Tuesday, January 11, 2011
In Conversation with (Vishal) Shekhar
Maharaja Hotel, Bangalore. I was dipping a piece of Veg Hara Kebab in a cup of Mint Chatni. My phone rang. The voice at the other end asked if I could interview the composer duo Vishal-Shekhar the next day. I didn’t know what to say immediately, but finally said ‘NO’. The “No” was not because I didn’t want to talk to them. I love their music. But, I have read or seen every interview of theirs. I was just wondering if there is anything left for me to ask. I was given 90 minutes to decide. I called the editor of the music magazine and said “I will do it”. If not for anything, I wanted to know what madness drove them to create the music of “Tashan” – the most definitive Vishal-Shekhar soundtrack, in my opinion. However, the voice at the other end told me to talk primarily about the music of “Anjaana Anjaani”. So be it.
I never understood how two composers could compose one piece of music. Vishal-Shekhar or Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy - how do they manage to work together and compose music without any ego? Who does what in a song? When composers form such duos and trios, it is always formed with musicians who have musical influences and sensibilities that are vastly different from that of one another. Maybe, it is this contrast in what each member brings to a song is making these composer groups sustain for long. For instance, I doubt if Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan (let us call them Shankar-Hari) can ever make a sustainable and successful composer pair, like say, a Vishal-Shekhar.
“Though I am trained in Indian classical music and Western classical music, I listen to a lot of pop music. Though Vishal is into Rock, he also has grown up with Hindi film music. When two different musical influences come together, something new happens”, says Shekhar. “Something new” - that is what they want in film music now. Vishal and Shekhar are not completely Anjaanas to the form of music that they are not trained in. They are the most open minded people in the business. In Indian film music scene, where a composer is required to be both Mahler and Michael Jackson at the same time, it is a win-win situation.
“Siddarth Anand is a very close friend of us. This is our fourth film with him. We did Salaam Namaste, Ta Ra Rum Pum, Bachna Ae Haseeno and now Anjaana Anjaani. This time, Siddarth wanted a very different soundtrack from us. He wanted us to make songs that we would like to make.” Composers rarely get such freedom. The film director or the film producer decides everything from the colour of the hook in the heroines blouse to the hook of a song.
In contemporary Hindi film music, almost every song is written with a hook line, which gets repeated throughout the song. Even in the soundtrack CD’s back cover, the songs are titled, not with the line with which the song begins, but which the song wanders and meanders all the way to hit - the punch line, the hook. A song that should have been titled as “Dheemi Dheemi” gets “Hairat” as the title. Why? Do the composers intentionally work towards a hook line and build a song around it? “A hook line is supposed to be strongest part of the song and it is something that instantly catches the listener’s attention. But, we don’t consciously compose a hook line for a song. It just happens with the flow of the song. For example, Aankhon mein teri from Om Shanti Om is basically a four line melody, but the phrase Ajab si eventually became a hook. People remember it as Ajab si song, but we didn’t compose it keeping that in mind.”
However, he agrees that the unique, addictive phrase - ‘Ah Ha Haa Ha Haa Ha’ and ‘Hi Hee Hi Hee Hi’ in the song Anjaana Anjaani ki Kahani came about when they were toying with the idea of doing a title track for the film. “It is the title track of the film. It was the last song to be recorded for the film. We wanted to play with the words Anjaana and Anjaani, and that is how the hook Anjaana ah ha and Anjaani e hi happened. It sounds a little different. It is a new idea, basically.”
Singers and Lyricists
More and more film composers are turning singers these days. They not only sing their own songs but also sing for the other contemporary composers. Both Vishal and Shekhar’s singing abilities are on par with any professional singer. There has also been some criticism from some popular singers that the composers reserve the best song for themselves. “I will tell you what happens. When we make a song, we prepare a rough scratch of the song, just to get an idea of how the song is sounding. We sing the songs in our voice and record the scratch versions. A professional singer can definitely do a better job at singing the song, than the composer himself. However, sometimes, your voice just locks with song and we just want to keep it like that.”
And they also write the lyrics of their songs. “Actually, I haven’t written any song before this. I have written just one line - Tu na jaane Aas Paas hey khudha in Anjaanaa Anjaani. That is my only lyrical contribution to this film industry so far. Vishal has written the rest of the song. I have started writing. I feel pretty good about it. It is a great feeling. I haven’t tried to write it, but it is sent by God like how he sends the composition. If it has to happen and if I am meant to write in the future, then, Insha Allah, I will start writing.”
Aaas Paas Khudha
Spirituality. The one thing that is common to most of our Indian film music composers is that they are deeply spiritual. “There is no philosophy for a music composition. If I can write, if I can compose something, it is because he (God) sends the tune to me; I just pass it on to people. A very few people get that opportunity. I am so lucky”, says Shekhar. Can an atheist not be a great music composer? “If you don’t believe in god, then you should not do anything in life” replies Shekhar in a firm voice.
