Striking the right chord

Amit Trivedi talks about the self-censored music of Udta Punjab, the restrictions of being a film composer today and still nursing the wounds of Bombay Velvet

June 01, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 16, 2016 10:36 am IST

Enviable record: Barring a couple of misfires, Amit Trivedi has been producing soulful and enjoyable music. — Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhrury

Enviable record: Barring a couple of misfires, Amit Trivedi has been producing soulful and enjoyable music. — Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhrury

If you knew Amit Trivedi only through his music and met him in real life, you would be taken aback. Over his eight-year career, his work has been described as edgy, trippy, original and indie-spirited, among other things.

But in contrast to the image one may form of the man behind the music, in person he is sweet, even childlike. As a personality, he is nothing like the iconoclastic, unpredictable Sneha Khanwalkar, although his music can be equally, if not more, provocative.

He doesn’t talk about his work in great detail or with intellectual curiosity. On account of having met Trivedi several times before, I’ve realised how pointless it is to try finding parallels between the man and his work. But when we meet him at the office of Balaji Motion Pictures to talk about >Udta Punjab , an album quite amazingly dark by Hindi film music standards, it is like experiencing Virat Kohli’s hot-headed, foul-mouthed persona after witnessing his orthodox, sublime batsmanship.

Psychedelic trance score

Abhishek Chaubey’s drug-themed drama not only depicts heavy substance abuse, but is also filled with expletives and politically potent: qualities that have reportedly put it under scrutiny of the Censor Board of Film Certification. Trivedi’s audacious psychedelic trance score contains these loaded aspects of the theme.

The title song, ‘ Ud Da Punjab ’, he tells me, previously had aggressively misogynistic lyrics, even if it was meant to be ironical, representing the character of a Punjabi hip hop star, played by Shahid Kapur in the film. “Tommy Singh is a badass mother*****r, an obnoxious, whacked-out guy. Most of the music is in his druggie headspace; it’s dirty. Except two simple, folksy songs that come after he is reformed. It’s like rehab and gurudwara are the two extremes of the album.” The final product is a result of a lot of filtering down, he says. “Had we retained the original lyrics of ‘ Ud Da Punjab ’, the mahila morcha would have been made me and singer Vishal Dadlani flee the country for a few months, and lyricist Varun Grover would have been in jail.”

At a time when the debate about censorship in India has gone beyond films to cover Internet humour, I ask him how it affects music.

Contrary to what you would expect, Trivedi sounds conservative, probably because it is a mass medium with such a wide reach. “There should be some censorship. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we can say anything. We cater to the mass and I don’t think it’s desirable to have kids singing ‘ Chaar bottle vodka’ ,” he says. Funnily though, while Trivedi has got away with ‘weed’ in one of the songs in Udta Punjab , a song from Shaandaar, ‘ Senti Wali Mental, ’ had to sacrifice the word ghanta. “It had to be replaced with a sound imitating a bell,” he chuckles.

The nature of Hindi cinema is such that simply creating music for the narrative isn’t enough. It is expected to work on its own as well, generating both buzz and revenue for the film. A composer’s test, therefore, is how creative he is able to remain despite these factors.

Barring a couple of misfires and fatigue of the routine, Trivedi has been producing soulful and enjoyable music that doesn’t pander. But the last year hasn’t been easy. Three of his major films — Bombay Velvet , Shaandaar and Fitoor — were nothing short of disasters. They were expected to do well and were with directors with who he has had great partnerships in the past: Anurag Kashyap ( Dev D ), Vikas Behl ( Queen ) and Abhishek Kapoor ( Kai Po Che ). Worse, there was nothing wrong with the albums. The Hindi-jazz soundtrack of Bombay Velvet is arguably one of Trivedi’s best works. The realisation that he is a victim of forces beyond his control leaves him feeling helpless.

Clearly, it is Bombay Velvet that hurt the most. He blames it on the marketing. “The music of Bombay Velvet needs to be savoured. It needed at least 2.5 months before the release of the film for people to begin enjoying it. Instead, it was launched just two weeks prior to the release. That started off sending wrong marketing signals by making promos [of] ‘ Mohabat Buri Bimari ’ remix and ‘ Fifi ’ that had little to do with the album. [The perception] about the Bombay Velvet album is limited to these songs. And then when the film released on Friday, it was virtually out by Saturday. So the time audience got to listen to the music was 15 days. I dived straight into depression. My labour of love of four years was gone in waste, just like that.” He sounds rueful, not bitter. “I told the marketing guys later, had you been more truthful to the film in the promotions, it wouldn’t have been labelled a disaster.”

The 37-year-old has given us albums such as Udaan , Aisha , Lootera , and English Vinglish. He will be seen in the next season of Coke Studio, which he sees as a platform to create free-form music. His only other film assignment currently is Gauri Shinde’s next.

With music labels dictating terms, he says it is getting increasingly difficult to make something out-of-the-box. “What else can I do? One has to work around it in a smart and intelligent way. Otherwise, I have to quit film music altogether and go independent. There is no market for indie music in India yet. I have a family to take care of.”

Also read:>Music should touch one's soul: Shahid Mallya

Trivedi, the singer

An extension of the same problem leads us to an integral part of Trivedi’s music: his imperfect, grungy, youthful, and now instantly recognisable singing. According to some of his fans, especially those who hold certain standards for him, the composer should sing less.

To them, he says what he has already said before: that had it been up to him, Trivedi, the singer wouldn’t have a chance in most cases. “I have always looked down upon myself as a singer. But no matter how much I try to dissuade the directors they always end up finding something in my voice. Even if try to tell them that the pitch is all over the place. It all began when I started out with recording scratch versions in my own voice because I didn’t have the money to get singers to do it. I remember I had sung ‘ Aankh Micholi ’ from Dev D sitting casually in my bedroom. It was recorded with all sorts of noise, including that of my sister watching a serial in the next room. I had a number of singers in mind. But Anurag was convinced that he wanted my voice. This has been going on ever since.” Dev D was his breakthrough film as a film composer, and won him a National Award in 2010.

Directors may get attracted to the raw, natural quality of his voice, but the main reason why we hear so much of Trivedi’s singing is because it has become a hit formula for music labels, responsible for a number of chartbusters like ‘ Pashmina ’, ‘ Zinda ’, ‘ Manjha ’ in the recent past. The ultimate proof of that came recently when the makers picked up Trivedi’s version of the Shaandar title song over the ones recorded by a veteran and reigning star singer. “I’m not stupid that I don’t understand that this has to stop. I am consciously getting singers to do the scratches.”

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