As cinema becomes increasingly realistic, it is rare to see a hero lip-sync to a romantic number with arms spread wide, while a chiffon-clad heroine runs in slow motion towards him. Today, in most cases, songs are used sparingly and judiciously, often doubling up as a plot device. Then there are the background scores — sometimes stark, sometimes rambunctious, and increasingly becoming crucial to storytelling, especially in the web series format. We look at these changing times with the latest crop of music makers.

“Bollywood is opening up its circle to people it wants to work with,” Kabeer Kathpalia aka OAFF.

You must be living under a rock if you haven’t spotted even a single reel with the popular song, Doobey until now as its audio on Instagram. The man behind this earworm is 32-year-old, Kabeer Kathpalia aka OAFF. The artiste from Ahmedabad — who started his musical journey while he was still in high school with fellow schoolmates and now colleague and composer-singer, Savera Mehta — had previously composed the title track for Inside Edge, and worked in a number of ad films. But Gehraiyaan was his big Bollywood break.

According to Kathpalia — who predominantly makes ‘atmospheric pop’ music with cinematic and immersive songs — the very fact that a production house as mainstream as Dharma had roped him in, bears testimony to the fact that Bollywood is changing. “We are grateful that our first film was a big one with Shakun Batra, and that it had such a great cast. Essentially, we’re independent musicians. Bollywood is definitely opening up its circle to people it wants to work with, especially when it comes to music. Eventually, we are moving towards a space, where we will have a vast spectrum, spanning independent and Bollywood music, made easily available to listeners. And eventually these demarcations will dissolve and we will just have good music. At least, that’s the hope,” he tells us.

The breakthrough star is now looking at a career in film music and says, “It is a cool time to be doing this because there is a lot of interesting and new stuff happening. It was exciting to be able to do the songs as well as the score for Gehraiyaan, and we intend to push the envelope further. It is an exciting time, especially for people like us, who are making original music,” he shares.  

Anuj Danait

“The OTT space is said to be more free and rewarding in terms of creative expression,” Shivam and Anuj

Shivam Sengupta (27) and Anuj Danait (26), who started off as part of the Mithibai College music band, are currently the talk of town for their groovy music in the Netflix series, Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen. They have previously worked in Undekhi and Apharan. Danait’s melodies rooted in Indian Classical style, paired with Shivam’s in-depth knowledge of jazz-harmony and creative production, give their music a unique, modern and yet, a very Indian flavour. Their music is unconventional in structure, emotional, and heartfelt at times, often relying on quirky arrangements. 

“Our USP is our unique sound; Indian melodies blended with western and modern harmony and unconventional arrangements. Another factor here is that we collaborate with international session players and engineers, which gives us a more diverse outlook and perspective on music, helping us create elements that we might have not been able to bring in by ourselves. What excites us about film music is that it usually has very few bounds on musical genres. In film music, we believe, if we manage to genuinely help tell the story and elevate the viewers’ emotional experience, it will be received well,” says Sengupta.

The duo has so far worked only within the web series format. Talking about how interesting the OTT space is for composers today, Sengupta shares, “The OTT space is said to be more free and rewarding in terms of creative expression and exploration, as compared to the conventional Bollywood space. Maybe because of that, producers and storytellers are willing to explore and experiment with the content they are producing. We think this could help creators come up with more original content.”

Elucidating upon background scores and how they’re are gaining importance, Shivam says, “We think BGM is a very integral part of the storytelling process, and it’s really exciting to discover a soundscape, make character themes, and create pieces that can support the plot. However, even though the trend of playback music is fading as you suggest, with our Indian sensibilities as an audience, songs can really engage the listeners and if created and placed in coherence with the story.”

Naren and Benedict

“Score is a critical part of the narrative, and has very exciting challenges,” Naren & Benedict

They are the veterans of the lot. Naren Chandavarkar (35) and Benedict Taylor (40), the versatile and multi-talented duo are behind the music-scape of stellar films and web series, such as Ship of Theseus, Killa, Udta Punjab, Newton, Sonchiriya, Chintu Ka Birthday, Ghoul, Paatal Lok and Betaal, and recently Sherni and Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa in the Ray anthology. 