The discussion drifted to the song itself. “Aas Paas Khudha is a song of hope. Nowadays, people easily lose hope. The song comes at a very crucial point in the film.” And then he told something which I haven’t heard any composer saying in an interview. “Hitesh Sonik, who arranges all Vishal Bharadwaj’s songs, is the arranger of the song. We are working for the first time with him and he has done a beautiful job.” There it is - A composer giving due credit to an arranger. We do see the name of the arrangers on CD inlays but I haven’t heard composers coming out and speaking about them in the interviews.
The mention of an arranger and Hitesh Sonik popped so many questions in my mind. How significant is the contribution of an arranger in a song, only the melody of which is written by the film composer credited for the music of the film? Why do our composers go to separate arrangers to arrange their songs? Why can’t they themselves arrange their songs? These are some of the questions that one can ask to most of the Hindi film music composers today. However, I restricted myself from throwing these questions at Shekhar. Despite all strings, synthesizers and Sonics of Sonik, to me, the melody of “Aaas Paas khuda” is vintage Vishal-Shekhar. They also know that, which is why Shekhar is confident enough to talk about Hitesh Sonik’s contribution to the song.
Vishal and Shekhar compose music. They write lyrics and they themselves can sing their songs. That is a deadly combination of talents to do a non-film album. “We have been planning to do one for last 10 years but we just don’t have time or maybe it is just that we both are too lazy.” No. They are not lazy. I remind Shekhar about the hip-hop album they did with Abhishek Bachchan. “Well, after we did that Bluff master track, Abhishek Bachchan recorded about 6 to 7 songs, but they are still lying in our studios. It is a fantastic, lovely album. Hopefully, when Abhishek has the time and if he could come to our studio and finish the rest of the album, we would get to hear that soon.”
Moreover, they also have a music label of their own, through which they released Raghu Dixit’s debut album. “Yes, we have a music label and we have an artist called Raghu Dixit whose album we released and it did really, really well. We are still looking out for singers and performers, basically looking for a combination, someone who has all three qualities, who can write the songs and also perform. We have now shortlisted a few of them and we will be working on the album soon.”
There is just too much of Guitar in Hindi film music, right now. Club song, Sufi song, rock song, Romantic ballad, Hip-hop - most of the Hindi film songs fit into one of these genres. Isn’t it all beginning to sound repetitive? “Music is always based and made for a script. It is always made for a Director’s vision. Today, we have to make sure that the music is in character of the film. Whether a song should be a rock song, club song or ballad, it depends on the script and the director’s requirements. All directors have their own taste. For example Farah Khan loves massy music, popular music. We know the director’s really well because they are all close friends of us. Even when we don’t work, we meet up each other.” Vishal and Shekhar seem to have a great rapport with all the directors they have worked with so far.
Unplugged and Remixed
I remind him of the brilliant unplugged versions of the songs they included in their recent soundtracks. It comes like a breath of fresh air amidst the cacophonic remixes. “Unplugged version of Aaas Paas Khudha in Anjaana Anjaani is Siddarth Anand’s idea”. Shekhar reiterates again. “At the end of the day, it is all directors’ vision. We just put the music together. The idea, vision comes from the director of the film and that makes the music sound interesting. Siddarth has also used it beautifully in the End Credits of the film.”
And the remixes? Shekhar doesn’t like remixes. “Right now, with due respect to people who are remixing, I personally have problems with remixes, especially when it is done for our songs. I don’t agree too much with the idea of having remixes. Commercially speaking, I do believe that the remixes get a huge response when they come out. Obviously, the original song gets more popular when the remix gets popular. If it is done well, it will definitely take the original song to a bigger level but if it is done badly, it can just murder your song completely.” So, no input goes from the composer to the DJ who is remixing? “We get to be a part of it at times, but mostly, once the album is done, the music companies go ahead and do 2 or 3 remix songs on their own.”
Vishal and Shekhar have been part of many reality singing talent shows on Television. “The earlier Sa re ga ma pa (anchored by Sonu Nigam) is the real music show. Now, there is too much drama happening. But, I can also understand the commercial side of it.” That is a surprisingly honest opinion coming from someone who as we speak is part of one such show. “But, this time in Sa re ga ma pa there is a fine balance of real music and entertainment”.
But, do these singers get a career after the show ends. Does the show in real life go on for them after their life in reality show ends? “Ofcourse. We have used singers from such talent shows in our songs. Kamal Khan from current Sa re ga ma pa has sung for us in Tees maar Khan. Amanat Ali, Raja Hasan, Aneek - all of them have sung for us. The one, who really pursues music, will definitely make a career. Those who lose focus on music because of the fame, and popularity, unfortunately there is no future for them”.
There is a sudden enthusiasm in his voice when I say “Live Concerts”. “Live concerts are pretty crazy. It is an amazing feeling. We just played a concert at a college in Hyderabad. There were around 10000 people. We kept the microphone on the other side. We performed songs from Anjaana Anjaani. People were singing the lyrics of the entire song from the beginning to end. That is the most beautiful feeling you can have as a composer, when you are on stage. People are singing the song from beginning to end, even before the film was released.”