Listen closely to the catchy opening music of Dhoom Machale, the dance floor favourite from Dhoom 2. It is not a single sound, but the effect of “layering” two instruments, the key flute and a penny whistle. And it was not pulled off by a programming wizard but by Naveen Kumar, one of Bollywood’s most gifted flautists.
Naveen’s contemporary at the recording studios, sitarist Niladri Kumar, has added a great deal of depth to the rock-heavy angst of Bheegi Bheegi, scored by Pritam for Gangster. He used his electronic sitar, “zeetar”, for the effect.
Dilshad Khan’s sarangi in Bol Na Halke was one of the most remarked upon sounds in an otherwise ordinary album Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy composed for Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. His music is also a staple in the works of Himesh Reshammiya.
The synthetic sounds that rule film music may seem to have put an end to the age of the grand orchestras and the pleasure of listening to the sweep and depth of acoustic sounds. But a bunch of talented artistes backed by musically aware composers have managed to put acoustic music back in Hindi films.
“The return to the acoustic sound started around 10 years ago in the West. We have been slow in joining the trend,” says Pyarelal—the other half of the composer team led by Laxmikant—who is considered one of the most knowledgeable arrangers in Bollywood. Last month, he recorded with a mammoth orchestra for a dance number composed by Vishal-Shekhar for Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om. Even by standards set by the composers of yesteryears, it was a grand affair: 48 violins, 50 percussion instruments, 12 cellos, 14 dhols and 22 woodwinds. The music was recorded at one of the few large recording studios left in Mumbai since the digital system began, the Yashraj Studio in suburban Mumbai.
Veteran composer Pyarelal conducting the orchestra at Yashraj Studios, recording a song for Om Shanti Om
Young composers on the film music scene, such as Pritam, Shantanu Moitra, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Debjyoti Mishra, Salim Suleiman and, of course, A.R. Rahman, are increasingly using acoustic sound to create the drama in music that neither digital nor electronic sounds can. “Composers such as me who are musicians first are definitely biased towards acoustic instruments. For grandeur and effect, there is nothing like the acoustic sound, especially in films that are dramatic,” says Pritam.
Naveen has an explanation for it: The heavy surround sound system that is now a part of the movie experience requires that the speakers be filled with real, rich sounds and only an acoustic instrument played by a creative and imaginative musician can produce this.
In an age when a sampler can recreate just about any musical sound, it is not easy making a living as a musician in Bollywood. It is cheaper and quicker to generate music using software and bypassing the entire system of musicians.
The Cine Music Association in Mumbai today has 900 members, many of whom need to work outside their chosen field to make a decent living. Things have changed rapidly since the early 1990s, when electronic and digital music swamped the world of Hindi films. Multitrack recordings became possible, and it became easier for the same keyboard to dub different sounds on different tracks, slowly eroding the large orchestra concept.
Sanjeev Kohli, son of the legendary music director Madan Mohan, traces the decline of the orchestra to composers who had very little training and background in music.
Madan Mohan was renowned for using the skills of great Indian classical musicians in his songs. Ustad Rais Khan and his sitar were an inseparable part of his songs, and Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute and Ram Narain’s sarangi, too, figured prominently in his songs. And this was not true only of Madan Mohan; just about every respected composer used a wide array of versatile musicians. Laxmikant-Pyarelal, R.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Shankar-Jaikishen, S.D. Burman and almost every composer in that league became mentors to talented soloists. Practically every top grade classical musician today has played for films in the 1950s and 1960s.
Kohli found some of his father’s unused scores and put them together for Veer Zaara in 2004, and the music was recorded in a style that the film industry had almost forgotten—a large orchestra recording in a studio. The songs in the film needed sitars, flutes, sarangis and Indian rhythms—90% of the music was acoustic. Some musicians who played for Veer Zaara were, in fact, playing for a film song after years. It was tough even finding musicians who could grasp the nuances of Madan Mohan’s music.
“A lot of composers who were weak musicians started this trend of using electronics and sampled sound to help them with their work. They did not have to worry about finding the right musicians, tuning the instruments, or explaining the music to more trained individuals. The electronic instruments allowed them to experiment with sounds and create interesting variations for the listener,” says Kohli.
The result was that soloists soon found themselves sidelined, with the keyboard doing their work. But the new generation of musicians is fighting back by befriending technology. Naveen, who began his career with orchestra wiz Ilayaraja, is a composer’s dream. He is gifted enough for the composer to hand over a musical storyboard with the commission to fit his flutes into the track. If need be, Naveen can record, layer, mix the sounds of his own flutes at home and hand over the CD of his track to the music director.
“I don’t even really need to go to a studio though I prefer to because music should be a team exercise. I use technology only to create a certain kind of finished, high-end sound. But acoustic music will always remain the main element,” says Naveen.
Niladri Kumar, whose sitar and “zeetar” merge well with rock sounds—a noticeable element in many recent hit songs (Chupchupke from Bunty aur Babli, Alvida from Metro)—says the film industry is no longer a place for averagely talented small musicians that large orchestras could once accommodate. For his track in Gangster, he heard Pritam’s melody for the song, worked on the possibilities for his sitar, and sent the composer a whole bunch of choices he could use. In Chupchupke, he was given a portion of romantic music to meld his sitar sounds, which he did with great effect.
“You have very little time and space to prove your worth in film music now. But once you make a mark, you can get what you ask for. I, for instance, only select projects that interest me,” says Niladri. A top musician can, today, command anything between Rs20,000 and Rs35,000 for working on a song. However, such musicians are few, and they are extremely busy.
The bigger problem with creating music with real sounds is that it becomes an expensive proposition. And it takes a producer such as Yashraj or Vidhu Vinod Chopra to invest in acoustic musicians. Small film-makers find it easier to use synthetic sounds.
Vishal Dadlani who, along with partner Shekhar Ravjiani has used electronic and digital elements quite heavily in their club music for films, says the source of the music matters little if it creates the desired effect.
“The individual expression of each musician matters a lot in an orchestra, which is great if you are creating music that is soulful or dramatic, or tells a story. But you don’t need analogue sound for dance music. I use acoustic music only if the situation demands it,” says Dadlani.
Successful musicians today have to be part programmers but they say that adapting to technology does not mean selling out. “I am fine with using technology but I cannot let it dictate me. I am a musician, not just a keyboard wizard,” says composer Debjyoti Mishra, who will be in Mumbai next month to record an orchestra section for his music for Ramchand Pakistani .