Over the last 10 years, as the space for songs has shrunk in Hindi films and background scores have became more important than ever, two men have been consistently doing some of the most interesting work in this area: Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar.
London-based Taylor, trained in the viola and the violin, has performed and produced classical, contemporary, and improvised music across Europe and beyond for years, while Mumbai-based Chandavarkar is a guitarist. Chandavarkar met Taylor in 2009, when Taylor was taking viola classes in Mumbai. When Anurag Kashyap asked Chandavarkar to score his 2010 film That Girl in Yellow Boots, he got Taylor on board.
Since then, their credits include Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2013), Avinash Arun’s Killa (2014), Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab (2016) and Sonchiriya (2019), Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2018), and Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh’s Chintu Ka Birthday (2020). They also scored for the web series Paatal Lok and Betaal. Their upcoming releases include Pushpendra Singh’s Laila Aur Satt Geet (2020) and Prashant Nair’s Tryst with Destiny (2020).
These productions have in common an independent streak and sombre subject matter, making Taylor and Chandavarkar’s scores occasionally veer towards the mournful.
“It would be lying to say we don’t enjoy that zone,” Taylor told Scroll.in. “I think it’s important to differentiate contemplative from mournful. I see great joy in some of the music that may seem mournful to some people. Rather than mournfulness, that for me is essential compositional depth. To make one contemplate and even deal in introspection can be a positive thing rather than a seemingly mournful thing.”
Chandavarkar pointed out, “I wouldn’t say all of them are like that. Ultimately it really has to do with the project and what it needs.” Case in point: Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s light-hearted Nil Battey Sannata (2016) and Tanuja Chandra’s rom-com Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017).
And yet, the duo’s music has a discernible character. They often distort the familiar sounds of acoustic instruments, mostly strings, and turn them into something unfamiliar and divorced from their original character.
Viewers of Paatal Lok, for instance, might recall the metallic-sounding Indian percussion in Taylor-Chandavarkar’s score – folk filtered through a glass darkly.
For Taylor, given his musical background, the “frequent use of the process of deconstruction and experimentation of sound, instrument, form” is second nature. “I make use of strings and voice amongst other things partly as they are my main instruments, but also because there’s a huge wealth of sound to be explored in these instruments,” he said. “Outside of those instrument areas, I make use of all kinds of sonic materials, objects, electronics, homemade instruments and such.”
Chandavarkar added that with the viola alone, Taylor’s approach offers a vast array of sounds to work from. “We both have always loved to work with sound, and break things apart,” he said. “Whether that’s creating a prepared piano for Ship of Theseus, or putting in bits of cardboard in between guitar strings for Netwon, or heavily treating them electronically in Udta Punjab, and almost every other score. We’ve also enjoyed electronically creating instrument hybrids, by mixing the sound of one instrument with another, and creating something almost new entirely.”
The “prepared piano” Chandavarkar speaks of refers to opening up a piano and placing bits of wool around the strings, so as to produce a reverberating drone effect on playing the keys. Reverbs and echoes keep returning in the duo’s work, as can be heard in Photos from Ship of Theseus, or the marvelous MJ Swimming from Udta Punjab that charts an abused woman’s descent into a state of hallucination.
If Paatal Lok largely offered moodpieces with no distinctive tune or melody, Betaal has clear and prominent themes, like Sonchiriya, Newton, and Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan. According to Taylor, however, all their works have distinct themes, but “it’s a good thing that these aren’t always necessarily recognised”.
He cited the example of Paatal Lok: “Actually there are many returning themes, but they are quite often deliberately blurred and made nebulous. It is sometimes our way to imagine and realise many themes whether big or small, which lock together and can be interwoven throughout a work - whether a series or feature, but we love to play with the perception of these themes.”
Among the standout pieces in Paatal Lok is a beautiful tune that underlines the backstory of Cheeni, a street urchin who grows up in a railway station.
“Cheeni’s theme is one of the motifs in the series that did really need to be recognised,” Taylor said. “I feel it came from a place of observing the innocence of the child which it focuses upon, as they make their way in a very difficult surrounding environment, and one that will continue to be so as they grow up and as the story develops.”
