Local bands such as Vidwan and Black Letters are now cutting records for Malayalam cinema. The artistes riding this new wave say that their beginnings were less glamorous

What do Salt N’ Pepper, Romans and 5 Sundarikal have in common? Besides being fresh attempts at breaking conventional Malayalam movie stereotypes, they have started a new trend by including promotional songs that feature local bands taking stage, riding bikes, and generally looking all kinds of cool. The YouTube surfing population of the State has been quite appreciative of the content. ‘Elello’, the promotional song for Romans, by folk electronic/ alternative band Vidwan and ‘You say’, the original soundtrack of 5 Sundarikal, by Kochi-based Black Letters is making waves on social media.

These special appearances by local bands are part of a new epoch in the film music scene within the State. Rock bands, previously frowned upon by a large part of the populace with more conventional tastes, are now much sought after to bring a new angle to film music.

Vivian Varghese, a freelance musician and member of Vidwan, talks about the early days as they tried to make a break into commercial music: “Vidwan started around four years ago when a bunch of friends who happened to be musicians came together to make songs in Malayalam. All of us take music very seriously and ended up exploring new aspects of the craft as we went along, playing at college gigs alongside. But the movie phenomenon started with Avial being featured in Salt N’ Pepper, and since then our brand of music has started going commercial,” says the guitarist and drummer, who also works on music production with fellow band mate Vivek Thomas.

Many feathered caps

The band is an example of the creative interflow that happens between the young musicians rocking the charts today. Their keyboardist Yakzan Gary Pereira scored the music for two out of the five short films in 5 Sundarikal. Vivek Thomas plays the guitar for Vidwan and provides the vocals for Motherjane and has his own production outfit, Vivek Thomas Productions, the go-to place for most bands in the State. Vocalist Anoop Mohandas, bassist Ben Sam Jones and drummer Tao Issaro make up the rest of Vidwan.

Black Letters started out as a group of friends from school, who got together and started making music, eventually forming the band and working their way up by attending college rock shows. The band is made up of Sharath Iyer, Sarang Menon, Arjun Radhakrishnan and Akash Chacko. Like most bands, they went through creative experimentation, dabbling in heavy metal before new influences and experience made them adopt their current alternative genre in 2010. The band won many contests including first place at The Hindu NXg Rockstar competition last year before being featured in 5 Sundarikal. “We participated in ‘Decibel’; a competition conducted by Radio Mango, and went on to win it — that was how we came to the attention of Amal Neerad and were offered a chance to do the OST for 5 Sundarikal,” says Akash Chacko, the drummer for Black Letters, who is pursuing a degree in law at KLE Law College in Bangalore.

Both Vivian and Akash talk about the ups and downs of making it as musicians.

“It was not always smooth sailing. There were times when we struggled, but the important thing is that we overcame our difficulties and persevered. There was opposition; but when you prove that you’re good at what you do, then people appreciate your work and opportunities arise,” says Akash. Work commitments have led to the members of Black Letters being spread across Bangalore and Chennai, but the group makes it a point to get together every fortnight to jam.

Opportunities aplenty

Vivian, who has worked as music director for a short film called Alfie, which premiered at Cannes, also paints an upbeat picture.

“I believe that if you have talent, you will be noticed, regardless of what or how many instruments you play or what other musical skill you have. The weird thing is that the very people who appreciate music are sceptical when someone decides to pursue it as a career. What they don’t realise is that somewhere, someone had to make this exact same choice to produce the music they hear today,” he says candidly.

The versatile musicians have high hopes for the future, with more and more people following their work and their videos getting enthusiastic responses. Black Letters is currently working on their first album, and ‘You say’ is one of the tracks that will be featured in it.

Vivian believes that even the generation that grew up listening to the evergreen melodies of yesteryear are taking an interest in the new genres. Change is coming, and these guys are riding the wave into a new and exciting phase for music in the State. The start has been promising. Here’s hoping there is a lot more where that came from.