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In perfect sync: The melody of Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj

It is music that brought the duo together in college in Delhi and it is music that continues to be an intricate binding part of their lives. While each has carved their own niche, they have together produced some of the most memorable Hindi film music of the past two decades

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Jan 3, 2024 12:20:35 PM IST
Updated: Jan 3, 2024 12:36:22 PM IST

In perfect sync: The melody of Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj It was music that brought Vishal and Rekha Bhardwaj together in college in Delhi

When Rekha and Vishal Bharadwaj speak about their work, it is an effortless ebb and flow of ideas and words, their sentences complementing the thoughts of the other, their pauses like unspoken cues for the other to speak. Whether it is a recollection of their early days in music, their visits to jazz clubs in London, or their process of making music together, they barely miss a beat in the easy and calm conversation.
 
As Rekha puts it: “When Vishal is speaking, my mind works, and when I am speaking, Vishal’s mind works.”

It is music that brought the duo together while in college in Delhi, and it is music that continues to be an intricate and binding part of their lives. (Vishal has previously said that film direction was not his dream, and that it was only out of necessity—to break out of the fixed “song situations” of films of the 1990s—that he became a director.) Over the years, Vishal has learnt how to play the piano—he plays every morning after his daily game of tennis—and has learnt how to write poetry with proper meter, while Rekha likes to play with clay and splash colours—it is like meditation—and do home composting. “All that is music to me,” she adds.

What started out as preparing for a college annual function in 1984 has grown and evolved into one of the most successful musical pairings in the Hindi film industry and beyond, with numerous chartbusters and award winners over more than two decades. Vishal has won eight National Awards, four of which are for his music compositions, while Rekha has won one National Award and three Filmfare Awards, among others.

Starting with ‘Ek Woh Din Bhi’ in the Kamal Haasan-directed Chachi 420 in 1997, right up to the Vishal-directed espionage-thriller Khufiya that released this October—Satya (1998), Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006), Kaminey (2009), Ishqiya (2010), Haider (2014), Talvar (2015) and Rangoon (2017) mark milestones in between—the couple has become synonymous with songs that linger on in our minds long after the films have faded.
 
And even if to a listener the two appear as an inseparable pair—one’s music and the other’s voice seamlessly blending and complementing the other—Rekha and Vishal have their own individual paths of reaching the final destination. “First we work individually, explore it to our strengths and capacities, and then we collaborate and come to a common ground,” says Vishal. “If the music is for a film, then it is an individual process for him as a filmmaker and composer. When he knows what he has composed is for me to sing, then he will play it for me or I will sing it to him so that we get an idea of what it will sound like,” adds Rekha.

While elaborating on their process of making music together, they might give the impression that sharing professional and personal lives might come easily, but they clarify that that is not really the case. “Sometimes when Vishal is very busy, he will tell me that other singers are not available, and the deadline is looming, so you come and sing a song. And then there is some sort of pressure to prepare and record the song within a short time. So, sometimes I feel like ghar ki murgi dal barabar,” says Rekha. “The flipside is, I am also able to say things to him that I would not be able to say professionally to others. It’s a liberty one takes.”

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“When you are a husband and wife, it is difficult to bifurcate your individuality,” adds Vishal. “It has taken really hard work to explore that aspect, and work on it. Human nature is such that we tend to take each other for granted. I will not be able to behave with her like I behave with other professional singers, and it is vice versa for her. To keep that line of protocol intact for a husband and wife in a professional context is the most difficult thing in the world.”

Rekha adds that collaborations between the two of them happen only on one or two songs in a film that Vishal is directing or composing music for. “The more important collaborations happen between the lyricist and music composer, like between Vishal and Gulzar saab. I am simply collaborating as a singer; if something matches my genre or speciality, only then I contribute,” she says. “We are not like a composer duo,” chips in Vishal.  

“Yes, we would like clarify, since it is being talked about a lot, that I am not directing the film or composing music with him. It is not even that I am his wife, and therefore he has to give me a song. His integrity is something I really respect; he will give me a song only if it requires my voice,” says Rekha.

If Rekha and Vishal have reached this point of maintaining this fine balance in their partnership, they have also successfully built and nurtured other partnerships that go well beyond the professional realm.

The close association that the Bhardwajs share with Gulzar has become the stuff of legends. Following a recent interview of Vishal, the earliest collaboration of the lyricist and music composer—for the Hindi dubbed version of the animated TV series Jungle Book, which was broadcast on Doordarshan in the 1990s—came into the limelight. The title song of the TV series, ‘Jungle jungle baat chali hai’, is what a generation of urban Indian children of the 1990s grew up listening and loving, and associating with Rudyard Kipling’s characters of Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera.

