The Woman Soundtracking Indie Bollywood
Ever since she made her composing debut on the soundtrack for the 2005 film, Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow, Sneha Khanwalkar has been best known for reportedly being the only female music director in Bollywood, one of just a handful of women in the 81-year history of Hindi films. Her big break, however, came with her clutter-breaking OST for Dibakar Banerjee’s 2008 cult classic Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! for which she deftly contemporarised Punjabi folk tunes with electronica. Most recently, she managed to make Bhojpuri music trendy across the country via her compositions for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Today, thanks to some fortuitous timing, Khanwalkar is among the most talked-about music composers around, one who unlike her seniors, looks within India rather than to the West for inspiration. Her hit TV show Sound Trippin just wrapped up (a CD of the songs will be out at the end of July), and she will have two consecutive releases at the cinemas: Faiza Khan’s documentary Supermen of Malegaon, for which she has composed the background score, reaches theatres this Friday, June 29, exactly a week after Wasseypur. Khanwalkar, who is currently working on the soundtrack to the second part of the critically hailed film, spoke to us about her various projects, her unique style of working, and the one piece of advice she’d give aspiring musicians.
Now that the last episode of Sound Trippin has been aired, can you tell us which episode is your favourite?
I really liked the Yellapur episode…I got along with most artists but with the Siddis I felt that they didn’t know that they were so good at music, and they didn’t know much about their lineage. I really look up to the African sensibility of rhythm and vocal rendition and the fact that these guys are from there and it’s in their blood but they’re not aware of it.
So far, you’ve only worked with indie directors. Does your sensibility not align with mainstream Bollywoood?
After Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, mainstream [Bollywood] was only offering me Punjabi-centric soundtracks. I made a conscious effort to first work with directors whose work I’m already interested in, and to understand if I would fit there. [I thought] let’s do the tougher things first. I wasn’t in a hurry to sign a lot of films and I don’t have too many liabilities. I also wanted to travel a bit. After I went to Punjab and Harayana [for Oye Lucky!] I realised I didn’t know shit about India. All my experiences were just assumptions based on what I’d heard from other people. I really hated that.
Are you largely left to your own devices when working with such filmmakers? What was your brief for Gangs of Wasseypur?
For the LSD song, Dibakar [Banerjee] said the title was “Love, sex aur dhoka”. That was enough of a brief. They don’t pre-feed you too much information. I think they hire you because you can think fresh or because you’re not from their circle and so you’ll be bringing in something else. [For Gangs of Wasseypur] Anurag [Kashyap] gave me his research notes. He said the starting point is Bihar folk. I took it because it was a [huge] contrast to Punjab.
How did you go about finding singers for the film?
It was randomly meeting singers, recording whatever I could, getting back, thinking over it, sitting with the lyricists, making something with it, playing it to Anurag, getting approval and going back to Patna or Gaya to re-record the original tunes and lyrics for the songs. Also, going to Benaras because they were shooting there. I could only go to Trinandad once, so I went with lyrics, and recorded there in a month and a half.
I went to Patna, Darbhanga, Muzzafarpur and down to Gaya and then to Ranchi and Dhanbad. When I reached Patna, I went to AIR (All India Radio) and I called Anurag and said, “I’m in Patna, do you want to give me any tips? Is there anything specific you want?” [At this point] I still had to prove to him I got the subject. He said, “Do whatever you want.”
Through AIR, we got to know about music classes. By we, I mean me and a friend of mine who happily tagged along because he loves travelling as well and I promised him a lot of beer. In between, we went to a stationery [shop]—we were talking to everybody and asking them about singers—and this stationer gave us a friend’s number, who was the principal of a school in Muzzafarpur, which we were planning to visit anyway. With him, we went to meet a couple of local singers and poets. The most troubled people were the ones taking us around. Because after some time, they become more concerned about the film and the music and they wondered how we were going about such an unplanned trip. But it really works for me.
“Hunter” is a big hit. How did chutney music become a part of the Gangs of Wasseypur soundtrack?
In 2001, I was at a competition inside some medical college and I heard a song. I thought it was being performed live, because it had a dholak. I thought that the college wouldn’t play that kind of song because it was playing [the likes of] Lou Bega at the time. I ran into the courtyard and it was “Lootala”. I was confused because there was this African accent singing Indian words. I wasn’t a composer then [but] it stayed in my mind. Then I found out it was by Sonny Mann. I started sifting through YouTube. I saw a documentary about indentured labour and came to know about how Indians were living in Trinidad. I chatted with Indian diaspora online. I even thought of going to Trinidad and making a career doing chutney for some time. When the film came to me, I told Anurag I’d go to Trinidad, he said okay.
Why are there so few female music directors in Bollywood?
Maybe [because] music direction is still very ambiguous in India, a lot of people still don’t exactly know what a music director is. Even my relatives don’t know what I do. They say “But you don’t know how to play the tabla and harmonium”. I jumped at [music direction] because I thought otherwise I’ll have to become a singer. I didn’t want the pressure of going for competitions or struggling. I didn’t think I had a voice that people were looking for. It’s almost asexual; it’s like a kid yelling.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring musicians?
If certain other factors apart from music are bogging you down, ignore them, they go away with time. You don’t have to be in Mumbai or Delhi or a big city to make or upload music. That’s what I’m trying to say in Sound Trippin. Do your research, make viral videos. [Thanks to] the Internet and technology, there’s democracy now in the distribution.