The year was 1988. Independence Day, 15 August. I still distinctly remember Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, from Delhi. As soon as the speech got over, I was about to switch off the official Doordarshan broadcast, when a melodious song started to fill up the screen. I watched, and listened, in rapt attention as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi started to sing ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’. The rest as they say is history. What unfolded over the next 6 minutes was the finest, and most memorable lyrical tribute, ever, to the Indian nation. An uplifting, soaring musical presentation that took all of India by storm. Knitting together, bonding together, the nation with one melody, one song.
‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ featured actors Kamal Hassan, Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Revathi, Jeetendra, Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Tanuja, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Deepa Sahi, Om Puri, Dina Pathak and Meenakshi Seshadri; dancer Mallika Sarabhai; cartoonist Mario Miranda; film-maker Mrinal Sen; authors Sunil Gangopadhyay and Annadashankar Ray; singers and musicians Bhimsen Joshi, M Balamuralikrishna, Lata Mangeshkar, Suchitra Mitra and Kavitha Krishnamurthy; sportsmen Narendra Hirwani, S Venkataraghavan, Prakash Padukone, Ramanathan Krishnan, Arun Lal, P. K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Syed Kirmani, Leslie Claudius and Gurbux Singh besides a lot of common folks from across the country. In that day and age, there could not have been a bigger spectacle of national unity and togetherness.
Which is why when I see various efforts by brands and communicators today to ride the nationalistic and patriotic wave every Independence Day, howsoever good their efforts, and howsoever charming their tributes, each and every one of them pales in comparison to the one-and-only ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’.
Legend has it that the idea of ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ was born in a conversation between Rajiv Gandhi and Jaideep Samarth, who was a personal friend of the then Indian Prime Minister. Jaideep (brother of actresses Nutan and Tanuja, uncle of Kajol) was a senior executive at Ogilvy Benson & Mather (OBM). He took the idea to Suresh Mullick, the national creative head of Ogilvy. Suresh in turn called in Kailash Surendranath, the top film-producer of the day. Both of them then went to visit Pandit Bhimsen Joshi to request him to get involved in this mega-project. Piyush Pandey, a young account manager at Ogilvy, it is said, was assigned to manage Pandit Vinod Sharma, who was charged with writing the lyrics. Vinod was very fond of his drink, and most-times the writing of the lyrics would take a back-seat. This encouraged Piyush to take a shot at attempting the song lyrics himself. Piyush eventually penned ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ . And this incident was eventually responsible for his shift to creative from client-servicing, and his subsequent meteoric rise thereafter at Ogilvy.
While others had their respective and important roles to play for sure, ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ is best known as the signature film of Kailash Surendranath. He was already at the top of the ad film-production business in the 1980s, with acclaimed productions like the Liril commercial featuring Karen Lunel and the Wah Taj! commercial featuring Ustad Zakir Hussain. He was in those days producing over 100 commercials a year under his Far Productions banner. ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ was to become his crowning glory.
Down memory lane
To re-visit the making of ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ I met Kailash Surendranath (KS) over the week-end at the up-market Breach Candy Club in Mumbai, as his guest.
Kailash was already a legend by the time I joined advertising in the mid-80s. When Kailash used to visit our agency office in Delhi, a red-carpet was literally rolled out in his welcome. He was a star. A big star. I, in fact, never got to meet him in those early days of my career. We become acquainted, and then good friends, once I moved to Mumbai in the late 1990s.
We are joined by Aarti Surendranath (AS), Kailash’s charming wife, and partner. Aarti was in her own right one of India’s best known models in the 1980s. She is even today amongst the industry’s most well accoutered personalities. Aarti and Kailash Surendranath are the toast of the party circuit in Mumbai, and count the likes of Vijay Mallya, Gautam Singhania and Salman Khan amongst their closest friends.
Kailash starts the nostalgia trip by winding back to 1988 when Suresh Mullick met him to discuss the ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ project. Kailash was the natural choice to execute a project of this magnitude because of the epic success of his 1985 national integration film, ‘Torch of Freedom’ film also known as, ‘Freedom Run’. That film had featured some of India’s top sports people in a relay across India. Featured in ‘Torch of Freedom’ were Sunil Gavaskar, PT Usha, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Kapil Dev, Prakash Padukone and Milkha Singh, besides others.
The ‘Torch of Freedom’ had become like a new anthem for India. Finding praise and support all across the country.
SG: Tell me the story from the very beginning.
KS: It all started with Suresh Mullick calling me up to discuss the project. I got really excited as this was an opportunity to create something even bigger and better than ‘Torch of Freedom’ which already had reached dizzy heights of success.
Suresh and I went to meet Pandit Bhimsen Joshi who got equally excited about the project. He came back a few days later with almost 45 minutes of music based on Raag Bhairavi. It was a soul stirring composition and I had the difficult task of snipping it down to a mere 30 seconds as that become the core of the composition which was then passed on to other composers for music in different languages.
I passed on the concept and the melody to Pandit Vinod Sharma who was charged with writing the lyrics. And the project was then underway.
SG: Tell us some of the interesting stories.
