Amit Trivedi on the art of finding a balance between composing for film narratives and making hit songs

Devansh Sharma

Sep 23, 2019 09:10:54 IST

Entering music composer Amit Trivedi's studio feels like walking into a shrine. The compactness of the place in Mumbai's Andheri barely betrays its towering significance in the landscape of Hindi film music today, considering it belted out memorable numbers for films like Manmarziyaan, Andhadhun and Kedarnath last year.

An odd picture of two Minions, with one holding a guitar, overlooks Trivedi's seat. The popular animated figures seem to be his trusted secret-keepers, as his computer screen flashes a Minion screensaver guarding the project he's working on currently, in order to maintain confidentiality. The artiste composes for as many as seven film albums every year, along with doing stage shows and live concerts.

 Amit Trivedi on the art of finding a balance between composing for film narratives and making hit songs

As we begin the interview, I give him a low-down on his non-conformist streak in the highly formulaic Hindi film music industry today, only to see him react with a shrug. He maintains he does not know any other way to function as a composer, besides creating music that's true to him. If that involves not adhering to industry diktats, he is willing to pay the price for it.

However, his non-conformist approach has often posed several challenges. He mentions there have been films to which he couldn't react instinctively through music. However, since the medium was a Bollywood film, he made the extra effort of incorporating his music into the screenplay. A recent example is that of Jagan Shakti's science drama Mission Mangal, earlier this year. The film is based on the real-life story of scientists at the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO), who'd achieved the unimaginable feat of sending a satellite to Mars in their maiden attempt.

"It was a tough film to do a song for. Mission Mangal is not the kind of film that naturally demands songs. If scientists at ISRO break into a song ('Om Mangalam Mission Mangalam'), it looks very forced and unreal. We were also thinking initially whether songs are required at all. But R Balki (producer and co-writer) came up with the idea of having a song in that situation. So I just made the song for the sake of it. I considered it as just serving to the needs of the system, the needs of the business. But even in that limitation, me and Amitabh (Bhattacharya, lyricist) came up with something quirky. We added the pundit's chant angle to it, and I think it worked really well," says Trivedi.

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He adds that he tries his best to strike a balance between scoring for films (or composing for the narrative) and making songs with immense recall value. However, his creative process for every project strictly revolves around composing music that fits the narrative like a glove. Another instance when he faced said conflict as a music composer and a film scorer was in Sriram Raghavan's black comedy Andhadhun (2018).

"I've been a Sriram Raghavan fan since Ek Hasina Thi. When I watched that film, I was amazed by it. Then he followed it up with Johnny Gaddar and Badlapur, all top-notch thrillers. But it was a task to make my music fit into his world. Initially, we really struggled with the idea to incorporate songs in a film with a blind pianist as the protagonist. I told Sriram I won't be able to add songs anywhere unless the pianist is also a singer. So we turned him (Ayushmann Khurrana) into a singer-pianist. Another challenge was three romantic songs, 'Naina da kya kusoor', 'Aap se mil kar achha laga', and 'Laila Laila' were coming back-to-back, very fast in the first half. It was a divided house there since many felt the love between Ayushmann and Radhika's (Apte) characters was blossoming in those portions. But I felt the actual movie starts with the murder scene, and we were taking too long to reach there. I know it was my loss since 'Aap se mil kar achha laga' was my favourite track, but I asked Sriram to remove it from the film," he says.

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However, it's not as if Trivedi has only had difficult experiences while scoring for films. He confesses to having found a soulmate in a filmmaker who was as non-conformist as him — Anurag Kashyap, who, despite being fiercely individualistic, managed to use Trivedi's best music in his films. This year incidentally marks a decade since Trivedi's breakthrough film Dev.D, which was directed by Kashyap. Post this film, — that proved to be a landmark in the careers of both men — the two collaborated in the 2015 period crime thriller, Bombay Velvet, and more recently Manmarziyaan (2018). "It's always the same collaborating with Anurag sir. He just takes everything you compose and then writes the script accordingly. So when I compose for his films, I don't have to think about any industry trend. I throw all of them out of the window. Whoop! And I focus on making music that is just beautiful."

