Making music

The Shantanu Moitra interview: ‘The word “hit” has an aggressiveness I don’t like’

The acclaimed composer has returned from a two-year gap to score Shoojit Sircar’s new film ‘October’.

Shantanu Moitra returns as a Bollywood composer after two years with Shoojit Sircar’s October. In 2016, Moitra composed his last Hindi film song, Kaari Kaari, for Pink, also a Sircar production. For October, Moitra has composed two songs in a five-track album, Manwaa and Chal, along with the background score.

The reason behind Moitra’s lack of visibility is because he considers composing as a hobby and not a career. “My priority is travelling, while music is just a hobby,” Moitra told Scroll.in. “When I get time between travelling, I come and do a movie. I live a vagabond life, and, sometimes, I do music like guerrilla warfare in between.”

The other reason is that Moitra’s primary interest is in background music. “The reason I wanted to work in movies was to create background scores,” Moitra said. “I was getting to compose songs anyway.” Prior to his work in films, Moitra had composed songs for a few non-film albums such as Shuba Mudgal’s Ab Ke Sawan (2001).

Right from his second movie, Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), Moitra has composed the background score in addition to songs for nearly all his projects. Moitra’s only National Film Award, for the 2013 Telugu film Naa Bangaaru Talli, is also for background music.

For October, Moitra began with composing the film’s theme. “Exactly, a year ago, I had conceived the film in my head after hearing Shoojit’s [Sircar] script,” Moitra said. “And we did not want a reference melody. We wanted the theme to be in place. Once the theme was ready, the rest of the background score emerged from that.”

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October Theme, October (2018).

October stars Varun Dhawan as Dan, a hotel management trainee who gets involved with his co-worker Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) after she becomes bed-ridden following an accident. In an earlier interview, Sircar had said that he is exploring the theme of “unconditional love” in the April 13 release.

A violin-led composition, the October Theme has an evocative melody that Moitra hopes will remain with audiences in the way his songs Piyu Bole and Behti Hawa are inseparable from Parineeta and 3 Idiots (2009) respectively.

Moitra cannot be happier with the fact that his theme for October has been included in the soundtrack. “Sholay had such a fantastic background score,” Moitra said. “I will never understand why it was not released. Sadly, we have moved away from instrumental music, more so in the last five years. Earlier, you would hear Bismillah Khan or Ravi Shankar. Now, you barely hear instrumental music, except when you are in elevators or hotel lobbies. I hope October changes that.”

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October (2018) original soundtrack.

Sircar’s preoccupation with the exact nature and experience of love in October drew Moitra to the project. October also allowed Moitra to use an element that he had wanted to experiment with for a long time in his projects – silence.

“There is so much artificially created noise around us, under which sensitive, beautiful emotions get buried,” Moitra said. “October gave me an opportunity to move away from the chaos. When we are talking, there are silences where we are thinking in our heads about what to say next amidst the sound of cars or birds. I am talking about the silence in our heads.”

The two tracks Moitra has composed for October include Manwaa, which is also the album’s best tune. Written by Moitra’s frequent collaborator Swanand Kirkire, Manwaa is a soulful number that progresses without a rhythm section before the percussion kicks in midway.

The other song from October, Chal, is an upbeat retro-funk song created by the composer with a “Nazia Hassan-like soundscape” in mind. Neither track is in the final film, since the movie is song-less.

Drawing comparisons between Manwaa and one of his earliest compositions that follows a similar structure, Naam Adaa Likhna from Yahaan (2005), Moitra said, “Earlier, at the time of Yahaan, there wasn’t the pressure, but now, the thinking is that people won’t listen to a song unless there is a groove of some kind but I don’t think so.”

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Naam Adaa Likhna (Yahaan, 2005).

Moitra has a severe disdain for the word “hit”, which he says has dictated his creative decisions, such as getting Mudgal to belt the pop rock song Ab Ke Sawan, or letting an untested singer like Kirkire loose in Baawra Mann from Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. “The word [hit] itself has an aggressiveness that I don’t like,” Moitra declared. “When I go ahead with, say, Kirkire for Baawra Mann, I think that if I liked his voice so much, there must be someone out there in the billions who will like the song just as I did.”

Since PK (2014), Moitra has been contributing the odd tune to a soundtrack instead of composing all the songs. While Moitra’s most memorable work, from Parineeta to the Munna Bhai films and 3 Idiots, has the composer operating alone on every single musical aspect, in his last four films, Moitra has had to share the composers’ credits with other talent.

The multiple-composer soundtrack is a fad that is meant to pass, he said. “You can’t have multiple halves in a film done by different people or teams,” Moitra said. “Multi-vision things don’t work. It’s already not working. It will disappear.”

The diminishing role of songs that are woven into the narrative does bother him. “The tribe that used to make songs a part of the screenplay and picturise them with love and care has gone now,” Moitra said. “The new directors, or the ones coming out of film school, are not comfortable with songs. It needs a lot of skill to use songs in movies like they were used in Guide or even Parineeta.”

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Soona Mann Ka Aangan, Parineeta (2005).

