Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar have been lurking around in Hindi cinema for nearly 13 years now — as they should be while producing an enviable, and specific body of work, ranging from Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl In Yellow Boots (2010), Avinash Arun’s Killa (2014) to arguably two of the best shows released on Netflix this year, Trial By Fire and Kohrra. Their work is not the stuff of earworms — think, for instance, of their sound design for Ship of Theseus (2012), Sonchiriya (2019) and Paatal Lok — but rather, they pursue sound that is immersive, atmospheric and introspective. This is also what separates them from their contemporaries.
Chandavarkar's first memory of music is while growing up in Bengaluru, at ‘baithaks’ (informal living room gatherings) on Hindustani music organised by his grandmother. Taylor on the other hand, grew up in the town of Kendal in the UK, revelling in the scores of Blade Runner (1982) and various Westerns. He had always been intrigued by the work of the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who is known for some of the most iconic scores in cinema, including the renowned Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), and other celebrated works like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) and Cinema Paradiso (1988). Morricone is legendary for deploying everyday sounds, like shutting a door, into a film’s score. Chandavarkar and Taylor do something similar in Kohrra, using the static noise of mobile phones, clanging metal and drones (among other things) along with discordant, weeping violins to reflect the emotional turmoil that riddles the show and its characters.
“Till date, we’ve never had a conversation where we told each other, ‘Hey! We’re a music composer-duo now…’," Chandavarkar told Film Companion. They met in 2007, when Taylor was in Mumbai to teach viola at a music foundation, and Chandavarkar was working as an actor in theatre productions. Their similar musical tastes brought them together, and after some informal jamming in house parties, Taylor also joined them in a workshop where he improvised his viola with the cast of a play. Chandavarkar's score in a play called 'Skeleton Woman', starring Kalki Koechlin, had Anurag Kashyap in the audience. Kashyap approached Chandavarkar to do the music for That Girl in Yellow Boots, who then reached out to Taylor.
After starting out at a time when a host of talented, ‘middle-of-the-road’ filmmakers like Kashyap, Abhishek Chaubey and Navdeep Singh were making work that caught the attention of mainstream audiences, Chandavarkar and Taylor have successfully managed to carve out a niche in the OTT era. “What is music doing here?” — Taylor and Chandavarkar always ask themselves this before deciding on a score for a scene. “If the visuals are saying something, music rarely needs to repeat it,” said Chandavarkar, adding how they are both thoughtful about how they insert sounds into a scene. “Justify your presence,” he said.
Taylor and Chandavarkar spoke to Film Companion about how they conceived of the sound design for five of their more well-known projects.
Chandavarkar: I remember this scene where Neeraj Kabi’s character is walking. It’s a crane shot of him walking past massive windmills. Then there was the moment Aida's character can see for the first time, and she’s surrounded at Kemp’s corner (the character is blind till this point, and seeing traffic at Kemp’s corner for the first time overwhelms her). Co-incidentally, it was the place where we would meet often, because Benedict was living there. We’d developed a process during (That Girl In) Yellow Boots, where we would exchange packets of musical ideas and then see what worked in relation to the film. What we ended up doing on (Ship of) Theseus was we would let the film play and record Benedict improvising while watching the scene. The goal was to find something in the scene rather than compose around it.
Taylor: It was an interesting challenge from a composer’s point of view, because it was a large film, and a long one too. Looking back at the film, it almost feels like this abstract piece of art, where we were guided by the visuals rather than musical notes written on a paper. We were chasing the feeling of these mesmerising visuals on screen.
Chandavarkar: To come back to your earlier question about what it was to work with Anand (Gandhi), he speaks very philosophically about his scenes. One of the most significant things about the music we remember is that it had to sound like we were attentive towards these infinitesimal, microscopic things, but at the same time, it needed to have a scale. Not necessarily in terms of it being loud — but it needed to evoke awe and wonderment.
Chandavarkar: When we came on board for Newton, they had a locked cut. So our job was relatively easier, because we knew the exact sections which needed to be filled with music. Amit Masurkar was like Anurag Kashyap — he had a definite idea about what he wanted the film to be. He left us to our own devices, and would later tell us if it worked or not.