In perfect sync: The melody of Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj

What began with collaborating for a children’s TV series took on a very different note when Vishal and Gulzar worked on the latter’s directorial feature Maachis (1996), which was about the corrupt political and policing practices in Punjab and the subsequent rise of the Sikh insurgency in the state in the 1980s. This time Vishal and Gulzar made the much loved ‘Chhor aye hum’ and ‘Chappa chappa’.

In numerous interviews Vishal and Rekha have spoken of their close relationship with Gulzar, with Vishal saying, “I am like a leaf on a tree that cannot grow without the branch. My existence has no meaning without Gulzar saab. I cannot do anything without him. I will cease to exist without him. I became a composer, a director, poet and a writer because of him.” Gulzar himself has also highlighted the significance of Vishal in his life, saying, “Many a time I have said this that I see an extension in him—uski wajah se jitni umar thhi use zyada jee raha hun [because of him, I have been able to live longer than my age]. He is mere apne [my own] for me and among the closest to me.”

The relationship Vishal shares with Gulzar goes well beyond the making of songs for Hindi films, and has resulted in Vishal publishing a book of poems—Nude—in 2018. It is no surprise that the collection of 25 bilingual poems has a foreword by Gulzar.

Gulzar’s poetry has also been instrumental in Vishal launching his eponymous music label in 2020, after the latter composed a melody for one of the former’s poems—‘Dhoop Aane Do’—in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The launch of the song—yet another collaboration between Rekha, Vishal and Gulzar—became the perfect occasion to launch the music label as well.

Talking about his longstanding wish to have his own music label, Vishal had said that creating music for films is restrictive in nature, given the demands of the story, character, record companies and the greed for a hit song. “The real music of the soul gets compromised; the songs that one enjoyed in leisure for peace of the soul before becoming greedy professionals are left behind,” he had explained. “[The lockdown] gave me the time to reconnect with myself and have an insight as to why I came here, and what was my dream. It was music… this label is for the hunger of my soul.”

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Yet another decades-long friendship that has found reflection in Rekha and Vishal’s works is the one shared by Vishal and actor Tabu. The first film they worked on—Gulzar’s Maachis in 1996—saw Tabu win her first National Award for Best Actress, Gulzar winning Best Director and Vishal winning the RD Burman Award for music. During their subsequent 28-year association, Vishal has composed music for eight films in which Tabu has acted, and has directed three of them—Maqbool (2004), Haider (2014), and the recent Khufiya on Netflix—all of which had lyrics by Gulzar, and songs sung by Rekha.

While promoting Khufiya, Tabu—she has acted in two of Gulzar’s, Maachis and Hu Tu Tu (1999)—affectionately spoke about the relationship they shared: “We are like Gulzar saab’s children.”

Speaking about casting Tabu in Khufiya, Vishal said that he went to various male actors for the role, but was turned down by them. “One day I thought, ‘aisi ki taisi sab male actors ki, my hero is Tabu. The obligation is now on me to prove that she made the right choice’,” he recalled. He ended up rewriting the protagonist’s character, which was then portrayed as Krishna by Tabu. “Tabu is undeniably an exceptional talent in the world of cinema. Her ability to immerse herself in diverse characters and bring them to life is truly awe-inspiring. It’s a privilege to work with such an extraordinary actor,” he added.

In perfect sync: The melody of Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj

The two also described their camaraderie on sets, and how they are conscious of not letting other actors get intimidated by it. And yet, they share an unspoken language. “Because we know each other so well, when some actor does something stupid, we don’t look at each other because we will burst into laughter,” said Vishal.

This level of comfort also means they know what to expect from each other. “By virtue of working with him I will feel comfortable in any role,” said Tabu. “What I feel for him is beyond the realm of film casting. It’s too potent, what I have with him. Also, I feel, in terms of characters, I know exactly what he wants. It’s not possible to have that kind of surety with somebody even in your personal life and I have that with him.”

Whether it is maintaining close partnerships with Gulzar or with actors they work with, Rekha and Vishal’s jugalbandi in life and music continues, with their recent ghazal performance on the inaugural day of Jashn-e-Rekhta in Delhi on December 8, along with poetry recitation by Javed Akhtar.

(This story appears in the 29 December, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)