Vishal Bhardwaj admits that Bismil, the climactic song of his upcoming film, Haider, took him months to compose because it was his expression of the Mousetrap in Hamlet. In William Shakespeare's original play, the Prince of Denmark invites his uncle and stepmother to a play he has created and from their expressions tries to gauge if what the ghost had told him is true.
"It's storytelling through a song, narration of a situation, the kind you see in a musical," points out Vishal who drew from his experience of collaborating on a Broadway musical with Mira Nair.
"Bismil is like a ballet you see on the European stage," seconds Sukwinder Singh who has sung it. "Only this one is set in reel life Kashmir."
Given that its rooted in the Valley, the filmmaker-composer was very clear that he wanted Kashmiri folk music. He hired local musicians to play the sarangi and the rabab and recorded with them in a studio there. While picturising the song, he even invited these musicians to the shoot and they joined Shahid Kapoor on stage.
Vishal blended Kashmiri folk music with western opera music, this time drawing from his experience of directed an English opera, A Flowering Tree. Scored by composer-conductor John Adams and based on a classic Indian folk tale written by Kannada scholar AK Ramnujan, the opera premiered in Paris in May, this year.
Once the tune was composed, he turned to Gulzar for the words. And his 'Kohinoor', as Sukhwinder describes him, didn't disappoint, coming up with the word Bismil which means wounded and is commonly used in the Valley.
"As a child I'd first heard the word Bismil at the dargahs I visited. It was short for Bismillah, the starting point for any successful project, and as a result it had a spiritual significance for me," points out Sukhwinder.
For Vishal, the singer was the obvious choice. "He's the only one who can give expression to such songs. Working with him is like jamming, he gives his inputs," he smiles.
Sukhwinder admits that it took him 20 minutes to get the mukhda right. Crooning the signature lines, Bismil bismil bulbul-e-bismil (bismil..), Mat mil mat mil gul se mat mil (mat mil..), Aye Bismil bismil bulbul-e-bismil, Mat mil, mat mil gul se mat mil, Bismil bismil bulbul-e-bismil, Aye dil-e-bulbul bulbul-e-bismil-Mushkil-e-dil bhi mushkil hoti hain, he points out that Gulzar's intelligent word play initially had everyone in the studio laughing. "Once I got the hang of it, the rest of the song flowed naturally," he reminisces.
Deflecting a query about how long it took them to complete the recording, Sukhwinder retorts, "Why would we watch the clock? We were not trying to set a record, only celebrating music." For him, a high point was when he heard the song playing at a night club in South Africa last week.
After recording Bismil, Sukwinder was surprised by another call from Vishal informing that he wanted to record another version of the song. "When are you free?" he asked. Sukhwinder offered to come along right away. "And there in the studio, right before my eyes, Ek Aur Bismil took shape. In 20 years, I've never heard anything like this in Indian cinema. Some people are congratulating me for singing jazz so well while others are saying I rock with country music," Sukhwinder smiles.
"A big thanks to Vishal and Gulzar saab who in this day and age, when drums are drowning out voices and lyrics are nothing more than a jumble of senseless words, have come up with a song like Bismil, twice over."