Sneha Khanwalkar’s Quest To Find Her Groove

The composer of Gangs of Wasseypur, and Manto, on her long absence from making music, signing another Anurag Kashyap film, fighting battles in her head, and why the whole world should operate on Skype
Sneha Khanwalkar’s Quest To Find Her Groove

With the explosive, entertaining albums of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) part I and II, Sneha Khanwalkar generated what was perhaps the last shake-up in Hindi film music. It was the last time since Amit Trivedi's Dev D (2009), and before that, AR Rahman's Roja (1992), that we had felt the shock of the new of having never heard anything like that before. And if there was ever a time that Hindi film music could do with some revitalising, it is now. Khanwalkar, back after a long break, has composed 4 songs in Nandita Das's Manto, a biopic of the provocative Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto.

This is Khanwalkar's tenth year since her first full album, Dibakar Banerjee's Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye (2008), and the number of films she has done in her career has been unusually less. Blame it on the shrinking creative freedom in film music; the composer's reputation for being moody; her private battles in her head. But all this has also resulted in a body of work that is solid, uncompromising. 

Khanwalkar has an avant-garde approach to electronic music, and one of her signatures is how she melds that with the most rustic of folk songs. Growing up in Indore in an environment of Hindustani classical musicians at home she imbibed a sense for strong melodies and a love for folk, but she also rebelled against the puritanism. In high school, she didn't take to rock music as most of her friends. "I couldn't feel the angst," she says. In other words, a misfit among misfits. Instead, she found her sound in trip-hop, glitch, drum-'n'-bass, industrial music.

In a conversation that happened over phone, that was as unpredictable as her music, punctuated by her asking the domestic-help didi to let the clothes dry, stepping out to buy an ice-burst, and getting distracted by her cat, the 35-year-old composer spoke about working on the songs of Manto, what she had been up to in the last few years, her reputation as a moody and difficult collaborator, and signing another Anurag Kashyap film.

Edited excerpts:

Manto sounds like the kind of music made in India around the time of independence. What was the brief by the director? Did you have any references?

The idea was to think of such melodies based on the poetry of 1940s and 50s. My influences were a lot of older soundtracks like Lekin…I had been hearing "Chala Vaahi Des." The only brief that Nandita (Das) gave me – which was a bit disheartening initially, but I was okay with it later – was no electronic music… Because in our first couple of meetings I played stuff like Muslimgauze as reference. But I still managed to slip in some electronic, like some parts in the end of "Nagri." Nandita sometimes did turn around and say Why does it sound techno suddenly? Then you are like Mix issue hai, mix issue hai. And then we never fixed it because you also know that the audience is ready for it; if you give them a little cinematic sound, it's alright.

She also wanted me to use as many Indian instruments as possible. My music producer for "Nagri" Anjo John used the Indian Banjo; he started sampling it so that we could get the slightly dirty sound. And then in "Bol," we have this weeping violin, played by Anubrato Ghatak, that's just very raw. There hasn't been too much experimentations with sounds because one wants to also branch out, do different things.

There is a song called "Ab Kya Bataun." The singer in it, Shubha Joshi, is quite fantastic. Ila Arun, who is cast as Jaddanbai and the song is pictured on her, came up with the idea of using her. It's weird how I didn't know about her; she lives in this city and she has a fantastic voice. It was nice recording with her. I went to her house in Borivali. It was that kind of laid-back sitting with harmonium: we had nice Marathi lunch, we worked a little more. Her house was so cosy, she had her riyaaz classes with her disciples, and she asked me if I can wait for a couple of hours. I sat there for a while, then I said I think I will just stretch my back a bit, went to the other room and took a nice nap. Then tea time happened, and we started again. It was musically a very fulfilling day…

I just wish there were more songs in Manto because I feel by the time you crack one, chase a deadline, you end up not having this musical scape. I'll just be more aggressive next time and maybe have much more music. This is just wishful thinking: That, let's say a director thinks of an idea, starts developing the screenplay, and just at that point they appoint some musical HOD, tell her that if you find the story interesting then take off, and then call her back.

