Music At The End Of The Tunnel: The Hesham Abdul Wahab Profile

The moving coming-of-age story of Hesham Abdul Wahab, a music-obsessed boy from Saudi who made an entire state go ‘Darshanaaaaaa…

There’s poetic justice in Hridayam finding a nook in Indian film history as the final movie to release its own audio cassettes. With 15 songs composed and arranged by 31-year-old Hesham Abdul Wahab, the film’s success is a reminder that our cinema will always have a place in its heart for songs. As for Hesham, who grew up in Riyadh in the 1990s, a cassette with his name on it means a lot more than a career goal.

Hesham recalls running to dozens of shops to get his hands on the cassette of many (“pre-Oscar”) AR Rahman albums, back when Saudi Arabia was painfully restrictive. He describes the struggle for a new cassette as “Herculean”, one that involved pleading with parents and weeks of waiting. But when he did manage to find them, the obsession wasn’t that of a regular listener. “I sat up the whole night before my 12th boards to count the total number of string chords in the pallavi of ‘Ay Hairathe’ in Guru. There are 33.”

Like a science wiz pulling apart a radio to understand its inner workings, Hesham preferred to deconstruct songs and the ideas in them rather than listen passively. “Why do we feel goosebumps during ‘Entharo’ in Devadoothan? Why did I tear up when ‘Yeh Jo Des Hai’ plays towards the absolute end of Swades? How does a composer help the director build a film through music? These are the kind of questions that mattered.”

Hesham learnt to play the keyboard early on, but not conventionally. A music teacher asked him to continue learning on his own because he felt Hesham had the skill to play tunes that kept pouring out of his head. He remembers some of these tunes from back then but he also mimicked his favourite songs, long before Logic Pro or FruityLoops. But when he listened to ‘New York Nagaram’ for the first time on the translucent CD player in Ernakulam’s Music World, his “brains fell out. How do you think like that”?

But it was singing that brought him to Kerala, as a contestant on Asianet’s Idea Star Singer. Later, he went on to win another reality show in 2011, managing to squeeze in a bachelors in audio production between the two shows. “To be honest, I have never seen myself as a singer. Singing is a part of me and I sing for the scratch tracks I make, but it hasn’t attracted me. Every decision I’ve made was to lead me to make music.”

Despite the popularity from these shows, it took Hesham more than a decade to finally get a break in Hridayam. He did sing hits like Thazhvaaram’ in Thira or ‘Mounam Chorum’ in Om Shanti Oshaana apart from composing for films like Salt Mango Tree and Cappuccino. He had even worked on an indie album titled Qadham Badha, but even this did not become popular. A movie he worked on got shelved with one day’s shoot remaining. At other times, he was replaced in the last minute when other composers underquoted or for reasons he could not comprehend.

“As you hit 30, you find that friends and relatives have already bought an apartment or settled down. But I was still struggling to pay rent. My parents were very insecure and you cant blame them because people my age were already taking care of their parents. I can’t count the number of times I was asked to quit and take up a regular job.”

Two things happened at this point that gave Hesham stability and, more importantly, hope. In terms of income, he started teaching music software production. “I didn’t even have money for dinner the night before my first student joined me.” As for hope, he married Aysha. “Parents, they have their own issues and they’re always worried about you, even if they believe in your talent. But with Aysha, she’s actually seeing me work past midnight every day. Even if times are hard, she knows that it’s just a matter of time.”

It was around this time that Hesham travelled to Chennai to record two songs for a small Malayalam film called Ole Kanda Naal. Vineeth Sreenivasan, the director of Thattathin Marayathu and Jacobinte Swargarajyam, was singing for the same album. Vineeth knew all about Hesham’s struggles and had even tried to make him the composer in a film he was acting in. Even so, Hesham didn’t even consider asking him for a chance to work on a film Vineeth would direct. “It was out of respect for his relationship with Shaanikka (Shaan Rahman). It wouldn’t have been fair. I just asked Vineethettan to suggest my name if his assistant or a friend was looking for a music director.”

Months later, when Hesham was on his way to Malik Dinar Mosque in Kasargode (Aysha’s hometown), he received a text from Vineeth asking if they could meet soon. He had sent Vineeth the two songs in Ole Kanda Naal and he was already familiar with Hesham’s work in Qadham Badha. “I met Vineethettan the following Monday in actor Noble Babu’s apartment in Kochi. Through the weekend, I just kept telling Ayesha that it was either to tell me he’d found a film for me or he wanted me to sing.”

