Sunday, July 12, 2015

Amit Trivedi: King of the 10%

When the line-up for last year’s NH7 Weekender was announced, there was one name that caused a small but definite flutter. It was the inclusion, in a festival known for its indie leanings, of someone who has composed nearly all his music for Bollywood movies. Yet, there it was: Amit Trivedi to headline the Dewarists Stage. After seeing his set during the festival’s Pune leg, Lalitha Suhasini, editor of Rolling Stone India, fired off a worried blog post. While admitting that Trivedi was a “fantastic composer” and that some 8,000 people turned up to listen to him, she lamented: “If anyone ever needed more proof that Bollywood reigns supreme, then it was here.”

When I asked Vijay Nair, head of Mumbai-based event and artist management company Only Much Louder, which organizes NH7 Weekender, why the festival lent its stage to a film composer, he argued that Trivedi was almost like an independent musician in Bollywood. “Even if kids are into rock or electronic music, (Trivedi’s) the one person whom they like. You can see that his influences come from outside Bollywood. He was an easy choice.” There’s a cellphone video from Trivedi’s Pune set that is up on YouTube, a performance of "Ha Raham (Mehfuz)" from his first film, Aamir. I wouldn’t have bet on any crowd—let alone an indie fest one—knowing the song, but everyone is clapping in time, singing along, swaying to the music.

Is Trivedi that giant circus tent under which music fans of different feathers can gather? It’s true that he’s the first composer since A.R. Rahman to appeal to a broad swathe of music listeners while maintaining the integrity of his sound. Metalheads can thrash about to "Emotional Attyachar" and "
"Dilli". Mainstream rock fans can sway to "Aazaadiyan" and "Kinare". More experimental listeners can wrap their heads about genre-bending soundtracks like Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. And for those who desire nothing more than a dance-floor-ready Bollywood thumper, there’s "Gal Mitthi Mitthi Bol" and "London Thumakda". Trivedi has worked with Bengali influences in Lootera, and Gujarati in Kai Po Che! Sometimes, it’s all done within the space of a song. "Badri Badariya", composed for MTV's Coke Studio, moves seamlessly from rock to Rajasthani folk to jazz scatting.

Trivedi’s pre-eminence in the industry today is so complete that it’s easy to forget that he’s only been doing this for some eight years. That’s nothing in the life of a Hindi film composer: Shankar-Jaikishan worked together for 20 odd years, R.D. Burman’s career spanned more than three decades. Even Rahman, Trivedi’s hero, has nearly completed a quarter-century in film. Will people be humming "Shaam" 20 years down the line, the way they still do "Chhoti Si Aasha"? It’s impossible to say, of course, though of all the composers working in Hindi film at present, 36-year-old Trivedi seems to have the best shot at longevity.


I met Trivedi on a miserable Saturday afternoon at his studio in Andheri (West), Mumbai. He’d been working since morning, and was now in a meeting with lyricist Irshad Kamil. As I waited, I looked around the room and noticed framed silhouette drawings on the wall. They turned out to be scenes from Mozart operas. My mind jumped to an ill-advised comparison—Trivedi as tuneful Mozart to Rahman’s blustery Beethoven. But this juxtaposition seemed to fall apart as quickly as it suggested itself: neither Rahman’s nor Trivedi’s music lends itself to such simplistic categorization. It further disintegrated when Trivedi said that the panels were a gift and that he wasn’t a particularly devoted listener of Mozart.

Trivedi hasn’t had the easiest year so far. His latest, Guddu Rangeela, doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression. But the big blow was his other release, Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap’s gangster film set in 1960s Bombay, which seemed to have perplexed the public at large. There have been jazzy songs in Hindi movies before, particularly in the 1950s with C. Ramchandra and Shankar-Jaikishan, but this is perhaps the first Hindi film soundtrack to be entirely predicated on jazz. Even this had to be filtered through a Bollywood sensibility. “Jazz has no audience in India,” Trivedi says. “The music of Bombay Velvet is me adapting that which is not ours. I had to make sure it didn’t sound superficial, but also keep the film industry in mind.” What’s unfortunate is that this is one of Trivedi’s most satisfying albums, with impassioned belters like "Dhadaam Dhadaam", slinky torch songs like "Mohabbat Buri Bimari" and the O.P. Nayyar-aping "Sylvia". Perhaps the balancing act itself was his undoing—too Bollywood for jazz fans, too esoteric for regular cinema-goers.

