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August 14, 2000


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'I see myself as an entertainer'


I always wanted to be a music director. Bharadwaj

When you hear him say that, you find yourself thinking, yeah, right, I remember this school chum who used to tell me that his ambition was to become an usher in a movie hall, just so he could see movies for free. Today he is an engineer and what is more, he hates movies.

Bharadwaj, however, is cut from different cloth -- his earliest ambition was to compose film music, and that is what he does for a living today. Strangely, it was in the unfertile soil of Delhi (unfertile in that it is far from the movie track) that he grew up and nursed those dreams. While in college, he went for an audition, and got selected by All India Radio.

The catch was that he had to sing his own compositions -- so he taught himself to compose, learning the basics of Hindustani, Carnatic and Western classical music.

Academically, he went on to do his chartered accountancy, fostering his dream meanwhile by singing for AIR and Doordarshan.

Fate, chance, circumstance, call it what you will. But Bharadwaj found himself in Madras, where he met director Sharan. The latter was just making his initial foray into films, and the two struck a rapport right from the word go. The creative partnership produced Amarkkalam , an Ajith-Shalini starrer that proved to be a superhit, both musically and in the theatres.

Their next pairing is Paarthein Rasithein, which was released across Tamil Nadu on August 11, and which, director Sharan tells me, is already showing signs of duplicating the success of their earlier outing.

Here, Bharadwaj discusses with Rajitha his moods, his music, his muse. Excerpts:

Your first steps in music were before the mike -- was it your ambition to become a singer?

Not at all. It is just that like many kids, I initially learnt a bit of vocals and the basics of a few instruments. Singing was a way of gaining entry into the music industry. But I always wanted to compose -- and the highest level of recognition in India is for composers of music for films, so that is what I wanted to do. And the choice was either Bombay, because I am comfortable in Hindi, or Madras, since I am a South Indian.

South Indian? The name Bharadwaj....

I am a Tamil Brahmin, Bharadwaj is actually my gotra but I began using it as a surname. I was raised in Delhi. Actually, my name is Ramani. But in time, I began using 'Bharadwaj'.

When I first came to Madras in 1986, I got a lot of offers to composing for devotional albums, and advertisement jingles. I must have done over 500 such jingles since, for agencies like R K Swamy, Mudra, O&M...

But somewhere along the line, I began thinking: Here I am, making a lot of money, but as far as the public is concerned I don't exist. I am invisible. There is no recognition -- I mean, even if you come up with a good jingle which people actually hum, they don't know who composed it.

Around this time, when I was beginning to feel dissatisfied, I got some work composing for television serials. Magnasound then gave me a big break in 1995, when they introduced me to Telugu films. The company had contacts with Telugu producer Gunashekhar, which is how I made my film debut with Sogasa Chooda Tharama. The music proved very popular. The film was a hit. A year later, I scored the music for Pikaladura. I went on to do 13 films in Telugu and, in the process, became quite popular.

I also did a couple of Kannada movies before my first Tamil break, Kaadhal Mannan. It had a Telugu producer. He signed me on because he had appreciated my work in the Telugu industry.

Prashant and Simran Soon after, I was signed on by K Balachander for two productions under his home banner Kavithalaya: Pooveli and Rojavanam, both of which did well musicwise, though they didn't succeed at the box office. Personally, I like my work in Rojavanam. I can't say the same of the film -- I think it deserved to flop.

Then I did Amarkkalam, Sharan's second film as director. It became a huge hit, and here I am!

Amarkkalam, for me, means just the one song -- Saththam illa thanimai ketten. Very powerful, very moving. How did that come about?

As you know, the film's hero has had a disturbed childhood. That is why he grows up to be a disreputable character, a street toughie. But his origins are not indicated in the early part of the movie -- you see the rowdy, without knowing what made him one.

Then you have the scene where he kidnaps the heroine. In terms of pacing, this was where we had to reveal the hero's past. Since he didn't like talking about it, it had to be brought out indirectly. This is when you had to bring out the turmoil within the hero, the mental agony, the angst.

We thought we would do it through a song. We created a situation where, in response to the heroine's taunts, he cuts loose with an angry, passionate song. The heroine, who has always treated him with contempt, then realises that, beneath all that goondaism, there is a gentle, hurt, soul. And, what's more, a soul capable of brilliant music. So, along with the heroine, we get to see that facet of his character.

The song is very significant in terms of the story development. As it turned out, the song has this 'breathless' quality to it, which became a huge plus with the audience. Actually, we weren't looking at creating that gimmick -- we were just trying to make a song that was a torrent, a chain of thoughts and wishes pouring fourth in one dam-burst, from deep within the hero's heart.