KS: The most memorable experience was of shooting with M Balamuralikrishna, the top Carnatic singer and musician in Madras of those days, who had rendered the Tamil version. When I reached the shoot venue, I was surprised to see Kamal Hassan there with Balamuralikrishna. Kamal was a superstar of the South. He however immediately put me at ease. Said he had just accompanied his ‘guru’ to the shoot, and he would merely sit like a ‘chela’ at the feet of the Carnatic legend, and should not be featured anywhere prominently in the video! So, Kamal is there in ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ but his role is completely in the shadow of Balamuralikrishna. Such has always been the humility, and respect accorded to seniors, in the South.
Also, my biggest surprise was the interaction with Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra and Mithun. Doordarshan authorities had written letters out to all these big stars inviting them to participate in the project. I wasn’t sure if these big names would respond. So I was pleasantly surprised to see all three arrive bang on time at the appointed hour at Mehboob Studios. Stars those days were notorious for being late. But all three arrived on time. Each one of them carried their own wardrobe. Each one of them was 100% cooperative and I had their shot done in 5 minutes!
SG: Tell me some more interesting stuff.
AS (prompts): Tell him about Hemaji…
KS (blushes): Aarti is setting me up! Well, I had a schoolboy crush on Hema Malini! In those days, I used to dress up quite casually. But the day I was to shoot with Hemaji, I dressed up in a full sleeve shirt and formal trouser. I wanted to look my best for Hemaji! (Laughs)
SG: Tell us some stuff that has never been told before.
KS (thinks): Not very many people know that the opening shot of ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ is at the same waterfall that I shot the Liril commercial at. Also I have never told anyone that while the likes of Bachchan were lining up to shoot for this project, I had one Bollywood actor actually say no to me. (Hesitates, but AS says it is fine after so many years to disclose the name). Yes, Naseeruddin Shah declined to be featured, saying the film was ‘political’. Another interesting incident I remember is that I had recorded the song with Kavitha Krishnamurthy for all the lip-synch by the various actresses. But I was very keen to have Lataji sing. She was travelling and it looked difficult for her to work with us within our schedule. But she changed things around and made it back to Mumbai just 2-3 days before we were to go on air. She arrived at the studio in her Indian flag-pallu white saree. I shot and recorded her in the studio in that dress and that is what you see in the film. My most memorable shot in the film is the aerial shot of the Taj Mahal. No plane is allowed that close to the Taj. I went to see the Air Marshall in Agra. He agreed, in fact gave me an IAF helicopter. Despite being a Doordarshan film blessed by the PMO, the poor guy got into trouble and was hauled up. He called me and I agreed to pay for the helicopter just to get him out of a spot.
SG: Any stories about the characters in the film?
AS: Some of the biggest stars in the film are the elephants. Kailash shot them crossing from one island to the other in Periyar. In fact the mahout in the film is also the one who sang the Malayali version of the song. In fact, ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ is so much a part of the lives of many famous people … Deepika Padukone once told me that to get her to eat her lunch as a schoolgirl, her mother would play ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ which also featured her Dad, Prakash Padukone. Also, Priyanka Chopra, remembers the song so well that she sang it for me ad verbatim.
KS: ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ was a project like never before. I shot the Kashmir sequence in the morning. By the evening I was shooting in Kanyakumari. Those days there was only Indian Airlines. And they provided me the utmost cooperation. In fact, when dealing with superstars, I was surprised by many. When Aarti spoke to Sharmila Tagore, she immediately agreed to feature as her husband, Nawab Pataudi and her daughter Soha, had been featured in my earlier ‘Torch of Freedom’ video and she was thrilled by the attention they had got. I also went all the way to Goa to capture Mario Miranda. There is also a shot that Suresh Mullick insisted on which was of the Calcutta metro which had just started then and was the pride of India. Very few people realize that there is a train in the film also, the ever popular Deccan Queen. Oh, I could just go on and on.
AS: The last shot with the school kids was shot at Suresh Mullick’s insistence at his school in Shimla! There are therefore a lot of personal stories involved with ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’
An evening that was planned for a half hour meeting stretches into nearly three hours. My diary is still full of many more anecdotes the Surendranaths narrated with such relish. I have a space and time constraint on how much I can carry in the Blog.
The united colours of the 1990s
There has been nothing quite like ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ in the past nearly three decades. In 1997, A.R. Rahman created the famous ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ video which went on to create many a record.
If there has been a composition to rival ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’, it is ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’. But I will not get into the ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ story, and will leave it for another day. This Blog today is in celebration of the original unifying song of India, the song that a whole generation hummed for years and years. This Blog is a salute to Kailash Surendranath, his beautiful wife, Aarti and to their everlasting contribution to national integration. I must mention here that Kailash did both ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ and ‘Torch of Freedom’ completely free of cost, sacrificing perhaps tens of commercials that he could have made during the time he was making these epics. Kailash is a genius. He is one of the tallest personalities of our advertising world. ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ will continue to keep alive his enduring legacy in the years to come.
(Sandeep Goyal uses this Blog to recreate some of the epoch making events of Indian advertising. The making of ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara …’ was one such unforgettable moment, to be cherished and saluted by generations to come.)