What is common between jazz, blues, rock, electronic, Hindustani classical, and Carnatic music? Well, nothing except that these are just different genres. It’s only in the diverse soundscape of Bollywood that you can see them all come together and still manage to resonate well. The same can be said about Loy Mendonsa, Ehsaan Noorani and Shankar Mahadevan — champions in their respective genres — who have been creating music together for over 21 years now. This when Noorani never wanted to do films; Mendonsa is still disconnected from cinema — in one interview he said that the last Indian film he saw was 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). It’s Mahadevan then who brings the Indian (and the filmi) sound to their musical party.
Midway into our conversation, Noorani requests us to not ask how the three got together for Bollywood. That’s a story everyone knows. It was for (late) Mukul Anand’s Dus (1996) that Noorani, who rightly assumes the centre in the hyphenated name, got his two advertising industry buddies to work with him. The film went nowhere what with the untimely demise of Anand. However, two decades later, the troika (currently working on one of Dharma Production’s new, undisclosed films) still claim to be having a lot of fun making music. Excerpts:
Twenty-one years in the industry. Has your music changed?
Noorani: We change with the trend but keeping in mind that we are still writing songs for a Bollywood audience and not getting esoteric about it.
Mendonsa: The core of our sound is very Indian. That’s what roots our music; and then we have all the other influences that we bring to it.
In keeping up with the trends, your music has evolved, but the sound of SEL has remained the same.
Noorani: The good thing about the sound of SEL is that there’s no sound of SEL. SEL only stands for good music. No two albums have sounded the same. So you can’t say that this is a recognisable SEL song.
Mahadevan: It’s very difficult to have a sound of our own. We design music for a film. What we do is dictated by the script, the characters and their geographical placements.
2016 was quite a year. You gave one of your career best with Mirzya (2016), a middling with Rock On 2 (2016), and your career worst, Ghayal Once Again (2016).
Mendonsa: Well, that’s the way it is. Sometimes the wheels turn slow, sometimes they turn fast.
Noorani: About Rock On 2 , I’ve said it before —that the music was one step ahead. It’s heavier and more committed. It’s a band that is creating music after seven years; you can’t have them playing the same grunge. Unfortunately, the film didn’t click, so everything sank with it.
Mahadevan: Things work, things don’t work. But one thing we can say for sure is that our quality of music hasn’t gone below a [certain] standard.
Speaking about Mirzya , it’s one of your career best but it didn’t get the recognition that it should have…
Noorani: It’s kind of unfortunate the way things work out here. A lot of money is paid for the album and then if the film flops, the record company just washes its hands off the music. I don’t see why you can’t keep promoting the music even after the film is gone. Music [comes] with the film but it’s also a separate entity. Mirzya is as good as Dil Chahta Hai (2001) or Kal Ho Na Ho (2003).
Mahadevan: Honestly, for me, it’s better [than DCH, KHNH]. Without being immodest, I don’t see any album in the last five years that has come out from this industry which is of the level of Mirzya . When the greatest writer in this country, Gulzar Saab, says that [working on] this album reminded him of the way he used to work with Pancham (Rahul Dev Burman), I think, we can’t get a bigger compliment than this.
You have a huge discography when it comes to albums sinking down with the film, especially if you look at your earlier work like Armaan (2003) and Kuch Naa Kaho (2003).
Mahadevan: Speaking of Armaan , in every reality show, the song, ‘ Mere Dil Ka Tumse Hai Kehna ’, has to be there. That’s gratifying for us. Or even ‘ Sapno Se Bhare Naina ’ from Luck By Chance (2009). Any Rajasthani kid, who comes to television, has to sing ‘ Baawre ’. Even ‘ Jhoom Barabar Jhoom ’.
Noorani: This is the legacy which will be left behind.
Mendonsa: The more work you do, [the more] you’re subject to having both hits and flops. I find it very unfortunate that there’s no way out for the audience to hear a song once the film is done with. [But] hardcore music lovers will probe and find them.
Ehsaan and Loy, you both formed Instant Karma (with Farhad Wadia) where you used to re-do old songs, which is also a current fad.
Noorani: The idea was to do respectable versions of songs. It became so big that people started doing bad versions.
Mahadevan: It was the beginning of remixes.
Mendonsa: Actually, it wasn’t even remixes. It was reinterpretation of songs.
Noorani: I am trying to understand what is it today? People do not trust today’s songwriting?
Mendonsa: For me, the analysis of it is: either there are no good songwriters or producers are not in a position to judge what a good song is. And I don’t buy the fact that there are no good songwriters.
Mahadevan: There’s a set of creative people, they have the talent but not the power. The power lies with someone else who has got the money. He is completely non-musical yet takes the decisions.
Mendonsa: It’s like music is a patient lying on a hospital table and there’s a rich man coming to operate him; not because he is the doctor, just because he is rich.
Has there been a low point when you guys felt that SEL is finished?
Mahadevan: Ehsaan feels that during every project. When his melody doesn’t get approved by the two of us, he walks out, saying “I am leaving SEL”.
Noorani: The lowest point was actually at the very beginning of our career, when Mukul Anand passed away. It was like fate didn’t want [our debut film] to happen.
Mendonsa: Even after Dil Chahta Hai , we had no work for nine months. We were trying to figure out what’s going on. People would meet us with [similar] scripts but instead of three guys, there would be four guys [in them].
So when Dus fell through, what made you guys stick together for another film?
Mahadevan:Mission Kashmir (2000) was a big turning point.
Noorani: Also, Rockford (1999) had come just before Mission Kashmir . The album released while we were working on the songs [of Mission Kashmir ].
Mahadevan: We were very glad to work with Gulzar Saab for the first time [on Rockford ].
Mendonsa: And we composed it in this very studio [Purple Haze, Bandra].
How do you see the next 21 years?
Mahadevan: Superb yaar. Lots more to do. Bollywood takes up a lot of time. I would like Loy to do a jazz album; Ehsaan to do a blues album. I would like to do some non-film stuff.
Noorani: Hopefully, I will be abducted by UFO [rock band] by then.
Mendonsa: We’ll talk about it in 2037.