In the middle part of this decade, during the times of Himesh dominating the scene with his crooning of “Aashiq Banayaaaaaaannn” , Omkara’s music came by as a welcome relief. Ok that's an understatement! It was a breath of fresh air from the heavens, it was a godsend! Created by the super (multi-faceted) talented gentleman Vishal Bharadwaj, who gave us such gems as Maachis (1996), Sathya (1998), Maqbool (2004), and the recent Kaminey (2009), the expectations from Omkara were gigantic. In all these years in the industry, Vishal Bharadwaj has managed to stay out of the rat-race, bringing out his creations on his own terms, at his own pace. Omkara is also directed by Vishal and has some poignant and pertinent lyrics by his favorite lyricistGulzar who has always managed to team up very well (perhaps his best association after the untouchable partnership with RD Burman) and he continues that trend in this album. The way he weaves the sheer rusticity with human plight in his words and imagery is amazing but in keeping with the setting and adaptation of the award winning film.
It was once conjectured that after turning director, Vishal may lose interest in composing his brand of unique but eminent music. However Omkara erases any shadows of that doubt- he remains a master creator of some amazing melodies, fully possessing the knack of fitting the song to the situation perfectly, be it the melodious “O Saathi Re” or the raunchy “Beedi”. And was this worth the wait? The music does not necessarily boast of a chartbuster appeal but it is different, it is innovative, it is fresh and it definitely oozes quality...in other words welcome to another fantastic Vishal Bhardwaj production!
The album opener is the title track “Omkara” sung by the perfect rustic singer Sukhwinder Singh. It takes you into the gaaons of India in the way it is rendered, composed and orchestrated. Rhythm arrangements by Nitin Shankar are a mix of dhapli and several other Bass instruments. The song starts with the sounds of a toomba (less sharper version of ektara). As the instrumentation progresses, many other instruments join in such as the metallic clang of a matka, the nagada, sounds of ghunghroo, clapping hands etc. The song has an infectious beat and Sukhwinder – who is energy personified, (almost sounding intoxicated here!) takes the song to greater heights, as he meanders through the octaves effortlessly. The song relies heavily on the beat and the percussions- notice how the beats are “relayed” forward on varied instruments, from the booming bass – to the matka – to the clapping hands – to the wooden sticks – to the voices of the chorus and then back – to the boom. One aspect that sets this song apart is its unpredictability. The rhythm pattern changes gears in the middle and raises the tempo, keeping in tune with the harshness and unpredictable nature of the character Omkara and portraying him as a fearless man. Lyrically, it requires a few listens to understand what the song is all about (and then you begin to appreciate the mastery of Gulzar’s lyrics), since it is quite fast paced. Definitely a catchy and winning number that sets the tone for the rest of the album to follow!
“O Saathi Re” is the next song sung by Vishal Bharadwaj himself with the ever-dependable Shreya Ghosal and whilst it may not be one for the masses to hum around, it is a must listen for those looking for a touch of class! The singers' voices blend very well and convey the wistful and intimate mood of the song. Vishal does full justice to the song in his then-new role as a singer, adding the perfect touch of pathos. It starts with a keyboard piece and gently transcends to Shreya’s silken warm voice. Even though a full orchestra of violins plays in the background, it is the soft strumming of the guitar, the flute, the subtle beats that give a feeling of calmness to the song. The lyrics are very Gulzar-ish, as expected, rich with emotions and aptly depicting the blissful content that two lovers feel in the company of each other … “Din Doobe Na, Aa Chal Din Ko Rokein, Dhoop Ke Peechhe Daudein, Chaanv Chue Na”. A little known fact is that this song was earlier being considered as the title of the film and then was replaced by “Omkara”. A beautiful soothing number that can be heard any time… imagine taking a walk through the river of green fields having a sumptuous feel of the millions of flowers reveling in their pristine glory. That’s the feeling you get when you listen to this bit of Bharadwaj magic!
