Bombay Showcase

Everything is a remix

At the end of ‘Bali Ha’I’, the sixth episode of it's second season, the always surprising full of intrigue American TV show, Better Call Saul, offers something even more radically unexpected for its Indian fans. As we see Saul Goodman, the eccentric and charismatic protagonist, struggle to get his flask to fit into the drinks holder of his brand new car — an everyday irritant for him — a slightly accented Bengali song accompanied by guitar riffs and electronic sitar pops up.

The initial sense of an alien sound soon makes way for a welcome familiarity. Introducing a sensuous female Indian vocal riding a soaring Spaghetti Western theme, it then segues into a full-blast rock-n-roll hook. And we see Goodman driving into the New Mexico horizon before the end credits roll in. The song, ‘Henna Henna’, is an original from 2014 by Australian independent band The Bombay Royale. But as comments on their YouTube channel would tell you, it is the first time many Indians — and Bangladeshis — have heard them. In terms of views, it is only surpassed by ‘You Me Bullets Love’. The track, with an English title, but actually sung in Hindi, was used in the popular action adventure video game Far Cry 4 in 2014.

How a foreign band, fronted by two Indian-Australians, Sourov Bhattacharya and Parvyn Kaur Singh, that practically makes all its music in Hindi, Bengali or Tamil, has stayed out of Indian media is as mysterious as its music, which is in turn as genre-bending as a Quentin Tarantino movie. But the sound of The Bombay Royale has more associations with Tarantino than one. Like the filmmaker, whose work draws from the myths of movie itself, the band’s sound is a pastiche of film soundtracks.

Rolling Stone magazine featured the band in its list of ‘10 Young Artists you need to know’ in the August 2014 issue, describing it as “Sitars, tablas, and Hindi, Bengali, and Tamil vocals recombine with spy rock, porn funk, and spaghetti-Western strings in a colourful, contemporary update of classic Bollywood maximalism.”

Another review in an Australian website fittingly dramatised it. “The Bombay Royale is where A.R. Rahman and Ennio Morricone converge, where Slumdog Millionaire meets Goldfinger head on, with Quentin Tarantino and Indiana Jones lurking in the corner.”

Three of the band’s members, Bhattacharya, Kaur, and Andy Williamson, the founder, who gave us an interview over email, agree.

Williamson says, “Movie soundtracks are interesting because they often evoke a strong narrative or atmosphere. They also tend to span a wide range of genres and moods, which gives us a lot of creative license.”

But as its name would suggest, The Bombay Royale’s primary source of inspiration is Bollywood. Old Bollywood.

Bhattacharya and Kaur, its voices, call it “a musical love affair that’s been going on for six years.”

“We started out playing covers of old Bollywood tunes by the likes of Anandji Kalyanji, Shankar Jaikishan and R.D. Burman. The films from this era have the pioneering spontaneity and energy of an art form in its early stages; the rules are still being made up, which makes for an eclectic mix. Those early filmmakers and composers had a freedom that perhaps their modern contemporaries do not. We now largely write and record our own music, but this era remains our creative inspiration and springboard.”

While Bollywood seem to be the unifying force, both Bhattacharya and Singh are also rooted in their respective cultures. It will be impossible to tell by her deliberate nasal crooning in The Bombay Royale numbers, but Singh grew up in a musical family singing with her father Dya Singh, a well-known gurbani singer amongst NRI Sikhs, in Gurdwaras all over the world. “I have recorded over 25 kirtan albums with my father since the early 90’s. At home growing up we used to listen to a range of music from ghazals by Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh [who was a close friend of my father] Mohammad Rafi, and qawwali by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who I was also fortunate to meet when I was very little,” she says. Her eclectic musical tastes extend to hip-hop bhangra pioneers such as Jazzy B and Punjabi MC, folk-pop legends such as Bindrakhia and Asa Singh Mastana to Hindustani classical contemporaries like Ajoy Chakrabarty, Rashid Khan and Kishori Amonkar. Originally hailing from Ludhiana, when Kaur visits India, it’s usually Ahmedabad where she is training in Kathak and classical vocals.

Bhattacharya, on the other hand, is the bigger old Hindi film music fan, and RD Burman is his favourite composer. But like most Bengalis, he is able to express himself better in his mother-tongue than in Hindi. This authenticity comes across in his Bangla lyrics and singing. “I love ‘modern’ or ‘ adhunik’ Bangla music of the 60s and 70s,” he says. “Many of those songs ended up as Hindi songs in Bollywood but started out as Bangla (or vice versa). As a child I was taught in more traditional forms of Bengali music as well such as Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti, as well as folk songs. I still take inspiration from these older forms.” And, he cheekily adds, he is also an Anup Jalota devotee. He is also an entrepreneur and the only part-time member of the band. From contemporary Indian film music, they both like A.R. Rahman, Ilaiyaraja and Amit Trivedi. One of the band’s songs was also being considered for Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet.

Besides the vocals, the 11-piece band comprises Williamson on saxophone, Andre Lobanov on bass, Tom Martin on guitar, Matt Vehl on synths, Julian Goyma on drums, Josh Bennett on sitar, tabla, dilruba and guitar, Ed Fairlie on trumpet, Declan Jones on trumpet, and Ros Jones on trombone. The emphasis on live instruments gives them a refreshingly different sound from most of electronica-based music in the contemporary scene. They have released two albums You Me Bullets Love (2012) and The Island of Dr Electrico (2014) until now.

As a band that takes off from larger-than-life cinema, an integral part of The Bombay Royale is its theatricality. Their music videos are elaborately designed pranks, a celebration of B movie pleasures: the hilariously fake movie sets of deserts and aeroplanes. These could be retro-themed costume parties with recurring campy characters like The Mysterious Lady (Singh), The Tiger (Bhattacharya) and The Skipper (Williamson). In live performances, their act is incomplete without visuals in the background screen, whenever possible.

Williamson says, “We work with a visual artist, who has made some beautiful work specific to the band. While the music is at the heart of what we do, the visuals help support the sense of a fantasy world for the audience. The more epic the landscape the better.”

The Melbourne-based band has performed at the Glastonbury Festival in the U.K. and toured other European countries and the U.S., but never in India. The Breaking Bad spin-off and Far Cry have helped audiences in Indian subcontinent discover their music.

“There’s a possibility of coming [to India] later this year, but it’s too early to announce anything yet. We’re a big band so it takes a lot of work [and luck] to get it touring overseas,” they say.

Where, if you ask, does the band wear its Australian identity? It’s in the multicultural vibrancy of its sound and ensemble.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 3:46:24 PM |

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