But can it actually be sung in one breath, like it sounds?

*laughing* Not unless you are a hippopotamus or something, and can hold your breath for minutes at a time when you go under water! At best you can sing for 40 seconds or so before you take a breath. The song does appear to have been sung in one breath, doesn't it?

Obviously, it is just technique. If you focus on the breathless quality, you will in fact miss the main point: that someone who had, for years, dammed up his emotions, suppressed his longings within himself, and suddenly, it all bursts out in one furious flood.

I think the audience got the message -- it was also superbly picturised. Instead of a dance, it was more acting, emoting. To me, it is a complete song, the music, the lyrics, the picturisation, the acting.... all blended to create precisely the impact we wanted.

Hmmm... you talk of the totality of the song. Does this mean that you don't just compose music in a vacuum, but actually have to interact with the other departments? With the director, choreographer, actors...?

Certainly. In a film, such interaction is, in fact, vital. The director is the boss, he knows what he wants. Musically, it is up to me to deliver his requirements, and for that, I have to know the characters, the situation, the mood, the impact that is sought to be created. Each department contributes its mite, based on its own expertise, the director puts it all together.

How do you make music?

Now how do I answer that? See, music has a purpose -- to entertain. Music is imagination. As you know, the story, the situation, the characters, are imagined first. Then the music comes in. At this point, it is not about first putting down a lot of notes -- I first have to understand the character my song is going to be picturised on, think like him, get a feel for how he would emote. What kind of person is he? Hard or soft? I need to understand that. In the Amarkkalam song, for instance, that particular form was used because Ajit, the hero, is an angry, explosive person. If I had composed a nice soft tune, it wouldn't have worked. Similarly, if the hero's character is nice and gentle, I can't compose a song like this one and expect it to work. So that is how we need to do it -- think not of the music, but of the character, then tailor the music to suit him or her.

You make it sound so simple...

No, not that way. See, I think a musician should be very expressive first. He should be sensitive to every mood, every nuance, every feeling. Like, I have to be a romantic, a lover, a flirt, a good man, a bad man. I should have the capacity to feel every shade of emotion, and then translate those feelings into music.

Music is progression. Using the keyboard is mechanical, but the melody you create comes from the heart, the mechanics are only in the arranging. Melody is feeling, the instrumentation is merely the mode of expression.

Like thoughts, and the pen? Okay, look at it this way -- are there stock tricks you use? Like, when it comes to a sad portion, I notice music directors tend to use a lot of violin. Is it that the violin has in time become associated with pathos, so you use it to strike the right emotional chord in your audience? In that sense, are there musical cliches you fall back on?

In a sense, yes, much of composing is relating to what is accepted. In that sense, music whether traditional or contemporary has to relate to the psychology of the listener, it has to be in tune with local ethos. Like, the music that works here doesn't necessarily have to work in Bulgaria -- different cultures produce different musical idioms, even though music is international in its appeal.

But since you talk of musical cliches, the point is, though so many tunes exist, the trick is to touch chords in the audience without simply duplicating, or resembling, existing tunes. The violin is an instrument, it has been used time and again to evoke pathos, but it doesn't mean that the violin can evoke only pathos, nor does it mean that pathos can only be indicated by a wailing violin.

I wish I knew how to answer your question about how I make music. I won't say that we are this kind of rare species, there is music all the time in our heads, no matter what we are doing. It is more like, when I have to compose, my mind gets into that mode, the brain kicks in, and the music comes. I guess it is like writing, or painting, or whatever -- when you pick up the brush or the pen, the art happens.

What is your average day like? Maybe that will help us understand what you actually do...

If you mean average day in terms of composing, it is not like I spend x amount of hours in the studio, composing. The actual act of composing takes place anywhere, on the drive to the studio for instance. But much of my work involves others, the musicians, the singers, technicians. So the day could start with the mechanics, planning what you are going to be doing, figuring out what musicians you need, getting them all organised.

So you don't have a definable working day...

Not really. Though on an average I guess I spend 8 to 10 hours working. Which could be anything -- composing, performing, recording. The composing is where the thrill is, the rest is mechanics.

Okay, you compose a song, a director gives it visual shape. Then when you see it on screen, how does it feel?

