Mithoon: ‘I love and respect my peers, but my fulfilment doesn’t come from anyone outside’

While he is best known for composing memorable songs for forgettable films, Mithoon had a whole new world to explore when he took on Shamshera
Mithoon: ‘I love and respect my peers, but my fulfilment doesn’t come from anyone outside’

For someone who has made a career out of heartbreak melodies ("Phir Mohabbat" from Murder 2, 2011) and wistful ballads about a lover from the past ("Beetein Lamhein" from The Train, 2007), the soundtrack of Shamshera (2022) was a stark change in scenery for composer Mithoon. 

The past decade has seen the world of Hindi film music go through churn and change. Behemoth music labels are dictating oppressive terms to musicians, demanding the talent create albums that are designed to yield views on YouTube. Lip-sync ballads — once the very foundation of Indian commercial cinema — are becoming rare and inspired by Hollywood, a whole generation of filmmakers have pushed songs into background music and turned to musical scores to convey mood. There have also been disruptions within the established hierarchies within the Hindi film industry. Stalwarts of Marathi cinema Ajay-Atul were chosen for several high-profile projects, like Zero and Thugs of Hindostan (both in 2018), and Super 30, Tanhaji and Panipat (all in 2019). Rahman puzzled his fans by taking on films like Mimi and Heropanti 2 (both in 2021) while Pritam emerged as a favourite for this year's marquee projects, having composed for both Brahmastra and Laal Singh Chaddha. In tune with these unpredictable choices was Mithoon being the music director for Shamshera.

Born into a family of prolific musicians — including grandfather Pandit Ram Prasad Sharma; his uncle and guru Pyarelalji and his own father, Naresh Sharma, who has been a music arranger for over 30 years — Mithoon made his debut with Mohit Suri's Zeher (2005), announcing his talent with the song "Woh Lamhe". It didn't matter if you'd liked or even heard of Zeher, you recognised the plaintive melody of "Woh Lamhe" in singer Atif Aslam's voice. This would happen repeatedly with Mithoon's songs — they became wildly popular not because of the films they were in, but despite them. Over a 17-year-long career, Mithoon has seemed like Bollywood's most journeyman musician, but it takes more than dependability to write some of the most streamed songs of recent years. 

Shamshera marks a turning point in Mithoon's career. Not only has he finally been noticed by a premium banner like Yash Raj Films (YRF), he's also got a chance to expand his oeuvre. In the six-track album, there's only one on-brand Mithoon song ("Fitoor", sung by Neeti Mohan and Arijit Singh). The title track and "Hunkara" have potent horn sections and heavy percussion, reminiscent of soundtracks from the Eighties. Although known mostly for solemn, introspective melodies ( like Aashiqui 2's "Tum Hi Ho"), the composer shows, with the rambunctious qawwali "Kaale Naina", that he can also have fun. In "Ji Huzoor", we hear mischief for perhaps the first time in a Mithoon tune. Shadab Faridi's scream at the start of the song is reminiscent of Mohammed Rafi's "Affo Khuda" at the beginning of "Hum Ko Tum Pe" (from Jab Jab Phool Khile, 1965) and the song's zany energy fully reflects the character of Balli (played by Ranbir Kapoor). "A fully erratic, eccentric, nonsensical guy, creating a ruckus inside the Kaza prison – just like Karan (Malhotra) had written," said Mithoon during our video call. 

Here are edited excerpts from the interview: 

Have you always been, if I may say so, a melody fiend?

(laughs) I take that as a compliment. I think it varies from artist to artist, but for me the melody is the soul. Production is the body of a song, and you can give it as much muscle as you want, but until and unless it has the spirit of God in it, it won't stand. Or that's how I see it. This is something I want to hold onto, and I'm happy to be defined by it.

A breakout album of yours was Anwar (2007). What are your memories of composing it?

I remember working on that album with a Commerce textbook in my bag. I was barely out of college when I was composing these albums. Anwar, Zeher (2005), Bas Ek Pal (2006) were all in one phase. 

I happened to meet director Manish Jha, who had just made Matrubhoomi (2003), which had just won the National Award. He gave me a backdrop of what the film was about, what the visuals would be like. He told me to play five of my best songs, which I was proud of. I told him I didn't have a song bank, but that I would like to give it a shot based on the brief I'd gotten. It took about 15-20 days, and I came up with the melody that eventually became "Maula Mere Maula". I think both Manish Jha and the producer of the film reluctantly came to my studio, not sure how this college kid is going to understand the depth of Anwar, but then they heard the tune and there was no turning back. We recorded the song with Roop Kumar Rathod, who was my first and only choice. 