It isn’t surprising that Trivedi feels gutted by the drubbing the film received. His involvement with the project goes back to 2009, when Kashyap handed him some jazz CDs and a sliver of an idea. “A lot of time has gone into it, a lot of labour,” he says. “But when the film doesn’t work in totality, everything sits down.” He says this has happened with him once before—the soundtrack suffering because the film didn’t connect—with Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a lesser-known Trivedi offering that blended rustic Punjabi folk, Ennio Morricone-ish backing vocals, drum and bass, and the least celebrated Yo Yo Honey Singh cameo ever ("Kikli Kalerdi"). “Nobody had heard about him at the time this was recorded,” Trivedi chuckles. “We never knew he would become a superstar one day”.


I wonder if anyone who knew Trivedi before he was a film composer guessed that he would be a superstar one day. He grew up in Santacruz, Mumbai, the son of Gujarati parents, neither of whom was particularly musical, though Trivedi does credit his mother with introducing him to a lot of “good Gujarati music”. Film songs were not played in the Trivedi household, only bhajans, kirtans and lok geet. This changed when, around the age of 13, he heard Rahman for the first time. “I heard Roja, Thiruda Thiruda, Humse Hai Muqabla,” he says, a sudden spark enlivening his thoughtful, soft-spoken manner. “They blew my head off. I was like, what is this? We don’t make music like this in India.”

How did Trivedi go from listening to Rahman to being called the next Rahman? He insists that there was no grand plan. “The first instrument I ever played was an electronic disk that I borrowed from my neighbours when I was 13,” he told FT Magazine in 2013. “Honestly, I have no idea what you’d call this thing. All I know is that it was round and when you touched it, it played different notes, sort of like a keyboard.” He got a little jazz and Indian classical training, but mostly taught himself. He listened to Boney M., R.D. Burman and Michael Jackson and, later, Pink Floyd and The Beatles. He was composing by the time he was in class X. In college, he gave background scores for a few stage plays. By the time he graduated, he’d decided music was his calling.

His first recorded work was as a keyboardist and arranger for Om, a fusion band he formed in 2003 with Shriram Iyer, Amartya Rahut and a couple of others. The band did release an album but was never more than mildly successful, and its members gradually drifted apart. Trivedi worked in advertising, composing jingles and scores, and as a freelance composer supplying tunes to pop singers like Abhijeet Sawant and the band F4, which comprised former participants of the TV show Indian Idol. “I never thought of being a Hindi film composer,” he says. “I didn’t think that the kind of music I wanted to do, Hindi films would ever be ready for that.”

Luckily, he was about to meet someone who would build up a reputation for doing things Bollywood wasn’t ready for. Shilpa Rao, a playback singer whom Trivedi knew well and had worked with before, introduced him to Anurag Kashyap, who by then had already directed Paanch and Black Friday—both hugely controversial—and the Kafkaesque No Smoking. Trivedi didn’t specify what he made Kashyap hear in those initial meetings in 2007; the Sawant and F4 tracks that survive online are pretty undistinguished, so it might have been his own demos. Whatever it was, it worked. Kashyap told Trivedi about a film he was planning, a modern-day version of Devdas set in Delhi.

Dev.D’s soundtrack was, for many listeners, the first Roja moment since Roja. I remember hearing the soundtrack when it released in early 2009 and wondering—much like Trivedi had when he first heard Rahman—what on earth is this? Trivedi’s first release was actually Raj Kumar Gupta’s Aamir (it was recorded after Dev.D, but released earlier, in June 2008), but while that had seemed like an interesting experiment, this sounded like a statement of purpose. It ran contrary to all that was prevalent and popular: as Trivedi reminds me, at the time he was making the album, Himesh Reshammiya ruled the charts. It was unusually long, with 18 tracks, and dizzyingly eclectic, from the trip-hoppy "Saali Khushi" to the bouncy pop of "Yahin Meri Zindagi" to the heavy metal charge of "Emotional Attyachar". Most people at the time assumed that they’d only use about half the songs in the film, but that wasn’t the case. All 18 were featured in their entirety. What’s more, the music seemed to embed itself deeply into the narrative—at certain points, take over the function of the narrative itself.


