Farhan Akhtar wears a couple of hats with equal chutzpah. A director with a firm finger on the pulse of metropolitan India (Dil Chahta Hai), and an actor who can have women swooning over a veteran athlete (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag).
Unfortunately for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the music makers of Rock On 2, Farhan is not a singer.
Akhtar cannot carry a tune however much he tries, and that is what turns what could have been a very good soundtrack into an often-cringe-inducing listen. The lyrics by Farhan’s father, the venerable Javed Akhtar, which even to a non-native Hindi-speaking person sounds like tripe, also do not help.
Which is a pity, because there are some top-notch musicianship and trademark Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy hooks in the Rock On!! 2 soundtrack.
The first track, Jaago, begins with an earworm of a guitar riff and Jai Row Kavi on drums and Sheldon D’Silva on bass laying down a solid bed of rock. But Akhtar’s vocals cannot lift the track to its full potential – especially in the lower registers – despite help in the department from Siddharth Mahadevan. The song, which shows Akhtar, Arjun Rampal and Purab Kohli gigging at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, is clearly meant to be anthem material. It might succeed.
The second-best track is up second. Udja Re is like Massive Attack electronica meets Yes prog-rock thingummy, sung quite nicely by Shraddha Kapoor who, we know from the teasers, plays a singer.
One wishes she had sung all the songs – even the Roxette-esque Tere Mere Dil sounds nice on her.
You Know What I Mean hovers in the territory of the Friends theme song – bubble-gum rock – with a Brian May-ish guitar solo, but Akhtar does damage here too.
When Rock On!! hit the screens in 2008, it clicked despite its flaws because of its surprisingly all-heart portrayal of the Indian rocker’s happily never after story. Akhtar’s voice was in the way there too, but it had not been called upon to do so much.
Manzar Naya, with its acoustic guitar and fretless bass, is a good example. It could have been the lovely ballad it set out to be, had it not been for the voice that is clearly struggling in the sparse arrangement.
Anyone who has liked Bob Dylan’s drawl will know that rock singing does not have to be as saccharine sweet as software-pitch-correction obsessed Bollywood. But Akhtar’s voice just doesn’t have the timbre or inflection or character a good singer – even an average one – needs.
For example, Woh Jahaan sounds like a very nice song – Kapoor’s voice going from Cranberries-ish verse to stadium rock chorus – till the breakdown, where the sheer lameness of the lyrics kicks in with some sarod. Then Akhtar starts to sing, and the Pink Floyd-esque chord changes that follow don’t help him at all.
The standout track is Hoi Kiw, sung by Usha Uthup and the Shillong band Summer Salt. It is raw, infectious and full of the joie de vivre that folk music inevitably infuses, and the rock seems the totally natural gumbo it is meant to be.
And just by the way, Rock On!! 2 was shot in Shillong, and we are told that local legend Lou Majaw was offered a role, but he declined because there was no way he could have spoken so much Hindi. Darn. If you are the kind that sneers at Indian rock, go listen to his Sea of Sorrow, or Paint a Picture.
The last track, Ishq Mastana, with its table-dhol-dholak groove meets overdriven guitar with pseudo Sufi vocals, is the most Bollywood of the songs and sounds completely different from the rest. Given the music film’s penchant for competitions, it could be by a different band or herald a plot twist.
Bollywood music and people’s ears have changed since Rock On!! The Indian indie music scene has also changed, with festivals mushrooming, but the musician’s paycheque is still almost as elusive as the snow leopard.
And that is perhaps where the real test of Rock On!! 2 lies, even for its music. The same set of songs could lift a good story that appeals emotionally. Rock On!! became a success because it opened up rock – okay, pop rock – to a new audience weaned on Bollywood and also connected with many cubicle prisoners who once dreamt of riffing with the amp at 11.
The songs became hits after the film. The sequel too could do an encore, despite Farhan Akhtar’s singing.