Composer Shashwat Srivastava talks about the background music of 'Shab' and his association with filmmaker Onir in an exclusive interview with A Potpourri of Vestiges

By Murtaza Ali Khan

A Potpourri of Vestiges recently caught with with Shashwat Srivastava who has written the background for Onir's upcoming Raveena Tandon-starrer, Shab, also starring Ashish Bisht and Arpita Chatterjee, releasing on June 30, 2017. Born and brought up in Lucknow, Shashwat is a music composer, actor, playwright and theatre director. He co-founded Actor Factor Theatre Company in 2006. He has been acting, writing, directing and composing music for the stage ever since. He co-founded the band Folka Dots in 2014 to explore the urban folk music of India. Shashwat has written scores for several notable plays including Girish Karnad's Bali. He has also composed scores for a number of critically acclaimed documentaries and short films.


You have composed the score for Shab. How did Shab happen? What was it that got you associated with Onir?

I am a musician and a musician associated with theatre. I run a theatre company. Onir and I have a common friend called Myna Mukherjee. I met Onir at Myna’s place where she introduced us. Onir also happened to have watched some of my live concerts and so he was interested in what I was doing. At the same time he was looking for a music director for his film Shab. This happened about one and a half years ago. That’s how I got associated with the movie.

Onir comes across as an avant garde filmmaker and yet the music of Shab feels very commercial. So how big a challenge it was for you to strike this balance?

If you go and watch the film then you know it’s an Onir film. I have seen all his films and I don’t think he is a different filmmaker in this. Of course, he has grown over the years. But, at the end of the day he has his hallmark on this film also. The promo may look a little commercial but that’s what they are supposed to be so. They are supposed to be identifiable that they can reach maximum number of people. At the end of the day we need theatres to have audiences watching our film. I think it is a little too early to judge a film just on the basis of the promos. However, the promos are very nice. The songs have come out really well.

Tell us about your extent of involvement in the project with regards to the different stages involved in the filmmaking process.

Typically Onir likes to involve people right from the scripting stage like is the case with my next project with Onir. You see Shab is my first project with him and he came to me when the film had been shot and the first edit was already there. The songs were also there.

Typically for a Bollywood movie composing the songs and composing the back ground score are two completely different departments. So how do you see these two processes and how difficult it is to attain a harmony if different persons are helming the two departments?

Well, I don’t see any difficulties in working with another composer. There may be individuals who have problems but as a person I enjoy working with other people. You see, filmmaking is a collaborative process. Now, composing songs and composing background scores are completely different techniques. Some people prefer doing one while others prefer the other.

Shab seems to have a rainbow of different characters as evident from the promos and all these characters seem to follow a different arc. How challenging was it to score the movie keeping the different characters in mind?

Background score is a potent instrument to bring out a director’s vision, as much as say the acting performances. Now, let me tell you, Shab is not a straight forward film. There are many characters and all of them have important roles. This is not a one character led film. So it is very difficult as a background score composer to find the balance, doing justice to the different characters. It is not a sci-fi or an action film where things are pretty straight forward. So, it was a very difficult task. However, Onir helped me a lot in the way he narrated the entire film to me. I always ask the director to narrate the film for me in addition to the script and the edit shared with me. Ultimately I am working for the director’s vision and so I would like to hear the director first. That becomes my starting point.

As you yourself said that writing a background score is all about working to realize the director’s vision. So what kind of liberty did you enjoy while working on Shab as a background composer? What kind of inputs did you get from Mithoon who has composed the film’s songs?

Onir gave me absolute freedom. Typically a director would send you a reference track but working with Onir there was nothing of that sort. He just gave me the edit and gave me absolute freedom to come up with the best possible score. I came up with the first cut of the score completely based on my vision. Onir then gave me certain feedbacks. That’s what the director’s job is. To point out the things which are not fitting in his vision. This is the normal process. Otherwise I had complete freedom.  Having said that, a background score cannot be diametrically opposite to the songs. There has to be some harmony. That’s one of the biggest challenges that an Indian background score composer faces. So I had to develop some synergy with the songs which I feel are beautifully composed by Mithoon.

