How Filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar Gets His Soundtracks Right

From Shaitan to Taish, the carefully curated soundtrack has become a stand-out feature in Nambiar’s films. In an interview, the writer-director talks about his unique approach.
How Filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar Gets His Soundtracks Right

At the turn of the last decade, when the album for Bejoy Nambiar's debut feature film Shaitan (2011) came out, it was an outlier in many ways. The gleefully anarchic soundtrack was an assortment of genres and styles—retro funk, Tamil hip hop, death metal, electronic dance music—that disregarded the rules of traditional Hindi film music. It was not just the sound. Instead of getting a film composer and lyricist to do the songs, Nambiar assembled a variety of musicians: from Malayalam composer Prashant Pillai (Angamaly DiariesJallikattu), to Mumbai-based metal band Bhayanak Maut, to the New Zealand-born music producer Mikey McCleary. (Albums like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy and Gully Boy owe something to Shaitan in that it showed that such a format is viable in Bollywood). This approach has become a stand-out feature in all Nambiar films—DavidWazirSolo, and now, Taish—the soundtracks bearing a strong whiff of his musical tastes. 

In 2020, it is also an example of how to do multi-composer the right way. The format is fast becoming standard industry practice, not as an artistic choice, but as a model imposed by music companies and producers that enables them to dictate the terms of the film's music. Nambiar's film soundtracks are not only proof that the multi-composer format isn't necessarily a bad thing, they are also a reminder of how central the director is to film music, how it's an extension of his personality, and not a marketing tool decided by numbers and analytics. 

Nambiar takes great pains in putting together his soundtracks—and he may be the only Hindi film director who follows this approach. It's a whole different world of film music making, sometimes more closely resembling the job of music supervisors in Hollywood movies rather than the preferred working style in Hindi film industry. Since it often involves the use of already released tracks, it brings with it its own set of complications, of acquiring rights, and cutting through the red tape of labels and platforms. Shaitan's "Khoya Khoya Chaand" reimagining–its biggest hit–for instance, is not a part of the album, and the only way you can listen to it is in the form of a fan rip on YouTube.   

A few days after the release of Taish, which is both a film and a web series, Nambiar spoke over the phone about the art of curating his film soundtracks, how his tastes in music developed, and why AR Rahman may never work with him. 

Edited excerpts: 

How do you go about the soundtracks of your films? What's the process like? 

Right from my first film to Taish, it has always been a mixed bag: Already released tracks and tracks I get made specially for the film. 

I like to start collating sounds when I'm writing. I would say 90% of it happens during the writing. 10% is after I've shot, based on the right mood for it. 8 out of 10 times I try to look for a song that already exists, but it doesn't always work because there is some stuff you can never get access to. 

For instance, for the opening sequence of David, I always had Linkin Park's "In the End" in mind. That's how we had written it. There was a 6-7 months back and forth but they just refused to give it. I was so depressed. Then I happened to hear a track by Bramfatura called "Eyes like Violence". We recreated it as "Ghum Huye". 

Similarly, I had Lifafa's "MJRH" ("Main Jee Raha Hoon") for the climax in Taish. I told Suryakant Sawhney (Lifafa) that I will go to any extent to get the song. Budget wise too I told my Executive Producer that whatever happens, we have to accommodate this. We kept playing the song even while shooting the action scene. It was fitting to the tee, both musically and lyrically. Luckily, Sawhney's manager, Dhruv, smoothened it out for us, so it wasn't that difficult.

How were the original compositions in Taish like "Roshni Si" and "Re Baawri", made?

I gave Prashant Pillai a reference track for "Roshni Si" and he created something in the same mood. Again, for "Re Baawri", there was a reference track that didn't work out and Govind Vasantha gave me a scratch for something else. I told him to extend it. Hussain Haidry wrote the lyrics.

There's Lifafa's "Jaago" as well, which you use in the opening sequence. That song, and some other songs, are in the film, but not in the Taish album.

I'd like to get all the songs on the album. But the paperwork is very difficult, there are a lot of legalities involved. It becomes a very cumbersome process. I've realised it makes everyone's lives easier if I just license them for the film.

Have you ever been able to get a licensed track for the album as well?

In David we had "Tore Matware Naina" from Mani Baani. It exists in both the Maati Baani catalogue and the David album from T series, because we created a small difference in the track, musically we changed a bar.

Why can't you do that with the other licensed tracks that don't make it to the album? 

Sometimes, the artists are not comfortable with it. If it's an already released song, it is already given out to all the platforms. So if you put it in the film album, it becomes a conflict of interest and creates a lot of issues for both the artist and the music label.

Wazir had a track based on Advaita's Mo Funk.  

We recreated it for Mr Bachchan's voice. Advaita—those guys are phenomenal—they agreed to recreate it for us. It differs from artist to artist. Some are more than happy to recreate it, some are very anal about it should come out just the way it is. And I totally respect that.

For instance, I wanted to make small changes in the lyrics in "Jaago". The sound was perfect but I thought if I changed a word or two it would fit into the context even more. It says 'Doob raha hai desh'. I didn't want that because 'desh' becomes a much larger thing. But he (Sawhney) was not comfortable, he thought it would change the ethos of the song.

What are some of the other tracks that are not a part of the Taish album?

Apart from the two Lifafa songs I mentioned, there is Dhruv Vishwanath's "Wild" and "Mountain King". When Dhruv made "Mountain", I was one of the first ones to hear it and I immediately told him to not release it anywhere else and block it for me. There is Pav Dhariya's "Funk", which was introduced to me by my EP, Neha.

I had first heard MEMBA, who are from the UK, in Sky is Pink. I was checking out more of their music and I heard their song, O.D., which I really, really tripped out on. Again, it fit in so perfectly in the edit that my editor (Priyank Prem Kumar) told me that 'What if we don't get this song? Because I have cut it to the rhythm of the original.' I told him we will get it somehow.

