Afzal Yusuf sits in a darkened hall in Kochi. It is the first day-first-show of Lal Jose’s recently-released Immanuel, in which superstar Mammooty plays the hero. While the audience looks intently at the action on the screen, Afzal concentrates on the sounds made by the audience.
“People clapped many times,” he says. “There was a pin-drop silence during the emotionally-charged scenes. And there were sighs of happiness when my songs were played.”
Of course, nobody knew that the music composer was sitting in the crowd. Nobody also knew that he could not see. That he had been born without sight.
“My optic nerves were dead from birth,” says Afzal, matter-of-factly. As a child he had always been interested in music, and would listen to songs all the time. When he was in Class V, his parents gifted him a harmonium. “I would play it often,” says Afzal.
By the time he reached Class X, Afzal had become a skilled keyboard artiste and began playing with local professional bands. Thereafter, he became a keyboard programmer. But his turning point came when he composed the music for a song for the Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged.
This song was played for a fund-raising programme, which was directed by Lal Jose, and aired on a private television channel. “When I first saw Afzal play, I was struck by his passion, apart from his in-born talent,” says Lal Jose. “I felt that he could be a good composer.”
In the audience, there was a director called Jolly Joseph. He was impressed and invited Afzal to do the music for his film, Chandranilekkulla Vazhi, in 2008.
Afzal got another golden opportunity when he composed the music for the Mammooty film, 1993 Bombay, March 12. In it, well-known Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam sang his first-ever Malayalam song, Chakkaramavin Kombath. For that to happen, Afzal had to fly down to Sonu’s studio in Mumbai to do the recording.
“Sonu was very co-operative,” says Afzal. “I told him the situation in the song and the meaning of the lyrics.” Within two hours, the song was done. Another Bollywood singer, Shreya Ghoshal, also sang for Afzal in the film, Ithu Pathiramanal.
Afzal also composed a song, Gandharajan, for the 2009 film, Calendar, which was sung by the legendary KJ Yesudas. “The greatest moment of my life occurred when Yesudas selected Gandharajan in his top 50 favourite songs of all time,” says Afzal.
It is not easy for him to record a song. For Immanuel, two months before the shoot began, he sat with Jose and scriptwriter A C Vijeesh and heard the script. Later, when there were changes, they would inform him immediately.
When Afzal has to do the background score, he hears the dialogues on the soundtrack. He also has to keep track of the duration of the scene, so that he can time the music accordingly. His keyboard programmer Sabu Francis provides visual inputs all the time.
Being sight-impaired can have its advantages. “I have intense concentration, since there are no visual distractions,” he says. “But I have to be careful, since I am working with images which I cannot see.”
Meanwhile, at Afzal’s home in Kochi, his children, Hena Fathima, 7, Fidha Fathima, 5, and Abdul Rahman, 2, stand at the door of the living room and stare wide-eyed at their father. Soon, a call comes on Afzal’s mobile. Deftly, he moves his fingers, over the screen, to activate it, while a voice software informs him of the caller’s identity.
For Afzal, blindness has never been a handicap; it is his strength.