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SHALINI SHAH
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music Ranjit Barot, now making waves with “MTV Unplugged”, has been Bollywood's sought-after arranger, producer and background score composer. SHALINI SHAH

BEHIND THE SCENES Ranjit Barot.
BEHIND THE SCENES Ranjit Barot.

I t is one of life's ironies. Twenty years ago a young drummer turned to music production and arrangement in studios when, due to the advent of television, acoustic music started dying a slow death. Now he's back on television as the music producer and arranger on a show dedicated exclusively to acoustic music. For more than two decades now, we've been hearing Ranjit Barot's works in films, and few realise it. (A long-time collaborator of A.R. Rahman, Barot has worked with everybody from Laxmikant-Pyarelel and Kalyanji-Anandji to Anu Malik, Ismail Darbar and Pritam as either drummer and arranger, or composer of background scores for films like “Aks”, “Main Hoon Na”, “Tashan” and, quite recently, “Shaitan”.) One of the film industry's most prolific, he's now on television — as the music producer and arranger for “MTV Unplugged”.

Speaking on the phone from Mumbai, Barot explains, “‘Unplugged' is already an established format internationally, where popular artistes come and present songs in an acoustic, non-electric format. There are parameters we have to work with as far as choice of instrumentation runs. So everything is acoustic — acoustic guitars, piano, drum sets, percussion. It's taking popular songs and trying to revisit them, and because the instrumentation changes it opens up different possibilities for the musical arrangement.” His whole philosophy in music is that it's “one big celebration.” He says, “We need to be pertinent and valid in the sense of what the song demands but after that you can have fun with it.”

Son of Kathak exponent Sitara Devi, Barot's introduction to music came early; by 17 Barot was a pro on the Western drum kit. In 1980 he performed at the Jazz Yatra in Europe with the Jazz Yatra Sextet (with Louis Banks), besides performing with Pandit Ravi Shankar's ensemble on the same tour.

“Somehow, in 1985-86, with the advent of television I started to run production in the studio world because, really, there was no work for acoustic drummers and the live scene started to shrink up, I think, when television came in. It changed the game pretty much,” he recalls.

While his film discography is impressive, his work on Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's “Aks” and Santosh Sivan's “Asoka” — Anu Malik composed the music for both — is what Barot considers special.

“Humma, humma” (for which Barot did the arranging) from Mani Ratnam's 1995 film “Bombay”, of course, holds pride of place. The song, one of Rahman's early hits that later became a perfect specimen of his signature electronic-based tunes, also introduced us to the vocal talent of one Remo Fernandes.

“That was a special experience,” he recalls. “Rahman and I knew each other. The way that song turned out was because of the rhythm arrangement. I think that was a special song and it was such a big hit! It was the beginning of a long musical relationship between me and Rahman.”

The 2001 film “Aks”, with songs like “Aaja gufaon mein aa” and “Yeh raat”, brought with them a brooding melancholy keeping with the film's there's-a-devil-in-each-of-us theme. “There was a lot of latitude on that (“Aks”) and I think that kind of changed the game in Bollywood quite a bit. I remember working on it and Rahman calling me up from Chennai and going, ‘Man! What are you doing with this! It's fantastic!' That was special because I got to use a lot of modern production techniques in the studio with very contemporary, regular film beats that Anu Malik had worked on… One more film that I enjoyed but which sank without a trace was ‘Asoka'. I wish the film had done better.”

Isn't it a thankless job, that of a music arranger and producer? One, after all, knows the music composers, lyricists and singers, but rarely the one who bring its core elements together. Barot seems quite content with the no-bouquets-no-brickbats situation.

“It's a faceless job; nobody knows who you are. There's not always a guarantee you'll get a credit on the record or the film. I think, for me personally, it's where I wanted to be. It's like being a really vital part of the machinery without having to take the stress of writing songs, meeting the producer, coming up with 15 options, and day and night being at the beck and call of actors… As a composer there are a lot of things you need to get used to, and I feel I'm just not built for that,” he says. “And I enjoy this work. It's behind the scenes, it's wonderful, and you get paid. Whether a film is a hit or a flop I still get to work. When they find that a film has not done too well they're looking to hang that whole dead horse around somebody's neck. It's not what you want.”

It was following some goading from Ustad Zakir Hussain that Barot returned to his first love — drumming. He's now part of John McLaughlin's band, 4th Dimension.

“Bada Boom”, his Jazz and world music album, released last year, featuring musicians like John McLaughlin, Ustad Zakir Hussain and U. Shrinivas. “‘Bada Boom' was a result of the journey I had in this whole Jazz-Rock world, learning Indian music, Carnatic percussion... Some of the ideas had been brewing for a long time and we went ahead and did it,” Barot explains. In progress is another album with U. Shrinivas. On the side, there's the “odds and ends, little bits and pieces in the studio that keep the machinery chugging.” Ultimately, he says, it's about that middle path. “You try and do some work that pays the bills and you try and do some work that feeds your soul. If you get the right balance I think that's a great place to be in.”

Everything in “MTV Unplugged” is acoustic — guitars, piano, drum sets, percussion. It's taking popular songs and trying to revisit them, and because the instrumentation changes it opens up different possibilities.

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