There is "Saawan Mod Muhara", which is by Achint & the Khan brothers. My cameraman, (Harshvir Oberai) played the song when we were doing a recce and I really liked the track. Similarly, my production designer, Mandar, played Lifafa's MJRH for me and he suggested that we should use this song.

Then there is Bakshish, who has never officially put out a song. I had heard him sing at a music jam thing at a friend's house. I secretly recorded the song on my phone and I kept listening to it. I reached out to him and requested if he will give it to me. He said, 'Sir, I have not recorded it yet and I have never professionally recorded a song.' I realised that he is such an untapped talent. So I got Dhruv in, who was sweet enough to offer to produce and record the track. I am launching my own music label next week with his song; it's called "Milana Tu".

Punjabi wedding songs like "Kol Kol" and "Shehnai Bajne Do" don't exactly sound like they belong to a Bejoy Nambiar album. 

They are not. But I don't want to get so ahead of myself that people think I am not open to stuff. Without offending anyone, "Shehnai", for example, is not my zone at all. But in the context of the film it works (it happens in the backdrop of a wedding)… It was Anurag Bedi's (of Zee Music) idea. He had given me another song, which seemed way too energetic then he suggested why not try this."Kol Kol" was also from a catalogue of songs that Zee Music gave me; coincidentally I'd been in talks with its composer, Raghav Sachar, about working together.

Do you have trouble with producers, labels?

When I start conversations with my investor, producer, they are like, 'Music kaun karega?' I give them some names and they look at me blankly, 'Yeh sab kaun hai, kaun sunega?' I tell them 'How would you know unless you release them?' It's quite a struggle. That's why you have to do these barter deals.

I don't understand how they benefit by taking away performing rights. So I bowed out of it and I went with Trend, a South Indian music label, where I worked out an arrangement that after 10 years all the rights would come back to me. I wanted to protect the composers.

Multiple-composer has become a bad word, at least for some of us. 

(Laughs). Certain music composers don't want to work with me by the way, because they want to do the whole thing. I am so used to it now, and it stops me from working with some musicians. I am dying to do one film with Rahman sir. But I am also wondering what if I end up wanting other composers in the same album, and then he wouldn't want to be a part of it. I have gone to him so many times for so many things and it has never worked out but there's one film he said 'yes' to, which I'm yet to make. Hopefully if things work out he will still do it.

For Solo, you went to Trend, a South Indian label, because you said they are more artist-friendly than the ones in the Hindi film music industry.

I hope I have not made an enemy for life with Sony.

They had some ridiculous clauses. One of them would mean that the artists won't be able to perform their own songs. That was the issue. I don't understand how they benefit by taking away performing rights. So I bowed out of it and I went with Trend, where I worked out an arrangement that after 10 years all the rights would come back to me. I wanted to protect the composers.

Also, another big battle I am fighting is I am trying to carve out background music from my films. I want to publish it independently through my label.

I listen to all kinds of crazy, trippy tracks but my foundation is strong because of my affinity towards ragas.

You were an AD to Mani Ratnam, who is known for his strong sense of music. At the same time, you seem to be in touch with the indie music scene in the country. How did this approach of curating soundtracks for your films come about?

I attribute this to Prashant (Pillai). I was going to do Shaitan with only him as the composer. I wanted Hindi versions of 2 songs by Yuvan Shankar Raja. I thought between Prashant and Yuvan we'll make the album. But when that didn't work out, Prashant suggested the idea of approaching different artists to collaborate on the album. He set me in the path of wanting to work with other bands and musicians. I wouldn't have even gone there if he hadn't pushed me.

Then I started writing down different musicians I wanted to work with: Ranjit Barot, Anupam Roy, Amar Mohile. We made a list of people we wanted to talk to. Then it started going crazy, David, Solo, everywhere. It shows he's such a secure musician. He was also just starting off. But the fact that he looked at the bigger picture and he saw that a varied soundtrack will serve the film better.

What are the genres you think you are drawn to?

I think my base is classical, because my sister is a professional classical singer. From an early age I have only heard her sing.  Somewhere in all my music you will see my affinity towards Indian classical music, whether it's "Mo Funk" in Wazir, or "Re Baawri" in Taish, which is raga Kalyani. I listen to all kinds of crazy, trippy tracks but my foundation is strong because of my affinity towards ragas. Her name is Bindu Nambiar. I got her to do a song in Solo ("Shiva Omkara") and a bit in Shaitan ("Nasha).

But your soundtracks are also hip and have an ambient, electronic kind of sound. 

It's because I like drum 'n' bass a lot. I went to college in the UK, where it was massive. Your friends in school and college kind of shape the music you listen to. When I was studying, I was around some interesting people who used to listen to a variety of music. That's how I started developing a decent taste in music. There was a guy who used to have 15-20 tapes in his bag all the time, apart from books. I had a car, so he used to be the DJ, playing his tapes in my car. Because of him I would listen to all these new artists I had never heard of.

So I guess some of that seeps into your system. Sometimes I go back to old, random tracks, which may be out of whack right now but it might be useful for the context I am trying in my film. Because of my regular South-hall trips I have this idea of doing gangster dramas.

In college I also used to be obsessed with movie soundtracks. They used to release two soundtracks. One would have the score and one had all these songs. I used to keep buying both. I remember buying the soundtrack for Tomorrow Never Dies, which Moby had done, and films like The Pelican Brief, Cast Away. They would have a variety of songs. Suddenly you would hear different artists performing. You wouldn't even know half the people in the album. Even a shitty movie like Speed 2 would have a crazy soundtrack. You would find these really interesting gems in some of them.

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