Saturday, December 27, 2008

A R Rahman's Slumdog Millionaire OST

This isn't a review. Just a few quick observations on A R Rahman's musical technique.

When I started watching Slumdog Millionaire, I was trying to guess whether the soundtrack and background music was by A R Rahman. I didn't know because I saw the film without reading or following too much about it. I wanted to watch it with no preconceived notions. The opening chase song O...Saya had a characteristic Rahman feel - expansive sound, ARR-sounding vocals and a train beat to go with the train visual. But M.I.A's arrival on vocals threw me off the scent.

Then I got so caught up in the film that I stopped thinking about it. A compliment for good film technique (and background music ) is that it doesn't draw attention to itself outside the context of the film while you're watching. The music fits the film perfectly.

During the song-and-dance end credits though, there was a point when Sukhvinder starts singing the chorus Jai Ho. He starts by himself with a backing layer of keyboards. Sometime into the second refrain, an additional layer of music kicks in, making for a goosebump moment.

At that point (maybe a minute before Rahman's name pops up in the credits), I had my answer. No one quite layers sound for effect like he does. He draws you out slowly, adding layer on layer, preparing you for a final assault and a pitch-perfect crescendo.

Another interesting  technique that I noticed is the use of voice as sound. While his liking for fresh playback voices is well-known, what is probably not appreciated is how those voices add to the 'sound' and feel of a song. An example that immediately comes to mind is the female playback singing in Pappu Can't Dance! and the use of Vasundhara Das for barely two lines in Kahin To*. The use of Mahalaxmi Iyer( or is it Tanvi Shah?) on vocals in Jai Ho does that perfectly. Complimenting Sukhvinder's earthy voice and the Spanish-sounding chorus, that voice breaks through and registers on a different level. I'd have expected Alka Yagnik or someone similar to sing that exuberant love song but he surprises us, defying our musical expectations to come through with something bordering on the sublime.

*Vishal-Shekhar's use of Preeti and Pinky in Bluffmaster for Say Na Say Na qualifies too

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Observations on a desi indie splurge

This is a great time to be a Hindi film-watcher, especially if you like the offbeat. Not since the 'New Wave' filmmakers of the '80s have we had such a surge of filmmakers daring to make films off the beaten path.

This trend is of course different from then. The presence of NFDC to fund these films and no real commercial considerations resulted in a lot of 'important' films of uneven cinematic quality and limited mass appeal. However, it also saw the emergence of a lot of great filmmakers and actors.

However, the rise of "multiplex cinema" has resulted in a rise of a lot of brave filmmakers who are trying different things - spanning small dramas (Ahista Ahista, Dasvidaniya) and eccentric comedies (Bheja Fry) all the way to noir (Johnny Gaddaar, Manorama - Six feet Under) to the  weird (Mithya) and plain bizarre (No Smoking and the upcoming Dev. D).

Importantly, these filmmakers are doing it in a self-sustaining way. They seem to be making enough money or generating enough interest from producers to get second and third films off the ground. The output of such films is only increasing. These films don't necessarily tackle weighty subjects but are accessible and surprisingly willing to subvert Bollywood tradition with no stars and limited to no songs.

At the center of this vortex appear a set of usual suspects. The first is a group of people I call the Rajat Kapoor clique. Somehow Mahesh Uncle from Dil Chahta Hai seems to be at the epicenter of a lot of unusual indie film activity - either as a producer, or as a director or in some supporting acting role. In leading and supporting roles around him are Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla and (surprise!) Neha Dhupia. For instance, Rajat Kapoor directed Mithya, while he makes an appearance in the Vinay Pathak-produced Dasvidaniya. Vinay and Ranvir show up and deliver solid performances in anything and everything involving the other two. Neha Dhupia turns up as the mandatory female interest in both Mithya and Dasvidaniya. Saurabh Shukla acts in supporting roles and is often involved with the script.

Another leading character is Abhay Deol. If I've rooted for some Indian film actor over the past couple of years, it has to be this guy. I remember picking up Socha Na Tha for a weekend watch on a whim and being completely impressed with the film. He's subsequently proven so fearless and sharp in his film choices that I wonder if he's really from the same family as Bobby Deol. Ahista Ahista, Ek Chalis ki Last Local, and Manorama were all films that had their high points. His acting is competent without being spectacular - but he can definitely carry a film. However (I'd like to believe that) his name attached to a film gives it cachet at least among a certain section of the audience.