If there’s one aspect of Trivedi’s music everyone agrees on, it’s that he has a knack of finding the right song for the right situation. Lyricist and singer Amitabh Bhattacharya, whose witty, evocative turns of phrase one most often finds attached to Trivedi melodies, says he thinks of his friend as a “film-maker’s composer”. “Amit understands the tone of the film very well,” he adds. “His music somehow becomes synonymous and resonates with the world of the film. He has that rare quality of not just creating songs which will become blockbusters but capturing the true essence of the film he’s working for.” Sometimes, both happen. When Trivedi was doing the background score for Wake Up Sid (the songs were by commercial favourites Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy), director Ayan Mukerji asked him if another song could be introduced somewhere. Trivedi looked hard at the script and saw an opening. The result was the wistful "Iktara", a huge hit and a perfect encapsulation of the romantic confusion that Mukerji’s characters found themselves experiencing at that point in the film.

Trivedi says he insists upon seeing the script, or at least hearing a narration, on all his films. “When I know the world of the film, it helps a lot. I go very deep into the characters’ headspace, their thought process, the chemistry between people. So I have to think about music from a very cinematic point of view.” He gives the example of his climactic anthems, something of a Trivedi trademark by now.
"Aazaadiyan" from Udaan and "Kinare" from Queen—both of which start off slow, pick up pace halfway through and end up in full-throated Springsteen territory—have a common structure, he says, because the films in question have similar climactic sequences, involving characters slowly building up the confidence to leave their past behind.

Sometimes, the film’s milieu is a bigger influence than the structure of the screenplay. I had always wondered if the glockenspiel that Trivedi used in "Sawaar Loon" was a tribute to "Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya". Turns out it was: Lootera director Vikramaditya Motwane and Trivedi wanted to pay tribute to early masters like S.D. Burman and Jaidev, and this was the easiest subliminal link from a 1961 Dev Anand-film to a Dev Anand-referencing film set in 1950s West Bengal. On the other end of the spectrum is his work in No One Killed Jessica. Director Raj Kumar Gupta wanted a song to kick the movie wide open, something that reflected the in-your-face nature of Delhi life. Trivedi came up with Dilli, a thrash metal number that’s still the most extreme thing he’s recorded.


Trivedi has been responsible for 25 feature film soundtracks till date. Like most Bollywood composers past and present, he tends to form partnerships with directors: he’s worked thrice with Gupta and Kashyap, twice with Motwane and Vikas Bahl. Yet, he differs from popular contemporaries like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar and Pritam in his choosiness. He seems to prefer, even seek out, a certain kind of film: slightly left of mainstream, story-driven, not entirely indie but never out-and-out “masala”. He says he likes working with writer-directors, a distinction few other composers are likely to have considered. He received dozens of big-budget offers after Dev.D. He turned them down. Till date, none of his films have starred any of the three Khans.

Trivedi takes things like directors and script narrations seriously because they influence the kind of music he gets to produce. “In India, music that sells the most is either love songs, heartbreak songs, party songs or item songs,” he says. “This has been the template for years. But with films like Udaan or No One Killed Jessica, where there’s no love story, no chance for an item song, this rules out that 90% chunk, and brings in that 10% kind of music.” Collaborating with open-minded directors means that he’s able to push the envelope more often. Once, while working on Ishaqzaade, he was asked to come up with a score for a short promo director Habib Faisal had cut. The visuals were particularly pacy, and he had the idea of matching their speed and then suddenly dropping the tempo, Skrillex-style. Faisal heard it and, to his credit (in a making-of video, he admitted that it was like “factory sounds” to his ears), asked Trivedi to use the effect in a song. That’s how Aafaton Ke Parindey, Bollywood’s first dubstep track, was born.

