In Suzhal The Vortex, Pushkar Gayatri’s intriguing and layered universe on Amazon Prime Video, every small concept–from the fictitious town of Sambaloor to the Mayana Kollai festival the show is based on– has a distinct character. And an important addition to this list is the show’s rich background score, which went on to stay in people’s minds much after the show ended. Composer Sam CS opens up to us about creating the musical tapestry of the emotional thriller headlined by Kathir, Aishwarya Rajesh and Sriya Reddy.
Suzhal has such a rich scope for music, in that it is set against the 9-day Mayana Kollai festival. The premise is just beaming with musical opportunities. Did you look at it that way?
Before Suzhal, I got opportunities to work on many web series. But the reason I didn’t take it up was because the way they approached it seemed like a high-end version of a normal tv show. But Suzhal‘s scale was something else, considering Amazon Prime and Pushkar-Gayatri involvement. So, I did not look at it as a web series. I saw it as a movie because that was the quality we wanted. The musical approach was a different experience as I had to hold the thrilling element throughout the show without revealing any clues.
I’ve worked with Pushkar Gayatri before in Vikram Vedha. So, I knew the importance they give to music in their films. In all of their scripts, music has a separate script for itself. So, when I read Suzhal for the first time, I knew it needed layers of music for every character and emotion. So, it was extremely interesting for me as a composer.
Do talk to us about the Mayana Kollai festival and how you approached the indigenous sounds for the same.
Pushkar Gayatri had done some groundwork for the film and had done a documentary about the festival. So, I studied the instruments that are usually played for the festival and so on. But the challenging part in all of this was to merge the myth and the story in the series musically. I couldn’t just use the beat of an ethnic sound that is heard in the thiruvizha, because the music also had to convey the emotions that unfold simultaneously at the festival.
We had called around 42-rhythm players, who usually play the original music for the festival, for recording. Apart from that, we had also called upon a few instrumentalists who have worked in the cine field. It was challenging to work with both these groups. This was difficult, but the end result was satisfying. Take Nandini’s (Aishwarya Rajesh) entry sequence for instance – it conveyed the festival flavor and traits of her personality.
That’s interesting because the show’s theme had a sense of duality throughout, wherein it focused on the different shades of people’s characters and also the duality between myth and reality. And the music, too, followed suit?
Yes, I am not sure how many people noticed this. Because the music doesn’t just have sounds of ethnic instruments. It also has the sounds of a 72-piece Macedonia orchestra of full brass and strings. But we have merged this with Indian ethnic sounds like the udukai, pambai and so on. Just like how the show merged mythical elements and reality, I tried to blend Indian ethnic percussion and Western orchestra. We finished almost 80 per cent of the score even before we went for filming.
Pushkar-Gayatri told Anupama Chopra in an interview that they didn’t really give you references for Suzhal, but gave you abstract ideas and emotion briefs such as gray, fire, darkness, etc. How did you convert such briefs into a layered background score for the show?
It was like giving a plain paper to someone and telling them to draw whatever they wanted, while ensuring that it was top-notch. The responsibility was high, but a boundary was opened up, because I could explore everything. I composed the show’s title first and the thing that stayed in my mind was the mythical story of Parvathi coming to the earth to destroy a monster. Only because they did not give me any references could I think of things like this. I was happy about this freedom they gave me, because even in Vikram Vedha this was the case.
The characters in the show have a lot of shades to them. For instance if the show is depicting a truly good person, who is perceived to be bad in the show, musically, the sounds will still depict them as a good person. If you watch the show for the second time, you would realize that music would have supported them. But at the same time when you see the show for the first time, you would have seen them as a bad person, and music would have supported that as well. I have such heartfelt feelings towards the music in the show, because every character has such layered themes.
Have audiences today become more aware about background scores?
Absolutely. Audiences usually notice my score for films. But it is only now that people realize the importance of background score. Background score has always been looked at as a filling factor in films, but that is not the case anymore. Music is a layer in itself. But now viewers are appreciating films technically. Talking about Suzhal, I tried to induce fear through the music as the show revolves around a missing girl. This is an emotional thriller, so, I have used my voice at points to induce fear and tension musically. Apart from the title song, I have also sung the small ambient songs that play in the festival, which not many would have noticed. I thought this was important.
How was it working on the Hindi remake of Vikram Vedha—did you look at this as a completely new project, or did it seem like stepping into a place of comfort as you scored the original?
I just saw the visuals and have begun working on the film. The emotions of the film are the same. But the scale has changed. The Hindi remake is scaled at a different level. So, musically I will have to keep that in mind. The main theme (the popular hook line) might remain the same. But the way I project the theme might differ. The main hook line of the original does not just play during mass moments. But it is played during both jolly and emotional moments. The instrumentation of the music is what is important. In Hindi, it will be completely different and I hope everyone likes it.
Let’s speak about your film work—you have scored for several fast-paced films that have gone on to become acclaimed thrillers such as Vikram Vedha, Kaithi, Saani Kayidham etc. Does something about this genre excite you as a composer?
This genre has a lot of scope for music. I am interested in out-and-out romantic films. But it might not have a lot of layers. In a thriller there is a lot of scope for layers, which pushes you to do more. I don’t harbour any wish to do films with big stars. Even if it is a small film, it interests me if it is content-oriented.
Globally, background scores and the soundtrack of a show have been popularized by shows like This Is Us and Euphoria today. Do you think streaming platforms have made this possible?
Definitely. Only after COVID, people have increasingly started watching shows on the web. Even in the theater, people might watch films for a few weeks. But OTT gives you the option to watch it anytime all year long. But musically how I look at it is, when the audience listens to my theme, they should remember the visual. If that happens, I have won. Everybody watches shows with headphones today, so they are aware of the score.
You are known for creating exceptional scores and songs that are rooted to the film. But do you think you are still yet to crack the blockbuster song phenomenon? Is that a goal?
Sometimes I do feel people are not noticing my work. The aim is not popularity. For instance, in a film like Kaithi, there are no songs and it only has a background score. But it was appreciated and everyone still remembers its emotional and mass themes like the biriyani theme, for example. Everyone appreciated it, but it was not nominated for any category in an award function. I’m not saying it should have gotten an award, but it was not even featured as a category. Songs are given more importance.
However, in Indian cinema today, the number of songs are coming down even in big films. Be it Vijay sir’s films or Ajith sir’s films. The reason is that audiences want to listen and watch these songs as independent albums. But in a movie, it might not work to cut to a foreign location and shoot songs. I have given hits such as Yaanji and Kannamma. But the films also that come to me have themes of abuse, murder and robbery (laughs). So, there is not a lot of scope for songs. But anyway, I might get opportunities to do songs in the future, let’s see.
How was it working on Rocketry? Was it any different working on a science biopic film? What kind of sounds have you explored for this one, considering the genre?
Rocketry was a completely western score. It had a Macedonian orchestra and we scored it in LA. Nambi Narayanan is a Tamilian hailing from Kerala, and had a case against him. However, the entire film unfolds in places like Russia, France and Scotland. So, I wanted to do a complete Western score. So, musically it would sound like you are watching an English film. We had fused rock and contemporary genres into the orchestra. Of course, the film does have small songs in the ambience that not many would have noticed. The score took around two years to complete and it was such a thrilling experience. And I believe it will reach the audiences.