It’s hard to get straight answers out of music director Amit Trivedi. For one thing, you don’t get a lot of time with him. Trivedi is one of the busier music directors in the Hindi film industry. In 2022 alone, he’s had 10 releases, the most recent being five out of the six songs in the soundtrack of Qala. He’s also the sort who will give you a one-line answer to a paragraph-long question. Or say “I have to go for a security check, I’ll call you back in two mins” in order to avoid talking about topics he doesn’t want to delve into.
This year marks 14 years in the film industry for Trivedi, who made his debut as a film composer with Aamir (2008). Who can forget how he arrived on the scene with a few tensed keys and Neuman Pinto’s slithering vocals at the beginning of “Phas Gaya” in Rajkumar Gupta’s film. Everyone suddenly sat up and took note of this new kid and the zing in his sound. In those first few years, everything Trivedi touched turned to gold. Forget delivering an underwhelming album, he rarely even gave a bad song. Whether it was pairing a dhol with a nadaswaram in Aisha (2010) or the funky basslines in Aiyyaa (2012) or Ghanchakkar (2013), Trivedi’s musical aesthetic was distinctive. It felt like Hindi film music had got its much-needed renaissance.
Yet somewhere along the way, Trivedi changed gears. The past few years have seen unmemorable releases from the music director — which is why Qala feels special. For Anvitaa Dutt’s film, Trivedi has stepped out of his comfort zone to create melodies that are redolent of vintage Bollywood. “I was listening to a lot of C.Ramchandra, SD Burman, Naushad sahab – basically the 1940s leaning into the 1950s. There wasn’t a particular album or composer we were taking ‘inspiration’ from,” Trivedi said during our telephonic interview.
Set in the early days of the Hindi film industry, Qala presented Trivedi with a unique challenge of creating a soundtrack that feels true to a bygone era, but not old-fashioned to our contemporary ears. What we get are songs that feels new for Trivedi, with melodies that are reminiscent of vintage classics while being distinctive and modern. “Ghodey Pe Sawaar” has the accordion playing to the beats of a galloping horse — could it be a hat tip to O.P. Nayyar’s use of the trotting horse in “Piya Piya Piya Mera Jiya Pukare”? — to create a song that’s nostalgic and playful. “Shauq”, with Varun Grover’s lyrics, is rich with melancholia and romanticism. Along with the compositions, the casting of the ‘voices’ for the film’s two singers is shrewdly done. Bhagavatula, an Instagram sensation, voices Dimri’s character and veteran Shahid Mallya sings for Babil Khan. The two singers, with their different backgrounds and experience, offer a curious parallel to the artistic rivalry between Dimri and Khan’s characters in the film.
“My focus was Qala – how was I going to do justice to the story Anvitaa had written. It’s a mother-daughter story, and there’s a real haunting quality to it,” said Trivedi. Dutt approached him to work with her on this project in early 2021. Trivedi said the entire album was composed during a three-day staycation in Goa. “Triptii (Dimri) was there, Anvitaa was with her AD, Swanand [Kirkire] sir was there,” recalled Trivedi. “Except ‘Nirbhau Nirvair’, a song Anvitaa herself was going to write, we were pretty much done in three days.”
Among the more haunting tracks in Qala are “Rubaiyaan” (curiously not in the final film) and “Shauq”. “Anvitaa drew a nice visual for me about the song. They’re on a boat at night, and the Howrah Bridge is visible,” said Trivedi. Sung by Swanand Kirkire, Shahid Mallya and Sireesha Bhagavatula, the song is one of those timeless melodies that could sit as comfortably in an Ashok Kumar film in the Forties, as it does in 2022. Yet it was a song that Trivedi wasn’t entirely convinced by when he first composed it. “There’s an obvious ‘O Majhi Re’ influence over any boat song. It really helped me catch the mood of the situation. I wasn’t very confident at first while playing it for Anvitaa, but thankfully she thought it was beautiful,” he said. Qala also stands out for being a rare example of music feeling integral to the film. At a time when a Hindi film’s standout song is invariably shunted to the end credits and picturised in a way that has nothing to do with the plot, the synergy between the narrative and music in Qala feels almost like a novelty.
