Back in 1995, Filmfare announced the R.D. Burman Award for New Music Talent. At first glance, it made sense to evoke Burman when applauding the rising stars of film music. After all, Burman, fondly known as Pancham, brought in a dazzling array of new influences and sounds to Hindi film soundtracks. Yet here's a curious bit of trivia: Burman won his first Filmfare in 1983, for Sanam Teri Kasam (1982). That's more than 20 years into his career as a music director. In R. D. Burman: The Man The Music by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, we are told he "wept with joy" when he received the award.
When the Telugu composer MM Kreem discovered Burman hadn't received any Filmfare awards in the Seventies, he was so outraged that he threw away the Filmfares he had won and hasn't attended an award function since. If that seems like an overreaction, then consider the compositions from Burman's golden era.
1972. For the film Caravan, Burman created 'Piya Tu Ab To Aaja', with hints of gypsy music, cabaret and typical Bollywood saccharine rolled into one. 'Monica! Oh my darling' would become an inter-generational earworm. And the Filmfare award went to… Shankar-Jaikishan for Mera Naam Joker (1970).
1973. In the soundtrack for Amar Prem, Burman presented a sober melodic palette and showing he could use classical ragas as deftly as he used contemporary Western music. 'Yeh Kya Hua' was on everyone's lips, but Filmfare wasn't convinced. Once again, its award for best music went to Shankar-Jaikishan, for Be-Imaan (1972).
1974. The confluence of Nasir Hussain, R.D. Burman and Majrooh Sultanpuri had produced blockbuster musicals since Teesri Manzil (1966) and this year, it gave audiences Yaadon Ki Baaraat. Alas, the pandrah saal purani dhun that reunited three estranged brothers failed to bring the Filmfare award to Burman. That year, it went to Burman's father, S.D. Burman, for Abhimaan (1973).
1975. Aap Ki Kasam had R.D. Burman, Kishore Kumar and Rajesh Khanna (and Lata Mangeshkar). The soundtrack, with six Kishore-Lata duets, was a hit but the Filmfare went to Kalyanji-Anandji for Kora Kagaz that year.
1976. With Sholay, Burman gave Bollywood its first stereophonic soundtrack, filled with pacy percussions, an intense background score, and songs that remain iconic. The awards did not felicitate either Burman or the film. Sholay only won an award for editing and although Burman was nominated for best music and best male playback singer, he won neither. Instead, Rajesh Roshan's Julie won the music award that night.
1977. With lyrics by Anand Bakshi and music by Burman, Mehbooba's soundtrack is full of gems, not the least of which is the famous 'Mere Naina Sawan Bhadon', based on the raga Shivaranjani. It wasn't enough for the Filmfare award for best music, which went to Khayyam's Kabhi Kabhie.
1978. It's said that director Nasir Hussain heard a crossfade as one song segued into the next at a disco, and told Burman about it. Burman used this and many other musical tricks for songs like 'Chand Mera Dil, Chandni Ho Tum', 'Mil Gaya Hum Ko Saathi, Mil Gaya', 'Humko To Yaara Teri Yaari, Jaan Se Pyaari', and the title qawwali, 'Hum Kisise Kum Nahi'. However, the Filmfare went to Laxmikant-Pyarelal for Amar Akbar Anthony.
1979. The film Shalimar, starring Rex Harrison, Dharmendra and Zeenat Aman, was the product of a time very different from our present. In the film, a South Indian man is greeted with "Hey, Idli Sambar!" The less said about how adivasis are picturised, the better. The soundtrack, by R.D. Burman, was high on stereo and suspenseful instrumentals. From the title theme, with guitar loops and trumpets and sax going bonkers to Kittu's funky English song "Baby Let's Dance Together", Shalimar's soundtrack found a comfortable position between the desi and the Western, something that the film failed to achieve. On the more mainstream end, the film featured "Hum bewafa, hargiz na the" featuring a soulful Kishore Kumar (and "jingalala hoo" by a 'tribal' chorus).
The Filmfare? It went to Laxmikant-Pyarelal for Satyam Shivam Sundaram.
And so it is that the man who came to define the decade's sound in Bollywood did not even get a single Filmfare award. In the Eighties, he'd win two and he'd win one posthumously in the Nineties. He was nominated 16 times in the course of this career and won for Sanam Teri Kasam (1982), Masoom (1983) and for 1942 – A Love Story (1994).
The R.D. Burman Award for New Musical Talent is perhaps Filmfare's way of making up for years of oversight. The first music director to win the award was A.R. Rahman, for Bombay (1995). The award has since found winners in the mavericks and masters of contemporary Bollywood music, from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar to Shantanu Moitra and Amit Trivedi. All of them have, time and again, poured in glorious tributes to R. D. Burman, either in interviews or compositions wafting of a Pancham effervescence.
In some ways, Bollywood's Pancham era has continued long after Burman's passing and continued to enrich Hindi film music. Ehsaan Noorani (of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy), said in an interview that he started listening to Bollywood music again after 'Ek ladki ko dekha to aisa laga' released in 1994. In 1996, Asha Bhosle released a retrospective remix album titled Rahul and I, with Leslie Lewis. In 2002, Anant Mahadevan's film Dil Vil Pyaar Vyaar featured 14 songs, all covers of popular songs by Burman from Sixties and Seventies. In 2003, director Sujoy Ghosh and composers Vishal-Shekhar came up with Jhankaar Beats. The film was a tribute to Burman's style of music, with the title track featuring Sudesh Bhosle sampling Pancham's hisses and rapid breaths and singing the hook "Jhankaar!" to the tune of "Zeera!" (from the song 'Duniya mein logon ko' from the 1971 film Apna Desh). Composer Shantanu Moitra has said that for his compositions for Parineeta (2005), he used Burman's music as reference. In 2012, Himesh Reshammiya composed "Balma" as a tribute to Burman and its tabla riff ("takita-tunak-tun") is straight out of the Pancham school of music.
The 2000s also saw a flurry of DJ remixes of songs composed by Burman. Songs like 'Nahi nahi, abhi nahi', 'Keh doon tumhe', 'Yeh wada raha' and 'Wada karo nahi chhodoge tum mera saath' got a new life and the remixes topped the club charts. They also became generational bridges.
With tributes like these and a continuing legacy, perhaps the awards don't really matter even if there was a hint of a slight in Burman not being recognised by the establishment of the time. As it turns out, Pancham became, and continues to be, a jam for all seasons and ages.