When I do a film like Anwar, which doesn't have any promotion or any backing or even a recognisable actor in it, but still a song like "Maula Mere Maula" breaks out and is played around the world? Now, this is validation.

I believe you were rated very highly by AR Rahman after he heard "Maula Mere"?

A lot of reviews equated me with Rahman sir, which greatly humbled me. That's because many composers from my generation consider him a guru. And what happened was, he spoke about me and the song in many places, so it felt great to be appreciated by someone I had admired. But then ultimately it's my journey, and I can't make a certificate out of it. The kind of upbringing I'd had, I already had strong foundational values, thanks to my grandfather Pandit Ram Prasad Sharma, who was the guru of Pyarelalji, and I also trained under Pyareji. The bar was really high from the beginning, music had to be of quality. When my father first heard "Maula Mere", he told me that it needs more work. I've been through the furnace of a punishing process, and I try to follow those standards till date.

A lot of people didn't know you were behind the music of so many Emraan Hashmi films from the 2000s or 2010s. How did that feel?

I take it very sportingly. I think Hindi cinema is an experience, and even if you go back to the Sixties, there was the Shammi Kapoor era, and most of the music from that time was done by Shankar-Jaikishan, but Shammiji carried an aura and owned the music on screen. That is the magic of Hindi cinema. I love working with Emraan Hashmi, and I like how he's depicted my songs, or for that matter even the songs of other composers. I cherish that period very closely and I really don't have an issue with it.

Did your life change in any noticeable way after "Tum Hi Ho"? Arijit's life definitely did.

In terms of my media connectivity, probably yes. I like to stay away as much as possible. People were curious to know how I'd composed the song, it won me a lot of awards so that brought me out more than I would like. At the core of my being, nothing changed. I was still the same guy, and it was just another song I'd written during one silent afternoon in the quietness of my studio. Probably the same guy who did Anwar, and I would like to believe I'm still the same guy today.

You're behind some of the streamed songs on YouTube and yet your work isn't as widely discussed. 

The most important thing for me is to connect with my music to the public. And about that I have nothing but gratitude. It doesn't really bother me too much if the people consuming the music aren't asking, "Who made this?" It's never been a priority. Even today, I'm not the most comfortable talking about myself. I'm grateful for the recognition that I've gotten till now, and I want to keep doing what I've been doing till now. It's more important to do things on my own terms. I think I've reached a place where the industry knows that I won't budge from my stance. I think that's a win!

Are you recognised on the streets or at airports?

Maybe not as much as you might think. But it does happen very randomly.

I was watching an interview of KK's where he says how people don't recognise him, but everyone knows his songs. And it gave him so much joy to see how differently they would react to him before and after a concert. 

A lot of people revere KK sir for his work ethic, but a lot of people like me were blessed to know him personally. How he had so much clarity in his head, and how he lived life. I worked with him right from one of my first songs ("Bas Ek Pal") and we used to often sit and chat with him after the recording was done. He grew fond of me over time, I think. He said some really foundational things to me, which have directly helped in the person I am today. KK sir is the original cool guy. 

What were the foundational things KK spoke to you about?

Things like not chasing attention. It may sound like a cliché today, but back then it was the most important thing anyone had ever said to me. Attention is fleeting, but respect is permanent. Once you lose it, it's really difficult to earn it back.

Right till the end, KK sir wasn't too accessible. You want to work with him? You're going to have to learn to wait. And I think that's such an important part of being an artist today. It wasn't about his pride, he was one of the most humble people I knew. But he made the distinction that while people could take him for granted, they couldn't take his talents for granted. He gave enough respect to his talent. He told me not to spill all over the place, considering I was young and people would come to me with work. He said it was important to hold on to myself, and what I held dear.

In so many of the obituaries for KK, people mentioned "Beetein Lamhein" as one of his best songs. What are your memories of making that song?

It was my second song with him. One distinct memory I have is when KK sir came to the studio to record that song, and he said "Mithoon, gaana sunte hai (let's hear the song)!" I didn't have a demo, so I just went to the keys and started playing and singing the song myself. … When I got done, he came from behind, held my shoulders and whispered into my ears, "Even you don't know how valuable you are!" It's one of the most memorable moments of my career. 

