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Background to the fore


It pays to be unpredictable with background scores these days, so no shehnai wailing in death scenes, no sax for seduction and no violin for mush.

The song Khoya khoya chand from the 1960 Dev Anand film Kala Bazar is one of Bollywood's romantic classics. In the recent Anurag Kashyap production Shaitan, however, a souped-up version of the song - produced by the Kiwi, Mike McCleary - slow in tempo and infused with elements of electronica, serves as the background score for a violent shootout sequence. The result is dramatic. The violence - of which there is plenty here - seems, well, almost serene.

Sandeep Shirodkar pulled off an equally dramatic background coup in Dabangg. When Salman Khan finds his mother, played by Dimple Kapadia, dead, the violin doesn't start wailing. Instead an electric guitar is played to convey the anguish of Chulbul Pandey. Shirodhkar, in fact, says he is more interested in background scores than filmi numbers. "You can try out so many things and it's much more layered than doing just the soundtrack, " says the 34-year-old whose background work for Once Upon a Time in Mumbai won him many admirers. "Sometimes using a song effectively or even silence can help a scene have more of an impact. "

He is no stranger to Bollywood. His father, Hemant Shirodkar, used to play the guitar for legendary Bollywood composers Kalyanji-Anandji. Shirodkar himself is more inclined towards soft synths and Western sounds and is great at breaking musical clichês.

Background music is coming of age in Bollywood, helped by producers and filmmakers open to new ideas, and a slew of composers - both from India and abroad - creating new kinds of sound.

"A background score is integral to a film and the new crop of filmmakers who are well-versed with Hollywood have realised this, " says Salim Merchant of the music composer-duo Salim-Sulaiman, which has scored the background music for movies like Band Baaja Baraat, Action Replayy and Rocket Singh. "An equally important reason for the evolution of background music in recent years is the 'urbanisation' of Hindi films. And the spurt in new kinds of cinema like Ab Tak Chappan, Chak de! India, Bhoot and more recently, Shaitan, have also given music composers a chance to write innovative scores. "

Fusion maestro Karsh Kale scored his first-ever Bollywood film when he collaborated with New Delhi-based electronica act Midival Punditz for Farhan Akhtar's Karthik Calling Karthik. The romantic thriller gave the three a chance to introduce Indian audiences to a sound that wasn't run-ofthe-mill. The New York-based Kale, instead, thinks that it's the viewers who are perhaps more appreciative of a background score. "Everything is scored today, even if you are watching a video of someone's cat on Youtube, it is usually scored, " he says.

The Hollywood influence is telling too. As Wayne Sharp, a regular background score composer for Prakash Jha films, observes, "Films in the US (especially independent films) have a much more subtle approach to the music and sound effects and don't get in the way or bring to your attention that you are watching a film and listening to the music. More Indian directors are opening up to an understated score and sound effects. "

As in every other aspect of filmmaking, computers have made creating and recording background music easier. The old days saw 30, 40 or even 80 member-orchestras which assembled in a hall or projector room and played to the cue of marks etched out on the film reel by the editor. It was a process that took three or four weeks when one worked everyday from 10 to 9. Now, a composer can work at home on a laptop and go to orchestral libraries which give him access to preset music. "But you are sharing that library with 10, 000 other people and there's a pretty good chance that the phase you've used has also been used in some littleknown amateur film!" says Ranjit Barot, who composed the background score for Shaitan.

How important background music is becoming is evident from the fact that western composers are being roped in to write the scores for Hindi films. In Dev Benegal's Road, Movie released in 2009, Michael Brook, who composed music for Sean Penn's Into The Wild and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, was hired to write the background score. "The background music of the film was a non-Indian hybrid with elements of African music, " says Brook, who composed the music sitting in Hollywood. "While the film was shot in Rajasthan, Benegal was very keen to not have the film anchored to a particular place in terms of music. "

Sharp says he has seen many changes since he did his first Indian film, Gangaajal. "I am also seeing so many more Indian films without any songs now which need a score to bring out the emotions, " he says.

Is there a difference in terms of technology between Bollywood scoring background music and Hollywood? "Not really, " says Sharp. "The US just spends much more time and money on the background music and mixing in relation to the overall cost of the film. It tends to be rushed here. "

And there's the small matter of mindset. "I have to bite my tongue every time the composer is referred to as a 'technician' in India, " says Sharp. "I hope that term changes. "

With inputs from Ruhi Batra

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