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They shoot, she scores: Alokananda Dasgupta

Composer Alokananda Dasgupta on scoring 'Sacred Games' and 'Trapped', her cinephile roots and her love for cellos

Alokananda Dasgupta. Photo: Craig Boehman
Alokananda Dasgupta. Photo: Craig Boehman

Alokananda Dasgupta came to wider notice last year with her alternately frayed and enveloping score for Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped. But if you follow Indian indie cinema, you’ve probably encountered her work earlier, in B.A. Pass (2012), Fandry (2013) or Aaba (2017), and in films by her father, the celebrated art house director Buddhadeb Dasgupta, like Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa (2013) and Tope (2016). Most of her work has been in background scoring—a rarity in Indian cinema, where most composers specialize in song.

Recently, Dasgupta’s score and musical numbers for the Netflix series Sacred Games have won wide acclaim (including an admiring tweet from composer A.R. Rahman). Over the phone, she tells us about her compositional methods and her fondness for bass instruments. Edited excerpts:

What got you interested in scoring for films?

I was always interested in background scores. As a child, I was exposed to lots of films being watched at home. Even when I didn’t understand the films, the scores stayed with me. I remember (Ennio) Morricone’s score for Roman Polanski’s Frantic. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar for Paris, Texas. There was this (Frédéric) Chopin piece called The Raindrop Prelude that was used for Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. I studied that—it was one of my examination pieces in college, I was so attached to it. There was the theme from City Lights by (Charlie) Chaplin. Satyajit Ray’s scores. Much later, Neil Young’s Dead Man.

Eventually I started to love the films as well. I wasn’t a performer; I couldn’t play very well in public. I started trying out my hand at composition, for myself, not showing it to other people. All of this—love for films, love for music, playing behind closed doors—culminated in scoring for films.

Is there a particular method you like to follow?

Obviously there’s a certain guidance from the director that I look forward to. But first and foremost, it has to be the film. My first cue to score something substantial and concrete is the narrative, the plot, the characters, the images. There’s only so much a director can explain—the narrative has to draw me forward, inspire me.

The process is mechanical, but it’s also organic. What you see is what you feel is what you create. I can create a formula for myself—divide the music into themes and structural formats—but it all gets thrown out of the window once I start working, because then it becomes intuitive.

The cello features prominently in several of your scores. Do you play the instrument?

No, but I love the cello. Sometimes I write for the cello instead of writing for the piano, which should come naturally, because I learnt it from age 5. The cello ended up being the right sound for Sacred Games.

The register works for me. I find that the cello, when played with dynamics and expression, can help me emote. A short statement in melody or a counter melody—even if it’s understated, or a motif—when played well on the cello expresses a lot for me. Also, I’m biased towards bass instruments.

How did you go about composing for ‘Sacred Games’?

I started with the screenplay and the brief that was given to me. I had composed the opening credits before I got the episodes to watch. When I read the screenplay, I thought, I’m going to create this and that, and I started to record. After I got the visuals, I had to cancel half of what I recorded, because I felt they were not going to gel. I presented a few to Vikram (Motwane), and they ended up being too experimental. So I started from scratch, treated every episode as a complete film on its own and let that take me forward.

The opening credits have a vaguely Middle-Eastern sound.

Middle-Eastern instruments have been used, but I tried my best to make it sound ambiguous. Basically, I wanted a combination of an ethnic sound, an orchestral sound and a pagan chant—a chant that’s not associated with any religion, that’s ominous but not supernatural, to define the mythological undertones and overtones that Sacred Games has.

Your score for ‘Trapped’ consistently mirrored the emotion onscreen. ‘I Am Trapped’ almost gives the impression of found sound.

You’re absolutely right, that’s exactly how it was done. I was staying in a place where there was construction noise everywhere. I know no one likes noise, but I had a terrible condition where I’d get headaches and couldn’t tolerate it, which is a stupid thing to have in a city like Bombay, because there’s construction going on everywhere. I was at my wit’s end, I was ready to do something drastic. Thankfully, Trapped came along at that time.

It’s not a romantic or grand thought I had—‘oh, I’m going to turn the noise into music’. I had a Zoom H4n recorder with me and I’d record sounds from the daily grind. I’d tried that for myself many times but that was the first time I used it in a film.

Bollywood scores are usually a wash of sound, but in your scores one can hear the different instruments.

A lot of credit goes to the mix. The other reason is that, no matter how experimental I want to be, my root is traditional, by which I mean there’s a melody and an accompaniment. I think that stems from being a classical musician. I’ve been told by advisers and teachers to keep it clean, to let the instrument that has the most responsibility of carrying the feeling of the images shine. It has been a conscious effort to make sure that everything does not play at the same time for no reason.

I was particularly struck by your use of the oud in Nagraj Manjule’s ‘Fandry’.

That is an unusual choice, but I was drawn to it from my exposure to—for lack of a better term—world music. I was first drawn to Middle-Eastern, Turkish, Egyptian instruments when I was studying. I had a friend who played the oud. Again, bass-sounding instrument, extremely versatile, extremely poignant in its sound. It’s easy to write on these instruments that I find to be versatile.

Do you have any favourites from your own work?

Recently, I’ve done four songs for Sacred Games—I’m very attached to Dhuan Dhuan. There’s a nomad theme from Tope, my father’s film, which I like. And I also like this song called Shabh Gaya Hai, from B.A. Pass. And I Am Trapped.

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