There’s a strong cohort of emerging South Asian musical talent in Canada which is making waves in Bollywood. Many existing Bollywood composers and songwriters from India are joining SOCAN as well. To acknowledge their growing impact, we’re presenting a series of feature stories, under the heading Bollywood North. This time it’s Salim Merchant, of Salim-Sulaiman.

I don’t know many music artists who would describe a “kidnapping” by the industry in a positive light. But I haven’t met many artists as positive as Salim Merchant.

Salim-Sulaiman, Chak De India, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Salim-Sulaiman song “Chak de India”

The Mumbai-based composer and songwriter is one-half of Salim-Sulaiman, a duo with his brother Sulaiman Merchant. Together, they’ve composed scores and songs for more than 100 Bollywood films, from Hindi comedy and romance movies to supernatural horror stories. To mention just one of many highlights, their theme to 2007’s Chak de India (a drama about women’s field hockey) has become an unofficial anthem at all kinds of Indian sporting events.

That wasn’t the plan. The brothers had built a career in India in the 1990s, writing advertising jingles and producing Indian pop and rap acts. A chance encounter in the studio with Bollywood director Sanjay Gupta led to an assignment for his 1997 film Hameshaa. Their composition, “Beyond Eternity,” became the film’s theme song.

“As a result, I was completely kidnapped by the film industry for 20 years to do only movies,” Salim tells us in a video call from India. “I consider myself very fortunate, because we did some incredibly big films and some great soundtracks… Sometimes I’m doing a sports film, sometimes I’m doing a horror film. Sometimes I’m doing an underground film, which requires, like, a street, hip-hop kind of vibe. Sometimes I do a futuristic film, which takes me into an electronica zone, and sometimes I’m just sticking to folk and orchestral kind of stuff. I’m very grateful for that.”

It’s not like film has been the only thing in Salim-Sulaiman’s calendar. In addition to Bollywood film scores, the duo has worked on remixes for Lady Gaga (“Born This Way,” “Judas”) and Enrique Iglesias (“I’m A Freak”), and co-wrote the 2010 FIFA World Cup anthem “Africa – You’re a Star.” They were nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Song in 2009 for “We Like Being Small,” written for Nickelodeon’s animated kids’ show Wonder Pets! Salim also served as a judge for the India franchise of the renowned TV singing competition shows Indian Idol and The Voice India. Salim-Sulaiman regularly perform live, mixing sacred music from sufi traditions around the world. It was on tour in Canada that they became aware of SOCAN, and decided to become members.

“When I was travelling [through Canada] I was amazed to see the amount of Indians and Pakistanis and South Asians,” says Salim. “And there’s so much respect for all different genres of music. Also, I learned a little bit more about SOCAN. That it’s not just a society that collects royalties, it’s a community. It has a beautiful spirit of learning and exchanges, and it empowers people. [I found that] so incredible and inspiring.”

Salim-Sulaiman, Africa You're A Star, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Salim-Sulaiman song “Africa – You’re a Star”

Sons of film composer Sadruddin Merchant, the boys grew up listening to music and started to play as soon they could hold instruments. “I was studying piano, and he was studying piano. I was studying drums, he was studying drums,” says Salim of the early years  with his older brother. “But I couldn’t handle drums because I was too young to coordinate my hands and legs, so I stuck to the keyboards and piano. It was a great synergy, like melody and rhythm. And so, right from the very beginning, we were partners in music. It’s been 32 years now, and it’s fab.”

Of his many credits, Salim is especially proud of an ongoing project, Bhoomi, which celebrates the diversity of Indian folk music. Inspired by flipping through the world music sections in record stores while on tour, and finding little from his own country, Salim started to travel around India to record traditional songs with esteemed folkloric singers, then produced them in a contemporary style. The annual compilations (which Salim refers to as “seasons”) are released by Salim-Sulaiman’s own label, Merchant Records. In 2023, they brought Bhoomi to the Metaverse. In 2024, they’re expanding to include more international artists.

Salim says he thinks of himself as a film composer first, and a songwriter second, but that he’s delighted to see more Indian music reaching fans outside of the Bollywood soundtrack system.

“It’s funny how video killed the radio, then the internet killed the video, and now it’s like we’re back to audio again,” he says. “There was a time when you needed big names, big actors. When we didn’t really have a music industry our country. We had a film industry. Independent music was a very, very tiny share. Today, when you click on a song on any of the streaming platforms, you don’t see the actor’s name, you see the artist names, which is great. I’m extremely delighted, and I feel this is a great change for people who create this form of art. It’s a beautiful change.”

Salim-Sulaiman are performing in Calgary, Toronto, and Vancouver in June and July as part of their 2024 North American tour.