Sacred Games, the first Indian original series produced by Netflix, has been lauded for its direction, cast, writing and all-round finesse. The first season, consisting of eight episodes, was released on July 6. The series, based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Vikram Chandra, has been adapted by screenwriters Varun Grover, Smita Singh, and Vasant Nath, and has been directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap.
The series tells the story of Mumbai policeman Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) investigating the death of a ganglord Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The exhaustive original score of Sacred Games, composed by Alokananda Dasgupta, has drawn praise. Dasgupta has scored the 360-minute series in addition to composing four original songs. Dasgupta’s score, which oscillates between being brooding and nerve-racking, has received rave reviews, including from AR Rahman.
Dasgupta’s film and television credits include the Marathi films Shala (2011) and Fandry (2013), the Hindi films BA Pass (2013) and Trapped (2017) and the television series, Breathe (2018). In a chat with Scroll.in, the 34-year-old composer discussed the making of the score and songs of Sacred Games and her love Amit Trivedi’s soundtrack of Aamir (2008) that inspired her to pack her bags and go to Mumbai for a career in music.
On the ‘Sacred Games’ opening theme
The opening theme was the first thing I scored long before any visual was in place. For me, the opening theme should be a summary of the series, like we did precis writing in school.
I was initially nervous because I had no visuals and I worked on a short deadline. Vikram [Vikramaditya Motwane] and I were constantly throwing ideas at each other. I would send a song or a piece of music to him, and he would give his feedback.
Finally, we came up with the idea that the theme should have a religious connotation but it shouldn’t remind one of any particular religion. I thought of making it like an almost pagan thing. Then I had the idea of an ominous chant. What you hear in the theme is gibberish. It is not Arabic, Persian, anything of that sort. It’s something I hummed and then got the vocalist to record. The chant was the skeleton to which I added the flesh to make it sound ethnic, the cello, particularly, which is my instrument of choice.
I have used the cello in almost all my background score work. My love for the cello started with my love for [Mstislav] Rostropovich, the cellist, and [Johannes] Brahms’s Violin Concerto. There is something about the timbre of the instrument that I like. It does something to me. I am able to write for the cello more than the piano, which is actually my instrument.
Ironically, it is the hardest instrument to find. It is difficult to find a good cellist [in India] who can interpret my ideas.
The sound of ‘Sacred Games’
For the episodes [of Sacred Games], though, I had visuals. I got plenty of time for episodes one and two, but the work on the final six had to be rushed. Once you crack the code of the series and you know the zone in which the story exists, you find the momentum and the work becomes easier. I had the constant fear that I was not finding the zone correctly. By the end, though, I was so neck deep into Sacred Games, that everything just clicked.
Sacred Games was my first project that I loved watching more than I loved scoring. When I got the visuals of Sacred Games, I realised that this is something I would love to binge on. So when I was watching it [the rough cut] without music, I thought about how I would want it to sound. That is when I cracked the code. When what you want to watch and what you want to hear while watching it is in sync, then nothing like it.
My favourite piece of music from the score happens right at the beginning and then at the end.
For the final scene, I knew I needed something to wrap up the score and tie everything together. Vikram’s idea was to manipulate the opening theme with a different instrument [clarinet and flute]. So, when Sartaj Singh innocently watches this preacher’s show, and he realises the truth and puts it all together, the opening theme is slowed down and is made more eerie.
The zone of Sacred Games cannot be explained in words. For me, it was like a warped child of something dark, criminal, funny, and yet underneath it all, there was some truth. I did not think that this needs to sound like Narcos [the Netflix series] or Fargo [the FX series] or something. This series was right up my alley. It had emptiness, pathos, poignancy, deaths and yet there was a bigger truth to it all which I kept scratching to find.
On ‘Dhuaan Dhuaan’, the best song in the series
I composed four songs in the series – Saiyaan, Tabahi, Dhuaan Dhuaan, and Kukoo’s Couplet.
