Sanjeev Kohli - Veer Zaara to Tere Bagair

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

The name ‘Sanjeev Kohli’ has been on my interview- radar since quite a few years. As a hard core movie- music buff, it is but natural to be curious about a man who not only happens to be legendary composer Madan Mohan’s eldest son but who has also played an important role in shaping the corporate identities of India’s biggest entertainment banners- RPG Saregama and Yashraj Films. And then there is his role in resurrecting his father’s musical legacy through a blockbuster soundtrack of Veer Zaara.

So when Nelson D’Souza- the Dubai- head of Yashraj Films informed me that Sanjeev would be available for a telephonic interview, I immediately told him that I would do it! Call it a doctor’s curse- (at least I have termed it so!), exactly at the scheduled time for the interview, my clinic was full of impatient patients! So I had to call him for rescheduling the time and thankfully he obliged without any airs.
When the actual interview started, the initial barriers were immediately broken when he came to know that I had written the write-up on Lata- Madan Mohan chemistry in Vishwas Nerurkar’s anthology on the great composer. “So you already know everything”- he quipped before filling me in with details about his new musical project- ‘Tere Bagair’. Jovial, chatty and full of story-telling knack, Sanjeev Kohli was quite a delight to talk to. I hardly had to ask him any questions because he didn’t need any coaxing to come up with detailed answers. It was a welcome change from some of the snooty showbiz interviewees who believe in ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Don’t know’ kind of MCQ-styled  answers!
Here are the excerpts of this exclusive interview:
What kind of album is ‘Tere Bagair’?
Let me start by giving you a little background of this album. In 1975, my father (Madan Mohan) passed way. I was just an eighteen year-old boy then. After his death, the atmosphere in our house was depressing. In that mental state, I started playing my father’s songs on our tape-recorder.
This spool tape- recorder- an Akai- was a rarity in those days. My father used to record his songs on those spools and then he would proudly play them for his friends. So attached was he to this tape-recorder that he never even allowed us to touch it. Only after his death, I could lay my hands on that. Then for the first time, I played his tapes on that tape-recorder. While listening to them, I realized that there were many fully recorded songs that I had never heard before. These songs were sung by singers like Lata, Rafi, Asha, Talat and Kishore. When I asked his secretary, I was told that these songs was from Madanji’s shelved film projects.
Those tapes also contained some extended versions of famous classics like ‘Lag Jaa Gale’, which were not released anywhere. Also present there were many unused tunes in his own voice, which he had either just hummed aloud or sung with some dummy lyrics. This discovery excited me a lot but I could not do anything about it then.
In 1977, I went to Kolkata IIM and did my MBA. In 1980, I got an opportunity to join Polydor while on a break from a job in Union Carbide. It was a great opportunity to combine my love for music and my business administration training. I proposed Polydor to release some of those recorded Madan Mohan compositions. Since they did not have any old recordings, they were quite happy to do that. So they released an LP called ‘Madan Mohan- a treasure revealed.’
Lata’s ‘Khile Kamal Ki Kaaya’ was from that album.
You’re right. That album had 10 songs in total. But the LP has a limited time-duration and to fit in the songs, I had to edit some of the songs. These songs and that LP unfortunately could not reach the general public as Polydor’s reach was limited. Then I joined HMV in 1984-85 and I bought back the song-rights from Polydor.
Now the new album- ‘Tere Bagair’ (released by Yashraj Music) will present all the ten songs from ‘Treasure Unrevealed’ in full, extended versions and it will also have five more tracks originally recorded by Madan Mohan. This album will be a treat not only for the fans of Madan Mohan but also for the fans of singers like Lata, Asha, Rafi and Kishore because they will get an opportunity to experience many original Madan Mohan recordings in their favourite singer’s voice. Moreover these songs were previously either unreleased or inaccessible. Even those listeners who had already heard ‘Treasure revealed’ would find many new things in ‘Tere Bagair’. The recording quality of the album is excellent since the master tapes have been used to reproduce the songs. In some songs, I have re-recorded the tabla tracks and added some harp sounds but even that is done in such a way that it would perfectly fit in the sound of the 60s, when those songs were originally recorded. 
You can’t compare ‘Tere Bagair’ to ‘Veer Zaara’ because ‘ Tere Bagair’ is an album of out and out Madan Mohan originals whereas in ‘Veer Zaara’, his tunes were modified to suit the times and also the film’s requirements.
Tell us something about your experience of working on the music of Veer- Zaara.
As I told you earlier, as a young boy I had heard many unused Madan Mohan- tunes in his own voice on the spool- tapes. For many years, those tapes lay untouched, locked in the cupboard. Then one day, while traveling in a car, Yashji (Yash Chopra) and I were discussing his new film’s music. He told me that he was unable to find the right kind of music to suit his film’s requirements. He said that the modern-day composers were not able to give him what he wanted. There was a long flashback in the story depicting a period before twenty-five years and he wanted that period-feel in the music, which he was not getting.
Suddenly I remembered those tapes in the cupboard. I told him that Madanji had composed many unused original tunes, which could prove useful. Yashji was really excited. He told me to take a leave and to carefully go through those compositions. Thus began my search for Veer- Zaara songs.
