One of the best Hindi films this year has undoubtedly been Anvitaa Dutt's Qala, that is streaming on Netflix. Apart from exceptional performances by Triptii Dimri, Babil Khan, Swastika Mukherjee and a haunting story, another striking fact about the movie is its music. Set in the late 1930s to 1940s (primarily in Kolkata), the film’s music is reminiscent of 1950s Bollywood.
Amit Trivedi, who composed the soundtrack, and Anvitaa, who wrote the lyrics for some of the movies, decode the music of Qala.
Was the music of 'Qala' anywhere inspired by the songs in Guru Dutt's films?
Anvitaa Dutt: It wasn't actually. But I'm so flattered that his name was taken in the same sentence. We never specifically talked about any particular director or composer while working on the songs because we didn't want anybody to be influenced. We only spoke about the character and the story. We knew that the time period is between the 30s and 40s and it has its own sound-scape, the instruments that were used. So we recorded the songs accordingly. The songs where the singer is singing with the musician, whether it be Qala or Jagan, were recorded live. Just like the olden times, when the musicians would play as the singer was singing.
Amit Trivedi: The music isn't inspired by Guru Dutt's songs. As with every film, I just take down the narration, understand what the director's vision is and keep working. Set in the 40s, this story is about a strained relationship between a mother and daughter, with the latter being very vulnerable. Both Urmila and Qala are singers. Then there's another character Jagan, who is also a singer. With this brief, I went ahead.
A lot of people may have missed out on this one, but for those who didn't, what was the reasoning behind the reference of Master Madan?
Anvitaa: There was a conversation I had with Vishal Dadlani. One of the people that Vishal and I spoke about that day was Master Madan. I never mentioned it because it's a real person and I don't want anyone to say, 'This is wrong or that is right.' For me, it was just that feeling of the loss of a voice. The fact that he was so talented. There are songs like 'Yun Na Reh Reh Kar' that you rarely find. It's unfortunate that he lost his voice because someone felt so threatened by him. Master Madan's story helped me sketch Jagan, who comes into Qala's life and adds to her insecurities. The bit about Jagan's voice being silenced - that was Master Madan's story because I was deeply moved. There's no direct reference in the movie because I didn't want Master Madan's near and dear ones to feel I have portrayed him in a wrong light. Because Jagan is not Master Madan, right? Master Madan did lose his voice because of poison being added in his milk, just like Jagan. So yeah, that story has a resemblance from his life.
When you were picturizing and writing these songs, did you and Amit ever sit down and say, 'Okay, this is how we would want the songs to look like'?
Anvitaa: I started by narrating the script to Amit. For the first song, 'Nirbhau Nirvair', I told him that this is my song. I told Amit and his team to picturize that Jagan comes and touches the stage. I touch the studio floor every time I step in. And I've seen many singers and musicians do that as well. I described that Jagan sings and Qala is sitting there too, but I did not say that we are going to change the light. Moving onto 'Phero Na Nazaria', it was about the sitting area, their house. Amit knew that when Jagan sings, he starts coughing. The musicians knew how the story unfolds, but not the treatment.
Let's come to 'Shauq'. When I had gone to Calcutta I'd taken a boat ride and recorded it. I showed that video to Amit and I said this is the tempo of the song. I knew the song is on a boat in a moonlit night, but nothing more. When Amit played the song for us, all of us sat with our eyes closed, listening to the melody.
Amit: The inspiration definitely was Hindi film music from the 40s and 50s. We listened to the beautiful tracks of R.D Burman, Madan Mohan and Hemant Kumar. In terms of creating the landscape we relied on the music of the maestros. However, the major focus was the characters - Jagan, Qala and Urmila.
Since this movie is set in the late 1930s, what are some of the distinct patterns you followed while you were composing music for this period in specific?
Anvitaa: So I think that is something Amit can answer best. I think what he did was use instruments of that time like the accordion, tabla, dholak, rebab, and the sitar. We did not use anything electronic. I never put that pressure on them. I feel that the songs are so beautiful that neither Trivedi nor the lyricist took any pressure. It was about the situation and Qala's feeling of the song. When you're adding layers to your song, you are taking the song away from its truth. For 'Ghode Pe Sawar' I told Amitabh that it's a playback singer who doesn't belong to Qala's world; but to the film world of that time. All I told him was the concept. So that is it. Therefore I think it's just perfect.
Amit: Patterns as in, the prevalent soundscape during those days in Hindi films. I was only following that structure. So, I just went with the Instrumentation the way the original, ethnic musicians do live. With that mindset, I tried to create a soundscape that would transport you to the era. The instrumentation and sound easily takes you back. So, yeah, I've also altered the melody.
When you compose music for a film like Qala, it kind of leaves you feeling really heavy. Does it take a lot from you as a composer when you're doing songs for intense stories like this?
Amit: No, it's more fun. We actually had fun. We finished in three days and we were in Goa, so we were just having fun. Masti karte karte, party karte karte, we finished it. I don't know why it seems like it's a very difficult job but I think these things come very naturally and happily to me. Maybe it's God grace and talent. We were just chatting, talking, going to parties in the evening, thinking and making music in between.
In a sentence or a few words, could you tell us what Qala's music means to you?
Amit: It's very very special. One of the most special albums that I cherish. It goes in the league of my all time favorite albums. Where there is Dev D, Udaan, Krishna, Manmarziyaan, Bombay Velvet, Queen. This is one of my favorite albums. I'm happy and very proud of the work. Thank you to Anvitaa. She lets me do things that set you free.
So of course, you are one of the most sought-after people in the industry today. If I were to ask you, what is the one kind of music that you're really waiting to make or explore, is there anything that comes to your mind?
Amit: I always wanted to try this very clubby modern, urban, gen-Z kind of music. Which is sound wise, a little futuristic and electronic. So I got an opportunity to create this for Anurag Kashyap. We are releasing an album in January. So it's a complete 180 degree turn in terms of sound from Qala. It's a very happy modern song. Sometimes, these things are a little western so I don't know how this thing will be received by the audience and I'm curious to know how.