When he went up, Vineeth called Hesham into a room. “Vineethettan held my hands and said, ‘See Hesham, I’ve not told this to anyone. My next film is starting and you are doing the music for it.’

I couldn’t hold it in so I cupped my face to hide from him. He patted me on my back and asked me to freshen up. I just went to the toilet and started crying. I’m touching my heart as I’m saying this but it felt like the universe was finally listening.”

That was the first step in a two-and-half-year journey that led to the soundtrack of Hridayam and, of course, the magical ‘Darshana’. “But I wouldn’t have been able to handle such a project if I’d gotten in earlier. I grew up very protected in Saudi and my parents took care of everything. It’s only when you start working, you realise that no one is going to take care of you. Emotionally and physically, the music business can turn you into a rock and you need that strength to be able to handle the pressures of such a film.”

The process of making the film’s music too was magical. Because Vineeth himself is a singer, the communication was through music. Vineeth did not want to pick from the demo tracks Hesham had already made; he was simply waiting for Hesham to get into the world of Hridayam. And it was Vineeth’s request that they first work on a song with ‘Darshana’ as its hook. Hesham remembers thinking that this name wasn’t particularly musical, while recalling how perfectly the word ‘Ayesha’ had fit into ‘Muthuchippi’, a song he absolutely loved. “But the tune of ‘Darshana’ took just 30 minutes to evolve. Emotionally, I wanted the tune to evoke the feeling of man standing on a beautiful cliff, who begins to fly as the word ‘Darshana’ starts echoing.”

And by the time they started work on ‘Minnal Kodi’, “it’s like I knew every character in Hridayam personally. It felt like it was my job to inspire Selva, Kaali, Antony, Arun…”

Two years of lockdown and further delays made sure ‘Darshana’ remained a closely-guarded secret, away from the world it was made for. But when the team dropped the song in late October, the universe was back to working overtime for Hesham. “Everything changed after that. Till 5:59, people looked at me a certain way. But from 6:01, everyone smiled differently, spoke differently and the way they looked at me changed.”

Hesham was in a daze following the song’s launch and response. “A director who had earlier made me compose 22 tracks before rejecting all of them, messaged to congratulate me.”

Personally speaking, the success has only made Hesham look inwards, nudging him to accept the power of music. “Music has that power, no? It has no physical form or logic. When a piece of music connects with so many people, you need to admit that you have no clue where it comes from. What credit can I claim?”

About this mysterious creative process, Hesham feels its a bit like driving. “When you take the same route every day, you stop thinking and it becomes mechanical. Making a song is kind of the opposite. You need to stay far away from the patterns your mind wants you to take. You need to get lost and find your own path back to a new destination. If a song is made mechanically, it will only have that level of depth. Am I making sense?” he asks.

So when Hesham tells you that the success of Hridayam mattered more than the success of its songs, you genuinely believe him. “I didn’t want the music to be exhausting; honestly I just wanted to see Vineethettan smile from his heart. I would have felt terrible to selfishly feel happy for the songs if the film had failed. That would mean I was dishonest to the process.”

There’s not much one needs to detail about the impact of his music and its connection to so many viewers. Hesham’s life too has changed with his songs hitting millions of views after a decade of relative musical anonymity.

“After the fourth day, we went with the cast to watch it again in theatres. We went in my car so I had to drop Vineethettan back to Noble’s flat after. He was busy on a call, so he just waved and walked away. He was going back to Chennai the next morning and it hit me that Hridayam was…over. When would I meet him again? Would it be for a song or would we even work again? I kept looking at him and sat there frozen. I wish he knew where I was mentally before he held my hand and told me about Hridayam. I was floating in an ocean, not knowing what to do. There was so much noise all around. From there, he lifted me and put me on such a pure place. I hope I did not let him down.”

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"Vishal Menon: Vishal dropped out of law school to focus on his fondness for film, particularly mainstream Indian cinema. He is a film critic, previously with The Hindu after a stint at Deccan Chronicle and Reuters News. If you thought the book was better than the movie, don’t tell Vishal.."
  
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