Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas (2002) begins with an image of Durga and the sound of cymbals, bells, and women ululating — the sound is a high-pitched shriek of wind, cut by the rapid back and forth of the tongue and the ulula working like a demented wiper blade.
Then, suddenly, as if you were dropped from a height, producing a sharp needle up the nose, the pungent sound settles into soft hums, tinkles, and anklets, with the names "Shahrukh Khan" "Madhuri Dixit", and "Aishwarya Rai" against the backdrop of a vermillion red carpet and impressions of Ajanta murals emerging from it; with violins and a classical alaap orchestrally swelling into a crescendo as the film's title appears, punctuated by the ominous, shattering noise of lightning. Devdas has arrived. "If I can create goosebumps right at the start of the film, it will make the whole thing magical," Monty Sharma said to me as we spoke on the phone about how he conceived of and composed the background score to the film.
After three years of shooting, compiling, and editing the footage into a raw cut, Bhansali came to Sharma, asking him to compose the background score for Devdas. They had previously worked on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, for which Sharma had arranged the music. This would be the first time Monty Sharma — nephew of Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma of the famed Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo; who began his journey playing the keyboard in Mr. India as a teenager — was composing the score for a big film. The next six months were spent feeling and evoking rapture through music; girding, emphasising, and propelling the exquisite and emotionally exhausting melodrama of the three-hour long film.
During our conversation, Sharma kept using the phrase "larger than life", as though life and its springs of joy were never enough, and one needed to lurk beyond frontiers for alternative frameworks and inspiration. He didn't mention any references or odes. The music for Devdas simply emerged for Sharma. From where, even he doesn't know. Sometimes, he dreamt of music, waking up to jot down the musical notations, like Tipu Sultan diligently archiving his dreams. "It was there in my head. I was trying to get in front of my eyes," he recalled.
Sharma used an imprecise, intuitive combination of Indian and Western music — lots of strings; the cello along with the Indian flute; percussion and rhythms by Taufiq Qureshi, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain's younger brother. For some scenes, Sharma demanded 10 tablas, with chorus sections of over 40 singers, six female and six male classical singers (including green talent like Parthiv Gohil and Javed Ali, who would go onto chart their respective successful playback careers). There were 250 artists playing instruments for the score of Devdas, with Sharma recording separate tracks of violins, cellos, tablas, woodwinds, chorus, and then overlaying them. Usually music programmers only used violins, but Sharma used violins, violas, cellos, and the double bass to slather a moment with different frequencies, producing a richness of sound that is rare in Indian background music. Bhansali, Sharma recalled, gave in to all his demands.
One of the striking aspects of Devdas's background score is the presence of voices and the silken chorus where usually musical instruments suffice. The voices gave a halo to the film, as though the drama was being watched from above.
A film's score often gives each character a musical refrain that acts as their sonic calling card, but Sharma refused to create such musical themes for Paro, Devdas, and Chandramukhi. For him, every scene was a fusion of characters and each character kept shape-shifting out of their molds. So when Bhansali wanted him to convert 'Silsila Ye Chaahat Ka' into a background theme for Paro, something in Sharma grated against this idea. It just did not feel right. Bhansali confronted him about not working on that part of the score and Sharma was blunt in his refusal. "It is about conviction. I am trying to give you my best," he told the director. Bhansali burst out, "Kaun sunta hai background, log gaana sunte hain!" ("Who listens to the background? People listen to songs!") To which Sharma replied, "Ok. Mein poora background mita deta hoon. Bas gaana hi dalte hain, if that is what you want." ("Ok, I'll delete the score. We'll just put in songs.")
Bhansali left in a huff and a few hours later, called and apologised, telling Sharma to go follow his heart, to pursue his experiments and intuitions with sound, fusion, cyclical beats and layering. So, "jaise langda aadmi ka chalan alag hota hai" (like a limp man walking), Sharma used 4.5 beats as the cyclical base for the opening credits song, as opposed to the more common 4 beat cycle, creating a slight disorientation at the very outset of the film.
One of the striking aspects of Devdas's background score is the presence of voices and the silken chorus where usually musical instruments suffice. The voices gave a halo to the film, as though the drama was being watched from above, an aural equivalent of Gustav Klimt's gilded choir of angels watching over the embracing couple. For example, he added Geetika Varde Qureshi's voice in the background to the scene where Paro and Devdas first meet as adults, to produce that euphoric jerk of finally being with a lover.
Sharma was desperately looking for a hook phrase for the climactic swell of the film when Paro runs towards Devdas who is dangling on the hazy border between life and death. He asked the Bengalis around him what they would say if their heart was weeping? The singer, Supriya Adhikari, a Bengali herself, suggested, "Mon amar mon, aaye re mon, kaande amar mon" (O my heart, my weeping heart), a yearning plea that Sharma used, softly fitting the words to the melody he had already composed. It took Sharma over five hours to record the chorus in small chunks with the singers because it was practically impossible to sing the whole stretch at a high pitch, in one go.
The soundscape of Devdas's climax rumbles from the serenity of wind chimes into a gale-like conclusion. Sharma wanted to create "a musical storm" and so began with double bass and cello, instruments with lower frequency, gradually leaking in the viola and then the violin, which erupts into the chorus and the solo voice that rises to a crescendo, as though destroying everything in its wake; and then, absolute silence, like the receding wave of a tsunami.
There is a reason Devdas ranks among the finest films made. You emerge from it after having the wind knocked out of your body, recovering from a climax so crowded with Sharma's sound and fury that there isn't space for anything but sublimated submission. Sharma said to me, like a diligent plea, "When you see a beautiful image, your heart is just mesmerised, right? I wanted to do that with my music."