Memories of scores of melodious songs washed over me when I got the news of veteran music director Khayyam’s demise at the age of 92. I feel his life is worth commemorating not only because of his prodigious talent, his unstinting commitment to quality or even his famed humanity (he was unfailingly amiable and remained easily accessible to me for interviews at various stages of my career) but also because of his incredible persistence and resilience.
Let me explain. When I conduct the The Dinesh Raheja Workshop for media rapport and image building, I come across several cinema aspirants, both young and old, who are worried about the quantum of time they should devote to the pursuit of their passion before they achieve success.
Some ponder if there is an age limit beyond which a big breakthrough is not a possibility. To them, I often cite names of late bloomers like Boman Irani, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Khayyam.
I have always been particularly impressed by the tenacity with which Khayyam withstood decades of struggle (albeit intermittently studded with nuggets), stuck to his penchant for strict melody, before he was finally rewarded with his big commercial payback with Kabhi Kabhie (1976) when he was almost 50 years of age!
The number of films Khayyam scored music for throughout the 1950s could not reach double digits...even though he had already made his beginnings as a music composer in the 1940s.
This anomaly was despite the fact that Khayyam had scored memorable music for two films starring the biggest stars of the time — Dilip Kumar (Footpath, 1953) and Raj Kapoor (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958). Khayyam’s composition for Footpath’s Shaam-e-gham ki kasam is an eternal classic for crooner Talat Mehmood.
And Phir Subah Hogi is a marvellous soundtrack stuffed with Mukesh and Asha Bhosle gems like Woh subah kabhie toh aayegi, Chin-o-Arab hamara, Aasmaan pe hai khuda and one of my favourite love songs, Phir na kije meri gustakh nigahon ka gila.
Despite his by-now well-established reputation for spinning gossamer melodies that clung to your consciousness, box office success eluded Khayyam in the 1960s.
This did not deter the maestro, however, from creative excellence in the few films in which he was given the opportunity. My favourite Khayyam song from this period is from the Waheeda Rehman-Kamaljeet starrer, Shagun: Tum apna ranj-o-gham which had Khayyam’s wife Jagjit Kaur giving impeccable playback.
I remember Jagjit Kaur made and served me tea when I was interviewing Khayyam once, but before I could fully express my appreciation of her rendition of that song, she had, true to her spotlight-shunning ways, disappeared into the interiors of their flat.
The first half of the1970s were a particularly arid phase for Khayyam with no major film assignments coming his way. Lady Luck finally smiled on Khayyam when a discerning director like Yash Chopra asked him to score the music for his 1976 blockbuster.
Alongside melodious numbers like the title song and Main pal do pal ka shayaar hoon Khayyam proved he could also compose fast-paced contemporaneous numbers like Tera phoolon jaisa rang and Pyar kar liya toh kya? The popularity of the film’s music prompted Khayyam and Yash Chopra to continue collaborating with Trishul, Noorie, Nakhuda and Sawaal.
The next decade was the most creatively fecund phase of Khayyam’s career which saw the creation of most of the songs which are today identified with him.
He scored for films starting major names like Jeetendra (Khandaan) and Rajesh Khanna (Thodisi Bewafai, Dard), as well as for ambitious mega-budgeted ventures like Razia Sultan. Khayyam reached the high noon of his career with Umrao Jaan (1981). Exquisite ghazals like Dil cheez kya hai Justuju jiski thi, Yeh kya jagah hai doston helped Asha Bhosle’s career scale new heights.
I reached out to Yash Chopra’s discovery, Poonam Dhillon, after Khayyam's demise and she said, “I was lucky to get his immortal music in my first two films.
Whenever I go to any event the song I am lovingly greeted with is Noorie’s Aaja re, aaja re o mere dilbar aaja or it’s Trishul’s Gapuchi Gapuchi gam gam. Khayyam saab always called me Noorie over the years! He was a very affectionate man who gave and earned respect from whoever met him.”