Classical musicians turning composers for mainstream Hindi films have largely been one-off cases. Examples are few and far between—the teaming up of Shivkumar Sharma-Hariprasad Chaurasia for the Yash Chopra films in the 80s, calls to mind, and there was santoor player Rahul Sharma composing for just one film, Mujhse Dosti Karoge. Sitar player Niladri Kumar, who has composed 4 original songs from Laila-Majnu–written and produced by Imtiaz Ali and directed by his brother Sajid–is more of a natural fit than you’d think. With pieces that last not more than a few seconds, his contributions in songs of Gangster, Life in a Metro have stood out or have nearly stolen the show (that thrilling interlude in “Crazy Kiya Re” from Dhoom 2.) It’s no mean feat in our singer-driven music culture. What set apart Kumar from Bollywood’s long-standing tradition of talented session musicians was his dazzling innovation on the sitar: The zitar, which sounds as though the ancient instrument, taking a break from centuries of puritanism, took a micro-dosing of ecstasy and went electric for a night.
After a streak of films which ended with Aashiqui 2, he decided he was done with it. “I said I don’t want to do this anymore… I wanted to play for myself,” he says. We are at the Banana Leaf in Andheri. He digs into his curry and rice, suggests I order the chilly potato dosa. He has the kind of long hair that goes with being a classical artiste, he is wearing Kurta and jeans. Kumar, who has composed for Kannada film Niruttara (2016) in the past and a song in the Hindi film Shorgul (2016), says that Laila-Majnu was a no-brainer because of his admiration for Imtiaz Ali, who he didn’t know personally before.
“The only thing I asked him was that is the ending tragic? He said it is. Then I knew, whatever I score has to have that hint somewhere that all is not well,” he says.
Listening to the songs of Laila-Majnu–which has contributions from Joi Barua and Kashmiri band Alif—I noted how sparingly Kumar has used the zitar, as a chef uses his secret sauce. In the 4 songs he has composed, it appears only in two. Topping off the dreamy, loungeish, if somewhat conventional, romantic number “Ahista.” More striking is the muted ferocity with which it launches the Hindustani rock number “Hafiz Hafiz,” in which it makes a return, when the song, helmed by Mohit Chauhan in “Sadda Haq” mode, reaches a frenzy.
“Many great musicians ask me that why don’t I play more of it? I say no. First of all, you don’t expect it to come but then it comes, and then it leaves you with something,” says Kumar who was born in Kolkata and brought up in Mumbai. He is a fifth generation sitar player in his family. His father Kartick Kumar played in such classics as “Piya Tose Naina Lage,” and was in charge of the sitar section for Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
Kumar grew up close to Hindi film music, yet far from it.
“As a 10-year-old, I was talking about yaman, raag vilavaal, kaafi, all this. We have never had Chura Liya hai in the house… RD Burman stayed close to our place, but for a long time, I didn’t know about his greatness… The only thing I remember listening to the radio was if a classical programme or one of my father’s pieces was playing,” he says. The exposure happened once he was in high school, where Kumar was surrounded by friends who were into Western rock-pop, Bengali nerds who would listen to Scorpions on big walkman headphones while solving maths. “I still love Still Loving You because it reminds me of those days,” says the 45-year-old Kumar who has played with John McLaughlin, toured with Zakir Hussain. His non-film work includes If: Magical Sounds of Sitar (2003), and the zitar album Chillout Forever (2007).
In “Hafiz Hafiz,” he uses the folk phrase Hukkus Bukkus, sung by children. “It sounds very sweet, but if you hear the meaning of it, it is almost like, Who am I?”.
As with many of his peers, he is irked by the misappropriation of the term “fusion”, but agrees that Hindi film music is the ultimate example of fusion music. “The concept existed much before the term was coined, and the biggest example if Hindi film music. From the days of Anil Biswas to Naushad sahab, where hardcore raag-based melodies had orchestration,” he says. For the Laila-Majnu update, Kumar drew from the film’s Kashmir setting; he has used rubabs, sarod, Middle-Eastern percussions that include the darbouka. In “Hafiz Hafiz,” he uses the folk phrase Hukkus Bukkus, sung by children. “It sounds very sweet, but if you hear the meaning of it, it is almost like, Who am I?”.
I had heard Kumar live only once, in Lavasa, a private city in the hills near Pune. I had lost my way to the concert, which had already started. The streets, modelled on European towns, with bridges, lake, sidewalks and cafes, were deserted. There wasn’t a soul to ask for directions, and I couldn’t see the venue as far as the eyes went. But I could hear the unmistakable strains of the zitar from a distance, which pierced through the evening summer air. I had followed the music and found my way. The zitar was born out of a need to be audible enough around the time Kumar was playing in bands in the early 2000s. He had, at first, plugged in a microphone to increase the volume, then added a pick-up, used the distortion, and so on. He has made himself heard.
Listen to the songs of Laila Majnu here: