Sacred Games composer Alokananda Dasgupta on life after the Netflix show, battling stage fright

In an interview with Firstpost, composer Alokananda Dasgupta talks about growing up among some of India's greatest intellectuals, the unanticipated magnitude of Sacred Games' success, and how India is slowly waking up to the wonders of original soundtracks.

Arshia Dhar August 27, 2019 09:21:14 IST
Sacred Games composer Alokananda Dasgupta on life after the Netflix show, battling stage fright
  • Alokananda Dasgupta, 35, grew up in Kolkata before moving to Toronto to study music and composition.

  • She's the daughter of National Award-winning filmmaker, Buddhadeb Dasgupta.

  • Dasgupta is a trained classical pianist, and has scored music for Netflix India's Sacred Games and Leila, among several other films and web shows.

Even after the end credits have rolled and the ghosts of the final images have faded, the apocalyptic, deep sound of the cello keeps ringing in the air, haunting with an urgency. The buzz around Netflix India's Sacred Games 2 has been doing the rounds ever since its release on 15 August, and its soundtrack has only made it louder. Credit goes to composer Alokananda Dasgupta, who was ushered in to India's coveted "scoring club" by none other than AR Rahman himself. The maestro took to Twitter to congratulate her on creating "a very interesting score and mix for Sacred Games" in season one.

But the Nawazuddin Siddiqui-Saif Ali Khan starrer isn't the lone feather in her cap. Her body of work boasts of projects such as Netflix original Leila, Amazon Prime original Breathe, National Award-winning Marathi films Shala and Fandry, among several others. And yet, one would wonder why she says she suffers from a "serious lack of confidence".

"I am trained in classical piano, and yet, I could never play it well, or play on stage," says the 35-year-old Dasgupta in an interview with Firstpost. Daughter of National Award-winning Bengali filmmaker, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, and great-granddaughter (from the maternal side) of Renaissance poet Rajanikanta Sen, the artiste's journey with music has largely been a personal one. Owing to her upbringing among artistic stalwarts, most are tempted to believe that her career was almost predestined, but the English graduate perceives it differently. "I didn't know whether I would take it (music) up professionally, or what exactly is it that I'd do, I just knew I would somehow make my way to it," she says.

Sacred Games composer Alokananda Dasgupta on life after the Netflix show battling stage fright

Music composer, Alokananda Dasgupta. Photo courtesy: Craig Boehman

The solitary experience of playing a piano in a room became an inherent part of Dasgupta's being. Her instrument, understandably, could not be a part of a group or band performance. For Alokananda, this "lonely" nature of her art soon turned into her comfort zone. "I would never perform in front of others as I was afraid I would freeze. I composed music and kept it to myself, scared of being judged," she recalls. Not much has changed even now — she operates from within the confines of her home in Mumbai, instead of availing the luxuries of a studio. It all stems from her quiet affair with music as a child, growing up on a generous diet of world cinema — from Satyajit Ray to Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski.

"I didn't really understand the films as a kid, but I could recognise the tracks. Once I grew up and was in college, my days after classes would be spent in this tiny office opposite my home in Calcutta, which had creative speakers. My brother-in-law had gifted me an mp3 collection back then. All I would look forward to in the day was to go back home and run to that office filled with cockroaches — which I am extremely afraid of — and spend my time listening to music," she recalls.

Her father wished for her to become a pianist, but Dasgupta never had the "nerves of steel" required to stun an audience with a solo. "Every time someone says "Alokananda, show us how you do it", I'll be like, sorry, I can't do that. I am still recovering from the post-traumatic stress of not being able to perform well despite trying. It was quite a bit of pressure, and came to a point where I thought if I couldn't perform then I am absolutely worthless, and shouldn't do anything with music," she recalls. However, the artiste soon transitioned out of this difficult period, realising that she could still discuss music and write about it, if not perform it. Eventually, Dasgupta went on to study music and composition at York University in Toronto, where, on hearing Ennio Morricone and Grace Jones' music in Polanski's Frantic after 16 years, she was able to recognise it almost instinctively.

