In the ongoing MX Player series Times of Music, in which veteran and contemporary composers rearrange and perform each other’s music in front of an audience, host Vishal Dadlani introduced Viju Shah as the “king of synth sounds”.
It’s apt, considering the 61-year-old Hindi film composer’s talent for incorporating into his tunes heavily synthesised rhythm sections drawn from synthpop, deep house and new age music. These influences were most strongly felt in his soundtracks for Rajiv Rai’s thrillers. Writer-director Atul Sabharwal (Powder, Aurangzeb) has recruited Shah to compose “1980s-style synth music” for his upcoming Netflix film Class of ‘83, Shah told Scroll.in.
On the Times of Music episode of June 20, a stream of analogue blips and bloops ran through Shah’s take on Mithoon’s Tose Naina and Aankhen Teri from the movie Anwar (2007). In turn, Mithoon produced an exquisite version of Tip Tip Barsa Pani (Mohra, 1994), which gave greater prominence to the sensuality in Anand Bakshi’s lyrics than did the original’s uptempo arrangement.
“This is a project where our ingenuity comes across,” Shah observed. “There are no demands or pressure to use this or that beat. The arrangement is done strictly from the point of view of musicians.”
While audiophiles and music nerds geek out on Shah’s technological savvy, his lasting legacy is rooted in the strength of his melodies.
Tirchi Topiwale (Tridev, 1989), Saat Samundar Paar (Vishwatma, 1992), Tip Tip Barsa Pani, and tunes from Gupt and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998) are still loved, widely played, and referenced. A Tanishk Bagchi remake of Shah’s 1996 hit Aankh Marey (Tere Mere Sapne) became a chart-topper again in 2018.
Despite being fondly recalled for catchy tunes and sonic sophistication, Shah’s body of work faces allegations of plagiarism. Like his contemporaries Nadeem-Shravan and Anu Malik, Shah borrowed from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music. A riff here or a loop there was nicked from mostly contemporaneous Western electropop.
“There’s not much one can do if directors present us with a song and instruct us to abide by that template,” Shah explained. “Then what we do is alter it a bit, present it to the filmmaker. The tune is okayed. My job is also done. Otherwise, who wants to copy tunes when there’s a wealth of Indian folk music across so many states?”
Shah’s emergence as a composer happened at a time when traditional orchestral arrangement was disappearing and making way for programmed music.
The son of Kalyanji Shah and nephew of Anandji Shah, who formed the composing duo Kalyanji-Anandji, Viju Shah worked closely with both as a music arranger since Don (1978). He saw first-hand the slow and palpable shift from acoustics to electronics in Hindi film music.
“I started learning music on the harmonium, but when the first synthesiser arrived, I looked at the freedom it gave me and realised that I could go a long way with this,” Shah said. “I wanted to do with electronics what Laxmikant-Pyarelal did with acoustics – make the sound feel so big and dynamic.”
Shah’s synth work lent Kalyanji-Anandji’s latter-day soundtracks an edge, particularly for Feroz Khan’s action films Qurbaani (1980) and Jaanbaaz (1986). “Feroz Khan would sit with me like a kid and ask me to show what new sounds could be produced from this brand new toy,” Shah recalled.
It was during his years as an arranger for Kalyanji-Anandji that Shah met filmmaker Rajiv Rai. Kalyanji-Anandji composed the songs for Rai’s first film Yudh (1985), but they have a distinctive Viju Shah flavour, thanks to Rai’s strong inclination towards new sounds.
Rajiv Rai’s father, the producer Gulshan Rai, had asked Kalyanji-Anandji to compose the soundtrack for Tridev. But Rajiv Rai and Viju Shah worked on the tunes that included the future hit Tirchi Topiwale and got them approved. The film and the soundtrack were huge successes. Because of a contractual agreement, Kalyanji-Anandji were credited as composers, while Viju Shah was listed as a conductor.
“The maximum use of electronics happened for the first time with Tridev,” Shah said. “Rajiv wanted me to produce the thekas electronically. And then I added dholaks and the sitar on top of that to make the sound bigger in Tirchi Topiwale.”
Rai and Shah soon forged a formidable partnership. “When Vishwatma didn’t work at the box office as well as Tridev, there was a lot of pressure on Rajiv to change composers, but he stuck with me,” Shah recalled. “Everyone began pointing out that I have a similar composing style because of Tridev and Vishwatma, so we decided that with Mohra, we’d make songs of all kinds.”
It wasn’t until Gupt that both Rai and Shah came into their own. The thriller followed a brooding young man on the run after being falsely accused of killing his stepfather, while getting occasionally distracted by two seductive heroines.
Rai pushed Shah to adopt “trance and garage music” for the soundtrack. “I had so many songs for Rajiv just based on a rhythm section that he took a liking to,” Rai recalled. Perhaps that explains the range of third-party samples and riffs in the album.
While Viju Shah did find some success in romances and comedies, including Tere Mere Sapne and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, he developed a niche in the action and thriller genres, particularly with club songs and eroticised dance numbers. Outside of Rajiv Rai’s productions, Shah had an interesting soundtrack for Ketan Mehta’s 1997 James Hadley Chase adaptation Aar Ya Paar.
After Rai stopped making films in 2004, Viju Shah’s career came to a halt too. Fitna Dil (Shikhar, 2005) was a late-career hit. Rai’s last movie Asambhav (2004) had strong splashes of EDM that went nowhere.
“Rajiv wanted music that clicked with the FM crowd,” Shah recalled. “But there was some problem between radio stations and the record company, so the songs were never played. The film also flopped. It’s necessary for a film to be a hit for the music to work.”
A good news for enthusiasts of the Shah-Rai combo: the composer said that the two have been working on a new project.