When renowned sitarist Niladri Kumar is not performing with Zakir Hussain or John McLaughlin, he is performing in the studio for Hindi film composers such as Pritam, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal Bhardwaj. His work can be heard in some of the most recognisable passages from recent Hindi film hits, such as Chup Chup Ke from Bunty Aur Babli (2005). Additionally, Kumar’s work on the Zitar, the electric sitar he created in the early 2000s, is present in the tracks Crazy Kiya Re from Dhoom 2 (2006) and Bheegi Bheegi from Gangster (2006).

For Kumar, a classical musician, who cut his teeth as a session musician in the late 1980s for Laxmikant-Pyarelal, becoming a Hindi film composer was the culmination of a decades-long journey. For Sajid Ali’s September 7 release Laila Majnu, Kumar has contributed four original compositions, with an additional version for one of them. The lyrics are by Irshad Kamil.

Set in Kashmir, the film is a contemporary take on the tragic lore of Qays and Laila. The movie stars Tripti Dimri and Avinash Tiwary, and the screenplay is by brothers Sajid and Imtiaz Ali.

Laila Majnu is Kumar’s second Hindi film as a composer, after contributing one song to the 2016 film Shorgul. He has earlier composed the entire soundtrack of the Kannada film, Niruttara (2016). Kumar’s work in Laila Majnu is a breath of fresh air in a year filled with lacklustre soundtracks. On YouTube, the videos of the songs have been steadily notching up millions of views. But thse kinds of hits don’t really matter, the musician told Scroll.in: “Thirteen million views, 15 million views on YouTube in this country is like having a lot of money in the game of Monopoly. It means nothing.”

Why choose ‘Laila Majnu’ as your big Bollywood album?
All thanks to Imtiaz Ali, who offered me this huge canvas to paint on. I was also interested to score a film that would be set in a landscape such as Kashmir, probably the most beautiful place in the world. A place like Kashmir provides a great backdrop for music.

Laila Majnu.

You have contributed only five tracks in a 10-song soundtrack.
Yes, when I was approached, a composer had already been assigned for the film. [Joi Barua has contributed four tracks; the band Alif has composed one]. It’s not conducive to have too many composers on a film, but I had faith in Imtiaz and Sajid’s vision.

Your songs in ‘Laila Majnu’ have a different sound from the typical Hindi film soundtrack. Do you avoid listening to Bollywood music? Or were you trying to sound different?
I don’t go out of my way to listen to Bollywood music. Radio or television, everything is always playing Bollywood music anyway. In the car, I listen to what’s playing on the radio, and that is Bollywood music.

For Laila Majnu, although the melodies are strong, the treatment is subtle and contemporary. When you are speaking, you can speak in a soft volume and be heard. You don’t need to shout or scream. Music, especially love songs, should be like that. In this film, I tried to convey a sentiment with these songs. Without having to watch the film or the video, the songs should be able to evoke visuals on their own.

Nothing was striven for. Be it the melody or the instrumentation, everything came naturally. I did not compose any song in any raag. If it falls in any raag, that’s okay. I was not trying to make things happen by force.

Tum’ has an unusual time signature.
It is 7/4. Count seven beats and you will find it simple. It sounds unusual because of the percussion.

I have tried to retain a Kashmiri-Persian flavour in the soundtrack. The original Laila-Majnu story is Persian. So instrumentally, Tum begins with the rubab and the beat comes from the darabouka.

Tum is from Majnu’s side. Atif Aslam and Javed Ali have sung a version each. Tum is about whatever Majnu wants to say to Laila. And from Laila’s side, there’s Sarphiri [sung by Shreya Ghoshal and Babul Supriyo].

Aahista, Laila Majnu.

‘Aahista’, the lead single sung by Arijit Singh and Jonita Gandhi, has become very popular.
In my career, I have composed many songs, including those in my instrumental albums, where if asked to recreate a song 10-15 years later, I would do it differently. Aahista is not that kind of a song.

Some people have said that the song is a bit melancholic, and that it is like slow poison. Aahista is a love song. The love is not just physical but there is a fondness, a feeling of caring, and warmth attached to it.

The opposite of these emotions is madness and wild abandon represented by Haafiz [sung by Mohit Chauhan]. The song comes at a crucial point in the film where the hero’s transformation from a normal young man to the mad Majnu is complete.

Haafiz Haafiz, Laila Majnu.

From not being allowed to listen to film music at home to ‘Laila Majnu’, it has been quite the journey.
When you are learning classical music, the regime is similar to learning the Vedas. Your head is shaved, and your choti [braid] is tied with a rope to the ceiling, so you don’t fall asleep between lessons. You cannot be reading any other books at the time or be distracted.

Similarly, that was how I learned music from my father [sitarist Kartick Kumar] for the first 10-15 years. He, of course, was performing for Hindi films from the ’60s. The first song he played for was Piya Tose Naina Lage Re from Guide.

But the way of the world is such that you become exposed to all kinds of music eventually. I think I was in school when I played for some song by Laxmikant-Pyarelal for which I got Rs 900 in the ’80s.

Was it difficult early on being a session musician?
The skill needed to play for film music required you to be able to read notation, which I couldn’t do. It took me about two years to learn these things. You didn’t require this while playing classical music. I am grateful to all the people who gave me the opportunity to learn the trade of reading and writing music when I was just a kid.

Today, the trend has changed. You compose your own parts. You don’t need to read the music.

Were your parts in ‘Chup Chup Ke’ and ‘Crazy Kiya Re’ written by you?
Yes. They were written on the spot by me based on an outline of the melody that the composer gave me. I decided what to play. Of course, you have to gain the command and respect of the music director who can trust you with his composition and let you take it wherever you want to.

Niladri Kumar. Courtesy Facebook.