To fans of Hindi film music growing up in the 90s and 2000s, MM Kreem is something of a legend, composer of minor classics and mysterious bearer of a weird name. It's much later that one came to know that MM Kreem is also MM Keeravani, a Telugu composer who works in different industries under different aliases ("Marakathamani" in Tamil) — and even later, after Baahubali, that he is in fact SS Rajamouli's cousin. As if to confirm his journey from a name-without-a-face to pan-India fame, Keeravani, I mean, Kreem, appears along with Bollywood composer Amit Trivedi in a promotional music video for Rajamouli's next, RRR.
Kreem's delayed public appearance feels both long overdue and a bit ironic considering he is no stranger to us, in a way even a part of us. Who hasn't heard "Tu Mile Dil Khile", or "Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai", after all, even if we didn't know who exactly their author was? The time is ripe for a look-back.
The song really is a time capsule of 90s Bollywood music, a period when composers knocked out strong melodies with the same regularity with which they plagiarised from Western artists. "Tu Mile Dil Khile" is a great Kumar Sanu-Alka Yagnik duet (recorded in Telugu as "Telusa Manasa", sung by an equally silky SPB and Chitra), but it was also "inspired" by "Age of Loneliness" by the ambient electronica group Enigma, from where it pretty much borrowed the sound and arrangement. I love how soft-core it is, with visuals of Nagarjuna and Manisha Koirala spending substantial time in bed wrapped in satin sheets, and the erotic female whispers going 'Darling, every breath you take, every move you make… I want to love you forever, and ever, and ever.' Cheesy, and irresistible.
This is a duet with an off-kilter tune. Chitra's perfect playback is complemented by Kreem's own "imperfect" voice (with those glaring South Indian pronunciation slip-ups). Despite the tenderness, there's something stark about the song — a notion that makes perfect sense when you think that it's from Sudhir Mishra's mid-90s crime film set in Mumbai.
The tabla-dholak rhythm pattern is a much derided — and abused — 90s film music convention. This song from Mahesh Bhatt's Zakhm is a great example of how effective it can be. After you are done admiring how lovely the melody is, or how Alka Yagnik makes certain ornamentations sound easy, or how deceptively simple the lyrics by Anand Bakshi are, you realise it's the break the composer interjects, pausing for a second before picking up the tempo again, that is the driving force of the song. Kreem has a very sure grip over the film song form, and it showed best when he turned formulaic fare into something memorable.
Sur is a A Star is Born style musical starring Lucky Ali and "Aa Bhi Ja" is its grand centrepiece — the kind of song that brings all the themes and motifs together. But instead of going for a grand treatment, with big orchestras and all, Kreem scales it down (more suited to the film's setting): a solo violin to start with, a shaky and soulful Ali singing his heart out, and a late entry by Sunidhi Chauhan (who is the voice of the female lead of the film). This is another characteristic feature of Kreem's songs, especially those post 2000 — their minimalism.
In many ways an update on "Tu Mile Dil Khile" — in the way it marries Chill-out, ambient music with the traditional Indian song — the masterstroke is the casting of Shreya Ghoshal (and not, say, Sunidhi Chauhan, who would've been a more obvious choice in this genre). There's an unspoilt innocence in her voice that works wonders as a counterpoint to those erotic sound effects. The results are sizzling.
Kreem is a master melody maker because he knows how to build on it, sustain it and max out its potential. Just the way he rounds off the first stanza in this song, the way he slows it down (around the words "Jahaa", "Meetha", "Nasha"), accompanied by tinkly synth pianos, segueing back to where it began before introducing the pad beats takes your breath away. Which doesn't mean it's predictable and follows a fixed pattern. Ghoshal's semi-classical harkat in the antara feels almost improvisational, and the guitar playing here almost a touch of jazz-funk. It's hard to tell if "Chalo Tum Ko Lekar" is a lullaby, or erotic, or both. It certainly is playful.
On the one hand, "Aawarapan Banjarapan" is completely different from the other two songs from Jism; on the other, they are thematically conjoined. If they are about the allure of the flesh, this is about chastising of the self. A restraint seeps through the song — in the stoic melody, in KK's understated singing, in the lyrics by Sayeed Quadri, and in the spare arrangement (that features a devastatingly lonely pan flute, and an oboe). The first thing we hear in the song is a forbidding church bell. This is Kreem at his subtlest best, translating the themes of the film into song. "Maine Dil Se Kaha" from Rog makes for a fine companion piece.
Anurag Basu's Saaya was composed by Anu Malik, except the album-stealing single was by Kreem (credited as guest composer) whose "O Saathiya" was a leftover from Zakhm. You can see why Mahesh Bhatt couldn't have let it gone waste. It's got that distinct 90s sound, and therefore fits odd in a 2003 film, but it's perfect in what it is — a supremely satisfying specimen of a routine number done with conviction and craft. Come for the giddy nostalgia, stay for the sheer musicianship.
Kreem takes cue from Gulzar's words — Dheere Jalna. The song kind of simmers in a low flame and the result is exquisite. The arrangement is like a light classical recital: soft tablas, a solo flute, sitar — a palette cleanser for the ears. Only in the end of the first antara does it explode into a crescendo. An ordinary composer would've ended with the storm after the calm. Kreem gives us the calm after the storm, too, only this time it meanders beautifully into a sanchari (a third stanza with a melody different from both the first and second) by Shreya Ghoshal. Paheli was such an oddity — a low-key affair starring Shah Rukh Khan and directed by Amol Palekar based on a Rajasthani folk tale. So it was in Kreem's career, whose works in Hindi film were largely limited to his association with the Bhatts. Paheli, and this song in particular, is proof that he was perhaps under-utilised in rest of Bollywood.
The best song from this forgotten — and probably forgettable — Lucky Ali film is "Jaana Hai", which has some of the quasi-philosophical spirit of Ali's travelogue songs of the 90s. Ali nails it with his soulful and personal rendition. But imagine a Jagjit Singh cover of the same and you have it. Kreem made that happen. Part of the fun of listening to a "reprise" version is how it deviates in relation to the original, and Ali and Singh are as different as they get.