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A new breed of film composers

Meet the musicians behind the song-less, original scores in Indian indie movies

(From left) Karan Kulkarni, Naren Chandavarkar (standing), Benedict Taylor and Alokananda Dasgupta in Kulkarni’s studio in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
(From left) Karan Kulkarni, Naren Chandavarkar (standing), Benedict Taylor and Alokananda Dasgupta in Kulkarni’s studio in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

Among those who attended the premiere of Amit Masurkar’s Newton at the Berlinale two weeks ago was one of the film’s composers, Naren Chandavarkar. This was his second time at the festival; his composing partner, Benedict Taylor, and he were there in 2014 for Killa, which won the Crystal Bear in the KPlus Generation section, which is dedicated to films on young people.

The first strain of music in Killa, a meditative hum, comes after 20 minutes, once we’re immersed in the atmospherics of a village in coastal Maharashtra. As film composers, it is important for Chandavarkar and Taylor to know when not to do anything at all. Their only music in Harud (2010) appears in the last scene, a viola-oud composition they came up with in response to reference videos director Aamir Bashir had given them, of the wailing rituals of Kashmiri and Afghan women. The rest of the 90 minutes, which show the weight of oppression on Kashmiris torn between militants and the police, would be without musical relief, the director and composers decided. Perhaps this got to Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who, after seeing the film, asked Bashir, “Who are the composers? I want to meet them and slap them."

Makhmalbaf might be surprised to hear the duo’s work in the forthcoming horror movie Ghoul, which harks back to the synth-based scores of John Carpenter. Karan Kulkarni’s minimalist score in Aligarh (2016) is filled with poignant silences, punctuated with disparate elements like a brief rap verse and a stirring violin theme. Alokananda Dasgupta’s work in the forthcoming Trapped is intimately tied to the film’s sound effects. And in A Death In The Gunj, expected to be released in cinemas this year, Sagar Desai’s lush guitars and violin pieces build up the tension of an idyllic family holiday gone wrong.

This is the new breed of original film score composers. Much of their work is in small, independent films that can afford to jettison the traditional song-driven format of Indian film music and are understated enough to not underline every emotion with overbearing background music.

Desai, who has been working as a composer since Mixed Doubles (2006), says mainstream commercial films reduce the background score to playing a perfunctory role. It is treated as a technical, post-production job. In contrast, he composed the pieces for A Death In The Gunj as a response to the script, even before the shoot began. “The brief," he says, “was to create music that was retro without sounding old."

“Different genres and subgenres of films are being made in all kinds of lengths and formats. And I’m getting to do the kind of stuff I dig," says Dasgupta. Her energetic, Mediterranean, carnival-like score for the documentary Amdavad Ma Famous (available on Netflix) keeps up with the fast-cut editing of the film.

Dasgupta is a movie score nerd. The daughter of film-maker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, she grew up on musicals and world cinema. She took piano lessons from an early age. Watching television wasn’t allowed at their Kolkata home. Today, however, she can tell you who has composed which track in the latest foreign TV shows.

A “scene" for original movie scores in India has never really existed, Dasgupta feels. “I can only remember the music from Satyajit Ray’s films and, later, some of Ilaiyaraaja’s work," she says. She has worked in films such as Shala (2012), Fandry (2014) and B.A. Pass (2013), having started out in Mumbai assisting Amit Trivedi.

Like Dasgupta, Kulkarni began his film career working under Trivedi—not surprising, given the composer’s appeal among non-Bollywood listeners. And like most of his tribe, Kulkarni’s sensibilities were shaped more by The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel than Hindi film music. He played in a band in Pune called Khadki Junction Blues and later went to Australia to study music.

Kulkarni has composed songs for Shahid (2013) and worked in short films such as Anurag Kashyap’s That Day After Everyday (2013). He is more like an independent musician who happens to work on film projects—Vasan Bala offered him Peddlers, his first film, which never released. Kulkarni has done more work in commercials. “I’d like to produce my own music very soon," he says.

In India, very little film score work is available for purchase. Abroad, scores are released separately or as part of original soundtracks and have a separate afterlife. Here, producers see scores as too niche to be commercially viable. Killa is an exception; its “jukebox" was uploaded on YouTube a few days after its release.

Consumption of film scores outside the films remains a problem. Composers are wary of publishing their work because of the complications of rights and licences. Appreciation, therefore, comes in the form of the odd email or message on Facebook.

The lack of marketability, however, also results in a lot of creative freedom. Desai, who is tired of electronic music, hasn’t used anything besides live instruments in any of his scores of late—this includes Island City (2016) and Maroon (2017). He mentions using an “ancient, beautiful" harp for a slightly different version of A Death In The Gunj for its theatrical release. Dasgupta used the duduk, an Armenian instrument suited for the quaint landscape of the short film Aaba, which won an award at the Berlinale this year. She recalls attending a workshop there last year in which composers for low-budget European films spoke of spending hours in their basement studios to recreate sounds coaxed from tongs and buckets. “They don’t have the money for plug-ins, they find organic ways of producing music," she says.

As film composers, it is important for Chandavarkar and Taylor to know when not to do anything at all. Their only music in Harud (2010) appears in the last scene-

Chandavarkar-Taylor, who are getting some mainstream attention with films like Udta Punjab (2016), Daddy (2017) and Noor (2017), say they like “taking something strange to make something very normal". “We are interested in sound art. This approach makes it accessible for those who want something different, and for those who like the familiar," says Taylor.

Taylor shuttles between Mumbai and London, where he freelances as a viola player. He recalls how, once, snowed in at his old Victorian house, he started recording “all the wonderful creaking sounds". These were used in the experimental Marathi film Maunraag (2013), a solo project for Taylor. He teamed up with Chandavarkar for Kashyap’s That Girl In Yellow Boots (2010) and, later, Ship Of Theseus (2012).

Chandavarkar’s formative years were spent reading music magazine Pitchfork and spending all day on Napster. He studied literature and wanted to be a theatre director and actor. “I was a hard-core geek but music was a sort of secret passion. I wasn’t sure if I could do it professionally," he says, “Making film scores means I get to work on analysing a film structurally, and (through its) narrative. It allows you to juggle a lot of hats at the same time."


Keeping score

Naren Chandavarkar

“Tom And Jerry shows that there can be a musical expression for everything. They would be playing jazz or 1940s R&B like Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby while they do horrible, violent things to each other. I wanted to get into scoring when I saw that as a kid."

Benedict Taylor

“Ennio Morricone comes from a strict Italian classical music background but he made strange choices as a composer, using really flat or sharp guitars, wavering voices. The world he created in the Dollars Trilogy was expansive and sparse at the same time."

Alokananda Dasgupta

“(TV show) Fargo’s score is sensitive with a touch of eeriness, and beautifully reminiscent of the original film."

Sagar Desai

“There Will Be Blood has a crazy score. It’s a great example of a score not always following what you see on screen but showing the mental turmoil of the characters instead."

Karan Kulkarni

“The opening theme of Shutter Island incorporates the sound of the ship horn when the characters approach the island. A great score makes you feel things without telling you exactly what to feel."

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