Adnan Sami Padma Award row: Timing of honour, when musician's prime is long past, reduces him to sycophancy

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

Jan 28, 2020 11:36:27 IST

I was briefly introduced to Adnan Sami in the early/mid ‘90s when he’d visit legendary singer Asha Bhosle’s residence. My family lived in the same building and as a child training in Hindustani classical music, I would often drop by her rehearsals with my mother.

He was mighty courteous, soft-spoken and endearingly bashful. Bhosle would frequently talk about how big this guy was going to be in Bollywood. He’d smile shyly, speak little and then you’d hear him effortlessly play a few notes on the keyboard, undoubtedly convinced about his bright future. He mentioned something about being a classical pianist, a fact that stood out brilliantly against the backdrop of the playback singing he was looking to do for the Hindi film industry. Suffice to say that if someone mentioned in the 1990s that Sami had the potential to win a Padma award too, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

His popularity stood in stark contrast in a Bombay that was metamorphosing into Mumbai. The next 10-odd years saw Sami being the recipient of much fame and fortune. He collaborated with Bhosle for the Pakistani film Sargam in 1995, following up that triumph with his immensely successful 2000 album Kabhi To Nazar Milao. The title song and ‘Lift Karaa De’ made Sami a household name and ushered in much Bollywood fame. From Ajnabee to Saathiya, Sami collaborated with the likes of Mani Ratnam, Subhash Ghai and Yash Chopra, establishing his as the lingering voice of a leading man on celluloid.

From those feted days, Sami’s career graph stuttered progressively; the last decade especially has been least significant. It has seen barely Sami singing for the occasional Hindi film and bagging a few more across regional cinema.

It has also seen the end of a Pakistani personality on a short-term Indian visa, and the emergence of an Indian national of Pakistani origin. He may have been granted his Indian citizenship in 2016 but the process of applying for it had already been many years in the making. In 2013, Sami while paying tribute to Yash Chopra who apparently served as guarantor for his citizenship application, said, “Before he passed away, Yash uncle made sure all the paperwork for my Indian passport was done. Thanks to him, I am likely to get it.”

That the Modi government eventually granted him citizenship served as favourable optics for a government that hadn’t yet shamelessly and openly thrust its Hindutva agenda.

 Adnan Sami Padma Award row: Timing of honour, when musicians prime is long past, reduces him to sycophancy

The criticism for Adnan Sami's Padma award shouldn’t be about why he got it, but it should certainly be directed as to why he got it now. Image via Facebook/@AdnanSamiLive

Even as his tweets increasingly displayed his love for his new country, he didn’t defend the government’s silence over the JNU attacks, preferring instead to tweet his support for the students of who were attacked in their campus earlier this month.

But as the criticism for the National People’s Register and the Citizenship Amendment Act reached fever pitch in 2019, Sami spent much time on Twitter telling online trolls that he wasn’t a refugee and his application was approved after almost two decades of living in India. He came from an affluent Pakistani family that had not been persecuted in their own country, so his move to India was entirely his personal choice and not some political compulsion. He painstakingly replied to everyone who used his citizenship as an example of the current disposition’s benevolence, clarifying that Muslims are not persecuted in theocratic countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh and so need not be specified as possible refugees under the CAA.

It has long been believed that the Padma awards are a way of rewarding those who sing the ruling party’s tune.

The dubious winners are few, but they often tend to overshadow the genuine achievers and irreversibly taint the reputation of the awards. Remember when controversial hotelier Sant Chatwal was given the Padma Vibhushan in 2010 despite having criminal cases against him? It was the same year a Padma Shri was given to a Kashmiri counter-insurgent Ghulam Mohammad Mir, a man accused of murder and human rights violations.

Those attacking Sami over his father’s military background are being ridiculous because his father was a trained defence professional doing his duty, not a terrorist waging war against India. Blaming Sami for his father’s actions is like asking Rahul Gandhi to apologise for his father presiding over the Sikh massacre of 1984.

Sami himself has no such bloody past, but his most prolific work was too brief and far behind him currently. The criticism for his Padma award shouldn’t be about why he got it, but it should certainly be directed as to why he got it now.

His best years were between 1995-2009/10. Sami could’ve still been eligible because he was hugely popular in the first half of that duration and the Padma committee neither has a waiting period to see where someone’s career goes, nor does it rule out candidates based on their citizenship. The Padma awards — especially the Padma Shri category — doesn’t lay much emphasis on longevity of a career to recognise great work either. Rahul Dravid won the Padma Shri within nine years of making his international debut. Shah Rukh Khan is not the most prolific actor in the industry but he’s definitely one of India’s most popular exports to the world. He won his Padma Shri in 2005, 13 years after his debut while still being a hugely popular actor. Even Canadian national Akshay Kumar has been honoured with a Padma Shri in 2009.

Sami isn’t exactly riding the popularity wave today. So if his prime wasn’t as far-reaching as Shah Rukh’s, and he was not lauded in his brief best years, nor was his citizenship the reason for him being belatedly rewarded, why, then, is he a recipient today?

Ruling parties often take away from the joy of winning awards with their embarrassingly poor timing. Saif Ali Khan had already done Omkara and Being Cyrus, and had had a remarkable career renaissance by the time he won the Padma Shri (2010) but it will frequently be mentioned with a footnote that his mother was the incumbent Central Board of Film Certification chief when he won and his family was friendly with the Gandhis.

Adnan Sami was once known as being an incredibly talented musician. By awarding him today and making it seem like popular opinion, the government has reduced him to a sycophant.

I believed Sami would be worthy of high honour. I didn’t once imagine that the move would be this questionable.

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2020 11:36:27 IST