Laxman Utekar's Luka Chuppi (2019) holds the dishonourable distinction of perhaps being the first Hindi film soundtrack to have not featured a single original song—a confirmation that we had reached the nadir of Hindi film music's remix age. Once you've hit rock bottom, as they say, things can only go up and believe it or not but Utekar has managed to get AR Rahman for his new film, Mimi. Maybe it was redemption on Utekar's part (he did that to a film named after a Rahman classic). Maybe he got threats from a secret society of film music fans. Whatever the case maybe, if Utekar's U-turn from cynical to old-school is reason alone to be optimistic about the future of Hindi film music, maybe, it's time to consider it from the other end—the composer's end: Is Mimi the kind of film Rahman would've taken up 7-8 years ago? Hindi cinema seems to no longer provide him with the kind of canvas worthy of gigantic soundtracks (South still does, I believe)—the last of the kind being the Imtiaz Ali personal epics (Rockstar, Highway, Tamasha), an Aanand L Rai romantic saga (Raanjhana), and an Ashutosh Gowarikar historical (Mohenjo Daro). The gigs that have followed—Lekar Hum Deewana Dil and Mom, two songs in Sanju, just the background score in Shikara—have been out-of-character for him, signs of the composer both being unsure of what excites him and losing ground in a new film music culture that places hits on YouTube over everything else.
What could be more fitting for a film that celebrates surrogacy, motherhood and being single all at once? I hope "Param Sundari" paves the way for more such revisionist "item numbers" because clearly, the music companies can't do without them.
But let's not forget that Mohenjo Daro was, to put it mildly, disappointing and Dil Bechara, which came out last year, was solid. But at least the latter was a romantic film, an old fashioned tear-jerker which had ample room for Rahman to do his thing. Mimi, on the other hand, seems to typify the new Hindi film—social drama set in small town India with a quirky premise—that doesn't really need songs, but has them anyway (for various reasons, prime among them being the promotions). And it tells us something about the film music situation in Hindi cinema: things are so bad that even a Rahman will gladly do a Mimi, because just getting to work in a film as its sole composer is a privilege.
It might help to venture into the Mimi soundtrack bearing in mind that this is Rahman in Tanishk Bagchi territory, and not the fertile playground provided to him by musically-driven directors like Imtiaz Ali. This set up has its own rules—the "promotional song" to begin with, and "Param Sundari" is a clean hit. It has a catchy hook, a good chorus, but see how Rahman and Amitabh Bhattacharya subvert the "item number". Bhattacharya's lyrics, sung by Shreya Ghoshal, are in a constant mode of shirking away unwanted male attention. If they go "Bikaneri chhokri, santre ki tokri", she goes "Kaahe gale pade ho bin bulaye baaratiyon".
The highlight is the antara—brought about by Rahman's sleight-of-hand seamlessness—that recalls a certain type of traditional celebratory Hindi film number which would switch to a "sad" verse toward the end and the lyrics would suddenly turn emotional (think of "Maahi Ve" from Kal Ho Na Ho). Rahman and Bhattacharya obey the formula, and more. This "sad" bit becomes a feminine sigh of wishful thinking ( "Pairo mein payal ki beri se, bandh ke main na rehne wali hoon", "Mujhe gehno se badhke sapno ki chaahat hai") and suggestions of a life without a male romantic presence ("Katti hai meri mardon se, Yaari filmo ki pardo se"). What could be more fitting for a film that celebrates surrogacy, motherhood and being single all at once? I hope "Param Sundari" paves the way for more such revisionist "item numbers" because clearly, the music companies can't do without them.
"Param Sundari" has a somewhat dumbed down rhythmic template by the composer's standards and as if to compensate for it, the next track, "Rihayee De", is all rhythm, all feel, all soundscapey, sung by who else but Rahman himself (who really uses vocals as textures, and none more so than with his own). It's the kind of Rahman piece where lyrics take a backseat—a free fall through a sound-bath session that begins with a spacey 20 seconds electronic prelude. Fans might be prompted to think of "Safarnama" from Tamasha, like I did, but the song transcends those similarities. "Rihayee De" wears the film's Rajasthani setting subtly in sonic terms—a soft khanjani, an ethereal folk refrain in the end along with strains of a native horn instrument.
"Yaane Yaane" occupies a curious middle ground between Rahman's signature Middle-Eastern numbers and a more traditional filmi song. The first line goes "Ek khushkhabri, kaano kaan," (presumably hinting at "the" good news) and this line is sung in both styles: if the first half ("Ek khushkhabri") is sung more simply, the second half ("kaano kaan") goes the Arabic way, thanks to the inflections of Rakshita Suresh. This dichotomy is the driving force of the song, which is "Indian" one moment and Middle-Eastern the next. Suresh sings with an almost scary level duality, as if her vocals have a split personality. Rahman does as he pleases with the arrangement, incorporating glitches and all, while Bhattacharya is at his service, supplying him with words that can be bent as per the whims of the song.
The subject of Mimi doesn't lend itself to a conventional Hindi film album—which is supposed to be an assortment of different types of song. Of them the romantic number is perhaps the most indispensable. Mimi has none, not at least in the conventional sense. For one, we don't have a duet here. "Hu Tu Tu" comes closest to a romantic song, but we don't know if the song's falling-in-love-in-slo-mo quality has to do with the female protagonist actually falling in love or just being in love with herself (Bhattacharya's lyrics are ambivalent "Besuadi zindagani mein namak ban ke tu ghul ja"). I don't know if the song was originally conceived for a Tamil film, but it has a distinct South-Indian-ness that you sometimes find in Rahman's music, and it's not just Shashaa Tirupati's vocals or the soft taps of the ghatam that I'm referring to, but it's there in the overall feel.
What we have also have, in Mimi, is an assortment of singers. Shilpa Rao features in "Phuljhadiyo"– which manages to tick the Spunky Female Number box without overdoing it (while Bhattacharya has fun: "Dil ke darwaaje aaste se khatkhata"). It's noisy and energetic, with Rahman throwing in shehnai, hip-hop, Western classical and a flute interlude. And as if it's meant to be a palette cleanser, the next track, "Chhoti Si Chiraiyya", is as unadorned–maybe too unadorned. A bittersweet folk ditty sung presumably from the father's perspective, the central melody seems…a bit jaded, although it's nice to hear Kailash Kher's flavourful voice after a long time.
The contrast between one song and the subsequent track continues as we arrive at the last entry in the album, the acoustic guitar-based "Rock A Bye Baby", that plays like a "jugalbandi" between Canadian singer-songwriter Julia Gartha and Khatija Rahman. Rahman and Bhattacharya reimagine the lullaby as if it's sung by the coolest mom on the planet–and once again you are reminded of what a composer and a lyricist brings to a film. An album become an extension of its themes, and regardless how the film turns out has a life of its own. Which is not to say that Mimi will bowl you over after a round of casual listening–it doesn't have an outrageously new "sound", an expectation we have come to attach with Rahman with every album of his, major or minor. The songs I like revealed themselves over a number of listens and they seem to be brimming with little musical ideas; the rest left me underwhelmed with that vague sense of dissatisfaction. Mimi is minor Rahman in that sense, but this is all we've got, and we're grateful for it.