Saiyaan was something I wrote and just placed it there. [The song plays in episode four, Brahmahatya, over a sequence showing Bipin Bhonsle’s election win juxtaposed with shots of rioting]. I did not write it with any visuals in mind. I felt that this story needed a scream somewhere. I wanted to do a weird minimalist piece with a scream, something that doesn’t sound beautiful. I recorded the scratches in my own voice.
The song does not have anything except “Saiyaan” in my voice. Over the scream, I added the electronic flesh. It’s the first time I did something in a non-acoustic space after Shab from BA Pass.
Tabahi was planned from day one. [The song is played in episode seven, Rudra, when Zoya Mirza is dancing in the rain as part of a film shoot] It had a simple brief: a sexy, raunchy Bollywood item song.
Dhuaan Dhuaan, which is my favourite, had no brief. There wasn’t supposed to be any song in that scene [A shootout sequence at the end of Brahmahatya]. Initially, it was an in-your-face gangster shootout. We thought we would approach it in that manner. But I felt so sad seeing what happened to Gaitonde and Kukoo. I was very moved. Gaitonde loved only one person properly in his life, and that person was gone. I wrote Dhuaan Dhuaan very intuitively, based on lyrics my sister [Rajeshwari Dasgupta] wrote, and just placed it there.
Kukoo’s Couplet is a piece by that places right after in the beginning of episode five [Sarama].
On starting with Amit Trivedi
My musical career began because of the song Ha Raham, from Aamir. I heard the song when I was in York [York University, Toronto, from where she obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance and Music Composition]. When I heard Ha Raham, I instantly fell in love with the song and wanted to come down to India to work with him. I realised there is room for me in this space because till then, I could not identify with Bollywood.
On returning to Kolkata after graduation in 2009, I got Amit’s number from a friend and gave him a call. I did not call anyone else. I told him I studied music, I loved Ha Raham, I want to help you out. And soon I began working with him.
As Amit’s music assistant, I wrote down the notation for his compositions for the instrumentalists to play. I would sometimes programme his tracks. I would keep accounts at his office. Sometimes, I called the instrumentalists and asked them to come at so and so time. With Amit, I learned how to work on music software and create music with the computer, because till then I had only learned the piano.
On the love for background scoring
The moment I heard Aamir’s soundtrack, I realised instantly that one would need to be very intuitive, intelligent and talented to make music like this. When I connect to a soundtrack or music made by an artist, I forge my own connection with the music’s makers. I trip on it so naturally that there is no room for anything fake. I could say this for music like Massive Attack’s album Mezzanine (1998), Thomas Newman’s background scores, and the score of Call Me By Your Name (2017). I love Trent Reznor, Nick Cave, Neil Young.
I listen to lots and lots of classical music and I just cannot have enough of it. I sometimes wonder if our genes have mutated since the times of [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart and [Frederic] Chopin. Why can’t we make music like this anymore? They had only ink and paper. They had no technology. And yet they wrote such brilliant music.
Back in India, of course, [AR] Rahman and RD Burman. Some of RD Burman’s background music is so amazing. Back in those days, when there wasn’t much discussion about score, RD Burman put so much thought into background scoring. He twisted the sound of a swing and made it so haunting for Sholay (1975). Then, he used the simple sound of gargling for Satte Pe Satta (1982). I don’t understand how background score is not considered for technical award categories in Indian film award shows. Is it not a creative job?
It feels very rewarding to be appreciated for the score [of Sacred Games] everywhere. But I am full of constant self-doubt. I always think all this is temporary and that people are probably lying. I am most critical of my own work. Recently, I was watching episode four with a friend, and I asked her to stop it. I could hear everything wrong with the track.
Having said that, I have got genuine praises from my immediate team, from Vikram, our writers, editors, sound designer Anish John. They have no reason to lie or make me feel good. But I am trying to teach myself to detach my brain from praise and criticism.
Ultimately, if my work is loved by people whose taste in film, music, painting or food I appreciate, irrespective of what their relation is to me, then I get confidence. I will say that I am just happy that I could successfully figure out the soundscape of a series like Sacred Games.
(As told to Devarsi Ghosh.)