If you talk to any leading composer in the world, such as Hans Zimmer, they always emphasize onthe importance of silence in between the musical notes. How do you see silence as a trope in your style of composition?

Pretty much… almost as much as Hans Zimmer emphasizes on its importance. Silence sometimes works much better than strong musical notes. Say, for example, if you hear a folk dance it is the moments of silence that best underline the emotions. Also, just imagine how powerful silence feels after a moment of chaos or tragedy such as a bomb blast. And my job as a composer is to underline certain emotions so certain narrative parts. If that requires me to play with silence or put in a bird chirping sound then I am happy to do so.

You have composed both for film and theatre. What are the key differences involved while composing for a play and composing for a film?  

It is very different… very, very different. Technically speaking the biggest difference is that in theatre one cannot put music behind a dialogue. Theatre music mostly works in the transitions. In theatre there is no cut, there are only dissolves. In between two scenes you have a gap of 10-15 seconds. So, in theatre we are mostly composing for transitions or if there is a choreographed moment happens on the stage. Theatre is far more experimental in nature. I am not saying that films cannot be experimental. But, in theatre, there is a far more room for experimentation. You see filmmaking is a very expensive proposition and so in comparison there is a lot less at stake in theatre. So theatre is a place where a lot of experimental work happens such as fusion as well as experiences in terms of the narrative. One way of doing a play is though a verbal narrative.  The other way is without dialogues but without actors moving in a way that conveys what a dialogue usually would. Not like dance drama. But that’s called Physical Theatre.   

You were born and brought up in Lucknow being oriented in traditional music of Awadh and trained in Hindustani (Indian) Classical music. It is difficult not to mention Begum Akhtar and Talat Mahmood while speaking of Lucknow’s musical legacy. Tell us about your early influences from the world of music.

In my family people didn’t watch much of films so I didn’t grew up watching films. It’s a conservative family where I come from. However, my grandmother was closely associated with classical music. So I grew up listening to Begum Akhtar and especially Bismillah Khan. From my childhood I used to listen to him. I had 17-18 cassettes of him that I would listen to. As a 7 or 8 year old I was listening to a lot of Bismillah Khan instrumental music. I was listening to Nikhil Banerjee’s sitar and Allah Rakha’s tabla.  These were the music pieces I was listening to. Ustad Bismillah Khan has been one of my biggest influences in music. If you listen to him he plays orthodox classical but at the same time he plays something which is very free from the ragas. He makes classical music fun. He breaks the rules, moves around and comes back to the roots. Among the composers, I also admire Naushad a lot and then everybody would talk about A.R. Rahman, the way he arranges his music. I mean not his current work but the work he did in the ‘90s. Anybody who wants to learn about arrangement needs to listen to his work on Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, etc.  Also, I particularly like Satyajit Ray’s music. All his films had beautiful music, Jalsaghar, in particular, which won Best Music Award at Moscow International Film Festival.  I got introduced to Ray’s music and cinema through a classmate who was studying with me at IIMC. Then I also got introduced to the likes Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen who were equally beautiful filmmakers. 

You have been composing music for over a decade now. If I asked you about your own style of music where would you put it, Is it Western oriented or there is still the influence of the Indian Classical? Also do tell us about your upcoming music projects that follow Shab.

As a commercial music director I have to work as per the brief. The mainstream work one does today mostly is not pure Western or pure Hindustani. Usually what happens is that you take Indian melodies and you arrange them in a Western way. My melodies are mostly based on the Indian ragas and then I arrange them in Western Classical way or in Jazz or in blues. And that’s how the exotic feel comes out.  Next I am working on another project with Onir. This one is a feature film. Earlier, I also worked on a documentary with him titled Raising the Bar. I keep working on his projects. Recently I worked on a small film based on Onir’s poems. I just completed a track for that. And then there is the feature film I mentioned. This time I am involved right from the script level.    

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