The iTunes descriptor of Chhicchore (2019) calls Pritam a 'veteran'—a slightly odd, if not inaccurate, word, given the composer is going through his prime. Pritam, who made his debut in 2001, always had the natural talent required to be a Hindi film composer, evident in his ability to create songs that are as instantly likeable as their ability to stand the test of time (Life in a Metro, Pyaar Ke Side Effects, Jab We Met). But if the glaring instances of plagiarism eclipsed the good work during the first few years of his career, the last decade has seen the composer up his game, during which he has delivered a range of albums: from genuine musical hits such as Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) to a daring experiment such as Jagga Jasoos (2017). The fact that Pritam doesn't have a signature sound, like, say, an AR Rahman or Amit Trivedi, has meant that he could spring up a complete surprise like Barfi (2012), a nostalgia-tinged album with lush orchestrations and superb singing.
His music has become more screenplay-driven, resulting in songs that seem to exist only because the films do, rooted in specific situations. Take "Hanikarak Bapu" from Dangal (2016) for instance, a delightful song that uses humour to portray the plight of the two girls, who have been put through a joyless regime by their disciplinarian father who is training them to be professional wrestlers.
The composer has risen from the ranks, from being a staple of the more modestly-budgeted, somewhat disreputable, Bhatt-camp movies to prestige projects being helmed by the likes of Aamir Khan and Karan Johar
What gives the composer an edge over his contemporaries is that he never seems to lose sight of the the commercial aspect of Hindi film music, his songs almost always finding their way to the top of the charts. The composer has risen from the ranks, from being a staple of the more modestly-budgeted, somewhat disreputable, Bhatt-camp movies to prestige projects being helmed by the likes of Aamir Khan and Karan Johar—save for director-friends such as Anurag Basu and Imtiaz Ali, with who he has a long working history. With the new Love Aaj Kal, and the upcoming 83, Lal Singh Chadha, Ludo and Brahmastra, the composer has a big year ahead.
This has also meant that Pritam finds himself in a relatively 'safer' position among his peers at a time of crisis in the Hindi film music industry, when labels and producers are increasingly opting for a quick-fix approach of hiring multiple, lesser-known composers—expected to deliver remixes and template-ish tracks not meant to serve the narrative of the film so much as to get hits on YouTube.
Three days ahead of the release of Love Aaj Kal, when I walk into Pritam's studio—spread over four flats in two floors in a high-rise in Oshiwara, Mumbai—there is the usual bevy of singers, lyricists, sound engineers that constitute his 'team'. As I wait for the composer, I find Amitabh Bhattacharya on the couch, eyes on his phone, probably in the middle of a song, trying to come up with words (this is how modern day lyricists work). And on my way out I bump into Mohit Chauhan in the elevator, who is going down for a smoke. In between, I catch up with the famously scatterbrain composer. It's too early to talk about his upcoming films—and with only three songs from Love Aaj Kal out at the time, the questions about it are limited. We gravitate toward the changes that have swept the Hindi film music industry. The 'veteran' composer has a word of advise for the younger lot, and talks about a possible future where he sees himself scoring only background music. The conversation ends abruptly with the promise of being completed later over phone, but a personal setback means that it never does. Anyway.
Tell me about the new Love Aaj Kal album. What was Imtiaz Ali's brief for you?
This is a lot more deeper than the last Love Aaj Kal (2009). Imtiaz has made a very young film; it's about how a very young couple will behave, vis a vis the old fashioned romance from our era. The first film also had a lot of depth, but the song sequences were more… vibrant. This one is more reflective and personal. Even the fast songs are more like holding up a mirror to the society.
Like the lines by Irshad Kamil: Haan Main Galat…
Yes. When you see the movie you know why the lyrics are like that. The song culminates in "Twist" from the original Love Aaj Kal, but that was not the idea; it was landing on an accordion piece. We were sure that we don't want to remix anything. But it happened organically. This is a franchise being taken forward, like Dhoom and Race. I don't have a problem with a 'remix' if there is a logic in it.
How many of the new directors you meet are actually interested in using songs thoughtfully?
See, the newer guys who come to me come with a plan. They want to use songs. In fact, the older generation directors sometimes land up making films with zero importance to music. The film Anurag (Basu) is making—tentatively titled Ludo—has very little music. He doesn't have more than 4 situations. But then again, he is also someone who thinks musically, and will find a way to use songs.
The labels and producer seem to have control over a film's music more than ever.
They always had yaar.
Earlier it was like entering a shop and get a murti custom-made. Now, they go to a mall, where everything is assembled. One this, one that. 1000 composers are sitting for you. The handcrafted aspect is going away.
When you get multiple composers (and lyricists) for one film, the composer (and lyricist) feel very little ownership for the album… If I am doing the whole film, I'll go all out. I'll give extra songs if I have to, sacrifice my personal time. (The composer—infamous for making last-minute 'improvements' on a track—once reached the HMV factory in Kolkata, where he 'bribed' one of the workers with sweets to get him to substitute the older tracks with updated versions).
I think it's going to move towards the Hollywood format. The background score guy will become the most important person, and there will be a music supervisor who will assemble songs for you.
If I don't feel the ownership, why will I make that kind of sacrifice? Then it's only for money. Money was a big thing when I started my career. I am from a not-so-rich family from another city; I have grown up hearing my mother say, 'One day we will have our own house'. Coming from a place like that, I understand the importance of money. But if that's your primary thing, you won't feel that ownership for the film. And in multi-composer films, that ownership will never come.
Also, I think, sometimes, it's a bit like divide and rule. You pit composers against each other. I don't know where this is going.
It isn't some trend that's going away. It is the norm now.
I think it's going to move towards the Hollywood format. The background score guy will become the most important person, and there will be a music supervisor who will assemble songs for you. For example, Joker is scored by somebody, but there are a lot of songs in it compiled by music supervisor.
Fewer musical films are going to come. They will go for one composer when required; like, you can't do a Jagga Jasoos with multiple composers.
If that's where it's going, where do you see yourself in it?
Only background music. I don't mind.
No songs. No singing and lyrics?
I'll do pop albums. I'll go indie. I think that is going to happen. I will just score for films, and for my song ka keeda I'll do… But I still have hope. I think Hindi film music will engulf everything and it will… Hindi cinema has this unbelievable capacity because it is a unique art form. That's how we are. Even in the 90s, there were many pop albums, filmy was a gaali, then the new batch—Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Vishal Shekhar and I—came in.
Are we going to stop producing composers who can handle an entire film? Right now it's a bit like we are playing so much T-20 that we might stop producing players who can play Tests and ODIs.
Composers should start insisting that they want to do the full film. Amal (Malik) did one. Why is Tanishk (Bagchi) not doing a film? I should call him up. He should try. He can handle it. He is doing a "Ve Maahi", and he is doing a "Kanha"—which I like very much—and he is doing dance numbers. All he needs to do is put them together in one film.
They don't have the clout yet to say 'No' to a powerful music label.
They should do it. They have to do it for themselves. They also have problems with it. If you compose a song, but know the khariddar is roaming around looking for a song in five other places as well, how will you feel?
I don't face this problem because I make it very clear in the beginning that if something like that happens, I am going to walk out of the film. I have done it in Raabta and I will do it in other films, I will withdraw my name, I'll lose five songs if I have to. If you can't have faith, don't come to me.
What kind of projects are you looking for at the moment?
I am looking for something random and fun, like R… Rajkumar.