Qala is Trivedi’s second stab at a musical flashback after Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet (2015), whose failure broke the composer’s heart. Trivedi had spent more than a year researching jazz and its influences on the film music of the Fifties (some of that seems to have informed a few of his compositions in Qala).”I remember thinking I’d done something special with the Bombay Velvet soundtrack. It came out and then people simply didn’t respond!” Trivedi was aghast. Is it possible that the response to Bombay Velvet led to self-doubt creeping into his process? Whatever the reason, his tunes became distinctly more commercial, striving for simplicity rather than complexity. This is a subject he remains tight-lipped about. “Everyone has a different taste, no?” said Trivedi. “I can’t be doing the same thing for everyone. I have to give a filmmaker what they want, I can’t impose my wants on them. If you really think about it, it’s a really smart and versatile job.”
Defending the music that even his fans have struggled to stand behind, Trivedi likened his job as a composer to being a batter on a cricket pitch. “I’ve to score a century in difficult conditions. It’s not always hunky dory, but I have to be conducive to working on all kinds of films,” he said. One of his recent projects is the soundtrack of Sooraj Barjatya’s Uunchai, which sounds nothing like the music usually associated with Trivedi. The composer said that his job requires him to adapt to the director’s vision. “In a lot of projects, there is a lot of back and forth. Like I’ll compose a melody for Vikramaditya [Motwane], Anurag sir or Anvitaa. I’ll do the same thing for someone else, and they’ll bounce [reject] it.”
The landscape for commercial Hindi music has changed drastically with the focus on streams and YouTube views. While some songs find popularity through short-format videos (like Instagram’s reels), many more songs get lost in the clutter of streaming apps and become victims of the algorithm. Trivedi is trying to take these changes in his stride. “The apps have made music more accessible, but a lot of gems get buried – unless you’re spending money and marketing them separately,” he said. “It’s a completely different world, something I’m grappling with.”
One of his disappointments was the “Hum Thay Seedhe Saadhe” from Badhaai Do (2022), which Trivedi was excited about while working on the album in the studio. Yet when the songs were released, “Atak Gaya” became more popular, courtesy Instagram reels. “I still think it’s a beautiful melody,” Trivedi said about “Hum Thay Seedhe Saadhe”, and there’s a hint of a defensive note in his voice. By his own estimation, Trivedi’s best work of the year is the music he composed for the Gujarati film, Prem Prakaran (2022). However, the soundtrack caused barely a ripple among listeners. “I was quite taken aback. I thought I was wrong, but enough time has passed for me to know I’m not wrong. People might listen to it later or not, we’ll see,” he said.
In January 2023, we’ll get to hear yet another soundtrack by Trivedi, for Anurag Kashyap’s Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat. Trivedi composed the music between 2018 and 2019. “Manmarziyaan released on Friday. Anurag sir sent me the new script on the very Monday after that,” Trivedi said. He admitted that at least a few projects he’s taken on have been motivated by the relationships he’s formed over the years rather than any artistic consideration. “If I keep saying ‘no’, then egos will get hurt,” he said.
Considering the number of projects he’s taken on, it was perhaps only a matter of time that the law of averages would catch up with Trivedi’s seemingly limitless repository of talent. There used to be a time when most of his works would almost appear to be concept albums, so immersed and rooted were the soundtracks into the world of the films. Remember how he distilled Delhi’s volatile rage into the No One Killed Jessica (2011) soundtrack? Somewhere along the way, Trivedi became a generalist. Qala might be proof that the craft of ‘vintage’ Trivedi hasn’t completely disappeared, but it’s also not the sure-shot thing it used to be. Once a hungry and gifted striver, Trivedi seems to have transitioned into the role of the pragmatic churner. Obviously, no one can fault him for that. Like Qala, we’ll keep getting glimpses of Trivedi’s supreme talents, all the while wondering whether Bollywood’s once-upon-a-time dark horse has now become a workhorse.