Shashwat Sachdev, composer of the soundtrack and background score of Uri: The Surgical Strike, has one mantra he applies to his work: “I don’t want to repeat anything that has been done before”.

As an example, there’s the peppy Bass Gira De Raja from Veere De Wedding (2018), which came about from combining a capella with electronica – one vocal track replicates the groove of a dubstep song. There’s the Uri: The Surgical Strike song Jagga Jiteya where the horns are based on – one wouldn’t have guessed – the meter of the national anthem’s opening lines. “Sing Jana Gana Mana to the tune, you’ll see,” Sachdev said.

With another song, Challa, Sachdev and lyricist Kumaar turned the original Punjabi folk song on its head. “The original is meant to be sung by a father for his newborn,” Sachdev explained. “But here, Challa sir te ban ke, kafan jad tureya tanke, maut nu wajahn maare, ve thar thar kambde saare signals that the son is going out to die for his motherland to return to mother earth.”

And when his experiments click with the audience – which is how it has been with consecutive successes Phillauri (2017), Veere Di Wedding and Uri: The Surgical Strike – nothing is more gratifying for Sachdev. “You can only stay true to yourself and make music for yourself,” the 29-year-old composer said. “But when the entire country loves your work, you feel the effort is worth it.”

Sachdev’s most passionate effort so far is the background score of Uri: The Surgical Strike, on which he worked for eight months. The score was recently released across music streaming platforms. Combining Western classical music with rock and electronica, Sachdev’s hybrid score fills up most of Aditya Dhar’s 138-minute war film. Released on January 11, the Vicky Kaushal-starrer looks back at the Indian Army’s September 29 attacks on terrorists across the Line of Control. The film has earned a little over Rs 219 crore so far, according to trade reports.

Uri: The Surgical Strike background score.

Working on the score of Uri: The Surgical Strike took Sachdev halfway across the globe to Berlin. “As I read the script, I was thinking of the sound I would want on page three, page eight, like that,” Sachdev said. “For the kind of sound I had in mind, I needed a modular synthesiser.”

Sachdev’s search for the synthesiser, which rarely has a keyboard and generates sounds when specialised modules are patched together with cables, brought him to Berlin’s electronic music shop SchneidersLaden. One of his favourite composers, Johann Johannsson (Sicario, Arrival), would buy his synthesisers there.

But to completely realise his musical ambitions for Uri, Sachdev had to figure out a way to operate the complex instrument from scratch. “I would spend six-seven hours at the shop daily trying to figure out how to use it,” Sachdev said. “I would read manuals in the hotel, stay up nights, create sounds and send to Aditya on voice notes made on my phone.” After spending a month in Berlin, Sachdev brought the synthesiser back home to Mumbai and got down to work. The results were 90 minutes of music, only parts of which made it to the film.

Shashwat Sachdev working on Uri: The Surgical Strike.

One can hear the odd ominous sounds Sachdev created with the modular synthesiser in the track, The Uri Attack. There are also orchestral horns. Just as the track Guts – snatches of which are heard throughout the film’s second half – has a string section and a choral section over an electronic beat. “Whatever synth I use doesn’t matter because Indians respond ultimately to emotion,” Sachdev explained. “And emotion comes from acoustic instruments, not electronic.”

Sachdev recalled the confusion of the German orchestra recording for his score at Vienna’s Synchron Stage. “They couldn’t understand where the score was going,” he said. “You had the war tracks, but also something emotional like The Last Goodbye, which comes in the scene where the Uri martyrs are being remembered.” Online reports of the film’s success, Sachdev says, now has these musicians call him to ask, “So, did it make more money than Avatar?”

Jagga Jiteya, Uri: The Surgical Strike.

Jaipur-born Sachdev recalled an incident when he was 15 and played a tune he had composed to his father. His father told him a story about the Italian sculptor Michelangelo, which influenced his own attempts to be minimalist with his music: “A student asked Michelangelo, how do you sculpt such fantastic figures? Michelangelo said, I just move the unwanted stones and what’s left is my expression.”

The best tracks in Uri: The Surgical Strike, Jagga Jiteya and Behe Chala, have sparse instrumentation. So do Bass Gira De Raja and Aa Jao Na from Veere Di Wedding.

“Too much music distracts the listener or the audience from the core emotion of a composition,” Sachdev said. He cited an example of a scene from Uri: The Surgical Strike. “Initially, where Vihaan [Vicky Kaushal’s character] plants a bomb in the kurta of a terrorist and walks away, I had added hip-hop beats,” he said. “And Adi [Aditya Dhar] was like, ‘This is not Tarantino, dude’. The final scene in the film has no music and it really works. The scene stays with the audience.”

Aa Jao Na, Veere Di Wedding.

Sachdev credits his success in Bollywood to Veere Di Wedding producer Rhea Kapoor, whom he met shortly after arriving in Mumbai. Before that, Sachdev lived for four years in Los Angeles, where he created samples for other composers to use. Assisting composer Marc Shaiman and Grammy Award-winning producer Tony Maserati sharpened his skills. At some point, Sachdev realised that if he had to do good work as a composer, Los Angeles was too crowded. The Mumbai film industry was his next best bet.

“Twenty-one years of learning Indian classical music from Ustad Ramzan Khan sahab and also Western classical piano for about 15 years”: Sachdev laid out his resume. His father, a doctor, was supportive of his musical plans, and would keep him updated about musical programmes, courses and news. His mother, a lecturer, was a bit apprehensive and ensured that he graduated with a law degree.

“Education is important for a middle-class family,” Sachdev noted. “A Bollywood career is a dream for most.”

Within a few months of reaching Mumbai, Sachdev bagged Veere Di Wedding and developed a smooth working relationship with Rhea Kapoor. “Look at the musicians she introduced in Bollywood – Jasleen Royal, Badshah, Qaran,” he said, praising Kapoor’s “great musical mind”. As another example, he spoke of how Aa Jao Na, a romantic tune executed as a low-key electronic club number, emerged. “I played the tune on a piano to her,” Sachdev said. “It was Rhea who suggested I bring it to a club setting but for a 16, 17-year-old girl. I was initially unconvinced, but she knew what she was saying.”

Sahiba, Phillauri.

Phillauri was released earlier. Its earthy Punjabi tunes struck a chord, and Sahiba became a chart-topper. “Honestly, I got more fan mail and social media messages for Phillauri than I did for Uri,” Sachdev said. “They came from towns in India I had never even heard of. It’s unimaginable to fathom how far Hindi film music can travel.”

For now, Sachdev is gearing up for his music to travel internationally. Next up is the score for the second season of Netflix’s series Selection Day, whose music, compared to Uri: The Surgical Strike, is conventional and laidback. “Making songs is the easiest thing because you get instant gratification looking at the numbers on iTunes or whatever,” Sachdev said. “Scoring is a thankless job as the score shines only if the film or the web series works. But I always wanted to score six-seven hours of music for long formats. By god’s grace, I hope I continue to do good work.”