They may be cast in the time honoured tradition of musical jodis like Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Jatin-Lalit, but Salim and Sulaiman Merchant are committed to moulding their own unique legacy. Though their hyphenated stage name evolved by default, their career was built on determination, passion and perseverance. It takes all that and more to sustain a 30-year run in the music industry and still feel like the finish line is far, far away. “It’s the journey,” they tell me, and it is clear that’s not a cliché but a mantra for the Merchant men. Super-hit film songs and immense audiences are by-products of their main objective — leaving a lasting lyrical legacy that includes timeless music, and a platform for burgeoning talent to explore their creativity without restriction.
“Legacy is my foremost thought, always,” says Sulaiman, the elder Mr. Merchant. “You have to be able to listen to the music you’ve created in the past and feel proud of it.” Salim concurs, explaining their philosophy: timeless tunes trump scripted successes any day of the week. “Our objective isn’t to create a hit film song, but to make music that we believe in. Look at examples like Ali Maula (Kurbaan), Haule Haule (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) or Mar Jaava (Fashion). Whenever we’ve been given creative freedom, the music has really touched a chord with audiences.” Sadly, over the years (between remix culture and rigid record label executives), it has become harder to find creative freedom in the movie milieu. Necessity being the mother of invention, 2020 has seen Salim and Sulaiman birth a record label. “From artists, by artists, for artists,” says Salim of this long-cherished dream; simply named Merchant Records.
“We’ve been thinking about launching a record label for a few years now. For the past five years, we’ve been releasing music independently outside of the film world — devotional songs, singles, collaborations and some pop stuff. We finally decided we should structure it so that younger, undiscovered, deserving talent could come under an artistic umbrella that has no creative ceiling whatsoever. From thumri to electronica, there is no genre that isn’t welcome. This is just about the spirit of creating music in a way that it continues forever — for us, for other creators, for audiences and for fans,” Salim explains. Ironically, it took a nationwide lockdown to propel this passion-project forward. “We’re constantly on the move under normal circumstances, so the lockdown actually gave us time to structure the record label,” he adds.
Given that Merchant Records will launch three new talents next year — each discovered via social media — the talk turns to all things digital. After a long dry spell, pop stars have returned to reign supreme and that’s another win courtesy of the digital era. “Not too long ago, everybody was aspiring to become a part of the Indian film industry,” says Sulaiman. “We didn’t have artists aspiring to become pop stars. If someone had success with a song, they wanted to pitch it to all the mainstream film industry composers and record labels. Now things have changed — mainly because we are listening to music through our phones. The cassette and CD days are behind us. You don’t need a label to have access to a distribution channel. The beauty of this digital era is that anybody can be an artist. You can sign up with an aggregator, your aggregator will deliver content to 46 different platforms, and if your song becomes a hit — which it could if you work hard and have talent — you go into a playlist and eventually you have a super-hit song to your name and you’ve become a pop star. I’m saying it in a very notional, easy way, but this is the gist of it. At least now people can be heard. There was a time when you couldn’t get a deal and you couldn’t get a record label to release your song. People have spent days and months standing outside record label offices asking for someone just to hear their song. That has changed because now you can self-publish. You don’t need MTV or Channel V — now you have YouTube. This has given birth to a lot of artists who would never have made it if it wasn’t for this digital era.”
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Of course it was another era altogether when Sulaiman and Salim started out. “We were just out of school when we started recording for composers like Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Jatin-Lalit and Anu Malik. We were doing small jobs in advertising in the late 80s but by 1991 we had started working as composers on an album titled Raaga Raaga, which released the following year. In 1993, we won an award for that album at Superhit Muqabla’s first-ever awards ceremony. Two years later, we were nominated for a Filmfare award.”
By 2004, accolades and awards for their work on Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot had changed the landscape for Salim and Sulaiman and, when Chak De! India released in 2007, there was no looking back. In 2010, the duo performed at the FIFA World Cup in Africa for an audience of over 86,000 people and it set the stage for a string of collaborations with international icons like Lady GaGa and Enrique Iglesias. “Our largest audience was probably over 1.5 lakh people at a Bihar Diwas show in Patna,” Salim recalls, “and it was a total rush, but I feel that level of enthusiasm constantly.”
Driven as they are by a pure passion for music, even a tough day at work is soon glossed over. This explains why the Merchant brothers are hard pressed to articulate their career lows over almost three decades. “Professionally, we’ve never really had any low points. We’ve always felt like we were growing. Even if there was a low, we never looked at it that way, because the goal was just to keep moving forward,” says Sulaiman.
Now the stuff of legend, the creation of the Chak De! India title track was a definite low point in their career. On being asked for revision after revision, Salim was convinced he couldn’t meet the brief. “We had to create seven or eight different versions of the title track. Each rejection breaks you. We had that moment, when we were ready to give up, but we persisted,” Sulaiman recalls. “When you look back at that moment, you feel like your perseverance and patience and hard work all pays off in the end. We may have felt down at the time but, in the end, it was a massive success.”