As in the way you worked in Gangs of Wasseypur? Where you really got the time to sink your teeth, where you can exchange ideas and be involved with…

Gangs, yeah, I think it's true. I think I like that situation. Is that too much to ask for? Even if a year or two passes, you still know what's trending, you are still not behind trends, so it's not entirely a commercially non-viable process…

For Wasseypur, you traveled for about 4 months in Bihar and a month-and-a-half in Trinidad and Tobago. You also went to Punjab, Haryana for Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. Research through travel seems to be an integral part of your process.

I actually don't research. It's a complete misconception, because 'research' makes me sound like this intellectual type who knows what's happening around the world, on the streets. No, man, it's not like that. 

It's just that for me travelling to a lot of these places was very new at the time. I never travelled so much within the country, and so it was just like… living life. I mean I had promised beer to one or two friends, and I had taken them along. We would catch whichever train we would get. It was a lot of adventure and basically trying to be cool also: Okay, we took a general dabba, you know, and then we got so stoned, and these things, you know.

But at the same time, the agenda for music was also very sincere. My friends were sincere about my need to be going to these places. We would enter somebody's house who will be singing for us. I have seen them sit quietly, sometimes take videos, talk to them. While I would be talking about the music, my friends would take care of other things like Accha kal humko idhar jaana hai toh kaunsi bus le? Abhi yaha se jay toh thik rahega kya? So we were doing these things. This is not research. This is like really going there and being in the now, being present when those things are happening.

It was not like MTV Sound Trippin' because it was a show…you walked into the village like you are the dudes from the town, and you had come to uplift the village, and you had all these cameras, and your make-up artist had coloured hair, so half the village was looking at the make-up artist when actually we were out there to look at the village, you know.

When we would travel for a film on our own, me with my friends, we would really go and blend in, not by, like, overdoing it, not by wearing salwar kameez, but going there and living like normal people, staying there while all the curiosity is over and the music comes to the fore. That kind of experience is automatically enriching. Phir ekdum kuchh kone se ideas would come out, or something you would hear far away traveling in some place you hear, a groove or something.

And you would immediately record them…

If I was able to, I would record. At times I would lose the recording and cry, and then sometimes I would feel like something would be wonderful and might work eventually… So yeah, not so much organisation ya, sometimes I would just record on the phone. In fact, I came to know about the poem "Tu Raja Ki Raj Dulari" from Dibakar, and I only knew that one line. I was looking for it throughout the Punjab, whereas it is actually Haryanvi; so in the entire Punjab, nobody reacted to it. What I am trying to tell you is that sometimes it's while searching that you find a lot of things.

A lot of these things are also composed to sound like folk and simple. So that's another point that gets lost. People think you are a producer who takes samples and produces them. But it's not that. Everybody thinks "Tung Tung" from Sound Trippin is a folk song but it's not. So I never get any compositional comments or lyrical comments; "Tung Tung" was written and composed originally. But it's cool, as long as …there are comments (laughs).

In fact now after Manto, when I am talking to so many people I feel like fuck, they have nothing to talk about. Still talking about Wasseypur, which is long gone. Shit, man, am I slacking too much or what? What the fuck was I doing for the last 5 years? I had so many break ups, so many Tinder dates… At some point, the dates come to know that you have done Wasseypur, and then everything would change…

Coming to a larger question: Why do we hear so less of Sneha Khanwalkar?

I don't know actually. In fact now after Manto, when I am talking to so many people I feel like fuck, they have nothing to talk about. Still talking about Wasseypur, which is long gone. Shit, man, am I slacking too much or what? What the fuck was I doing for the last 5 years? I had so many break ups, so many Tinder dates. You know what the best part is when you aren't doing too much work? You can still Tinder in your own city. At some point, the dates come to know that you have done Wasseypur, and then everything would change. But 5 years have passed and I don't know why I haven't worked… Do I not know how to freaking do music? Am I…? I don't know, I think I am going to slay! I think this year I'll start, and I think there is no other way than to slay.