"Scoring for OTT shows really suits this temperament of mine, where I don't have to be in front of others while at work," she laughs. It's almost tailor-made for her creatively, allowing the composer time and space to treat each episode like separate films. "With Sacred Games, it was one of the first times when I could sink my teeth into something up my alley. This genre, story, and team — everything fell in place. I don't have a very happening social life (laughs), so I loved binge-watching the rough edits of the show before getting to work. I couldn't anticipate the magnitude of its success, but I definitely knew it was something different." The project gave her the window to mull over larger philosophical truths, and dig deeper into her "latent darkness", which she "needed to let out".

"It is a joy to let the narrative do the work. That was present for both the Netflix shows I have worked on. There was great guidance as well," Dasgupta says. The sound of Sacred Games is underlined by the cello. However, the artiste didn't premeditate using it. Alokananda composes her music on the piano first, and then lets her instincts decide which instrument best suits the story being told. "I gravitate towards instruments that have that low sound, being a piano player. I choose whatever resonates with the dark theme, and yet has an orchestral quality to it. I also choose instruments from which I can extract more than what it offers anyway," she explains.

Working on several projects at the moment, Dasgupta mentions one of them being a Sudhir Mishra film for Netflix. Needless to say, the workflow has peaked for the music director ever since Sacred Games happened. "But it also brings this stress of having to live up to your past works. It does bring good things like recognition and validation — which we are all suckers for. So there's this constant battle over whether we compose only for ourselves or should we be dependent on other's validation," she says. Alokananda, however, admits to missing the "peace and innocence" of creating art when no one's watching. "And then again, there are times when you don't have any work, which is stressful too," she mentions, emphasising on the need to find a comfortable midway between the two extremes.

Despite being a woman in a male-dominated industry, Dasgupta has barely ever felt the weight of her gender while at work. "There are more women in this space now, for sure. But I have never thought of this gender factor consciously. Maybe it's my upbringing," she says. But the composer has a bone to pick with Indian cinema. "Even today, you'll see commercial cinema in India crediting 'music' and 'background score' separately — as if background score isn't music and one just turns up and beats a hammer or something to make some noise," Alokananda rues, adding that achieving widespread recognition without composing film songs in India continues to be a challenge even today. Maybe the business demands one to focus more on songs instead of OSTs, which may not be too profitable, according to her.

But Dasgupta remains hopeful, pointing to the proof in the pudding. "Things are changing, people are noticing and listening to OSTs. Earlier, when I was a child, "score" would only mean Satyajit Ray or Ilaiyaraaja. Rahman came much later. But now I can see, hear, and feel things change around me. Even if it's a small percentage, there is a niche audience which is nerding out and tripping on soundtracks of films. It's not just you and me."

As the interview nears its end, Dasgupta apologises for having delayed it by a couple of minutes. The reason? Noise, or rather her inability to stomach it. "There was repair work going on in my building so I thought I'll start once it's a little quiet. People think I exaggerate, but it's a condition. It drives me crazy and I have had to take medication for it. And then, if you choose to settle and work in a city like Mumbai, it only gets worse," she sighs, mentioning how she's had to switch several homes in order to escape sources of noise, only to end up encountering new ones.

But the artiste did manage to use her pain to her advantage while scoring music for Vikramaditya Motwane's 2016 thriller, Trapped. "The film has a protagonist who gets trapped in an apartment. Similarly, back then, I too felt trapped in my apartment while working on its music, as there was construction and repair work happening on every side of my building. I got frustrated and decided to record all the noise and see if it works. But the process wasn't exactly very therapeutic for me," she recalls, unknowingly reassuring us of her tendency to power through all odds.

For Dasgupta, her art seems to reflect her never-ending quest for the elusive middle-ground, which promises a space of creative bliss, balanced delicately between fame and solitude, music and noise.

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