For a year-and-a-half before the huge cast of Eklavya came together to kick up dust at shooting locations in Rajasthan, Shantanu Moitra was doing what few music composers have the luxury of doing. With a guitar in his hand, he was giving music to every scene he heard during scriptwriting.
Music frames almost every scene of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s combat drama. With all that feudal tumult on screen, you would think the musical score of the film is full of clanging drums and trumpets. But Moitra’s idea of commanding music actually comes from an annual military do in Delhi: the bugles sounding out the retreat.
Eklavya is an action-packed film, but Moitra says his agenda was to cut a strong but tranquil track through it. That meant a lot of world music, cellos, French horns, and tymps to set the stage for the magnum-opus feeling.
The voice of the film is actually the sweet-sounding Hamsika, a youngster Moitra discovered in the jingle world. She sings Chanda Re, the soft love song lip-synced by Vidya Balan as she moons for Saif Ali Khan. Hamsika also chips in with the alaap for the love theme. The orchestral version of this theme forms the film’s musical backbone.
“We’ve used that strain to run through the film at various points. Eklavya uses music as a cinematic score in the way Hollywood sagas like Dr Zhivago or Casablanca do. It is not like our musicals, where the songs have a life of their own,” says Moitra.
There are only two song tracks in the film. Apart from Chanda Re, there is Janoon na, sung by Sonu Nigam and Swanand Kirkire, Moitra’s regular lyricist. It is based on the same tune as Hamsika’s love theme, but is used only as the credits roll.
There are a number of vocal arrangements in the soundtrack, including choral singing and alaaps. Another talented singer Moitra has used is Pranav, who is a product of the Kolkata-based ITC Sangeet Research Academy.
“The film’s music is based on stray thoughts really. For instance, I set the idea for Pranav’s singing and asked him to do his own thing and it worked wonderfully,” says Moitra.
There are seven crucial sequences in the film and the music envelops these. “In some ways, the music became the Bible of the shoot. On the sets, you would have a few hundred people, several camels, a train and horses and total chaos. Then the music would play and the chaos would become a scene,” he says. In the scene now called ‘The Hunt’, where there is much edge-of-the-seat action involving camels and a train, every movement was set to music.
Moitra’s comrade-in-arms, Kirkire, said the challenge was to allow the songs to travel in time. The film has a bizarre combination of period settings. It is contemporary, but with characters who live in a time warp. “It is important to make the songs stand out even when the film itself is overwhelming. We did that in Parineeta, too,” says Kirkire, who has also done the film’s dialogues.
Kirkire and Moitra came together during the making of Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi. Kirkire, who was assisting the director, ended up singing the haunting Bawra Mann. The two then went on to do the score of Parineeta. Kirkire did the lyrics for the film, but also sang Raat Hamari Toh, which stood its own against the hugely popular Piyu Bole.
“Piyu Bole worked so well and even though it is very melodic, the lyrics were equally strong,” says Kirkire, who is a great fan of the songwriters of the 1950s and 1960s—Sahir, Shailendra and, of course, Gulzar. Kirkire battled his musical roots for years before he made peace with it. His parents were singers and, when he left to study drama at the National School of Drama in Delhi, he determinedly moved away from music. Today, he assists directors, writes scripts and lyrics, but is comfortable using his unusual voice in offbeat songs.
What drew Kirkire to Moitra was the sensibility of Shubha Mudgal’s Ab ke Sawan. “It was modern, but rooted in local flavours. We are like-minded individuals. He’s relaxed, his musical crew spends most of the day playing carom and chatting. There’s nothing filmi about them,” he says.
Moitra’s own staple is still advertising jingles and that, he says, gives him the freedom to be choosy about film projects. His first ad jingle was the innovative Bolein mere lips for Uncle Chipps. The Punjabi sound was huge then, but Moitra opted to wait till he could find a different kind of venture. He was lucky enough to have Mudgal agree to his Ab ke Sawan. Virgin, which had just entered India, agreed to produce the album. Pradeep Sarkar directed the video for the song that went on to become a big hit. That started the long association between the director and the composer.
The Moitra-Kirkire team is now working on a dream project, Mishra’s film Khoya Khoya Chand set for a March release and based in the 1950s. “For music, there can be no better period than the 1950s. The lyrics are laced with Urdu and the six songs gave us total freedom to experiment,” says Moitra.
Their other big project is Sarkar’s film for Yashraj Films, which is being shot in Varanasi.