Moitra’s foray into music began while he was under probation as a client servicing executive in an advertising company in Delhi in the 1990s. Pradeep Sarkar was working in the company as a director, and he needed a composer to set a tune to the jingle Bole mere lips / I love Uncle Chipps. Moitra stepped in as a last resort, and went on to compose numerous other jingles.

It was with Sarkar’s Parineeta, that Moitra became a name to reckon with. “When I left the corporate world to do music full-time, to me, it was very clear that I will never do anything that jeopardises my love for music,” Moitra said. “So after 3 Idiots, I just went and travelled in the mountains. For me, cinema is not a ganne ki juice ki machine. Cinema is something to be celebrated. Any time I found myself in the position to do a great movie, I moved away if I had to rush. If I work on October, I work just on October, not five different things at the same time.”

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O Megh (2015), featuring Shantanu Moitra and Papon.

Buried under Moitra’s successful albums for Rajkumar Hirani’s films or his multiple collaborations with Sircar are odd gems such as Urzu Durkut from Yahaan. Or the lullaby-like Chanda Re from Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007) which was an accident since the film wasn’t supposed to have songs.

“One day, I was humming dummy Bengali words to the tune of what eventually became Chanda Re,” Moitra revealed. “The tune was supposed to be used in the film as part of the score. As I was singing, Vidhu [Vinod Chopra] was in the washroom. He came out and he asked, what are you doing. I said, I am just singing random words. He said, let’s do a song. I reminded him that he said he did not want songs. But then he said, I am the director, so I can change it. So I called Swanand [Kirkire, the lyricist]. Hamsika Iyer sang the song. It had very simple words. I love the way Vidhu picturised it.”

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Chanda Re, Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007).

Moitra, who turned 51 this January, is a Bengali born in Delhi and raised in Mumbai. He had always felt the itch to compose a Bengali song despite his self-declared discomfort with his mother tongue. But he felt overwhelmed by the legacy of Bengali musicians he looked up to, such as Manna Dey, Salil Chowdhury and RD Burman.

It was director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury who pursued Moitra and got him to compose for the 2009 film Antaheen, which also marked the Bengali debut for actress Radhika Apte. The soundtrack, especially the song Jao Pakhi Bolo, was a runaway hit. Another song, Pherari Mon, won two National Film Awards, one for Best Female Playback Singer (Shreya Ghoshal) and another for lyrics.

“With Antaheen, I was very conscious that I was going to become part of a history of stalwart musicians,” Moitra said. “Songs are dear to Bengalis and so I was afraid and very careful. So despite Antaheen’s music working, I disappeared from Bengali music, for a while.” Moitra has, since, sporadically composed for Bengali films.

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Jao Pakhi Bolo, Antaheen (2009).

Moitra’s discography makes it evident that his directors repeat him for projects – for instance, four films with Sircar (including the unreleased Shoebite), Hirani and Roy Chowdhury each, three films with Mishra, and two with Sarkar and Shyam Benegal. Each director has a different approach.

“Raju Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra are very similar,” Moitra said. “Both are detailed to the T and very hands-on. They never give you any references. The songs come from the script. So there’s a lot of labour. I have done the most amount of hard work for these guys. Every change in a chord or a tune goes through them.”

Sarkar is “very musical in his head”, and his musical references come from his vast knowledge of Bengal music. “He sketches out his scenes and gives them to you like the way Satyajit Ray did storyboarding,” Moitra said. “Also, he is very interested in sounds, like drops of water falling, thunder or laughter.”

Roy Chowdhury, according to Moitra, “thinks musically” at the screenwriting stage. For example, Jao Pakhi Bolo was ready before the film was shot. Shyam Benegal is involved only until the point he greenlights a tune. The simplest to please, according to Moitra, is Sircar, who listens to the final mix of a track, agrees or disagrees, and moves on.

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Tere Bin, Wazir (2016).

Moitra has also employed his musical career to find opportunities to work with his childhood heroes, such as SP Balasubrahmanyam. During his jingle-composing days in the ’90s, Moitra was asked by the station director of Doordarshan to compose music for a programme on the monsoon. Moitra, who had never composed a complete song till then, wanted Balasubrahmanyam to sing for him because why not? An appointment was made and Moitra flew down to Chennai from Delhi to record the song.

“When Balu sir entered the studio in his black Mercedes, there were some 600 to 700 people gathered around to welcome the superstar and I panicked,” Moitra recalled. “When Balu sir asked me if this was for a movie, I said no. Then he asked about my experience and I told him the truth. He was stumped. I told him that, you are my favourite singer and I wanted to see if I can compose for you.”

Balasubrahmanyam then calmed the inexperienced Moitra down. “He asked me to not think of him as SP Balasubrahmanyam,” Moitra said. “The recording went smoothly and we became good friends. He later introduced me to KS Chitra, who sang for me in Parineeta.”

Another fond memory involving his heroes was the time he worked with Bhupen Hazarika for an advertising campaign in 2006. Hazarika had known Moitra from his pre-Parineeta days. Towards the end of his life, when Hazarika’s health was failing, he recommended Moitra as the composer for the song that focused on the cultural traditions of the North East. Roy Chowdhury directed the video. It was one of the last songs Hazarika recorded before his death in 2011.

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Sapna Saas Kare, featuring Bhupen Hazarika (2006).
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