In a year in which Hindi film music hasn’t fared too well, Pritam rolled out two blockbuster soundtracks: Laal Singh Chaddha and Brahmastra.

Although Advait Chandan’s Laal Singh Chaddha tanked at the box office, its songs have acquired a life of their own. For Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra Part One: Shiva, Pritam’s blend of Sanskrit shlokas and extravagant orchestral arrangements for the background score stays with viewers long after they have left the movie theatre.

Both soundtracks have had the good fortune of sharing a single composer and lyricist – Amitabh Bhattacharya – unlike most other Bollywood albums released in the past decade.

“When I know the entire film is mine, the feeling of ownership is something else,” Pritam told Scroll.in. “I left so many films for Brahmastra. For its OTT release, I am still reworking some cues in the background score as I felt they weren’t right in the theatrical version.”

Pritam’s reputation for tinkering his songs until the nth minute has nothing to do with the delayed soundtrack releases of Laal Singh Chaddha and Brahmastra, he said. The Laal Singh Chaddha album emerged a week before the film’s release in August. The full Brahmastra album is scheduled for October 5, almost a month after its theatrical release.

“With Brahmastra, Ayan said that he began the film on Dussehra so he’d like to put the album out on Dussehra as well,” Pritam said. He is slowly rolling out tracks from the film, including Rasiya and the Brahmastra score.

Play
Shiva theme, Brahmastra.

Both productions follow the recent norm of releasing film songs as singles, rather than putting out the whole album before the theatrical release. This practice took off in 2015, Pritam recalled, when audio streaming entered India, allowing listeners to skip songs as they pleased.

“I remember for Life in a Metro [2007], I toured Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune and Bangalore performing all the songs live with my band a month before the film was out,” Pritam said.

Play
Pritam and band performing O Meri Jaan from Life in a Metro.

For Brahmastra, Pritam got the idea of adding shlokas while composing the film’s logo music.

“We began working on the score in the beginning of 2019,” Pritam said. “I was supposed to handle the Indian part and Simon Franglen was looking after the orchestral part.”

Pritam travelled to London thrice to jam with Franglen, but Mukerji felt Franglen’s work was a bit “sophisticated” while he wanted “massy stuff”. Eventually, Franglen left the project and got busy with Avatar 2. Franglen’s team recorded the orchestrations for Pritam’s tunes, for which Franglen got a “Special thanks” credit.

Play
Pritam scoring Brahmastra’s logo launch.

Laal Singh Chaddha was delayed because Pritam had to rework Tere Hawale. An earlier version featured lush orchestration and Arijit Singh’s ornate vocals. Producer and lead actor Aamir Khan wanted the song to be stripped down and Singh to sing flatly, in keeping with Laal’s child-man character.

“I have over a thousand versions of Laal Singh Chaddha songs that move away from Laal’s character,” Pritam revealed. “They are more audio-friendly than film-friendly. Aamir says he wants to release them during the film’s OTT release.”

Tere Hawale is Pritam’s favourite composition from the film. He decided to make the song sound like a gurbani, a Sikh hymn, after watching videos of Punjabi marriages.

“Love songs happen easily to me,” Pritam remarked.

The song initially didn’t have a female singer. Pritam composed the tune in a “male key”. Bhattacharya wrote the lyrics from Laal’s perspective – he is finally marrying Rupa, the love of his life.

“When Aamir heard it, he said, Rupa should have an answer to this,” Pritam said. “If Laal is saying, jism ka har ruwa tere hawale kar diya [I have given you all the beauty of my body], Rupa should say the same. My objection was that Rupa never felt that way about Laal. They have had different journeys leading to this point. But Aamir felt that, without Rupa feeling the same as Laal, she will appear scheming. She too has to be in love. Which is why Shilpa Rao is singing at a much lower octave than usual since the tune was never composed for a woman.”

Play
Tere Hawale, Laal Singh Chaddha.

The tune on which Pritam and Bhattacharya toiled the most was Tur Kalleyan. It appears in the film when Laal goes on a countrywide run after Rupa disappears from his life.

“In Forrest Gump, when he runs, there is no one song to underline what Forrest is thinking, just as the whole film doesn’t have songs to constantly tell us what’s on his mind,” Pritam said. “Here, the question is, why is Laal running. Is he heartbroken? Is he running to get over Rupa? The audience has to be given a reason.”

Pritam shortlisted seven-eight songs for the situation. A concern was whether the lyrics should be in the first person or third person. Aamir Khan felt that the lyrics of Tur Kalleyan were closest to the situation, but he wasn’t happy with the bouncy, happy tune.

Pritam slowed down and re-orchestrated the track to match previously shot visuals of Laal running. Khan suggested the inclusion of an alaap from Laal’s perspective in the beginning. This portion, sung by Arijit Singh, and written in the first person by Bhattacharya, acts as a prelude to the qawwali-like number that has sung by Shadaab and Altamash Faridi.