London-based Benedict Taylor, trained in viola and violin, first teamed up with Mumbai-based guitarist Naren Chandavarkar for their debut project, That Girl in Yellow Boots. Ask them what makes them standout and Benedict argues, “We are able to span so many areas culturally, geographically, and conceptually due to our different backgrounds and ways of thinking, alongside sharing very similar tastes and ideas.” 

They’re known for crafting unique background scores, which has become hugely popular in recent years, almost replacing playback music, thanks to the change in storytelling formats. “I’m not as familiar with the Bollywood scene, having worked more in indie films before OTTs. However, with music, there has been a shift away from songs taking a large part of the storytelling. This can allow for the thematic musical material to have a stronger relationship with the story, which can add a lot of depth,” Naren opines. “We don’t really see it as background. The score is a critical part of the narrative of a film or series, and has exciting challenges. It is a character in its own right, and fulfils a vital role in the overall process and eventual experience of any work,” adds Benedict.  

Talking about the shift the music industry is currently going through with the OTTs having a massive catalysing effect, Benedict points out that although some things are positive, it can be looked at subjectively, too. “OTTs have certainly helped us move away from commercial content for larger projects, creating room for experimentation with background scores. That has been great, because we’ve had the chance to jump across different projects and paint on a larger canvas with music that may not have been considered ‘commercial’ for projects of that scale. That is very liberating. However, most OTTs can’t push their risks and experiment as much as indie films; neither politically nor artistically,” Naren elaborates.

“Independent music is having a moment,” Alokananda Dasgupta 

Alokananda Dasgupta (38) made her debut as a composer with Marathi film Shala (2011) that won a National Award, and she went on to compose music for B.A. Pass (2013), Fandry (2013), Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa (2013), Asha Jaoar Majhe (2014), and Trapped (2017). But it was her background scores for Breathe, Leila, and the stunning and disruptive soundtrack for Netflix’s Sacred Games that really made her a name to reckon with. Her recent works include AK vs AK and Netflix anthology, Ajeeb Daastaan. The daughter of the late poet and acclaimed film-maker, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, has recently been selected for BAFTA Breakthrough India’s emerging talents. 

According to her, “Now people spend more alone time with their electronic devices, and hence, a more personal relationship with music is forming. The pandemic, the politics, personal life, everything is impacting art and music. Also now, there are different platforms where musicians can put out their own music, and reach the audience. Independent music is having a moment. Having said that, there is still a huge ground for Bollywood songs because there’s a culture involved in it, there is nostalgia involved in it. It’s a genre in itself.”

The composer, who was instrumental in making background scores cool in India rues that although background scores today enjoy their own fan base, it is still not treated with the same respect as the songs. “There is still this conflict between songs and scores. If there are two composers, somebody’s done the song and somebody’s made the score; the first one is credited as the music composer and the latter, categorically, as the background score composer, as if the background score is not part of the actual film music. I find this hugely problematic. Also, there are people who still think that songs are what would sell and attract people, and sometimes, that’s true. So, there is the need to please popular audience and sell. But things are changing for the better, and I love the idea of multiple composers collaborating on a project and bringing in different ideas. But I also like doing songs and scores together, because it gives me the independence of expressing the entire soundscape of the film,” she says.

“We cannot envision an Indian film without a playback song,” Anurag Saikia

The 33-year-old National Award-winning music composer is known for his lilting melodies in movies such as Karwaan (2018), Mulk (2018), Article 15 (2019), and Thappad (2020). For him, music runs in the family. His mother, Dipali Saikia, a professional borgeet singer, and father, Dr Anil Saikia, folk-song researcher, are known for their immense contribution to Northeastern folk music. Saikia started off in the Assamese music industry and later, shifted to Mumbai.

According to him, the music scene in Bollywood is only moving from strength to strength. “I never felt that the scene was bad. I have been fortunate and blessed as all my projects, be it Mulk, Panchayat, Thappad, Gullak, Article 15 or Karwaan, all were remarkable. OTT has certainly created a new dimension with fresh ideas, interesting storylines and concepts that challenges composers to explore new avenues within their own musicality,” he says, adding that although BGM is getting more attention, playback music is here to stay. “Only now, people have started noticing, recognising, and relating to the BGM of a film. But, playback music has always been there and we cannot envision an Indian film without it. Songs are in our DNA.”