Santhosh Narayanan interview: On the music of ‘Kalki 2898 AD’ and understanding Nag Ashwin’s vision

Watch: Santhosh Narayanan interview: On the music of ‘Kalki 2898 AD’ and understanding Nag Ashwin’s vision

Composer Santhosh Narayanan talks about creating different themes for characters in ‘Kalki 2898 AD’ and how it was made to be an auditory experience, as well as a homage to veteran composers

Updated - July 09, 2024 05:12 pm IST

Published - July 09, 2024 03:33 pm IST

The road leading to Santhosh Narayanan’s studio might be a rough one, but the experience inside the space is anything but. An empty patch of land opposite his house is turned into a parking spot for his boat which he got during the floods, and those who step into his studio are welcomed by his two puppers as we sit down next to his audio console to talk about Kalki 2898 AD, arguably his biggest project in terms of scale.

Santhosh Narayanan

Santhosh Narayanan | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

Excerpts from a conversation:

Adi Tala’s Adi Parva

“I think they had shot Kalki for almost seven to eight months before I got on board. When they got in touch, my first question was ‘Why me?’ and director Nag Ashwin told me he loved the album of Cuckoo; I was very happy to hear that. He told me he needed a soulful album and there’s space for the epic-ness given the film’s story. While I was given a free hand with the epic aspects of the film, the soulful parts are something that will also carry over to the sequels. The ideation process involved creating different worlds; like Kasi, Shambhala, the Lab and the Complex. I have a folder called World Boxes, and as we came up with tracks, we segregated them based on these categories.”

ALSO READ:‘Kalki 2898 AD’ movie review: Prabhas and Amitabh Bachchan shine in a visually stunning drama

“Sumathi (played by Deepika Padukone) is the central character and her theme was the first one we tried to crack. It had to share the film’s epic nature while also showcasing her loneliness. Then we built a few more themes around her; like one for the extraction process, one for her escape, and another for how she is important to other communities left in that world.”

A still from ‘Kalki 2898 AD’

A still from ‘Kalki 2898 AD’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Entering into Nag Ashwin’s world

“I usually ask for references to use as a cue on what the director expects, but with Kalki, I had no references. Nag would send me working CGI images and that’s when I understood the actual scale of the film. It’s made at a magnitude that I thought was not possible from India. He wanted me to match the music’s feel with his vision. Nag seldom reacts and I didn’t know this initially. When I gave him the theme song, he just said “cool” and I thought he didn’t like it. When I met the producer and said he said so, they were ecstatic. That’s when I realised he doesn’t use superlatives; he’s a sage in a way (laughs).”

Tunes of the past and future

“I personally wanted to add the sounds of Eighties and Nineties in Kalki’s album. I’m a huge fan of Ilaiyaraaja sir, MSV sir and AR Rahman sir and I wanted this to be a tribute to the,. ‘Bhairava Anthem’ is an ode to Raja sir, the ‘Veera Dheera’ track you hear at the end during the big reveal is my ode to MSV sir, and it’s voiced by Ananthu who did Vada Chennai’s ‘Rajan Theme’. The treatment of the Mother in the lab is my ode to Rahman sir. There are a lot of personal touches I’ve left in the film. The whole ‘Mahabharata’ area is also my tribute to the amazing duo of SS Rajamouli gaaru and MM Keeravani garu.”

“The complex song (‘Ta Takkara’) is an essential one considering its prominence with our protagonist, but the song had to be quirky. We wanted to root it to the dubstep and Psy-trance era. We also wanted to have an orchestral space and the folk music of India. For a film of this scale, there were very little changes in the script; it gave us an amazing edge with music and we didn’t have to jump around with themes.”

A still from ‘Kalki 2898 AD’

A still from ‘Kalki 2898 AD’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“The film is set in the future where the remaining people are a mix of languages, cultures and communities. I wanted to bring that to the album and the score. For example, Diljit Dosanjh’s Punjabi lines (in ‘Bhairava Anthem’) will stay so in every language. I also recorded Amitabh Bachchan sir for a song, and he has one of the greatest voices in history. He becomes a child when speaking about music and I wanted to retain his lines in Hindi across other languages. There’s even a Tamil oppari bit that will appear so in all versions and ‘Veera Dheera’ will remain in Telugu. Kalki’s album is my ode to the multicultural identity of India.”

Why pan-Indian when music can be universal?

“My biggest inspiration was in 2008 when Rahman sir won the Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire. The biggest takeaway was how he did what he does — his own original music — and the world lapped it up and loved it. He didn’t have to cater to a different audience but worked to his strengths. The entire music team surrendered to the vision of the production and the director. Only then we can create something raw and new. I’m very glad that it’s also seeing commercial success and Kalki could probably become a starting point of a new wave of epic cinema.”

“I learn from musicians whose work excites me and Kalki made me meet hundreds of them. I felt responsible for once in my life (laughs) because we had about two terabytes of music for this film. There was so much work that went into the film daily and it took a toll on all of us. But it has been a wonderful experience. I learnt how paramount our health is as it can affect the way one thinks. For the kind of pressure Nag had, he has always been uber cool. Sometimes we had to work from 9am to 5am on a roll and it was a physical endurance test. We also had to work creatively and sometimes it can frustrate you. But that’s the biggest learning experience I got and thanks to the people I worked with, it feels like I have so many teachers now.”

He adds, “The commercial success of Kalki is very important. Many of the directors I worked with have called up and wished me for the film. Everybody was rooting for this film. One of my friends, director Nalan (Kumarasamy) told me that Kalki will open doors to mass commercial films.”

Santhosh Narayanan

Santhosh Narayanan | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

Independent in every sense

“My studio is almost ready; it will become the fulcrum for something I’ve been wanting to create. I’ve got a new company called Rakita Entertainment (based on his song from Jagame Thandhiram) and I want to create an ecosystem with my team that will scout for talent. My only priority at this stage is that they should be from Tamil Nadu or the Tamil-speaking diaspora from other countries. I want to identify two artistes for the first year and give them access to the studio and its facility. It will help create songs like ‘Enjoy Enjaami’, ‘Katchi Sera’ and ‘Naan Kudikka Poren’. With about 10 to 15 such songs, we can create an industry and it can be as big or bigger than the film space. If we can do that, we can have something along the lines of how the Punjabi indie scene has evolved with people like Sidhu Moose Wala, Diljit Dosanjh and AP Dhillon.”

“For a song like ‘Enjoy Enjaami,’ we were given nothing. That’s why I had to put out a video on social media; something I’ve never done. I am also responsible for the artistes working in my company, so I had to put my foot down and speak out. If it can happen to me — someone connected to the music industry across the world — it can happen to anybody. This will be a fight that will see an end and it’s currently in a legal system. I’m bent on making sure the three artistes involved — Arivu, Dhee and I — are compensated, in what will be a massive victory for indie music.”

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