That is a thrill. You feel happy. But ultimately, everything is commercial, so I keep thinking, the money spent on me should be worthwhile. And when you know it is, that is the biggest thrill. Like, the other day, I got a call from a radio station in Canada, and when I realised that in that part of the globe they knew my songs, it felt so good. Similarly, when your compositions flop, it feels very bad. I might like it, the producers might approve, the director loves it, but when it is released and the audience doesn't approve, then the whole thing is a waste. And that feels bad.

We listen to music when we want to relax. What do you do?

Oh, I don't listen to music.Throughout the day, at work, that is what we do. Somehow, listening to music becomes part of work, sort of like reference. Like, someone tells me, hey, did you hear that song, it has a good lead. So then I listen to the song, and I become analytical -- it is not like I am listening for pleasure or relaxation, it is work. So yeah, in a sense, for us, the pleasure of listening to music is lost.

Musically, do you have preferences, say instruments you are partial to?

Sure, I think all composers do. For myself, I am melody-oriented, I have a thing for long, drawn out notes, reed-based music, like the flute, the saxophone...

Do you play those instruments?

No, I can only play notes on the keyboard, enough to convey to the professional what I am looking for. To play instruments at a professional level takes years of training.

You know, sometimes, while doing interviews, I wonder if maybe it might not be better not to ask questions, to simply let you talk. I mean, I might be asking silly questions, whereas left to yourself, you might have things of more interest to talk about...

I don't know about the 'silly questions' bit, but yes, there is something I want to talk about, a question that has always been nagging away in my mind, which I wanted to ask music fans, so maybe this is my chance.

I want to know, what is with this craze for a number one? Why is it only the person considered the best is appreciated, why is it only he is followed? Like say A R Rehman in music, or Shah Rukh Khan in acting, or Sachin Tendulkar in cricket? Why are the others ignored, why do they have to work twice as hard to get the attention of the fans?

It is not that I am complaining, it is that I keep thinking, hey, aren't we, the rest of us, around too? Aren't we worth considering? Okay, if we make bad music, we deserve to be ignored, but how come we are not even heard? It makes me wonder -- sometimes, we rate a person as number one. Say an author. So we go to bookshops and buy his books. But we don't even look around at the others on the shelf -- in the process, don't we miss a lot of good things? Isn't the same the case with music?

Mind you, I am not saying this at a personal level, I am happy with the recognition I have today. It is just that this number one syndrome is something I have always found puzzling. And I do believe that the audience doesn't give a fair chance to all of us, thanks to its obsession with the number one. I think people should listen to various musicians, give them all a chance, then patronise the good music, irrespective of who made it, and not merely the music of number one, whoever it is.

It is funny -- when you grow and become big, people only see good in you. While you are growing -- and this is when you need most encouragement -- people only see faults, they are waiting for a chance to pull you down. I think that is sad.

What have been the highs and lows in your life?

Oh, there have been plenty of both, but it is only natural. I look at it this way -- okay, I've done an Amarkkalam, but what next? In that sense, neither the high nor the low matters. Like, Amarkkalam was a hit. Another score might be a flop. But the day after, you have to start from scratch all over again -- the fact that your last score was a hit means nothing.

It is all about pressure. The pressure to continually excel. I like all the songs I have composed so far, so the highs come from commercial success, not from the compositions themselves. For instance, Rojavanam -- I think it is one of my best, but it didn't do well, so that is a low. Failure and success thus seem relative to things outside your own control.

Then there is this -- a lovely song is picturised badly, that is a low. An ordinary composition is picturised beautifully, that is a huge high.

What happens when a song you compose turns out to be bad, in your own mind? Do you throw it away and start over?

BharadwajActually, thanks to computers, I don't have to, I can play around, alter things, even the instrumentation, I can cut and paste, I can do all kinds of repair work till I am satisfied. Only a totally bad song is irreparable, and has to be thrown away -- but then I have no business composing totally bad songs, like you as a journalist have no business doing totally bad interviews that have to be junked.

Actually, computers have changed the way we work. Today, it is all electronic at first -- computerised instruments lay down the base tune, then the live instruments recreate the sounds and build on them, one by one, instead of all together, and then the voices are overlaid on top. So you can fine tune each before moving to the next stage.

Which is why we listeners have the feeling these days that modern music, driven by computers, is synthetic, plastic...

I would say that is true only of the GIGO stuff -- garbage in, garbage out. The computer is an instrument -- you put beautiful stuff in, you get beautiful results. It can help you fine tune, but the basic melody is your own contribution, it is not something the computer can do for you.

In sum, how would you define your role, within the music industry?

I see myself as an entertainer. Stars entertain through their acting, their dancing, their presence. I entertain through my music. That is all there is to it. The goal is the same, the medium differs, that is all.

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