Shantanu Moitra’s new labour of love isn’t a Bollywood blockbuster he has worked on — and he has had a couple of them (Lage Raho Munnabhai, 3 Idiots) — but a travel documentary streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. In the show, presented and produced by him, the composer cycles 3,000 kilometres along the course of the Ganga, from the Gangotri glacier to the Bay of Bengal. In each of the six episodes of Songs of the River, a musician joins Moitra, they jam and come up with a new song. In the first episode, Mohit Chauhan meets Moitra in the inner Himalayas where the two artistes find inspiration in the sound of the river. In the fourth, he is with Sid Sriram in the ruinous remains of the vacation home in Munger where Rabindranath Tagore wrote Gitanjali.
Even though he has made his name as a Bollywood composer, Moitra has older ties with non-film music. His first song was “Ab Ke Saawan” (2000), an electric hit from the last days of Indipop, featuring Shubha Mudgal; a raga-infused rock-n-roll number ostensibly about the joy of the first rains but with the spirit of a Holi anthem. Before that, he fronted a band in school. “A lot of people tell me that my film music sounds like non-film music,” he said when we met at his place in Versova, in Mumbai.
It’s true. Consider his first recorded film song — “Baawra Mann”, from director Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (made in 2003 but released in 2005). Mishra had Hariharan in mind, who was already an established singer. But Moitra was blown away when he heard the song in the lyricist Swanand Kirkire’s voice. In spite of Kirkire’s own doubts about his singing abilities, Moitra went ahead with his gut feeling. As unconventional as the song is compared to a Hindi film standard, it draws much of its power from the unvarnished beauty of Kirkire’s vocals. “Baawra Mann” became Moitra’s calling card in Bollywood. Producer and director Vidhu Vinod Chopra heard it, and Parineeta (2005) was Moitra’s. Even the filmiest Moitra composition isn’t all that filmy: The lovely, gentle “Love is a Waste of Time” from PK (2014) carries a whiff of vintage film melodies, but it has a nursery rhyme-like catchiness that reflects his jingle roots.
Music runs in Moitra’s family. His father’s side have been sarod players for generations in Varanasi; his mother is a dancer. In the third episode of Songs of the River, the composer visits his father’s childhood home. Moitra and his father had conceived the idea of Songs together. Moitra had never been to Varanasi as an adult. The plan was to make a stop in his journey. His father would wait for him and show him the Varanasi he grew up in.
Moitra’s father passed away due to Covid in 2021. Instead of cancelling plans, his father’s death added a new dimension to Songs of the River. Moitra calls the journey an “expedition” — he has been training for three years — but it’s as much a pilgrimage. We see him collect the glacier melted water of Gaumukh in his bottle at the beginning of the show; he performs the last rites of his father in the ghats of Varanasi; he breaks down when he reaches Bay of Bengal. A camera crew follows him all through, capturing him from multiple angles as he cycles through stunning landscapes and congested cities alike; the visuals are accompanied by his own voiceover.
Moitra has restyled himself as a musician chasing his wanderlust. In 2016, he travelled in the Himalayas for 100 days, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, with the wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee. Moitra made a project out of it. He documented the trip in the form of short video diaries on his YouTube channel, published a coffee table book, and did TED Talks. Inspired by his experiences, he curated a concert at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, where performances by Ani Choying Drolma — the Nepalese nun of Tibetan origin known for her transcendental Buddhist chants — and Hindustani classical vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty were interspersed by Moitra telling stories to the audience. The trip had a profound effect on him — and by extension, his career choices. Suddenly, he was not thinking of himself as just a Bollywood composer. More unconventional, non-film music followed, including a Salil Chowdhury tribute concert last month, in which singers and instrumentalists assembled by Moitra performed with a 20 member choir from the Symphony Orchestra of India. His next adventure is planned: A "coast to coast" journey across the country.
The last few years haven’t been kind to Hindi film composers. There has been a discernible shift in the quality of music as well as the way it’s made. Foremost among them is the practice of having multiple composers for one film — a call taken for commercial rather than creative reasons, often from music companies and producers. Most composers have a fundamental problem with the practice. As a result, they have either been forced to embrace the change, or find other avenues to express themselves — in 2020, composers like Amit Trivedi, Vishal Bhardwaj and Salim-Sulaiman launched their own labels under which they published non-film music.
Moitra’s trip in the Himalayas was almost a knee-jerk reaction to his disillusionment with the situation. “I was running away from music,” he said. He had just done Raju Hirani’s PK, in which he shared album credits with Ajay-Atul and Ankit Tiwari. The fact that someone could deliver a huge hit like 3 Idiots in his last collaboration with the director, with whom he has had a successful working history (Lage Raho…), and still not be trusted with composing for the entire movie was a sign of where Hindi film music was headed. Moitra wasn’t a part of Hirani’s last film, Sanju (2018).
When it comes to film work, Moitra has shifted his focus to background scores. With songs increasingly losing their narrative importance in our cinema, it’s one area where composers still get to use their imagination and craft without commercial pressures. Moitra talks about a scene from Pink (2016), in which the Amitabh Bachchan character sits quietly, thinking. Tapping into a memory of his grandfather sitting quietly at their Lucknow home where he grew up, Moitra used the sound of a clock ticking. Even though there was no clock in the frame, it’s a trick that worked because it came from a place of personal truth. (A couple of years later, when Moitra saw a similar effect being used in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk to denote a grenade going off, he says he felt validated). Moitra has had a particularly fruitful, long-term association with director and producer Shoojit Sircar, who produced Pink and is one of his closest collaborators; Sircar’s last film, Sardar Udham (2021), is completely songless, featuring sombre, melancholy mood pieces by Moitra.
Moitra was quick to preempt the shift in Hindi film music, and act on it. It’s an instinct he owes to his advertising days. “The market for background scores was lying empty,” he says. In the mid-Nineties, Moitra worked in the client servicing of an advertising agency in Delhi. He would find things like drawing up status meetings at 10pm and working with type sets and GSMs to be soul sucking, but the job opened up doors for him. Sometimes, it would require him to interact with musicians like Ranjit Barot and Louis Banks, big names in the world of jingles at the time, even as he had to negotiate with clients.
From those experiences, Moitra not only picked up lessons in making jingles, but also the art of selling his art. When Pradeep Sarkar, who was a “creative” in the same agency, needed a jingle to be done cheap and quick, he turned to him. With a little help from a neighbour, friend and a budding singer called KK, who lent him his Korg O1W keyboards and his sparkling vocals, Moitra made his first song that he got paid for, a ten second jingle for Uncle Chips (“Bole Mere Lips, I love Uncle Chips”). One thing led to another.
Songs of the River is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.