Chandavarkar explained how Cheeni’s theme, written much before the shooting began, tried to capture one of the central concerns of the series: “The original impetus for writing that was of running away. A lot of the characters come from a dark past that they’re trying to escape, and the first core of this was trying to capture that feeling of release when you finally manage to. Which is kind of bittersweet, because none of the characters truly find a way to do that in the series.”
Then there’s Chandavarkar-Taylor’s excellent Sonchiriya theme, heard twice in the film and once during the end credits. The theme, Chandavarkar explained, had to both underline the Western genre and also draw from the folk music of the Chambal valley where the film is set.
“Benedict’s string parts replaced the more horse-type rhythm of the Western with a strange off-kilter waltz, somewhat more like a camel’s walk,” Chandavarkar said. Finding inspiration in local music – “the call and answer between the violin and voice in the opening of some traditional Rajasthani folk” – the duo hired Rajasthani violin player Babulal Jhawar to perform for the theme.
Neither Cheeni’s theme nor the Sonchiriya music can be heard online. There’s a scant tradition of officially releasing movie scores in India, which makes it difficult to study its history.
“A director we worked with mentioned that he had managed to find some beautiful Bollywood scores from the ’70s from a collector in France, and approached the owner of the rights here to use it in a film he was working on,” Chandavarkar said. “It was an obscure work that no one had heard for ages, and they charged such an exorbitant fee that it was impossible to use. It’s really sad. Filmmakers like Tarantino in the West use earlier film score work extensively, and it’s a wonderful way to liven the history of film. We just have it sitting in archives.”
The officially published recordings of Satyajit Ray’s scores, he added, guided their score for the international cut of Nil Battey Sannata.
If unconventionality is the link between most of the filmmakers they have worked with, every director’s use of score the has been different. For instance, Chaubey’s films have a wall-to-wall score, while Ship of Theseus, Killa, and Harud barely had any background music.
Different strokes, different folks, the duo explained. “Some like to give us carte-blanche and then only comment on whether it’s working or not once a cue is done, Avinash Arun, Anurag Kashyap, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, and Amit Masurkar were like that,” Chandavarkar said. “Others, like Shanker Raman, Anand Gandhi, Prashant Nair like to be more involved in the thought process of how it’s conceived.”
For Chandavarkar, Harud was an interesting case: “There was some debate on whether we should have music through the film or not. We did decide that silence worked far better in creating that sense of oppression that the film needed. And allowed the catharsis that the music at the end brought with it.”
Chandavarkar-Taylor have also composed a handful of songs for their films, such as the folkish Karmaari Duniya (That Girl in Yellow Boots), co-composed with Suhaas Ahuja, and the bluesy Udi (Gurgaon), sung by Prateek Kuhad. They may have escaped mainstream notice, except perhaps Panchi Udd Gaya (Newton), but are nonetheless interesting. Varun Grover has written most of these songs.
“On Udi, Varun wrote the lyrics after hearing the melody we composed, and it was the reverse with Panchi Udd Gaya,” Chandavarkar said. “Karmaari Duniya was born out of melding a Kabir poem, gypsy folk influences and working with Suhaas Ahuja. We had shared some Romanian gyspy music we loved with Anurag and he fell in love with it, and wanted that kind of approach to the opening of the film.”
Despite being separated by distance, the duo have figured out a method of working from their homes, studios, hotel rooms, and airports. They exchange music through voice notes and any other means possible.
For their upcoming Tryst of Destiny, Chandavarkar-Taylor worked between India, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany. Rarely have they cracked an entire film’s score by sharing the same studio, as they did with Killa.
“We’ve now found a system over the years where we have identical versions of the projects on each other’s machines, so as soon as one of us makes a change, it’s easier for the other person to have it to work on,” Chandavarkar explained. “So primarily we’re working directly on the project file. One of us may write a basic structure, and the other may fill it out, or change it. We keep exchanging versions until we feel it’s done.”
What’s next for Chandavarkar-Taylor? Among other projects, the duo said they are developing ideas for a non-film album. But would they ever work in a movie out of their supposed comfort zone – switch places with Julius Packiam and score a Salman Khan blockbuster? Both were game: “I think we’d be open to the chance, and any collaboration where we feel we can add something of value.”