It is tough for a filmmaker to take on a sequel to a cult favourite. It is tougher for a debutante filmmaker to recreate the magic for a new generation that is plugged into a different music and sensibility. Shujaat Saudagar is in that enviable spot. The advertising filmmaker has replaced Abhishek Kapoor as the director of the sequel of Rock On!!. The November 11 release stars Farhan Akhtar, Arjun Rampal, Purab Kohli, Shraddha Kapoor and Shashank Arora and has music by Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, who also scored the original.
Saudagar has been fielding questions and scepticism about Rock On!! 2 and its soundtrack with poise. It is not easy to re-mount a film that had acquired anthemic proportions in its days, Saudagar says, but he urges audiences to wait and watch for the narrative to unfold over the next two months.
What kind of a relationship have you had with rock music?
Music has been a huge part of my life. I was a kid of the ’80s and ’90s in Pune. I grew up on Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Led Zeppelin and identified with anti-establishment music. Pune had a great music scene at that time. There were lots of live gigs and concerts, and I loved going to them. I hung out with a bunch of friends who were into music. There was no internet then, only cassettes, and it was great fun sourcing them. I guess our connection with music was at a different level at that time.
You have been an advertising veteran and have directed the short film ‘Bali’. What were your challenges in taking up a cult film sequel as your debut feature?
I had worked with Farhan on Don 2. So there was a certain comfort level. The first question we asked was, do we really need a sequel? Farhan, Ritesh and I had been working on the script for a long time. But we were sure we would not make the film until we had a great script we were confident about. We went through eight-ten drafts before arriving at a consensus. It took us three years to arrive the emotions we wanted to convey.
What was your response to ‘Rock On!!’?
I loved it so much that I watched it twice. I was hooked to the music when it released. There were many people who did not really care for the songs initially. But once the film was released, the tracks became hugely popular. I loved the film because it basically broke the mould of typical Hindi film songs. For the first time, a Hindi film was made about a rock band. For me the music was such a novelty that I wanted to see how these guys had integrated the music with the film. It was real and believable. Javed Akhtar’s lyrics, Shankar Ehsan Loy’s Indianness, jazz elements and musicianship and the script – it all came together beautifully.
The response to the music of ‘Rock On!! 2’ so far has been muted.
I feel the music of Rock On!! 2 will catch on once the film is released. It has a much larger canvas in terms of the soundscape. Rock On!! was all about Magik, a garage band, with just a bunch of guys hanging out. This is much more finished, much more evolved. Lyrically too, it is much more evolved. There are new characters in the film, Shraddha [Kapoor] and Shashank Arora, who plays a sarod player. It has been shot in Meghalaya, with a lot of Khasi music and also features a local band called Summer Salt.
I know the response to Jaago has been mixed. But we were prepared for it. There are no so-called popular songs in the film. We wanted to release a song that was more about the film and not hold back. It is a significant move from Laundry Ka Bill [from the song Pichle Saat Dinon Mein].
Why did you choose to set the film in Shillong?
We were toying with the idea of shooting the film in Himachal Pradesh. Then a year or so back, there was a series of attacks on North-Eastern students in different parts of the country. Farhan called me up one day and he had been watching the news all day and popped the idea: what if we set the film in the North East? It would be the first time that the North East would be brought into mainstream Hindi cinema. We met with a lot of resistance. Both internally and otherwise. People wondered why we wanted to travel all the way to the North East, which was so far away. And we said, it was precisely for this reason that wanted to make the film there.
We had no idea where we wanted to go. We had no idea of anything beyond Assam. Javed sahab had been to Meghalaya and Purab had been to the Ziro festival [in Arunachal Pradesh]. And they encouraged us to explore the region. After all, Shillong is the rock capital of the country. When the Scorpions came to India, that was the only place where they performed. Our friends said the locations were spectacular too. So we went to Guwahati and drove to Shillong. As soon as we crossed into Meghalaya, we knew we were shooting there. We spent a week, ten days, absorbing the culture.
There is so much music and beauty. In Cherrapunji, for instance, where you do not meet anyone for hours, we suddenly heard music coming from the mist. We walked towards it and found a few people outside a cottage, strumming their guitar and jamming! We have tried to incorporate a lot of these experiences into the narrative. We also have Usha Uthup jamming with the band.
By including local musical talent into a Hindi film narrative, you could be accused of cultural appropriation. For all its flaws and its smaller canvas, ‘Rock On’ seemed to be a far more spontaneous film.
I would say, wait for our film to release. It is emotionally intense like the first one. But times are different. The characters have grown older. They are playing their age. Arjun’s son is a teenager. Farhan’s son is eight years old. Purab is still single because he still cannot get lucky with the ladies. The younger lot has come in: Shraddha and Shashank. This film is much more mature. This too deals with conflict. But unlike the first one, the demons in this narrative are internal. It is not about friends falling apart or fighting over something personal. This film is emotionally stronger. And it reinforces the fact that music goes beyond gender and boundaries and brings people together for a cause or emotion.
We have consciously not tried to up the ante. Just the characters have evolved. When you go through experiences and mature, the Laundry Ka Bill becomes Jaago. We are talking to a more socially aware generation. The eight-year-old kid who may not have watched Rock On...! is a teenager today. The issues are different. Shraddha’s soundscape reflects that. She is into EDM and plays the keyboards and sings.
Besides, when you mature, your own issues seem insignificant compared to what is going on in the world around you. Magik was different. We wanted to something more relevant in today’s context.
When a mainstream Hindi film decides to put independent music on the mainstream radar, it reinforces the theory that talent cannot survive in our country without Bollywood’s patronage. The music scene in Shillong has been flourishing all along without Bollywood. What if they don’t actually want to be part of the narrative?
Well, it is a fact. It is unfortunate that there is a huge abundance of talent in the non-film music scene. Unfortunately, the commercial angle has taken over everything. How do you create a platform for non-film music on a larger canvas? It is a much bigger fight and for now, like cricket in sports, Bollywood is the only outlet for talented people to reach out to a wider audience, get that popular vibe. People like Farhan, with Farout Media, are trying to create a platform for independent musicians and we can only do our bit to promote talent this way.
Which of the characters in the movies do you identify with?
Farhan’s character, Adi. Like him, I tried to run but I knew I could not hide. Both films have him face his demons. I identify with that a lot.