Play
Tur Kalleyan, Laal Singh Chaddha.

Arijit Singh, who has had multiple hits with Pritam, is the star voice of both Brahmastra and Laal Singh Chaddha, singing six out of eight tunes.

Is Singh over-exposed? Among the criticisms of Kesariya from Brahmastra was that Singh was singing the same old tune – the mid-to-high-pitched romantic ballad.

Pritam argued that Binte Dil from Padmaavat or Fitoor from Shamshera, while different from Singh’s usual kind of song, are not compositions he will get or can often sing.

“Whatever you say, Arijit is still our best singer and the public likes him doing what he does best,” Pritam said. “Whenever I tried to do something different with him, I faced resistance from the other members of the filmmaking team.”

Play
Safar, Jab Harry Met Sejal.

Before Singh, Pritam’s most successful collaborator was KK, who died suddenly in May. KK had been singing for Pritam right from his first album Tere Liye (2001). The duo went on to make a star out of Emraan Hashmi and set up a template for musicians like Mithoon and Arijit Singh to follow.

“His death happened too suddenly and it was very shocking,” Pritam said. “We both had bands in college, grew up listening to the same kind of music, and I automatically cast him in most of my songs which would be in that soft-rock, ballad space. I knew him from our advertising days, so I knew what songs suited him the best. And he could sing exactly as I would ask. Like in Labon Ko from Bhool Bhulaiyaa, he brings a tinge of Atif Aslam into the tune. Sometimes, I would ask him to sing with a Gurdas Mann plug-in or a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan plug-in.”

Play
Tu Hi Meri Shab Hai, Gangster.

Pritam has been in the Hindi film industry for 21 years. Enrolling for a course in Sound Recording and Engineering at the Film and Television Institute between 1994 and 1997 “completely changed” the life of the Kolkata-born geology student.

“I was considering applying for competitive exams and got to know of FTII from a booklet I happened to pick from College Street,” Pritam recalled. “In three years, I got exposed to one international film every day. Before that, I mostly knew the massy films of Satyajit Ray.”

Writer Charudutt Acharya (left) with Pritam at the Film and Television Institute of India. Photo courtesy Charudutt Acharya.

A stint in scoring television commercials followed. The breakthrough was Dhoom in 2004, which led to collaborations with leading directors, from Anurag Basu to Imtiaz Ali.

That list now includes Karan Johar. After composing the earworm-filled soundtrack of Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), Pritam is composing for Johar’s 2023 film Rocky aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani.

“Karan Johar is the easiest person to work with,” Pritam said. “If he hears a tune once and likes it, it’s locked. For Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, after hearing the script, I presented him five tunes, of which he instantly picked three: Alizeh, Bulleya and Channa Mereya. If he doesn’t like a tune, you’d know it, as he goes to checking his phone.”

In fact, Tu Jo Mila from Bajrangi Bhaijaan was created as one of two title tracks for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The one Johar didn’t pick went to Kabir Khan.

Pritam is also working on Rohit Dhawan’s Shehzada, the Hindi remake of Allu Arjun-starrer Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, which had a National Film Award-winning album from S Thaman.

“I would have never done this film but I couldn’t say no to Rohit,” Pritam said. He had composed for all of Dhawan’s films so far. “I am composing original songs. Rohit has changed a lot of things in the film and adapted it in his own way.”

Play
Alizeh, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

The soundtracks on which Pritam had built his reputation run into 40 minutes and are used almost in their entirety in the films. This practice is on the wane.

“There’s no doubt that the importance of a song in a Hindi film has decreased,” Pritam said. “According to me, it’s harakiri. Even today, look at the box office opening a film gets if there’s a good trailer and just two good songs before the release. Look at Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, War, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Brahmastra.”

The absence of Hindi film song sequences will affect stardom too, Pritam predicted. Popular Hindi film actors such as Ranbir Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi owe a chunk of their popularity to composers like Pritam.

“I was speaking to Ranbir the other day and discussing that an actor is known for his songs,” Pritam said. “Why then are directors shying away from using songs? Why put songs in apologetically? All songs in Pushpa were used properly, and it was alright if the film went up to three hours.”

Pritam is also upset about filmmakers cutting tunes short on the mistaken belief that audiences cannot handle five-minute song sequences anymore, which is what happened with Tere Hawale.

“If the product is good, it will work,” Pritam said. “If you released Bohemian Rhapsody today, it is bound to work. If not now, then at some point. People are too obsessed with opening figures. Who remembers the opening collections of Munnabhai MBBS? People began watching it only after Monday.”

Play
Ullu Ka Pattha, Jagga Jassoos.