There is something 'off' with music composer Achint Thakkar — off, of course, in the most flattering, frenetic, artistic way possible. Founder of the psychedelic rock band 'Rosemary', which disbanded in 2011, Thakkar has a penchant for sounds that are strange, evocative, and memorable. The theme song of Scam 1992 became an anthem of collar-up cool, of amoral swag, taking a nudge from the main protagonist Harshad Mehta. The song currently sits at around 26 million views on YouTube.
In the middle of the pandemic, when most artists were grappling for inspiration, he turned to his cat's neutered testicles, spinning a song of longing out of it for Abhishek Upmanyu's stand-up video. Then came the teaser of Rocket Boys with a swell of violins, and a promise of another show where music elevates the proceedings, charming the plot points, without making it the centerpiece.
In an interview with Thakkar, edited for length and clarity, he speaks to his influences, his journey, and his work on Rocket Boys, which "required a different muscle".
How did you get from Shalimar, your 2015 solo album, to scoring an entire web-show, Scam 1992?
Jai (Mehta), who co-directed Scam 1992, is a friend from college. I met him through the DoP of Rocket Boys — Harshvir Oberai. Harshvir and I go way back, from 11th-12th standard, and he happened to be Jai's classmate. It was always the thing of, you know, one day we will work together. He called me for a movie he was working on, but that didn't pan out.
Then, a few years later he called me up for this show, asking if I wanted to pitch a track. At that time I was assisting Michael McCleary on Four More Shots Please!
You had mentioned in a Rolling Stone interview that your first pitch for Scam 1992 went horribly. How did you crack that title track, then? What were the instruments, the sounds you got in?
Honestly, Jai kept pestering me for another track, and just to shut him up I had to make something. (laughs) So I just pulled something from my hardrive, made something in a couple of hours so he stops calling.
A couple of hours?
There is not much going on in the track — it is just a beat and a baseline with a melody on top. Then, of course, we went back and forth, but this basic beat and melody remained.
What were these back and forths?
If I remember correctly, there were no vocals in the initial track. It was just the tune. We always thought we'd keep changing it later. But then everyone just got so used to it.
How did 'A Simple Man' come about? I used to wait for Anjali Barot's character to keep popping up in the show — this song was her theme, right?
There is a scene in the show when Harshad's father dies that I was not able to crack. The death scene became more about the emotional side of Harshad, so the music was used to underline his family side. I also used that track for his wife (played by Anjali Barot).
This is very similar to what Rahman does. It's just cut-paste Rahman for me, when it comes to scoring — I have learned everything by watching Dil Se, Guru, Bombay, where a version of a certain sound is used for two characters. That's how 'A Simple Man' came to be, because of Harshad and his family, and then with his wife. When he dies, another version of it is played, 'End Of The Road'.
What can you tell me about the musical landscape of Rocket Boys?
Rocket Boys was epic compared to Scam 1992, which was just music tailored around one person. Rocket Boys was much harder in that sense, because there are so many characters, intertwined themes, and the time period itself. The soundscape is very orchestral. It is not just about two friends, but the time they were living through. It had to be era appropriate, with limited instruments. It shouldn't feel like anything from today being there, because visually there is nothing from today there. So, I couldn't mess around, bringing in modern stuff the way I did with Scam 1992. Except in the trailer… we had to make it… masala.
What do you mean by modern stuff?
Like, I can't add cool vocal chops, beats, basslines, and grooves, because that didn't exist back then. I had to actually become a composer, actually sit at the piano and compose which was very hard because it requires much more of you, rather than messing around with gadgets, which I love doing.
The theme of Rocket Boys is also my second attempt. The first one was more of a Game Of Thrones rip-off, which everybody seemed to like, but Abhay (Pannu, the director) and I were still not convinced. We gave it another shot, I kept procrastinating, per usual, and finally I came across this tune. It is two melodies — one I was using for Homi Bhabha and the other for Vikram Sarabhai. Homi's theme becomes the nation's theme, and Vikram's theme becomes (his wife) Mrinalini's theme. There is also a clash between ideologies, so there has to be some justification of that in the music.
Were you composing while the show was being shot, or did you look at the rushes and footage?
Most of the composition happened right now — in the last 45 days. (laughs) It was quite a tight finish, but I had some themes ready.
Those were violins you used in the teaser — with the swelling patriotic score?
Yes, we got violin players to come in! See, I had to try becoming a "real" musician. The composer in me was used to a lot of tricks, which you develop over the years. I couldn't rely on that. I had to get musicians in, I had to learn about Raags. That theme was Raag Desh actually, played by violinist Ajay Jayanthi. We also used Raag Abheri for Mrinalini, which Rahman uses a lot. So, I just had to go back and study the classics — Swades, for example.
How do you discover sounds? Your collaboration with the Khan Brothers, for example, is in a completely different zone from say the marriage music in Rocket Boys or from the song you dedicated to your cat's lost testicles. Are you just strumming on your guitar waiting for the tune to strike?
Mostly it is just procrastinating, doing nothing, messing around on the piano and guitar, and you start humming, and then maybe that becomes something. It is a very simple process but it just takes time. When it comes though, it comes real quick. There is no "I am going to sit and compose now." You strum, you might get an idea, you record it and maybe you'll use it after 4 years. Like the Scam 1992 theme that I actually made in 2011. It was just lying in my hard-drive. Because I just had to send this guy (Jai) something, so I pulled up the tune, added a baseline and sent it.
Any future projects?
I am doing a project right now, Monica O My Darling on Netflix. It's a lot of fun, lots of songs with a nice 70s vibe.
Any idea when the Rocket Boys OST be available online?
Soon, I guess. Honestly, I don't know.