Of course, there’s an obvious downside of working on films that take risks. Trivedi feels that, when it comes to subjects and approaches that are alien to audiences—Bombay Velvet, for instance—the failure of the film can take music down with it. “This isn’t an in-your-face hit song like 'Baby Doll', this is music created for the narrative. If the situations don’t connect, when the film goes flat, the music will not work.” The failure of a film he’s involved with hurts him more than criticism of his music, he said. “Bombay Velvet was a huge blow. After this, nothing will affect me.”


This March, Trivedi appeared, for the third year running, on Coke Studio, with a new song. It was called "Teriyaan Tu Jaane" and featured the electrifying Nooran sisters, who sang Rahman’s "Patakha Guddi" for Highway last year. When the video went up on YouTube, several comments alleged that the horn arrangement was similar to the “Chaand ki main choodi pehnawa” melody line from Trivedi’s Gal Mitthi Mitthi Bol (no one seemed to care that the guitar riff was cribbed from "Roxanne"). I don’t know if Trivedi saw these comments, but if he did, they probably brought back memories of the time when he went online and found that he was being called the next Anu Malik. An orchestral movement he had written for a Lootera track, "Shikayatein", was similar to Rachel Portman’s theme for the Anne Hathaway-starrer One Day. Trivedi says he had no idea that One Day or its theme existed, describes the similarity as “bad luck” and says he even wrote to Portman’s people clarifying his position but received no response. Even today, he seems a little shocked at how virulent the public reaction was.

This might have been the one time when the public turned on Trivedi. A couple of his albums (Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu; Aiyyaa) have been clunkers, but all in all, his has been a very consistent career: Dev.D soundtrack and Iktara in 2009, Udaan and Aisha in 2010, No One Killed Jessica in 2011, Ishaqzaade in 2012, Kai Po Che! and Lootera in 2013, Queen in 2014, in addition to appearances on Coke Studio and MTV Unplugged—and that monstrously ear-wormy "Hello Honey Bunny" jingle for telecom brand Idea.

When you’re being called the next Rahman, though, consistency may not be enough. It’s been a while since Trivedi’s done anything that’s truly out-there—a lot of his music tends to inhabit a tuneful middle ground. The last time he caused a truly seismic change was with Dev.D, whereas Rahman has done this at least a couple of times during his career (as did Sneha Khanwalkar in 2012 with her Gangs Of Wasseypur soundtrack). This is why Bombay Velvet is important—it may not be Trivedi’s best-received work, but it shows that he’s up for the challenge. Motwane, one of Trivedi’s favourite directors, feels he might still be exploring his range, and that his future work was likely push in directions not attempted before. “Amit has no ego,” he says. “He’s totally open to any kind of feedback. He likes to be pushed.”

Trivedi is currently working on Shaandaar, a “destination wedding film” by Vikas Bahl, and Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, an adaptation of Great Expectations set in Kashmir. He’s also doing the soundtrack for Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, which he describes as “very trippy, urban, edgy, lots of attitude, lots of rap”. He’s planning to release a non-film album sometime in the near future, though what it will sound like or whether he will be doing all the singing is undecided. Though his resonant voice has featured on nearly all of his albums since Aamir, he considers himself a “kaamchalau bathroom singer”. What seems to be exciting him most, however, is the prospect of finally meeting Rahman in person. “When that happens, I’ll be the interviewer,” he says.

There’s one story that remains to be told. While composing for Bombay Velvet, Trivedi realized that the showstopper, "Dhadaam Dhadaam", would require something special from the singer, Neeti Mohan. Instead of giving her the song right away, he spent time getting to know her. One day, he told her that he wanted her to sit locked in a dark room for an hour, think about tough times she had been through and how she had soldiered on. It was only when she emerged that he gave her the music and asked her to bring the feelings going through her head in that room to the song. Her performance—bruised, soaring, cathartic—was a high point of the soundtrack and the film. So if it seems at times like it all comes very easy to Amit Trivedi, just remember: He did all this for one song.

This ran as the July 4 Mint Lounge cover story.

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