But I can't complain. I also don't find it necessary to do a lot of work to keep up the success. And apart from that, any work that should really excite me may not have happened, or maybe I didn't recognise something really good. But I don't feel the need to do a lot of films and being up there and out there.

I also don't feel like earning too much money. I feel today we are luckier because we have internet and all these things that keep us comfortable enough. I don't see the point of hoarding a lot of money… that kind of stuff. As much as my parents or other generations think it's not the right thing to do, they think ke jabtak kama sakte ho kamalo. But I feel like even if I don't have any money by the time I am 60 or something, I will volunteer in some residency or go to the hills or go on to some campus and become a resident student or professor or whatever. I think I will survive, and I think the stress around the city is about doing a lot of work and earning a lot of money.

As an artist do you not feel the itch to put your work out?

Not all the time. When I have something really nice to say, I will reach out. Otherwise they can listen to something else that has been put out there that matters. I just don't want to keep up with the position. Also, as soon as I feel like a little disinterested or something I start making really bad music ya.


During 2014-2015, I wasn't feeling interested in briefs coming to me and all the songs were just not working out. Maybe the people I was working with were not really getting me. I was spoiled silly by the amazing creative liberty given to me earlier than this…So jab disinterested ho jaata hoon na, I lose my integrity, and then I feel like fuck it, this is not working out, I will kill it myself, I am going to destroy it, then I end up self-destructing a little bit. And something terrible will come out, and you'll be like, what was she thinking? Even my friends would say so.

However, one song I felt interested in was "Preet"(Khoobsurat) because I was literally making it for a person who I felt had very badly hurt me, and his name is in the lyrics (laughs). It was interesting, although arrangement wise I would have done a lot more. I think you really need the right sound-boarders, and I feel like either I become… efficient and prolific like our friend Amit (Trivedi), who also goes through the grind each time, and manages to sound quite consistent…

I am also veering towards other things. I feel like studying sound. I have applied for something that allows me to work as a music director in the industry and still finish the degree at an university in Germany. I am going there for a month in October, and then next year when the semester begins.

I am already working on two films and I have to finish them before mid next year. In fact, one of them is Anurag's (Kashyap) film, which he is directing, so there's enough time for it.

That's amazing. You and Kashyap working again.

Yeah, but that's a lot of pressure also. Otherwise people are going to be like, 'Yeah, but it's not as good as Wasseypur (laughs).'

You seem to have a reputation of being talented but difficult to work with, that you don't take calls from producers and directors.

It used to be the case, 4-5 years back, when I used to do everything with my heart and I was getting really riled up with everything, existentially and all that. Or maybe I was stoned ya. It was 4 years ago, and I am trying to give a graceful answer here. I was overworked, but I don't think I was leaving anybody in the lurch or anything, I am quite certain about that. I have pulled off films that have taken 2-3 years, right? So that's definitely not the case… Now I am peaceful with the fact that, 'Okay, I need to do good work. If I am not feeling inspired, I don't have to be stressed out too much. I can ease it out, and understand why I am not feeling inspired and find my way to sort it out.' Otherwise, choose less, but really nice work. And less money, but an interesting life. Something like that.

Was inspiration a problem during these last few years?

Yes, terribly. I also had a very bad heartbreak: I wasn't really sulking about somebody. I was just very confused about what I wanted in life, and I was being a brat, I was being a cunt. I was just feeling like I shouldn't have to go through these things. I am the chosen one, the sun shines over my head, you know those kind of things, a little leftover feeling of entitlement…I realised that it's all in my hands. So basically if you want to do good music, it doesn't matter who you do it with, you just need to find a way to make them understand what you are doing… 

The industry is not here to pamper you, you just have to find a way to put it out there. If you do so I am sure more people will be able to make more good and original and personal music.

