In this exclusive interview with Firstpost, Vishal Bhardwaj talks about how he thinks of himself as a music composer first, and a filmmaker later.
This interview was first published in March 2019. It is being republished after Vishal Bhardwaj and singer-wife Rekha announced their new independent label VB Music, through which they claim to release at least one single every month.
Vishal Bhardwaj is best known for his lyrical dramas and dark comedies like Maqbool, Haider, Omkara, Kaminey, Makdee and most recently, Pataakha. But in this exclusive interview, he claims that it still pinches if he is only acknowledged as a filmmaker, and not a music composer. He confesses that his entry into direction was only to facilitate the release of his music. He recently won in the Best Music Director category at the Kerala State Film Awards for the Malayalam film Carbon. Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya is a rare film where he has contributed in the capacity of a music composer.
Firstpost caught up with him for an exclusive interaction in order to get to know better the music composer buried under the layers of a rich filmography.
How difficult or liberating is it to compose music for films you have not directed or written, like Satya, Ishqiya, and Sonchiriya?
Satya (1998) was a long time ago. I remember Ram Gopal Verma (director) was initially hesitant because he didn't want songs to make his film impure. While I don't think the music makes any film 'impure', it's still a challenge to blend the music with the narrative. Through the film, he realised that the film is becoming very violent and he told me he wanted to balm it with soothing melodies. The first song I made was 'Baadlon Se Kaat Kaat Ke'. He loved it and said he wanted the same type of music. Then I made 'Gheela Gheela Paani' and 'Kallu Mama'. By the end, he also wanted a thumping dance number. Then I presented him the tune of 'Sapne Mein Milti Hai', which was had been replaced by 'Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale' in Maachis. But I asked him how he would depict a Punjabi song on the people of Mumbai. He just said, 'you leave that up to me' (laughs).
The process of Ishqiya wasn't this unusual. Since I had co-written the film with Abhishek (Chaubey), we were very clear about the music we wanted. The songs were a part at the scripting stage itself. I came up with 'Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji' while writing the dummy lyrics. The idea of 'Abhi toh mai jawaan hoon' suited Naseer's (Naseeruddin Shah) character, but it had been said so many times. So then as a response to that, I came up with 'Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji'.
Sonchiriya was completely different because I hadn't written it. Otherwise I've mostly composed music for the films I've either directed, produced or written. And it's also a very difficult film to score for. It's a very dark film and Abhishek didn't want to compromise with the texture. There is no romance angle or dance songs. It's strictly a film composition. Songs like 'Baaghi Re' and 'Rua Rua' can't be enjoyed without the context. In India, money is attached with the music, which means that the songs should be enjoyed in isolation as well. It was a delight to score for Sonchiriya since I faced no such pressure.
You started your career as a music composer. Did you ever have directorial aspirations? Or directing films was only a creative release for your music?
Yes, it was for my music. I wouldn't have survived had I not become a director. I realised that in the early 2000s. All my contemporaries like Jatin-Lalit and Anand Malik haven't survived. You wouldn't survive unless you have a lot of money, open your production house and make your music. Now that I have become a director, I don't know what is more fulfilling. But at heart, I'm a music composer. If I'm not appreciated as a music composer, it still pinches me. I really don't care if they appreciate me as a writer and filmmaker. I've done 50 films as composer, and it still pinches me.
Shraddha Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor in a still from Haider
Why was it difficult to sustain as a music composer in the early 2000s?
Firstly, you had to compromise your aesthetic in favour of popular music. Secondly, it isn't necessary if a director likes me as a music composer. For example, Subhash Ghai's best music was with Lakshmikant-Pyarelal; Shakti Samanta's vibe was with RD Burman; Shaad Ali's best is by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. I can't force my music on anyone, but myself. Khud hi kuan khod ke paani nikaalna padega (I had to dig my own well to extract water for myself). Also, now that I've become a director, they get intimidated by me. But I want to have more music in my life. I want to compose for other films as well. My decision to compose music for only my films is only because no one else offers me. But I'd love to be a struggler in the music industry again.
Your early films have a lot of songs for the children, like 'O Papadwale' (Makdee), 'Chupdi Chupdi Chachi' (Chachi 420) and 'Jungle Jungle' (The Jungle Book). Can you talk about any recent song of yours that was also composed keeping children in mind? Or do you think that child in you has faded over the years?
I don't think the child within me has died. All those films revolved around children, except Chachi 420. But we used a child's perspective to make Chachi (played by Kamal Haasan) look adorable. But the music of that film is my favourite, particularly the song 'Ek Wo Din'. It didn't become so popular when the film released but over the years, it has grown on people, thanks to television.
Kamal Haasan and Tabu in a still from Chachi 420
All your compositions, whether from Omkara (set in Meerut), Haider (Kashmir), Pataakha (Rajasthan), and Sonchiriya (Chambal), are very true to their land. How do you incorporate local elements from places you have not grown up in or around?
Filmmaking allows you to live so many lives across cultures. I had never been to Kashmir before Haider. I went there with my co-writer and listened to the Kashmiri folk music. India is so rich culturally as there's a new dialect every few hundred kilometers. I wanted these local elements to enrich my film and music as well.
We all know how much Shakespeare has influenced your films, given your trilogy of adaptations (Maqbool, Omkara and Haider). But to what extent has he shaped up your music?
My most unusual songs have come from Shakespeare. 'Aao Na' from Haider is one such song. It was in his script that the grave diggers are singing a song while doing their job. So I told Gulzaar saab (lyricist) that it'd be fun to do a song with dark humour. Similarly, in Othello, when Iago takes Cassio for a drink and makes him dance, I thought it's such a zabardast Bollywood song-and-dance situation. Hence, 'Beedi Jalai Le' in Omkara happened. Besides these instances, I'm just fascinated by poetry. And Shakespeare was a great poet.
In your films, love often blooms in the midst of crisis. Do you also use this contrast, of tension and melody, in your music?
I don't do it consciously. It usually stems from the situation. It is interesting that when I write, the writer within overcomes the director. And when I make music, the composer in me gets the better of the writer. So this conflict is always there. And without conflict, without tension, there can be no music. But basically, I'm a film composer. So the film is my priority even when I make music.
A still from 'Aao Na' in Haider
You have shared a long, beautiful partnership with Gulzar. When you work together, how is the process like? Do you have any rituals? I have heard both of you love tennis. Do you make songs while playing a game, or is the space too sacred for that?
No, when we play tennis, the focus is on defeating each other. We've made a lot of songs while traveling. When our flights get delayed, the best songs come out of those hours, like 'Ibn-E-Batuta' (Ishqiya) and 'Bekaran' (Saat Khoon Maaf). So we even joke when we're unable to come up with a song, we should go to the airport and compose it there. But it's a lot of healthy back and forth between both of us when we make music. When he was a director, the situations where there was music were refined. He was always clear about what he wants. When I became a director, he gave me that authority. Sometime when I disagree with him on some expression, and he insists, I give in because his instincts are very strong. Also, though he's involved in the process, he has the distance to be more objective.
You have worked with other lyricists like Javed Akhtar (in Godmother, for which Vishal won a National Award for Best Music) and Varun Grover (in Sonchiriya). How different is their process from each other and from Gulzar?
Javed saab is a very good singer. So he learns the tune and then sings the songs. And he has a great sense of humour. He remembers so much of poetry that it's always enriching to meet him. I want to work with him more often. For Varun, I had heard only one song by him, 'Moh Moh Ke Dhaage'. He's very musical. He knows exactly the words to choose for a particular song. He won't use harsh words for a soft tune.
Priyanka Chopra in a still from 'Darling' in Saat Khoon Maaf
You know your wife Rekha Bhardwaj since college days. How has your professional partnership developed over the years?
I always bounce all my songs with Rekha. Our tastes are very similar. She is the first person who reacts to my music. There have been times when she tells me that she isn't suitable for the song, and that I should get Sunidhi (Chauhan) to sing this. So she also has professional clarity. I really value her opinion.
You have sung very few songs, like 'Jhelum' from Haider and the title song of Pataakha. How do you know that this song has to be sung by me, and not any other singer?
I'm a reluctant singer. I record all the songs in my voice so that I can demonstrate it to my singer. Sometimes when the singer is not available, we go ahead with our shoot. And the unit insists that I only sing the song. But I've never volunteered to sing a song. I prefer to listen to other singers. I'm a music composer first.
All images from Twitter.