Pritam: ‘Song and Dance is Our Format. We Should Keep it Alive’

He’s the undisputed king of Spotify Wrapped in India and with Brahmastra and Laal Singh Chaddha, Pritam scored two of the biggest, most talked-about films of the year
Pritam: ‘Song and Dance is Our Format. We Should Keep it Alive’

Six years ago, in 2017, when there was a visible, seemingly irreversible tilt in the musical landscape of Hindi cinema — with producers flocking towards multi-composer albums, with song picturisation leaning towards the montage, towards the remixed “promotion song”, away from the choreographed narrative song — composer Pritam took a stand.  

Unambiguously, he stated that he will only do solo composer albums, and will not allow an “outside song” to saunter in. When the producers of Raabta (2017) lassoed in other composers to patchwork an album into being, Pritam wrote on Facebook, “I have decided to not continue with the film and requested the producers to take out my name from the film credits and promotions and the album will be completed by my company Jam 8.”

Central to this decision was the idea of ownership and faith. Pritam wants to feel complete ownership over a film’s music, and for the makers to have complete faith in him, giving him the time to tinker, improvise, and improve. This faith, once bestowed, is always reciprocated. An example is Brahmastra (2022), which began its journey way back in 2018, for which Pritam gave up a slew of films. 

Ownership and faith are deeply related, allowing Pritam to work through the night — he is nocturnal — till the last possible moment. Once Pritam even ‘bribed’ a worker at HMV factory in Kolkata with sweets to get him to replace the older track of Dhoom (2004) with a remastered one. Today, this “point of no return” has shifted. Even after the theatrical release of Brahmastra, he continued to remaster the background score in time for its streaming release. 

Pritam does not find this last minute pedantic dusting ridiculous. In fact, he thinks this should become common practice. In a phone conversation, late at night, he notes, “See, you are working for posterity. My logic is that it is not always the theatrical print that people see. Ultimately, the movie will be seen on OTT, ghar ke TV pe. That percentage is much bigger, so if you get a chance to improve the film for that audience, then we must remix, redo, and remaster films. Even for the flight, I think we must remaster the film. So, with Brahmastra and Jagga Jasoos (2017) I did a little touch-up. I was very particular about getting the stereo right for the OTT.”

Sometimes, this approach, this resistance to relinquish control over the soundscape until the very last moment, backfires. Actor Rishi Kapoor had blamed Pritam and director Anurag Basu mixing and mastering the songs of Jagga Jasoos till days before the release, resulting in the unfinished sound of the film. A producer’s nightmare, that is how he describes himself. This criticism, though, he almost wears like a badge of honour.

But this is how Pritam, born in Kolkata, whose intuitive craft found polish and perspective in a Sound Recording and Engineering course at the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in the mid-1990s, functions. “I have realized, chaos is the only way I can function,” he told us in a prior interview

In 2001, Pritam made his debut with Tere Liye, and through the haze of sharp fame, sharper criticisms of plagiarism, his career soared. There was a year in between when he composed music for 19 films. There seemed to be no patch in his career where people spelled artistic doom. Every year some song of his was blowing up the charts — with genres ranging from Vishesh Films’ melodies to Rohit Shetty and Yash Raj Films’ foot thumps to Imtiaz Ali’s sufi-soundscape to Abbas Mustan, Karan Johar, and Kabir Khan’s medley — as though we were trained to listen to music through his compositions. In short, while most musicians have a stamp through which their music is recognizable, with Pritam, it is often the inherent popularity that works as the stamp. His sounds became the definitive Bollywood genre. This is no “slow poison” — used to describe the music of A.R.Rahman. Loving his music does not require patience — used to convince people of Amit Trivedi’s talent. Our grasp is immediate, strong.    

Over the two decades he has been belting out songs, questions around the death of film music has made the rounds routinely. With the move towards kitchen sink realism, lip sync and dream sequence songs were discarded. Few directors were interested in or capable of being musical.

But Pritam is less apocalyptic about the seismic shifts that have taken place. “Over the years, the DNA — the mood — of the song has been the same.” What has changed, according to him, is the resistance to longer songs, the more professional, almost auditorily invasive production quality, and the structure of the song itself, “From 2015, from Phantom my songs have begun to have a “verse-antara out-ro” structure. Basically, it was a “mukhra-antara” structure, and now I am using an out-ro.”

Even in this structural change, however, I can note a move away from the “slow song”. In older Pritam songs, like ‘Toh Phir Aao’ from Awarapan (2007) or ‘In Dino’ from Life In A Metro (2007) you can sense a composer and an audience willing to hold onto syllables for a longer time. It slows down the tempo of the song. This slowing down, Pritam has relinquished in the song's body, keeping it solely towards the end — take how ‘Kesariya’, ‘Sanware’, and ‘Channa Mereya’ end, with each syllable stretched, slowed, but pumped under a rousing swell of music. Instead, sprouted “low-fi”, a new genre of music that provides the illusion of slowness because of our general inability to distinguish what is slow from what is soft. 