Some of your biggest successes have come under T-Series. How do you think T-Series has impacted Hindi film music?

I can speak about my own experience. I've had nothing but a good experience with Mr Bhushan Kumar. There are other layers to this, which I obviously can't comment on. But given my work in the early days, or even what I've done recently in films like Kabir Singh (2019) and Hit: The First Case (2022), I think he sees an introspective element in my music, which he likes to use in places he sees fit.

A lot of your songs with T-Series could come under the bracket of "wronged lover". Is that fair?

"Wronged lover" might be a bit myopic. But I think it could be bracketed under a 'broken heart'. … We have yearnings as human beings, and I think that's why my music connects as well. 

When you do it song after song, does it ever feel dishonest at some point?

The minute I feel that the song isn't coming from a real place, I back off. I've done it in the past too, where I've told filmmakers that I'm not feeling it and I've bowed out of films. 

Do you feel appreciated by your peers? Do you care for it?

I don't. Why would I crave recognition from an external entity? Why would I give them such importance? I love and respect my peers, but my fulfilment doesn't come from anyone outside. It comes from within. 

How did Shamshera come to you? 

I got a call from (director) Karan Malhotra's team, I was told that Karan wanted me to discuss a film. The meeting was arranged at the YRF office in Andheri, and he told me how he was doing a period film and if I would be interested in exploring an opportunity of working with him. He was primarily looking for one composer to do the entire album and score. I had great vibes with him, and I can say this today that Karan is one of my closest friends from within the fraternity. At that time, I had a couple of more meetings with him to understand the world of the film, before starting work on it. I never have a song bank per se, I always work on a script. I ask for a narration, and that's how Shamshera happened. 

Did landing a YRF project feel like validation after all these years? 

I have a lot of respect for YRF, I think they're one of the biggest production houses in the country. And by "biggest" I also mean the scale with which they've approached their projects since Yashji's time, and I think the kind of canvas that Adi (Chopra) afforded me by fully backing my vision for Shamshera was brilliant. But I don't agree with the word 'validation'. I think my music itself stands as validation. Long before I worked with them, the kind of numbers that my songs have, it was certainly not a feeling of being 'validated'. It was a beautiful experience to work with them though. 

I'd always grown up wanting to score a film that represented Hindi cinema in all its glory. I grew up admiring the works of Subhash Ghai, Manmohan Desai, Raj Khosla, and my heroes, Laxmikant-Pyarelal. I wanted to collaborate on a process like this, but it's never been about the banner or label. I've always done music with all my heart, no matter where I've done it. 

To enter Karan Malhotra's world was a real special feeling. I used more than 200 live instruments for the BG [background] score, which we recorded over six months at YRF Studios. Even the ghungroos were recorded live — that's the kind of detailing we went for. I give full credit to YRF for giving me the instrument muscle to realise the vision of the score, whether it's recording 40 drums live, 60 coda sections and also recording singers from all over the country. Classical singers, Carnatic veterans, folk singers from Maharashtra, I think that's what makes a big difference, and for that I'm grateful to YRF. 

Did you do anything to alter your sound for it to fit inside a YRF film?

The focus was on what Shamshera's sound needs to be. That's what Karan and I were chasing from the very beginning. It had to be a big, commercial Hindi film score, but at the same time, it also needed substance. I wanted to bring my colour too, to Shamshera. While it has the meat to it, if you listen to Fitoor it also has the silence that my music is known for. I wanted it to be a good collaboration between my style and what Karan Malhotra needed in the film. 

What's a major learning from Shamshera that you're taking forward?

I think a lesson for me is to not restrict myself. I think the idea of music is about acceptance. I think Shamshera has given me the confidence to explore many more genres. I don't have a bucket list, but there are many more genres within the Hindi film template that are slowly dying. For eg: the qawaali, and I really enjoyed doing "Kaaley Naina" for Shamshera. So, I think I want to dig deeper into the genres in masala Hindi films and bring them back.

What's an album/song of yours that you feel is underrated?

I don't believe in the concept of underrated. Music is an experience, how does one rate it at all? Sometimes, it does happen that a song is not promoted well, and it gets lost. Like there's this song called Kuch Iss Tarah with Atif Aslam – it didn't have a music video. But if you go online and see, the song has made a path of its own. I think if even one person listens to a song and is affected by it, my job is done. I got a call in 2009, where they told me a couple had reconsidered their divorce after listening to this song inside their car. How do you rate something like this?

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