While Dev.D and Bombay Velvet, which introduced him to nuances of jazz music, were equally special, Trivedi is glad Kashyap chose a romantic film as his latest outing. "Romantic music has an instant connect with the audience. Out of all the films I did last year, only the romantic ones, Andhadhun, Manmarziyaan, and Kedarnath, worked. I also did Padman, out of which only the romantic song ('Aaj se teri') worked. Rest all were situational tracks. Even Raid, Fanney Khan, and Helicopter Eela weren't romantic, so they didn't work as well," he explains.

Trivedi jokes about having requested director Rajkumar Gupta, with whom he collaborates frequently, to make a romantic film. The filmmaker gave Trivedi a break with his 2008 crime thriller Aamir. Ever since, the two have worked together on Gupta's subsequent crime thrillers, including No One Killed Jessica (2011), Ghanchakkar (2013), and Raid (2018). "I love him as a filmmaker. Every director has a voice, and his comes from a dark thriller space. Again, it's difficult to compose songs for his film as they're mostly background. But with me and Amitabh collaborating together, we ensure we create something effective within the given framework."

Wearing a bright red T-shirt with brown trousers, Trivedi is at his animated best. On processing the question, his face bursts into a myriad of expressions. But almost instantly, he holds himself back and answers calmly, while dropping his guard every now and then.

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"All the filmmakers I've worked with since Aamir till Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (his upcoming Telugu film), I've been extremely fortunate. Yes, things don't work out sometime, but that happens all over the world. I've been lucky to work with filmmakers like (Rhea) Kapoor (for Aisha), she's very sweet; with R Balki sir and Gauri Shinde. Though they are husband and wife, their sensibilities as filmmakers are completely different. But I thoroughly enjoyed the process of composing for English Vinglish and Dear Zindagi, which were directed by Gauri, and Padman, which was directed by Balki sir. I am very fortunate I have been offered films like Mission Mangal and Sye Raa, that naturally don't demand the formulaic music. In my entire career, no filmmaker has ever asked me to stick to the industry trends," he informs.

However, he points to one instance when he bowed down to industry demands, owing to a sincere request from co-producer Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. "I did a rehash of 'Ye jo halka halka suroor hai' in Fanney Khan. He asked me to bail him out. Haha! But it was my first and last one. I decided I won't do another one ever again. There was another one in the same film (of 'Jawaan hai mohabbat') but I requested the producers to take Tanishk (Bagchi) instead. It's not about whether I'm good or bad at it. It's not the question at all. Why would I, or for that matter any composer, make a remix if he has constantly proven for 10 years he is capable of much more? It only benefits the producers and the label. Has any composer ever said they get anything out of a remix? Have they ever said it's their 'passion'?"

Trivedi, as he reiterates several times, is passionate about original film scores, which is what made him branch out to South Indian films, including Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy and the four remakes (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam) of Vikas Bahl's 2014 coming-of-age film Queen (for which he had composed music). "The guys in South are much more open to original compositions. Unlike Bollywood, they aren't dictated by trends like a romantic song, an item number, a dance track, a rap sequence, and a rehash. So it's much better out there," says Trivedi.

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Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy is a historical drama on a lesser known Telugu freedom fighter from the 18th century. It revolves around what was arguably the first war waged against the British in India, even before the 1857 Revolt. Since it was a period drama, Trivedi had to go an extra mile and do some research. While his previous period films, like Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera (2013) and Bombay Velvet, were more intimate and genre-centric respectively, Sye Raa Narashimha Reddy is his first in the patriotic category. "It is a grand epic. So the music also has to be of that proportion. As soon as you listen to the music, you should know it's from a war film from the 18th century. It can't be too conventional as it has to appeal to today's generation. At the same time, one has to believe it belongs to that era," the composer says.

It is always a fine balance for Trivedi to strike, irrespective of the film's nature and genre. Though he insists that he composes to the screenplay, many of his songs have stood the test of time. As he continues to ride on his conviction, his ardent listeners, including me, hope he continues to create accidental gems like 'Zinda', 'Dariya' and 'Gustakh dil'.

All photographs courtesy of Rahul Sharda

Updated Date: Sep 24, 2019 10:06:41 IST