Having worked on over 100 films, this duo has earned their stripes as mentors. So, when Salim dishes out advice to aspiring musicians, hopefuls should lend an ear. “A lot of people just take up music thinking it’s very easy with all the technology that’s available now, but one should understand that this is an art form. I believe it is important to study music. Before you make music your career, you need to make it your passion. It’s important to learn an instrument. Honestly, success and talent have no connection these days. You could be successful without being talented or vice versa. At least if you have the talent, you’ll find some satisfaction and happiness in your skills. Don’t give up when you encounter hurdles. Nothing good comes easy. It’s always the journey, not just the destination.”
With so much already achieved, what is the destination for Sulaiman and Salim? Their dreams and desires continue to evolve. Discovering and promoting new artists is their current passion-project. Collaborations with the best talents in India and abroad fire their imagination. Working alongside legends like composer Hans Zimmer and Kiss from a Rose singer Seal rank high on their wish list. London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House are literal dream destinations.
If the journey is the destination, then their path — without doubt — is paved with harmony.
PITCHING PRIYANKA CHOPRA
SULAIMAN and Salim were instrumental in connecting Priyanka Chopra with Interscope Records in the US. “We discovered she could sing during Pyaar Impossible! — in fact, Priyanka had sung a song for us then, but later asked us to drop it. Anyway, at the film’s screening I told her she should have sung the song, to which she replied that she was open to offers if there was a bigger opportunity; maybe something in English. So, when the Universal Music Group approached us, we helped them connect with Priyanka — and the rest is history.”
With Ustad Zakir Hussain: “I was learning from Taufiq bhai, so I considered Zakir bhai to be like my guru too. We had a small studio in Khar at the time, where we lived and worked, and Zakir bhai would visit occasionally. He would sit with the phone and every time it rang, he would pick up the receiver and say, ‘This is Salim-Sulaiman’s residence; how may I help you?’ It was so wow.”
With Amitabh Bachchan: “In that same house, we often had mehfils. We were partying into the wee hours one night, so one of the musicians decided to crash in our bedroom. Salim was already sleeping there, so I slept in the living room. We had all forgotten that we had a recording session the next morning. So, the bell rings at 9 am — I was in my boxer shorts — and I go groggily to the door wondering why anyone was visiting us that early. I used to wear glasses back then and I couldn’t even find my glasses in all the mess. Anyway, I get to the door assuming our Man Friday has come to make tea, and there is Amitabh Bachchan! We were working on one of his films and Amit ji wanted to hear the songs himself. It was such a fan moment!”
Down to earth
For Salim and Sulaiman, life comes a full circle with Bhoomi 2020. What started as a tribute to their roots two decades ago, finally gets revisited as their first album under the Merchant Records umbrella. “We mixed our album Bhoomi 2020 completely virtually. We adapted during the lockdown by using a brilliant software called Audiomovers,” says Salim.
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It takes two to tango
Salim and Sulaiman have mastered the fine art of collaboration, even when they’re ribbing each other!
You've called each other "slow" and "bossy" in the past. What has changed?
Sulaiman: (Laughs) Absolutely nothing!
Salim: Sulaiman is still slow in everything.
Sulaiman: What he means by slow is methodical. And you can tell he’s still bossy!
Salim: Not at all.
What has the lockdown taught you?
Salim: To be more self-reliant.
Sulaiman: This is the first time in many years that we have worked without being in one place together. We’ve learnt hundreds of new lessons during the lockdown and ways to collaborate remotely. Besides that, I did try cooking once but I failed miserably (laughs).
How do you feel about acting?
Salim: It’s not like I don’t like to act, but music is my passion. Because we do music for cinema, I have also learnt a lot about acting over the years. If an opportunity were to arise for a part that suits me, I would certainly look forward to acting.
Sulaiman: I find it very irritating to sit on the set, doing nothing for hours. It’s not for me.
Have you ever been mistaken for a celebrity other than yourself?
Salim: I am routinely mistaken for Atif Aslam. And I have been mistaken for Javed Jaffrey a few times.
Sulaiman: Always Wasim Akram!
How did your new album Bhooming 2020 come to be?
Sulaiman: Twenty years ago, we did an album called Bhoomi. We had been travelling through India, picking up folk songs from all over the north. Every few hundred kilometres the sound changes, the music changes, the style changes… so we decided to make an album and called it Bhoomi because these are songs from the earth — from the soil, really. We mixed the album at Peter Gabriel’s studio in the UK. Folk songs from India with a touch of electronica; it was something no one had ever done before. Then we got involved with films and background scores and all the rest but, over the years, we’ve often thought we should do another Bhoomi. And that Bhoomi 2 finally became Bhoomi 2020. Now we hope to do one album like this every year, so Bhoomi 2020 will be followed by Bhoomi 2021 and so on. It will be a movement, under the banner of Project Bhoomi.
Make-up: Farzana Jussawalla
Hair: Raj Kadam