At the start of the 2000s, Sandesh Shandilya briefly became Hindi cinema’s most sought-after composer after delivering the romantic ballad Suraj Hua Maddham in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001).
In 2000, Shandilya had composed the non-film album Piya Basanti, featuring Sultan Khan and KS Chitra. The album was a runaway success, and its music video won the MTV International Viewer’s Choice Award in the Indian Pop category in 2001. Following the warm reception to the soundtrack of Sudhir Mishra’s Chameli (2003), Shandilya was well on his way to becoming one of Bollywood’s top composers.
But after a series of flops, poorly marketed soundtracks, and films that didn’t materialise, Shandilya, feeling unconvinced by his musical output, packed his bags and flew off to Europe in 2010 to compose a symphony. Between 2010 and 2015, Shandilya devoted himself full-time to Western classical music and creating the 100-minute symphony Search for Buddha.
“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing in India,” Shandilya told Scroll.in. “I was searching for something else, within me and outside me. I kept refusing projects. When you need to reinvent yourself, you need to come to zero.”
Shandilya, now 50 years old, is finally back in India and Bollywood. He has composed two of the seven tracks for Sudhir Mishra’s political thriller Daas Dev, which will be released on April 20.
One of the tunes is Challa Chaap Chunariya, a rustic folk number sung by Rekha Bhardwaj and written by Deepak Ramola. Shandilya has packaged the tune with a low-key, dark, electronic sound.
The other is Raat Youn Dil Mein Teri, based on a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Instead of treating the song as a ghazal, as Nayyara Noor and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had done in the past, Shandilya has turned Faiz’s poem into a slow and sultry song with an electronic beat and a saxophone thrown in.
This is not the first time Shandilya has set music to a Faiz poem that has been musically explored numerous times. For Piyush Jha’s Sikandar (2009), produced by Mishra, Shandilya gave a pop-rock spin to Faiz’s Gulon Mein Rang Bhare with KK on vocal duties.
“It’s difficult for me to compose if I have already heard the original,” Shandilya said. “I didn’t listen to Mehdi Hassan’s version [of Gulon Mein Rang Bhare] before composing for Sikandar. It’s not that hard to find new tunes for the same set of words, honestly. We anyway make two to four tunes for most songs and you only get to hear one. The rest disappear.”
It is hard to imagine how much of Shandilya’s music has escaped mainstream attention or is yet to come into view. For instance, 2012 saw the release of the eight-track album Piya Basanti... Again, a sequel to Piya Basanti. Once again, Sultan Khan and KS Chitra were behind the mic, but the album was barely promoted just as many non-film albums are not in the era of singles, digital downloads and YouTube.
“Twenty out of the 25-odd films I have composed for were flops,” Shandilya said. “Then, so many films are yet to release or didn’t get made.”
At various points, Shandilya was attached to projects, including Shiv Subramanium’s Cha Cha Cha, Rajan Khosla’s The Woman Tree, the John Abraham-produced Satrah Ko Shaadi Hai, and Priya Mishra’s Time Out. None of these films was eventually made. The unreleased or incomplete projects involving Shandilya include Jahnu Barua’s The Butterfly Chase and Kundan Shah’s Teen Behenein.
Even Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya (2014), for which Shandilya had begun working as early as 2005, was released in India nine years later. By then, Shandilya had temporarily washed his hands off Bollywood.
“Initially, I was supposed to compose three songs for Jab We Met,” Shandilya said. “And Pritam was supposed to compose three. But I got busy with Rang Rasiya.” Shandilya’s only contribution to the Jab We Met (2007) soundtrack, Aaoge Jab Tum, which the composer says he had created with lyricist Faaiz Anwar back in 1995, became a chartbuster.
Born in Agra, Shandilya learned music as a hobby, but it was only while pursuing a degree in engineering in Jammu did he realise his true calling. He came to Delhi, studied music at the Sriram Bharatiya Kalakendra, and in 1990, came to Mumbai to forge a career in music.
Shandilya began assisting composer and arranger Surinder Singh Sodhi. He also became a disciple of Sultan Khan, received piano lessons from Celia Lobo and took vocal training from Joe Fernandes.
Shandilya received his first break composing for an Udit Narayan album, I Love You (1996), but he tasted success for the first time with Shubha Mudgal’s 1999 album Pyaar Ke Geet. The videos of its songs, featuring Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora Khan, became highly popular in the MTV era.
With the success of the album, Piya Basanti, Shandilya had Bollywood knocking on his door. His first project was Arjun Sajnani’s Agni Varsha (2002), a big-budget flop that was released a year after Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham….
It turns out Johar did not contact Shandilya for his film.
“I had Suraj Hua Maddham ready with me for a long time,” Shandilya said. “My friend and roommate in Mumbai at the time, lyricist Anil Pandey, approached me saying that he has written this song and asked me if I wanted to set a tune to it. Later, I contacted Karan Johar asking him to check out my music. I performed Suraj Hua Maddham for him and he immediately liked it.” Shandilya composed four other songs for the film, including the theme track.
This was followed by Chameli, which contains one of the most-loved songs sung by Sunidhi Chauhan.
He was one of the hottest prospects at the start of the millennium, and yet Shandilya remained elusive. He gave few interviews, since he believes that music is to be performed rather than discussed: “What to say about music that cannot be expressed through music itself? It’s like football. You got to play it. You can’t talk about it.”
Shandilya also appears to have set the bar a bit too high for himself. “In life, you are tied by two things – what you already have and what you desire,” he explained. “I was dissatisfied with my work. I was not putting my heart in them and the films were not doing well. I desired for something else. I always wanted to write a symphony, so I went to Italy, and then Germany. And when you are writing a symphony, you need to cut yourself from the world.”
This musical piece, Search for Buddha, is described by Shandilya as revolving around Buddha’s “inner journey” and how he went on to become enlightened as represented through music. The piece is composed in nine scenes and tracks the life of Buddha from his birth to his death. The symphony was performed twice in Germany in February 2015 by the WDR Rundfunkorchester Koln orchestra, the WDR Radio Choir, and an association of Indian and Middle Eastern musicians.
Shandilya is now working on creating a Broadway musical from his symphony, for which he would need to rework and expand on some of his compositions. He is also working on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s next movie, Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala, which is loosely based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala, and a film by documentary director Brahmanand S Singh (Pancham Unmixed, Kaagaz Ki Kashti).
“I will be incorporating a lot of Western classical music into my new work,” Shandilya said. “You will get to see around next year.”