
The graph of the film’s story is based on its music because the film is poetry. It is a poetic description of a poetess. Umrao Jaan’s musical thrust comes from her character and also from the culture of Lucknow. Such a thing cannot be created in haste. It was the teamwork of Khayyam saab, (lyricist) Shahryar and me.
“Umrao Jaan” was an unusual job for all of us and, I think, it was also the biggest and most important work of Khayyam saab’s life. He got the National Award for it, for Best Music, and so did Asha (Bhosle) ji, as Best Singer.
Khayyam saab and I collaborated again after “Umrao Jaan” after a few years, when I made “Anjuman”. In that film, we made Shabana Azmi sing. Khayyam saab also sang the final song in the film along with his wife, Jagjit Kaur.
After that, when I started work on my next film, “Zooni”, I could again think of only Khayyam saab to compose the songs, and Asha ji to sing them. The album had the most haunting melodies. The film remained incomplete and never released.
As a filmmaker, I always felt Khayyam saab was a great asset for me. I don’t think I will ever be able to find a person like him again. The last time I met him, he was too weak, unable to undertake any new project owing to his ailing health. It was really sad to see a person of his calibre, who was an inspiration in the world of music, not being able to work anymore.
Khayyam saab loved me a lot, so much so he had given me a nickname — Raja sahab. He would always address me by the nickname. Initially, he came across as someone who was a very strict and tough person, and thoroughly uncompromising. Yes, he could be uncompromising but over time he realized that if we had to work together and achieve something, it could only be achieved with an open mind. Gradually, he became gentle and opened up towards me.
There were a lot of times when I didn’t agree with what he was doing. We would often have a clash of opinions. I would also defend my lyricist also, who was a very vulnerable poet from Aligarh. In Bollywood, every music director has his own choice of lyricists. So, in the initial days, we would often have differences. But then I made him realize that I am not going to work without the lyricist Shahryar. He finally got the message that Muzaffar Ali and Shahryar have to work together. I also used the lyrics of another poet, Faiz, which he accepted. In fact, he sang the ghazal of Faiz, too.
That way, he was quite open. He had his way and I had my way, but we found a common ground for the sake of the film, which eventually led to its success. I feel a film like “Umrao Jaan” can only be created out of strong creative bonding.
Khayyam’s demise marks a sad day for Indian music and Indian cinema. The vacuum that has been created is one that only Khayyam could have filled it. He will always be remembered as a larger-than-life musician.