Suresh Wadkar sings (rather recites) the next beautiful and soulful poem “Jag Ja” . Appearing on the album after the rustic Beedi, it has a soothing and calming effect, resonating in your head like a lullaby. Lyrics by Gulzar are kind of amusing with the guy trying to wake up the girl, calling her a doll, a princess, a fairy, a queen. Nevertheless, they lend a splendid touch to the soft mellow number with soft beats accompanied by the beautiful chords of a guitar and flute. The tune and rhythm are not as catchy though in the sense of popular music. It was good to hear Suresh after a long while. I remember hearing him last in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Betaabi (1997) . The minimalist style adds to the song very well. Overall, it’s a serene number moving at a slow pace and maintaining a consistent rhythm throughout. Unfortunately, a track that doesn't have much for masses to look forward to but one that will be enjoyed by a niche audience.
Next on the album is “Namak” sung by Vishal’s significant other Rekha Bhardwaj, with minor support by Rakesh Pandit. Now Rekha is a fully trained classical musician with a rich folksy throaty voice and seems to be the perfect choice for this mujra-esque number as she scales the semi-classical vocal gyrations with apparent ease. Aptly so, the instrumentation is mostly harmonium, tabla, dhols and dhaplis in keeping with the semi-sufiana style (with Qawwali style appearing occasionally by the back ground chorus). The beats are fairly slow paced. The lyrics are typically Gulzar-ish again and one is astonished at his imagery, even the song opening with “Main Chand Nigal Gayee ….” makes you wonder. Overall, this was a song that took a while to grow on me … quite enjoyable, but not as classy as the rest of the album. However, for a mujra type song it’s very appealing and that’s down to Vishal’s know-how.
Rahat Fateh Ali Khan croons the awesome and bewitching “Naina” . The song seems to be tailored to Rahat’s style of singing, or he just sings it extremely well … either way it’s an absolute pleasure to listen to. With it’s strong vocals and background music style (typically crafted this way by Vishal for maximum impact!), the song still manages to hold it’s ground in front of other numbers on the album. That is thanks to the composer and to Gulzar who manages to beautifully convey the overwhelming sense of betrayal and helplessness with his introspective and reflective lyrics. Musically also, this is Vishal at his very best although whether you can peel beneath the layers to appreciate its mastery is another question! Multiple string instruments such as the sitar plays prominently in the background in a manner that sway your senses into submission… and of course Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is the embodiment of this song and renders it soulfully. After the first listen, go for the rewind button as it takes a while to grow on you but after that expect your senses to be truly overtaken by the magic of this superb and soulful composition!
The closing piece of the album is “Tragedy of Omkara” , keeping with the tragic ending of the movie. This is a short instrumental piece, only a minute and a half long, with accompaniment by chorus in the background. The song picks up steam towards the end after a slow beginning although it’s a shame the song is over just as you are getting into it. Seems to be set in a western-ish tone ... perhaps because of the use of violins. High bass sounds stand out clearly. A perfect ode to Othello’s destiny?
With an excellent mix of songs for the masses ( “Beedi”, “Omkara”) and classes (“O Saathi Re”, “Naina”), the album was lapped up by those who were tired of the usual Bollywood music that was churned out in droves when people wanted to hear something different, something unique. In that respect, Omkara was a revelation and a true godsend! But it also appealed to those who had an ear for distinct lyrics and classical strains. Further admiration and ‘hit’ status was received after the movie was released (in fact the movie went on to pick up countless awards including Best Music Director, Best Singer, Best Lyricist, Best Background Music etc) and after they were sung by amateurs in shows like “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa”. With Omkara, Vishal Bharadwaj proved yet again why he ranks as our most multi-faceted talent in Hindi Cinema today. He is a brilliant film maker, a brilliant screenplay writer, a brilliant musician (hell he can even sing!). Omkara is not only one of his very best soundtracks but it also ranks as one of the best of this decade!