As for writers and directors, we're in a bit of a glut aren't we? Dibaker Banerjee (Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye), Anurag Kashyap (he of the many banned films fame),  Sriram Raghavan (Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar) and slightly more mainstream directors like Shimit Amin (Ab Tak Chhappan, Chak De...India) and Vishal Bharadwaj. And I missed out half a dozen more notable names.Whew.

I remember a time in the '90s when there were maybe two-three Hindi films worth watching in a whole year. A sore point with interesting non-mainstream films was access. I remember being so excited when they showed Santosh Sivan's Halo on DD on a saturday afternoon. 

With multiplexes and easier access to DVDs, yes, being a desi film fan is so much better these days.

* This is from a very unscientific set of observations - I saw Mithya, Ek Chalis ki Last Local and Dasvidaniya all on DVD over the course of a week.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Rabbi Shergill's Avengi Ja Nahin

After three albums, I've concluded that Rabbi Shergill is the best pop singer in India at the moment. He is the complete package: singer, songwriter and musician extraordinaire who weaves catchy melodies with solid songwriting to make top-notch music. On top, he's articulate, urbane and quite funny.*

Frankly, Rabbi's debut album was slightly underwhelming for me personally. Bulla Ki Jana was very good as was Tere Bin, but the rest of the album seemed good without being great. The fact that I don't understand Punjabi may be part of the problem. The videos for Bulla and Tere Bin with English subtitling helped a lot with understanding the songs and I enjoyed Ajj Nachna and Gill 'te Guitar.

The soundtrack to Delhii Heights was better. I haven't seen the film, but all the songs on the album were quite good. Dilli, the raw folksy energy of Aaja Nachie, the irony built into Kabhi Aana Na and even the initially grating Ey Gori all grew on me.

Avengi Ja Nahin tops both these though. The album is a cracker with Rabbi making a marked departure in themes - focusing even more on personal travails, unrequited love and more earthly problems, moving focus away from the Sufi invocations of Bulla and the meta/physical yearnings of Tere Bin. Also discernible was a change in tone. While Rabbi is quite varied in and of itself, somehow AJN seems more upbeat. Songs like Karachi Valiye, Maen Boliyan and Avengi Ja Nahin all point to a style that's sad but not morose.

There's something about certain albums or artists. You feel that they're 'speaking' to you - not just through their songwriting, but through their style of music and musical choices. I felt that very strongly with AJN, in a way that I've not felt with an Indian pop album in a while - which explains the gushing praise.

The songs are varied - be it yearning for a love lost in arena-rock ballad Karachi Valiye, talking about playing hard-to-get in the ditties Maen Boliyan and Avengi Ja Nahin or about female infanticide in the pensive Ballo. There's an English track Return to Unity which was the weakest lyrically but is remarkable for its sheer energy. The quieter songs, including a paean to Bandra, Tu Avin Bandra and Ballo are quite well done too. Especially Bandra, where he sings:


Je tun labhda eyn koi ik apna                       If you’re looking for some
Tuttia-futtia hoia supna                                Ragged ol’ dream
Sutt ‘ta jihnu tu kadey                                  That you’d long discarded
Lagda hai ik chor-bazaar ithey                     There’s a flea market here
Har sham samundar de kandey ‘te               Every evening by the seashore
Farhin koi auto ‘te kahin                               Get into an auto and say
“Bhay! Carter Road” jan “Bandstand”           “Brother! Carter Road” or “Bandstand”
Sab labh ju ethey                                         You’ll find it all here
Pehlan das dan vira                                      Let me warn you though
Ethon de bha ne tikhe                                  The prices here are a bit steep

He also sings in Hindi on Bilqis - Jinhe Naaz Hai, an incendiary track about contemporary India's conscience. It's a track in the best tradition of Dylan and Springsteen, audaciously channeling the Indian national anthem in its guitar chords. All in all, rocking in the true sense of the word.

An incident to end this fawning fan tribute. I was traveling with family in India on vacation. The AJN CD was playing in my brother's car, and Bilqis was playing. I was riding shotgun with him. Halfway through the first antara (the one about Satyendra Dubey) we went silent and the silence lasted till the end of the song as we are hit by the sheer force of his words. A couple of seconds after the song ends, my brother says "He's really good." And I'm thinking, "Hell yeah!".

* I saw him on MTV India while on vacation a few months back. He did a censored Punjabi version of Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe that cracked me up completely.

**The official album site for Avengi Ja Nahin - has lyrics and translations for each song and some streaming audio. The CD is a worthwhile buy for the inlay - again with lyrics and translations, plus information about each song, where it was recorded etc.