The year was 1988. After Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, concluded his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, a song was telecast. Millions of Indians heard it for the first time, and since then, it has become an unofficial anthem of India.
A common refrain about Ek Sur, better known as Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, is that the song doesn’t demand patriotic pride, it simply, gently, evokes it. As a Reddit user said, “Patriotism was not forced rather it was projected to fall into love with — that effectively stayed with you forever.”
Instantly recognisable — even to those who were born well after it was first broadcast on Doordarshan — the opening scene, featuring Hindustani classical music maestro Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and his distinctively rousing, yet soothing voice, is one that has stood the test of time.
Believed to be born out of a conversation between Rajiv Gandhi and his friend Jaideep Samarth — who was the senior executive at leading advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather — the song is known for its production values that surpassed any and every standard set by the industry at the time.
Six months in the making
Developed by Lok Seva Sanchar Nigam, with lyrics by Piyush Pandey, who was then an account manager at Ogilvy & Mather, the six-minute song was sung in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.
And it featured well-known personalities of all stripes, including actors Kamal Haasan, Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Jeetendra, Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Tanuja, Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi; dancer Mallika Sarabhai; cartoonist Mario Miranda; filmmaker Mrinal Sen; authors Sunil Gangopadhyay and Annada Shankar Ray; singers and musicians M Balamuralikrishna, Lata Mangeshkar, Suchitra Mitra and Kavitha Krishnamurthy; sportsmen Narendra Hirwani, S Venkataraghavan, Prakash Padukone, Ramanathan Krishnan and so many more.
There could have been no better advertisement for India’s multitude of cultures and achievements. But it was a gargantuan task to pull off.
Top ad film-producer Kailash Surendranath, who already had iconic commercials like the Liril and Wah Taj ads to his name, “was the natural choice to execute a project of this magnitude because of the epic success of his 1985 national integration film, Torch of Freedom film also known as Freedom Run,” Campaign India’s Sandeep Goyal writes.
While the lyrics and music set a standard of its own, the video production is what really grabbed eyeballs. To get permission to shoot aerial footage of the Taj Mahal, Surendranath went to Agra and met the Air Marshal, who allowed him to go ahead and even gave him an IAF helicopter to shoot, despite the fact that planes are not allowed to fly so close to the monument. Unfortunately, the officer got into trouble for it and the filmmaker agreed to pay for the chopper use to get him off the hook.
The video also features the then newly-inaugurated India’s first metro rail service, the Calcutta Metro, and the iconic Deccan Queen between Pune and Mumbai that has now completed 90 years of service.
“[The song] took almost six months to make. Ace filmmaker Kailash Surendranath travelled around the country, filming personalities, landscapes and common people,” recalled Louis Banks, who arranged the song.
For all its glory, the song ran into a bit of controversy in 2016 when Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s son Jayant refuted Ashok Patki’s claim of being one of the composers. “I was playing the harmonium, accompanying my father. He used the base ‘Jo bhaje hari ko sada’ and kept humming the tune. It was composed right before my eyes,” wrote Jayant.
“We still have the paper from Ogilvy on which the song was written,” he added in the post. “Patki was the arranger’s assistant. This is pure mischief from him,” he added.
The remake could never match up
Over two decades later, Surendranath decided to re-record the song for the 2010 Independence Day celebrations. But outdoing a masterpiece that he had previously created was always going to be a mammoth task. The second rendition, while retaining the original music composer Louis Banks, fails to evoke the same emotion of patriotism and unity.
A Forbes article notes that “In the original, the national integration theme came through; in the remake, the interminable length, and the disproportionate amount of time given to Bollywood (there’s even a rain-drenched actress, and what looks like a lot of lip-syncing) makes it an extended item song version of a classic.”