Another change is the multi-language album, with producers chasing pan-Indian success, and composers straddling different linguistic terrains. For Brahmastra Pritam got Sid Sriram — an obvious choice given his increasing crossover popularity — to be his Arijit Singh, his reliable voice, for Telugu and Tamil, and Sanjith Hegde for Kannada. He had heard Hisham Abdul Wahab in ‘Darshana’ from Hridayam (2022) and, impressed, reached out for him to sing the Malayalam version of ‘Kesariya’. Each singer brought a different, almost contradictory texture to the song, with Sriram’s ornamental Carnatic-meets-Blues lushness against Wahab’s KK-like unfussy clarity. You can hear these voices clashing in the Kannada and Malayalam version of the song, where Pritam added Sid Sriram’s Carnatic ornamentation in between, as melodic reprieves. “The point is getting their voice out,” he replies when I ask him if the voice of the singer changes the vision of the song.  

This varying linguistic terrain — with singers and lyricists of four languages he has no inkling of, jetting by his studio — Pritam isn’t fazed by, “I don’t have any problem with multi-language albums. Even Hindi is not my language. My only concern is the phonetics. The words should sound good. The phonetic value is why we enjoy Punjabi songs without understanding it.” He croons ‘Nadiya Paara’ on the phone to make his point, and I can hear what seems like a smile. Purism for Pritam, isn’t in the meaning, in the pronunciation, but in the intuitive ease of words flowing into one another under the sweeping thrust of a strong melody that could be heard easily, and once heard, hummed immediately. It is in how easy it is for us to listen to a song. 

In 2022, his music, his intuition still stands strong. Two of the biggest albums of the year, Brahmastra and Laal Singh Chaddha, were crafted under his careful care over many years. One of the metrics of this success is the Spotify Wrapped report — 2.2 billion streams, with 57.6 million listeners, 142.2 million hours of listening across 183 countries. 

Pritam’s armor, in his two-decade long odyssey, is his patience. The songs of Laal Singh Chaddha started fermenting in baithaks since 2019. Brahmastras prompts were like shifting sands. The initial brief that director Ayan Mukerji gave for ‘Kesariya’, for example, was that of a dance song, so the first version Pritam composed was not the swooning love track, but a hideous, anachronistic dance mix. After shooting it, Mukerji realized that the song did not fit the situation — of two lovers (Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt) in pursuit of a man (Nagarjuna) who could kick open the window to save the world, so to speak. As an alternative, Pritam composed ‘Rasiya’, and there was an internal debate over which song should be used, people strongly advocating one over the other. 

“Then, I made the ‘Kesariya’ dance mix into a love song. This was done very fast, over two days. Everybody liked that, and Ayan said he was going to Benaras to shoot it.” That was that. ‘Rasiya’ was, instead, made into a love theme that the movie needed, and ‘Kesariya’, whose first hint emerged on Instagram reels on the eve of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s wedding, broke the internet, being shoved into the algorithm with a merciless inertia. People imagined their love stories to this 30-second scratch of a tune. The song was everywhere. Pritam concedes that, despite, even now ‘Kesariya’ sitting oddly in the film, he is happy that the music has done well, given that the film is not conventionally musical.

For all this prolific artistry and popular melodies, his process is oddly mechanical. He needs his sleep; there is a “sleeping room” in his Oshiwara studio. Then he walks into his composing room. He has a small window during which he can sing out loud for half hour to an hour, and the tunes pour out, as though pulled out from ether. This — the act of creation — is inexplicable. He records these musical hurls, listens back through it with a fine-toothed comb and pulls out patches of melody that sound interesting. If his directors are musical — Imtiaz Ali, Anurag Basu — he will play them these small patches, and keep building. If not, he will concoct the whole song to showcase it.

Being prolific, however, has its limitations, for in 2022, Pritam also produced albums that glaze your ears and, then, readily swoop into oblivion. Freddy’s music is one such example, as are the songs from the blockbuster Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. Understandably, one cannot be wired with inspired excitement for every project, “Shehzada is one movie I did only for Rohit Dhawan; he is a friend. Otherwise, I would never have gotten into that film.” An upcoming remake of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, Pritam seemed disinterested, almost distant, talking about Shehzada. What he was clear about was that they were not fixating on the Telugu music album, creating a new soundscape entirely; he hadn’t even heard the entire album of that film.

Disinterest, however, is different from and preferable to disillusionment. In an interview with Film Companion, in 2020, Pritam seemed disillusioned, tired, and had even mentioned a possible future where he was only scoring background music, “I’ll do pop albums. I’ll go indie.”

This time however, he seemed more excited by what lies ahead, as if infused with some newfound anticipation. His upcoming films include Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, Anurag Basu’s Metro In Dino and Aashiqui 3 — all of which sprout from musical foundations, with directors who seem to give his compositions immense narrative gravity and respect. “Song and dance is part of our cinema. The South is celebrating song and dance now. That is why they are connecting with masses better. We are not celebrating it enough. But people are warming up. See Monica O My Darling for example. The film did not need songs, but did such a fantastic job, using it in a very nice way. So yes, I am a little more hopeful now. Song and dance, afterall, is our format. We should keep it alive.”

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