I had to start from the scratch as the tape-recorder had broken down and needed a repair. The tapes too needed splicing and rejoining at times. When that was done I found that there were some two hundred such tunes on those tapes. I randomly selected twenty-five tunes from them. When I first played them for Yashji, he told me that he wasn’t able to gauge their suitability because the sound was too muffled. He told me to get them re-recorded with dummy lyrics. So hiring three musicians and two singers, I recorded these tunes as songs with dummy lyrics. I wrote those lyrics. I composed the preludes and interludes. When I took these songs to Yashji, he was really excited. In fact, I have never seen him so excited. Almost immediately he selected eight tunes for Veer Zaara. The first tune was the alternative version of ‘Dil Dhoondhata Hai’ (from Mausam) and that became ‘Tere Liye’ in Veer Zaara.
I myself wonder how such a thing could ever happen. In the film, there are so many different situations – a lodi song, a patriotic song and so on. But almost providentially Madanji had kept a tune for each situation! Then one day, I came into the office and saw Yashji listening to a Nusrat Fateh Ali qawaali. When I asked him why, he told me that he now wanted a qawwali for the film. I said, ‘Give me two days. Let me go through the tunes again. We will get our qawwali.” He was unsure but within next two days, I was able to ferret out two qawwali compositions that seemed to be done for Madanji’s ‘Laila Majnu’. So pleased was Yashji that we ended up combining both tunes into a single eight minute-long qawwali!
My father had died a bitter man because he never could get commercial success. He got plenty of critical acclaim and people’s love but not the awards and the box-office glory. He hardly ever got any big banner films with big stars. As a teenager, while listening to my father’s unused tunes after his death, I had sometimes fantasized that he should have got an opportunity to compose for a big banner film featuring stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. For these top stars, he had composed music but those films (Parwana and Sharafat Chhod Dii Maine) were flops. Now decades later, my fantasy came true. I was able to get his music associated with the country’s biggest banner and with a film that not only featured Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini but also, Shahrukh Khan!
Veer- Zaara music went on to become one of the biggest albums of the decade. Even youngsters liked its songs. But not everyone was happy with it. Some of the veteran composers commented that there was no need to promote Madan Mohan in this fashion and if Yash Chopra wanted old music, they could have done a better job! Some people called to say that it did not have a song like ‘Lag Jaa Gale’. But then the tunes were selected according to Yashji’s story-line and concepts.
Some felt that Lataji’s voice was too old for the songs. But Madanji’s tunes were always composed with Lataji’s voice in mind and there was no question of having any other singer to render those songs. Even if she is old, she could still sing it better than others!
When I walked up the stage to receive Madanji’s IIFA award (People’s choice) for Veer- Zaara score, I was overwhelmed with emotions. I felt proud that I had managed to revive my father’s legacy in some way. Otherwise there are so many influential personalities in this showbiz who are either children or relatives of late great composers. But have they done anything to resurrect their family’s musical legacy? Maybe they don’t feel the need to do so but I do feel that it is my family duty!
For the last thirty years I have been quite busy in a hectic career. But now I have decided to lessen my work- load. Few months back, I resigned as a CEO of Yashraj and would now be working with them just as a consultant. Now I want to focus on things that I wanted to do but could not do earlier, which includes projects like ‘Tere Bagair’.
In HMV (RPG), you helped unearth quite a few yesteryear soundtracks and songs, which were not readily available for music lovers. 
In the 1980s, the standard of new film music soundtracks was declining and that had resulted in the drop of album-sales. When I was in Polydor I tried to counter that by introducing new ghazal singing talents like Anup Jalota and Pankaj Udhas. Then I came to HMV and there again, to counter the declining standards and sales, I decided to tap into the riches of old Hindi film music. In the early era, HMV did not have the capacity to press records of all the songs that were released in the year. So if 600 songs were made in a year, they could make 78 rpm records for only about 400 songs. That’s why quite a few good songs from minor soundtracks were never released on records. I started contacting the film-makers directly and acquired rights of those songs. We transferred the songs directly from the film- negatives. We released so many rare songs of Sajjad, Ghulam Mohd. and many other forgotten artistes.
In those days, I was happy to notice that Lata – Madan Mohan songs were the highest selling old numbers. In my compilations of Lataji’s songs, earlier I used to select hardly onr or two Madan Mohan songs because I did not want people to say that I was just promoting my father’s music. But then the company executives admonished and asked me why I was not selecting more Madan Mohan- songs in Lataji’s albums!
I have one serious complaint against the ‘Legends’ series of music compilations. I feel that by adding reverb, the digitized songs on these CDs lost their rich depth of original vocals and acoustic orchestration. They sound hollow!
You are right in your observation. But the reverb effect was added to nullify the hiss and scratchy sounds of old records. That does muffle the sound a bit but the general public seemed to have liked the sound! Perhaps the connoisseurs might feel differently about it.
So it was Janata Janardan Ki Jai Ho!
(Laughs) You could say that!

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