Does a Salman Khan film need a special kind of background score? There’s no one better to turn to for a reply than Julius Packiam. Since 2012’s Ek Tha Tiger, Packiam has scored several of Khan’s films, including Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Tubelight (2017), Sultan (2016), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), and the June 5 release, Bharat.
“It’s more about the approach you take than any formula per se,” the 49-year-old composer told Scroll.in. “Salman is larger-than-life, and when he comes on the screen, he comes with a bang. So for him, you pick the biggest, fattest stuff – horns, trumpets, big drums and guitar riffs.”
In Bharat, Packiam has a chance to prove his songwriting credentials too with Zinda. “Hopefully, with Zinda now, I can whisper into directors’ ears, hey, I make songs too,” Packiam said.
The chorus in Zinda is, however, the creation of director Ali Abbas Zafar. “Ali had written the entire poem during the shoot itself, and he made this tune as well,” Packiam said. “He recorded it on his phone and sent it to me. I worked on the preceding passages and we turned it into a song.” The song captures the enduring can-do spirit of the film’s hero who bears witness to 70 years of Indian independence.
Packiam is among Hindi cinema’s leading background score composers alongside Salim-Sulaiman and Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar. “There are immensely talented guys around me, throw a stone in Mumbai and it will hit some really awesome musician,” Packiam said modestly. “I consider myself very fortunate and blessed.”
Packiam’s work has a characteristic blockbuster sound, and he has a reputation for catchy themes that round up the hero’s personality. His most memorable theme has been the one for the Tiger series, which was handpicked by producer Aditya Chopra from 70 themes created over two months.
Vishal-Shekhar worked the theme into a title track for the 2017 sequel, further enhancing its appeal. The theme will be heard again in the third Tiger film. “I hope people don’t get tired of hearing that tune again and again,” Packiam said.
When Packiam moved to Mumbai from Delhi about a decade ago, his ambition was to be a song composer. “But here, once you get slotted as a background score guy, producers don’t want to know what else you can do,” Packiam said.
He grew up in Delhi in a large family and was exposed to a range of music – “Indian classical, Western classical, ghazals, jazz, fusion, rock, Hindi film music, and of course, Hollywood themes”. The work of John Williams in Jaws and Star Wars got stuck in his mind at a young age: “Williams, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL, I find inspiration in all of them.”
Packiam was a member of the hard rock band Blitzkrieg while studying at Kirori Mal College in Delhi. Among his classmates was the future director Kabir Khan. At the time, Packiam divided his time between singing covers for Blitzkrieg and jingles for composers such as Loy Mendonsa.
Packiam also dabbled for a while in Punjabi pop, creating a group called Joshilay, which released a few albums. One music video from 2000 has Packiam and his group mates serenading model Mini Mathur. The video was directed by Kabir Khan, who later married Mathur.
A few years later, Packiam composed the background score for Khan’s directorial debut Kabul Express (2006) – the first of six collaborations, including Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and the upcoming 83. “Kabir doesn’t have the headspace for commercial masala, but, it’s like, if you can’t beat them, join them,” Packiam said about his old friend. “Even if you are in Bollywood, you can try to push the envelope, as Kabir does when he tries to bring up issues close to his heart. He tries his best to avoid lipsynced songs, for instance.”
83, Khan’s film on the Indian cricket team’s victory over West Indies in the 1983 World Cup in England, is “a brilliantly written story, it has to be a super, super hit”, Packiam said. The movie is more of a “docu-feature”, he added, comprising anecdotes shared by the players, their family members and associates about what happened before, during and after that fateful day.
“There is no commercial masala here,” Packiam said. “It’s an underdog story about how down and out the whole team was without expectations. There’s a lot of humour in the script. Some of the incidents were quite an eye-opener for all of us.”
If Packiam has a favourite among his background tunes for Khan’s films, it is Bajrangi Bhaijaan, in which Salman Khan’s character helps a mute Pakistani girl who has strayed into India return home. Packiam picks the tune that comes in the climactic scene, when Munni (Harshali Malhotra) shouts out the name of the hero Pawan (Salman Khan) and runs towards him.
The melodious tune is both sparse and heavy on strings and synths. “The tune you hear there is a recreation of a very low-fi scratch I had made for the scene and lost long before post-production,” Packiam said. “Kabir had used the scratch for the scene during edit. He wanted me to redo it. I kept trying to make it finale-sounding. After about 10 attempts, I finally recreated that scratch ditto for that scene.”
Packiam’s other important collaborator has been Ali Abbas Zafar, who assisted Kabir Khan on New York (2009). Packiam and Zafar worked together for the first time on Gunday (2014). Zafar’s last three films, all of which star Salman Khan, have Packiam as the background score maker.
“Ali comes from the Manmohan Desai and Subhash Ghai school of filmmaking,” Packiam said. “He wants his song and dance on a large canvas packed with action, melodrama, comedy, romance. What’s similar between Kabir and Ali is that they are both very detailed in their approach.”
In most of Packiam’s films, which include Dhoom 3 (2013) and Baaghi 2 (2018), the background score carries a whiff of melody from the songs. Sometimes, the background score leads to a song, as it did with Zinda (Bharat) and Zinda Hai (Tiger Zinda Hai).
“The songs are released earlier, and people know the melody,” Packiam explained. “They come to the movie expecting the song. Say, it’s coming after the interval. If you introduce the main riff early on here and there, that builds up anticipation. Like we did with 440 Volt or Dil Diya Gallan. We are trying to kindle the relationship. So, when the couple finally gets together for that love song, the audience thinks, nice, in dono ka ban gaya.”
Packiam’s collaborations with mainstream filmmakers don’t always allow for experimentation, but he believes he has been able to push boundaries. He cites the example of the haunting harmonica-and-drum-based tune in Dhoom 3, which comes before the interval when it is revealed that Aamir Khan’s thief-magician-trapeze artist hero has a twin.
Packiam would love to compose for more modest and independent-minded productions too. “People don’t call me thinking I make music for this 200-crore, 300-crore movies,” he observed. “Maybe, they are inhibited, thinking I am not affordable. If the idea is stimulating enough, I will do it. I am flexible with my budget.”
That isn’t going to happen any time soon: Packiam has Zafar’s third Tiger film, an Amazon Prime Video series to be headlined by Saif Ali Khan, Housefull 4, Baaghi 3 and Kabir Khan’s 83 and his web series, The Forgotten Army. The sheer number of projects won’t leave Packiam with any time for vacations for two years at least. “These days, I just disappear for weeks and the director gets to know later that I am on vacation,” he revealed.