In a career spanning 12 years, music director Mithoon's biggest hits include Tum Hi Ho from Aashiqui 2, Baarish from Yaariyan, Humnava from Hamari Adhuri Kahani and Woh Lamhe from Zeher. While the common thread running through these songs is that they're melancholic, that's not how the composer likes to be defined. "I don't like it when I'm called a 'sad song' maker. I think that's a very narrow way of looking at it. I think if I'm defined as a very human composer, I'll feel vindicated."
Born into a family of musicians — "I had more instruments than toys" — the 33-year-old has worked on non-movie albums as well, including his own, Tu Hi Mere Rab Ki Tarah Hai, in 2009. His latest projects are the Karthik Subbaraj-directed Mercury and the Tiger Shroff-starrer Baaghi 2. Here, he speaks to Film Companion about how he chooses films and what he'd like to see the younger generation of composers do.
Your grandfather taught several top musicians like Anu Malik and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. Your father worked on the music of nearly 200 films. You spent most of your childhood around composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal. What are your memories of this time?
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with Laxmikant-Pyarelal's music, mostly because of my father. He would work with them and come back with stories. I spent a lot of time in my father's sessions, when he would score for films and do arrangements for several leading composers of the 80s and the 90s. My father always said he could teach me, but I would have to find my own voice. He commanded a lot of reverence. Directors and composers had so much respect for him. I would see people coming up to him in the studio and kissing his hand. I was always enamoured by what he did. I started learning music at 11 and I understood that it was such a science, apart from being an art. It's so clinical and connected. When I saw how much my father had mastered it, I began to look at him in a new light.
At 16, I initially wanted to be a concert pianist. Sometime before 17, I decided I wanted to be a film composer. I learned piano and Hindustani music. When you have training of that sort and when you see theory up close, you understand the credibility of each role – what the difference is between a composer and a music director, between an arranger and a conductor. You can't take these things lightly. I started writing songs at 17. At 19, I got a chance to produce a song for the film Zeher – Woh Lamhe, Woh Baate. I did the same for Kalyug, which was also Mukesh Bhatt's film. Then I started my journey as an independent composer with Bas Ek Pal for which I wrote Tere Bin, which won me my first award. So I felt very accepted as a composer, and I never looked back.
A lot of my songs are not pitch perfect. But I believe that if they are communicated honestly, then it's a job well done
In 2013, Tum Hi Ho from Aashiqui 2 achieved record-breaking success. What impact did that song have on your career? What did it change?
I think things change every day. But, it definitely felt good. I won my first Filmfare award for that song. I respected the Filmfare awards because I had seen Laxmikant-Pyarelal win one, I'd seen R.D. Burman win one, so it meant a lot. People worldwide loved Tum Hi Ho. Different bands, even German bands, covered the song. It felt good. But, many people look at this as a career-defining move, which it was not. My career was defined the day I decided to write songs. Even before Tum Hi Ho, the music of Anwar was well received. I think for a true artiste, the world inside them – their thought process – changes, not so much the world outside. I look at it as a blessing, definitely, but I don't look at it as a career-defining move.
The Mercury song has quite an elaborate music video. When you're composing, do you keep in mind that a great dancer like Prabhu Deva will be performing to this and then work around it?
For me, the character is more important. Any dedicated professional will tell you the same thing. For Mercury, the director shared his vision with me. We wanted to create a nine-minute-long promo. More than Prabhu, it was about the character that had to be established. The video has a zombie element to it, it has a certain narrative, which I had to justify. As a composer, I keep in mind who the actor is and what kind of a persona he has and how he wants to execute it. Certain actors have the kind of persona that just leaks out into the video. There's nothing wrong with that, but it should not come at the cost of their character. I'm sure Prabhu Deva would agree. He would also want the character to be established before he is.
How important is it for the film to be successful for your music to travel? Or do you think their journeys are independent of each other. Can good work be noticed in a film that doesn't do well?
I would actually be an analyst if I thought that much. I am an artiste. My job is to create music and I try to keep as many theories, trends and YouTube analyses outside the door as I can. It affects me otherwise. I do not want my music to come from any outside influences. I create the kind of music that makes me happy. I've experienced both – certain films of mine have had immense box office success and at the same time, some like Anwar did not do well, but its music is remembered even today. This is part of life.
To me, the measure of a good song is when it is honest. I have a big issue with plasticity in song-writing
What is the measure of a good song today? Earlier we used to have sales of CDs and cassettes. For today's generation of composers, is it all about You Tube views?
I chose to be a musician because it gave me a lot of satisfaction to be able to write. Even now, when I wake up in the morning, I enter my studio and just feel bliss. How many people get paid to do what they love? It's such a blessing. So I don't calculate, I just enjoy it. Unfortunately, I may bump into people who tell me about these things. They may appreciate something or criticize it, but I make sure it doesn't affect my creative process. I don't take it seriously. To me, the measure of a good song is when it is honest. I have a big issue with plasticity in song-writing. Anything that is not real puts me off. I'm not obsessed with perfection. A lot of my songs are not pitch perfect. But I believe that if they are communicated honestly, then it's a job well done, regardless of how they do commercially or what the numbers are.
For many of your projects, you've been credited as a 'guest composer'. What's been your experience of coming in just for a song or two on a movie – would you prefer doing more solo albums?
I come from the school of thought that believes that only one composer should do the entire album, because that is how Hindi cinema worked for five decades. The trend did change, in fact my first album was a shared soundtrack. I decide whether or not to do it depending on the director. If I feel that a director wants to work with me for certain creative reasons, if he wants to work with me because he feels I can do justice to a song and if he wants to work with another composer on another song because that's his zone, that is creatively valid. I don't think music should function like a fruit shop. I have an issue with that. If there's no creative reason behind people wanting to work with me, if someone comes to me with an on-paper plan saying, "Let's take one song from him, one from him, one from him" and it becomes a salad, then I have an issue. I like to work with people who have connected to my music. I feel good about that. That's the first question I ask when someone approaches me. "Why me?"
There was a soundtrack for a the film Dead Man Walking, for which various artists around the world, including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Eddie Vedder, Bruce Springstein, came together and made one album centered on the same emotion. It's such a beautiful compilation. So if it's that kind of an organic environment, I don't have an issue. There are certain people I'm comfortable with.
Your ballad for Baaghi 2, called Lo Safar, is an original composition. However, two other songs in the movie, Mundiyan and Ek Do Teen, are remixes of old hits. What does this say about our music industry? Are we suffering from a creativity crisis?
I don't think there is a creativity crisis. I believe this country has a lot of talent, good songwriters, vocalists, poets. I've called remixes an unhealthy trend because I think the thrill of creating original music, which Shankar Jaikishan created with Raj Kapoor, which Laxmikant-Pyarelal created with Subhash Ghai, should be encouraged. That burden should be put on the young generation. They should feel the heat of creating original music. And they can deliver, why not? Aashiqui 2 was an original album. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was an original album and it did so well, better than any recreation. So that's something I would like to endorse.