Shankar Mahadevan on Rock On, Reshammiya and Reviews

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

The animated public reaction to my Gulf News E-plus music review about Rock On was something entirely new in more than a decade of my journalistic career. For the first time I was seeing such a passionate heated discussion over a negative music album review. The fascinating evolution of Indian popular music as reflected through changing trends of Hindi film music has always been my area of special interest as a writer. This particular public discussion definitely made me aware that even if on a personal level, I could not really connect to Rock On music, there is a huge audience out there which has connected with it in a big way. So I felt that on a socio-cultural level it is my duty as a writer-journalist to delve deep into this new phenomenon. Thus I decided to educate myself about Rock On and also to brush up concepts about the rapidly changing Hindi film music scenario by talking to the very man playing a major hand in creating this contemporary cult classic soundtrack!

An engineering graduate, a trained Carnatic and Hindustani classical vocalist, an acclaimed pop-and-playback singer and one-third talent of the famed composer-trio Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, Shankar Mahadevan is a man wearing many hats. He is also pretty difficult to nab for an interview. One day he is judging a Saregamapa episode, the next day he is busy preparing for a jugalbandi with Ustand Rashid Khan and the day after he is rehearsing for a Marathi musical program! 
Shankar also happens to be one of most charming interviewees. Frank, forthright and friendly, he has always been a delight to talk to. So when I finally managed to tie him down for a long and detailed telephonic interview, it turned out to be quite an interesting and intellectually stimulating musical discussion. So here is Shankar Mahadevan speaking candidly on a wide range of topics like Rock On, Reshammiya and Reviews!
Music of Rock On has proved to be a big success. What are the Indian audience reactions?
Success of ‘Rock On’ has been beyond our imagination. Not only the music is dominating the charts, it has rekindled the Indian audience’s interest in the rock music genre. There are middle aged people, who are now planning reunions of decades-old school or college rock bands. Young musicians are calling up Ehsan and Loy to understand how particular chords and notations are played.
What has been the international audience reaction?
I think the music has done very well in most international territories- perhaps the UK response is a bit lagging. There the audience still wants more of a traditional Indian touch like a marriage song. So there they seem to like our music in ‘Salame Ishq’ or ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’ more than ‘Rock On’.
Musically how did you approach this project?
When Farhan and Abhishek gave us the brief of the film, we were confident of giving it our best shot. I may not be a big authority on rock but Ehsan and Loy have both followed and studied rock and other western musical forms in depth. So this kind of music was right up their alley.
Our aim was to educate or rather make the Indian audience aware of this music genre and for that it was very important to maintain the purity of the genre. So we decided that in terms of musical arrangements, it would be pure rock as is presented in the West but only the lyrics will be in Hindi. We did not want to anglicize the lyrics or the accents to make it sound modern or use clichéd techniques like needlessly placing a dhol rhythm to make it appeal to the rural audiences.
The language used here is very simple but words are pure Hindi. Just like Western Rock songs the topics of ‘Rock On’ songs are eclectic and about day-to-day things. Look at the lines like ‘Aasman neela neela kyon, Paani geela geela kyon’. These are not just the typical Hindi songs about love and loss.
How different is your take on Rock than Junoon’s Sufi-Rock or Rabbi Shergill’s so-called Punjabi Rock?
I think the main difference is about the feel of music. Their Rock is more of an Indianized (Asianized) version with use of dholak or other similar Indian instruments. We have just used keyboard, guitar, bass and drums in our arrangements. So ‘Rock On’ is just like western rock, only its language is Hindi.
Rock-lovers have appreciated your musical arrangements in ‘Rock On’. How did you record them?
We set up the recording room just like a live rock band session. So Ehsan was on keyboards, Loy was on guitar, Adi was our bass player and we kept jamming all day long, zooming and zeroing in on the portions that we liked, deleting the ones that we didn’t. It was again quite unlike contemporary Hindi songs, where we record the entire music track in advance.
Why did you use Farhan Akhtar as a lead singer? In fact, in general, why are contemporary Hindi composers using so many unconventional voices?
It is more like choosing a particular actor for a particular role. Sometimes when a crazy new musical idea strikes, to maintain the freshness of that idea, you need such an unconventional singer. There, if you use the established conventional voices, then they might do a better job of singing but perhaps the novelty of that theme would get diluted.
What were the musical influences on this effort of yours?
Of course, the music of artistes like Pink Floyd, U2 and Yes has influenced us but overall, it is an original take.
How do you see the Indian audience of today?
I think today’s audiences are many times accepting mediocre music but at the same time, they are more willing to accept new experiments. I feel as an audience, Indians are more of singers- they like tunes which they can hum and sing. In contrast western audience are more of listeners, who are more keen about finding details like use of particular instruments in the song arrangement.
As a composer, how do you manage to keep track of so many international musical genres, which are becoming a standard part of Bollywood music?
Obviously it is not possible to master all the different international musical genres but we have to keep our eyes and ears open to analyze what sort of music is appealing to today’s listeners and later on try and incorporate that flavour into a particular tune. But this kind of experimentation is valid only if a particular script or a film-song situation demands that kind of music.
Why is Sufi music becoming such a popular trend in Bollywood music?
To be honest, I don’t know much about Sufi music apart from a few of Baba Bulleshah’s compositions but it has indeed become a popular syntax in current Bollywood music.
What do you think of Himesh Reshammiya?
You may or may not like his music, singing or acting but you still have to acknowledge that Himesh has successfully carved out a niche for himself. It is like he has managed to get his own first class compartment in a crowded train! It is a great achievement in these times where every entertainer has to fight to grab the audience attention. He is a nice man and he is enjoying what he is doing.
How is the interaction between current day Bollywood composers?
I regularly sing for Vishal- Shekhar and they do the same in our music. I also meet music directors like Anu Malik, Pritam, Himesh Reshammiya, Aadesh Shrivastav and Ismail Darbar during various reality TV shows. I think the relationships of current day composers are quite friendly. There is no backbiting or bitter rivalry. Getting complimented by a fellow composer about a good song – either directly or via SMS is a common thing.
Is it because the reality shows are paying everyone so well and the survival is not at stake?
(Ponders) Hmm- yeah, that can be one of the reasons!
By the way, I must confess that personally I could not connect to ‘Rock On’ music and wrote so in my review, inviting wrath of many irate fans.
(Laughs) Serves you well! But you were not the only reviewer who did not like that effort. It also happened with another of my reviewer friends. After all, ‘Rock On’ was like a bolt from the blue. It had a definite shock value. It was like serving Vietnamese cuisine in a household eating traditional Indian food all their lives! We knew we were taking a risk when we undertook that project but when such a risky project clicks, it clicks big time!

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