Taylor: With Newton, the edit told us everything we wanted to know about the film. On the one hand we could be more punchy, but finding the quirk was an exploration.
Chandavarkar: We knew we needed to sonically hit the mark with Newton – as in we knew exactly what he was feeling. It was a fun discovery to find the musical realisation of what he might be feeling.I think we figured it out during the opening montage, when you just see him going about his day. We realised that this piece had to tell you everything that you need to know about this guy. He’s this upstanding guy, with probably a doe-eyed view of the world. But (he is someone) who is also a little off — you can’t tell if he’s simple or simplistic.
Taylor: There were two or three very important scenes in there, from what I remember. Like this chase scene towards the end where we only used percussion.
Chandavarkar: We wanted the percussion because it’s such a loaded moment, and we didn’t want to burden it tonally. You don’t want to say (with the music, whether it is) good, bad or neutral, and percussion allows you to do that. It had almost no tonal underpinning.
Chandavarkar: We were involved with Sonchiriya at a script level. We’d made a few themes, which we had given to Abhishek Chaubey for his production. I met someone in the film, and they told me that they would listen to it everyday in the car on their way to shoot.
Taylor: It’s definitely kind of like a Western theme, but also set in a wasteland in this part of the world. So it’s a Western theme, but also not. We were trying to keep it open both ways.
Chandavarkar: There was a key scene where a character is seeing a dream, where he’s riding a camel. What we realised was how Western themes often derive their rhythm from galloping horses, so we took that and scored Sonchiriya more to the rhythm of a camel – a bit slower and reflective.
Taylor: Prashant Nair is very receptive, also very specific about what he wants. On both projects, there was this really good editor on board — Xavier Box — who edits to music. So, it’s this very interesting collaborative process.
Chandavarkar: We tried to find an ideal way of working, where the sound and music teams were brought under one department. Sound design happens on its own, music people work independently, and then it’s mixed closer to the release date. We proposed a new way of working, where we knew about shot breakdowns as well as their colour scheme, and with Trial (By Fire) one of the first things we discussed was giving grief momentum through music. Prashant knew he didn’t want the show to be filled with pity and sadness — he wanted the music to reflect the momentum and resilience through grief. The sound and music departments were working symbiotically, where we were each doing a shift and sharing things with each other, so one wouldn’t have to take precedence over the other. It was a wholly new way of working.
Taylor: The rubab theme (which plays each time the two cops are investigating) was the chunkiest piece of score after which we identified the sonic world of the show. Up till before that, it was all very atmospheric and abstract.
Chandavarkar: We were discussing with Sudip (Sharma), what the score should be like, not knowing what the word ‘Kohrra’ meant. We came up with how the score should be like this omnipresent fog. (But) it’s only later we realised that ‘Kohrra’ literally means fog (laughs).
Taylor: The flashback, where Steve is beating Paul at the beginning of episode 2, was definitely something we revisited, it was challenging in the way we wanted to pin-point the insidiousness, humiliation and violence rooted in it. I think we had a similar challenge in Paatal Lok – which also had very real violence. You watch a scene like that five times, and it starts dripping into your process.
Chandavarkar: In a lot of these scenes, it’s easy to turn violence into something exciting through background score. When you step back – I remember very clearly when Benedict completed recording the strings in that scene – if you put too much, you can diminish the raw power. The score can almost seem like it’s taking a moral stand on a scene. You’ve got to be careful about minding that line.
Taylor: For me, it’s the same thing in that ‘ear scene’ in Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Tarantino playing joyous ‘70s rock music even as something psychotic is taking place on screen. It’s only later you realise that he’s putting us in Michael Madsen’s brain. The audience is on Madsen’s side as he relishes inflicting callous violence, and I think that’s what is so grotesque about it.
Chandavarkar: Even in Udta Punjab (2016), you had to be really careful while scoring scenes of assault. If there’s already (evocation of) violence and disgust from it, then does music need to evoke another layer of it?