Alokananda Dasgupta’s music was always appreciated by a niche audience who watched the arthouse and independent-minded productions for which she scored. But the “love of the masses”, as she put it, arrived with the success of the first season of Sacred Games. “The projects have increased and so have my responsibilities,” the 35-year-old composer said. “Earlier, I didn’t have a choice with my work, but now I do.”

Dasgupta’s choices led to her scoring the recently released Netflix miniseries, Leila, based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Prayaag Akbar. Set in a not-so-distant future in India, the series follows a mother searching for her missing daughter in a totalitarian state.

With Sacred Games, Dasgupta first binge-watched the episodes without music and then got down to score it, based on extensive conversations with showrunner Vikramaditya Motwane.

In case of Leila, Dasgupta started with the screenplay, based on discussions with Deepa Mehta, director of the first two episodes. With Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar taking over reins of the subsequent episodes, Dasgupta tweaked the music, but “stayed true to the sound I developed for Aryavarta in the first episodes”.

Describing the music of Leila, Dasgupta said that her first instance was to go electronic, but then she changed her mind. “It’s set in the future, but its not a Blade Runner,” she said. “So, I can’t Trent Reznor the shit out of it. I had to go organic, incorporate acoustic elements, and not eliminate melody.”

Leila (2019).

The success of Sacred Games might have brought more work to the door, but it has also brought Dasgupta pressure. “The joy of scoring something for the fun of it, like, say, Sacred Games has another kind of purity and innocence to it,” she said. “Now, I fear that I have to live up to certain standards all the time. Earlier, it was like, oh it will be such fun to score this. Now, I think, what if people don’t like my work?”

Dasgupta’s upcoming projects include season two of Sacred Games, Sudhir Mishra’s adaptation of Manu Joseph’s novel Serious Men, and Tannishtha Chatterjee’s directorial debut Roam Rome Mein, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui. For, she picked three pieces of music that she has heard compulsively at different stages of her life, which have informed her musical sensibilities today.

‘Dead Man’ (1995) score, Neil Young.

Dead Man (1995) theme by Neil Young.

“This revolutionised my idea of what a film score should sound like. When singer-songwriters score films, they always do something instinctive. They bring a strange perspective to film music.

I had heard the soundtrack first, because I was a fan of Neil Young, but when I saw the film, I realised how well the music synced with the trippy, black-and-white visuals. It’s brilliant to imagine that Neil Young was improvising with his guitar and came up with an entire score based on just one instrument. It makes me believe I can do that too, break the mechanical structure of film scoring.

My favourite track is the main theme of Dead Man, which wasn’t part of the album. It was released as a single. When you hear it, and you shut your eyes, you can just see this man getting his guitar on a lazy night, cigarette in mouth, going with the flow, with all these pedals around him. There are two sections to the song. The acoustic guitar, and then, the heavy-duty strumming of the grungy guitars. The melody is simple, actually, but the pedals make it so cool.”

‘Mezzanine’ (1998), Massive Attack.

Teardrop, from the album Mezzanine, by Massive Attack (1998).

“I heard Mezzanine in my college days, around 2001-2002, when I was 18 or 19. This was my introduction to electronic music. I had never heard anything like this, so when I did, my spinal cord, like, rearranged itself. What is this music? Is it trip-hop? Electronic? Rock? Dub? What is this sound?

My two favourite tracks are Teardrop, followed by Inertia Creeps. The melody and pain in Teardrop are just something else. The chord progression in the song is one of the most common ones, but still, the song is so beautiful and haunting. I was a fan of the singer, Elizabeth Fraser, for a long time, since I would listen to The Cocteau Twins. And I loved Tim Buckley, which, in turn, introduced me to Fraser’s cover of his Song To The Siren. All these factors made me love Teardrop a lot. The song is covered so much to this date, across genres, from metal to country.

Then, Inertia Creeps. The drums in it are hair-raising. Mezzanine introduced me to a whole new world of music. I fell in love with Karmacoma too. The flute, the visuals in the video, all so hypnotic. Few years later, there was this noise that the band’s Robert Del Naja, who wrote Teardrop, is Banksy, and my romanticising reached another level.”

Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart's Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor by Martha Argerich (1998).

“At music school, I would have to play a lot of Mozart sonatas. My training back then wasn’t solid, but as it happens in school, I would memorise the music and regurgitate everything. I considered his music very bright, bubbly, champagne-y, especially the stuff that I played.

Then, I discovered the absolute darkness of Mozart. Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor. Martha Argerich’s version introduced me to it. It starts with such beautiful small motifs, and then through the three movements, it progresses to produce this absolute burst of repressed emotion.

I later discovered the Friedrich Gulda live performance of the piece, where he conducted and played. It begins with the orchestra, then piano comes much later, then strings, flute, horns, pause, Gulda shows off on the piano, then the ultimate marriage of everything, and the melody reaches the sky and rings in your diaphragm till you are uncomfortable.

I listened to this again and again and again. I have conducted to it. It was always ringing in my ears, like Chinese water torture. Back then, I had memorised the music, but now, I remember bits and parts.”

Also read:

‘Dark, criminal, funny, with truth underneath’: Alokananda Dasgupta on the music of ‘Sacred Games’

‘Leila’ review: In Netflix series, the future isn’t very different from the present

Why Netflix series Leila’s vision of a dystopic future is unconvincing