How did you get your groove back?

I think I started swimming. Just being in good shape, exercising, good blood circulation, eating well, sleeping enough. Because I am known to not sleep at all. I would only wish to swim throughout my life because I like it as a sport. I don't like the gym. I feel like we really ignore how our body influences us…

I like my lows and times of not feeling it — a lot of creativity happens at that time. I am still getting the hang of it, but I think thoda out-of-balance ho gaya tha. It brought me back to taking charge and feeling ki 'Okay, that it's up to me.'

Photo by Avani Rai
Photo by Avani Rai

Did you cut down on the weed?

I quit marijuana because it wasn't doing good to me at all. I started to become irritable, low and… paranoid actually. But I had no trouble quitting it. There was just one time when I was trying to get out of a house party. The smokers were sitting in the room, and I realised that I just wanted to get up, say a sheepish bye, and leave. But I just couldn't do that…even that took me…I just didn't have it in me to get up and break that thing, and take the attention. I just wanted to disappear. So I was feeling paranoid…as if everybody knows answers, and they are not telling me. Or something like that. That kind of paranoia, and then it took me half hour-forty five mins to get up. I didn't even say bye. I just got up and left and felt that they were all pointing their fingers at me or something. When that happened, I just quit it.

That's…quite something. Coming back to the original line of questions: There is a feeling that Hindi film music in the recent past has been in a creative slump. Composers complain of producers, music labels calling the shots. Does that make things even more difficult for someone as radical as you?

Yes it does, but I don't think I am aware of it as much as others because I am not taking that much work and interacting so much with people. But I do feel that at the beginning of the film, you and the director are walking in the garden holding hands and looking into the horizon for a great soundtrack, like yeh karenge, woh bhi karenge, and then slowly your time and psyche is eaten up by deadlines, budgets. Budgets are extremely low, and there are just random meetings, for no reason. Like why can't we fucking Skype? Why do you want me to come, all the way from where I live, to your office? Because you think all your meetings should happen there?… And radical music ke liye toh definitely there is no space. Suddenly some international song happens and everybody is giving references like Oh…That person only used just one piano, man. I mean, when I would do that they wouldn't have the balls to recognise it to start with. So, you know, it's kind of a bit like that.

I feel we should all start functioning on Skype – unless something needs to be resolved. It's just generally it's a bit much for me I think. And it's with everybody, there is no demarcation there…

Do you have a problem with meeting people? Do you avoid it? I had requested for an interview in person, and I had done the same a few years back too and eventually didn't do it because you preferred phone.

Yes! Yes, I do. I mean, I feel we should all start functioning on Skype – unless something needs to be resolved. And for that, of course, we need better internet. But yes, I do find it difficult. Just generally it's a bit much for me I think. And it's with everybody, there is no demarcation there.

Have you been talking to filmmakers? 

The two films are going to keep me quite busy. I haven't tried to go and meet a lot of people. Again, the right kind of work will reach me. Apart from that there is a temporary sound museum I am building in Goa for a festival. It will be up and running for at least a month, from 15 December.

Tell me more about the sound museum.

It's for this very new, very young festival called Serendipity Arts Festival, and I am one of the curators for music this year. So apart from just curating musical gigs, this idea came up of having sound artists together. I think now I have this old heritage building and I will invite sound artists. It's called "Sounds in my Head". And it's all in line with exactly what I feel like doing. Like, you know, even when I was traveling outside India I was trying to listen to people who were making distortion music, or tempo-less, atonal kind of music, and somehow this allows you to do that.

Takes a break, lights a cigarette.

You said something few minutes back. You said that you find me radical… I mean, I felt a bit encouraged by it because I feel, like, if that's the part of the battle, then I will now start making it even more… I mean, anyway I don't care. But I'll be more aware of it, and I think it'll be nice stuff.

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