We catch up with music director Sneha Khanwalkar who tells us about her show MTV Sound Trippin, how she got into music and the Dibakar Banerjee film she’s not supposed to talk about.
Sneha Khanwalkar is a rarity in Bollwood. Why, you ask? Well, because she’s female and she’s a music director. Names like Usha Khanna and Jadden Bai crop up in the category of female music director, and then my mind went blank, and thankfully Google re-enforced the fact that she is a bit of an anomaly. Born in Indore, her family created a backdrop of traditional Hindustani classical music that she became immersed in as a young child. “My mum’s family is into Hindustani classical music, Gwalior gharana and all that. So I almost grew up resisting it for some time because I thought it was very hardcore. We were made to sing at all sorts of family functions. It was very boring. We’d have to stop playing and come and sing for our uncles or our grandpas. So it was a little irritating but I think I got my most schooling from there, so I’m not complaining any more. I think naturally, the raw basics (of music) got clearer in my head subconsciously while growing up,” she muses.
Continuing on a path that strayed away from her musical leanings, she pursued animation and art direction because she “used to draw a bit”. Yet, she continued to feel like her career wasn’t nailed down. “Mostly small towns where the exposure is less, a career is something that you need to be successful in,” she explains. “So I’d rather take up something that I am curious about, and would stick with for life. So music came naturally and I thought there was a lot to explore… I was keen, and I thought I would learn better while working and I used to enjoy film music because that is what I grew up on. So, I decided to try and compose songs.”
Khanwalkar’s music composition is a biscuity base of traditional folk and ethnic rhythms, packed with the spicy and sweet flavour of a melodic mousse. She’s like the Mexican chilli chocolate of Bollywood. Just as you would judge and approach with caution the idea of wasabi ice-cream, Khanwalkar’s music could be misjudged as run-of-the-mill mainstream fare in Bollywood. But rather unobtrusively and distinctively, she blends together her contemporary influences with more regional and ethnic stylings.
Her claim to fame was when she composed music for Dibakar Banerjee’s films Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Love Sex aur Dhokha. Previously, she scored Ram Gopal Varma’s flop Go. Her latest adventure takes her into the core of music creation and sound collation as she travels the country working on MTV’s Sound Trippin – a new music show that traces the “journey from sound to song” (more on the show here). She explains that her favourite part of creating music is, “To walk around and make a melody.” What really drives her compositions is, “Being able to experiment at the same time and yet give out a simply structured song for even the people who collaborated for the song, like the villagers or the singers who have not really recorded on a mic, because we are revealing the song back to them. It’s important also to connect with them. And if you connect with them, then it’s like half the job is done”.
Check out the title song from the film Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! below.
Throughout the show, Khanwalkar explores one particular place and collects sounds to compose into a tune that exemplifies and mirrors the personality and culture of the place where she got the sounds from.
So far, it’s actually been quite abundant in the sense all the sounds and vocals that we found. On each song, the problem is to pick and choose, and only keep a few with a mother idea or a mother vocal or a mother sound… The problem is just letting go of greed, to want to use all the sounds that you found because all is good. The stuff that we find we can make 10 songs out of one place there is so much.
Five episodes down, Khanwalkar has made songs for Qila Raipur (Punjab), Varanasi, Yellapur (Karnataka), Goa and Kanpur. And out of these experiences the one place that had shocked her the most were meeting the Siddis, the descendants of African settlers that came to India 400 years ago, in Yellapur.
They don’t know of their lineage and they don’t know where Africans stand in the world in terms of music and rhythm… It’s super ironic for me to see and hear because I really look up to African music and the African sensibility of rhythm and vocals and everything else. They just have it in them. I mean these guys are from there and they don’t know about it and that they are very good themselves. They would have never known. This is something that really shook me up. They don’t know how they are different from other singers. Now, they’ve heard themselves on speakers and on a track and if we hadn’t covered them, I wonder how many years it would have been till they would have realized.
Take a look at the Yellapur episode of MTV Sound Trippin below.
Working so intricately with the everyday noises of a place, the rhythms and movements, Khanwalkar is creating something out of essentially a bag full of sounds. According to her, it has made her look at the parameters of music differently. Her view or, as she put it, “universal thought” was “that you could use any sound and you could make a song out of it,” which “miraculously came true and becomes truer each time” she makes a song per episode. Her restrictions while scoring a film and liberties while creating music for Sound Trippin become all the more evident when you bring an audience into the picture to experience what you’ve created. No art form is complete without a good ol’ reaction from punters.
Another thing that got proved along the journey is that you could make a song out of any words. It could even be gibberish and it can still be fun. And it’s been accepted because even the regional languages, like in film, we constantly fight the fact that, ‘Yeh lyrics karenge toh Hindi mai zyada regional hona chahiye.’ It should not alienate anybody, the entire nation should relate to it. So let’s keep it in Hindi or Hinglish. These are a few things that a lot of people are battling with for a long time and now, I think that’s getting broken as well. When I see the comments (on the Sound Trippin videos), I see someone from an other state or some Parminder Singh is commenting on a Konkani song. So I think that the audience also needs to be given a chance to sit, listen and react. That is what is happening through this show.
Would working with this kind of freedom change Khanwalkar’s approach to making film music? “No. My approach to Bollywood has always been a bit off. The only difference is that it’ll be accepted by producers a little bit more, because they have seen it work and will not be afraid of experimenting. That is the only difference it’s going to make. Otherwise, I’ve tried to stay true to the scripts and stay really true to the director I am working for and not the producers.”
In the works for Khanwalkar at present is her latest score for Anurag Kashyap’s crime drama Gangs of Wasseypur, which recently got selected for the Cannes Film Festival 2012.
I’m working on Gangs Of Wasseypur with Anurag and it’s a two-part film. One is done and they’ll be releasing the music in two parts as well. It’s a long project, I think it will go on for another two monhts. Post that, I’m starting Dibakar’s yet untitled film. Which I don’t know if I should mention.
Check out the trailer for Kashyap and Khanwalkar’s Gangs of Wasseypur below.
Saturday’s (May 19) MTV Sound Trippin episode is dedicated to revisiting the previous episodes and get a bigger picture at the behind-the-scenes of the last five destinations (promo below).
Photos by Ankita Chandra