photo courtesy Doreen D’Agostino Media
A Conversation with Girish Malik, Bickram Gosh & Sonu Nigam
Mike Ragogna: Gentlemen, hello. The film Jal has gotten a lot of attention, lately, among the Oscar crowd where it’s on a long list of current nominees. How did this project and all of your involvements begin?
Girish Malik: It started as an idea for a short film about migratory birds and the environmental factors affecting them which evolved in to a human story over the years. During my many visits to Kutch for research along with Rakesh with whom I have co-written this film, I was fascinated with the place and the people, the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes that keep moving and yet call this hostile desert home, pretty much like the flamingos. I felt so close and motivated to tell this story and to showcase this world. The music had a huge part to play in the narrative of the film. From the very beginning I was very clear about how I wanted the film to look, but I was still searching for the right sounds. During my research I came across, Bickram’s “Primal” track from his album Kingdom of Rhythm and that struck a chord with me. I had a meeting with him and we connected. Sonu I knew separately and we had earlier discussed other projects but I had never worked with him. During my conversations, I found out that they were collaborating on an album. From there the idea formed of both of them collaborating on JAL.
Bickram Ghosh: This is first film that Sonu Nigam and myself composed together for! Mr. Nigam is India’s singing superstar and he and I had been working together on an album, The Music Room. Mr. Girish Malik had been speaking separately with Mr. Nigam and me regarding his film only to discover we had already starting working as a duo! Mr. Malik had heard much of my previous work on audio albums and some of my tracks were already part of his soundtrack references.
When the three of us sat together we realized that there was a palpable chemistry and we were even able to create the song “Jal De” in record time which then was used to create a reference mood by Mr. Malik when he started shooting.
Sonu Nigam: It’s simply bliss to find ourselves in this elite list with some of the most celebrated composers in the world, and that too in our very first outing as a composer duo. It so happened that I took a year’s sabbatical from Mumbai and moved to LA in 2009. Something happened and my musical sensibilities changed as a result of the unlearning that transpired in isolation there. Upon my return, myself and Mr. Bickram Ghosh, one of the finest percussionists in the world, decided on a musical collaboration couple of years back. In a chance meeting with director and old friend Girish Malik, Girish proposed I do the music for Jal. I proposed Bickram Gosh to join hands. And thus began the journey called Jal.
MR: Briefly, what are each of your creative histories?
GM: I have been creatively inclined since childhood and explored many mediums. I was a state level gymnast and was doing contemporary dancing and ballet. But later gravitated towards semi-classical and folk dancing specializing in Chau – an Indian tribal martial dance. I performed in India and internationally at many prestigious festivals as a dancer. This was in my final years of school and college. During college days, I got involved in theater where I spent many years acting with the most reputed personalities of Delhi Theater. Theatre led to television in Mumbai where I worked as a lead actor for seven years in some of the most popular shows. At the peak of my acting career, I felt stagnated because of the kind of work that was happening in Indian television and turned to production, direction and writing and set up a successful television and advertising production company. I produced, written and directed over 1000 hours of TV shows & many ad films. I have also worked as a creative consultant for top Indian and International broadcasters. JAL is my first feature film as a producer/director.
BG: I’ve played pure Indian classical music for many years, accompanied Ravi Shankar on the tabla for over a decade. I performed with him on his Grammy awarded album “Full Circle” in 2002. I played on the title track of George Harrison’s Brainwashed, which won a Grammy nomination. I played on two albums with Anoushka Shankar both of which got Grammy nominations. I have subsequently travelled the world with my Indo-fusion band Rhythmscape. I’ve collaborated with artists across the globe be it Africa, America, Japan, Israel, Australia, Europe etc. I often hear sounds in combination, cultures juxtaposed – that is what really marks my compositional faculties. I like working with a huge gamut of instruments. Of course, percussions are my first love.
SN: Having begun my career as a singer in my childhood 37 years back, I have been fortunate to have experienced unfathomable love and accolades worldwide. Music and songs play the most important part in Indian films – sometimes more pivotal than the script. And Indian film industry rules entertainment in the entire subcontinent. The past 23 years have given me thousands of songs, both film and non-film, thousands of concerts worldwide, besides opportunities like hosting the biggest, most respected and first ever talent show Saregama for 6 years on TV way back in 1995. I also judged the first two seasons of Indian Idol and then The X Factor eventually, besides various other major television series and events. Internationally, the only tribute to the great Michael Jackson by his blood line is in collaboration with me. Jermaine Jackson sang a song written and composed by me, which was inaugurated in the most prestigious IIFA Awards in Toronto in 2011. Besides, there are collaborations with Avicii for his song “Levels” and Britney Spears in “I Wanna Go.” Kylie Minogue’s only Indian film song is a duet with me.
MR: Bickram, you’re a world-renowned tabla player whose history includes playing with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. What do you think your musical and life experiences affected what you brought to the project?
BG: I think like Mr. Shankar, who used Indian instruments and Indian musicality as his core language of communication, I too do the same. I may use western instruments or oriental sounds, but my core emotional content is brought from India, her rich tapestry of sounds and the ability of Indian instruments to strike a deep intimate chord with the human heart.
My life has been textured with rich emotional experiences honed through a huge amount of travel. I see the human predicament as the same, whichever part of the world you may be from. Therefore, I like using a single instrument and weaving a variety of sounds around it, thereby putting the basic instrument into a larger context. Kind of like what classic literature or film often does. Elevating one man’s story into a metaphor for the human predicament.
MR: Sonu, to you, how closely did the final music of the film express what you were envisioning?
SN: When I first penned the first 4 lines of the title song, I narrated it to my late mother, who had just been diagnosed with cancer and was getting treated then. I truly believe she blessed and initiated the creative process of Jal. Me and Bickram Ghosh then sat in my studio to design the core sound for the track that would in due course decide the core ethos of the film, which was yet to be shot. I would like to now mention our director Girish Malik for having the clarity of vision, the dignity of not succumbing to mediocrity and giving us complete freehand to musically express Jal.
MR: What do you think the state of Indian films are at this point in time? Do you see them being even more widely embraced than they are now?
GM: I really hope so. A lot of the emerging filmmakers from India are making films that are essentially Indian and yet very global. They are trying to make real, heartfelt stories that go beyond the formula. In India they form a niche but in a country like India, niche is also big. As for international recognition, there are a lot of pre-conceived notions about Indian cinema that we have to deal with. What’s great is that now there are more avenues and more awareness so, a lot of independent expression is coming out of the country. Earlier it was tougher to make those kind of films.
BG: I think the fact that some films like Jal are breaking free from the clichés that have plagued Indian cinema for long, is an excellent sign. Like Satyajit Ray who showed a real India, Girish Malik, through Jal, shows a side of India hitherto rarely seen on the screen. The fact that our film deals with the universal issue of water makes it a microcosm of a global issue. This kind of cinema will make Indian films much more relevant globally.
SN: The Indian Film Industry is a monster of an industry in its own capacity. We make all kinds of Cinema. Jal, and its music getting recognition in the mainstream category of Oscar, on its own merit, is a huge morale booster for not just the team involved, but the entire industry. Even a remote association with it, can change an entire culture of thought process of a film industry anywhere in the world. Such is the credibility of an Oscar.
MR: Girish, Jal already has received an Indian National Film Award for Best Visual Affects. What do you think it is about the film that’s resonating on the world stage?
GM: I am happy that the various aspects of the film are being recognized on different platforms. The subject of the film is of course very universal and so are the emotions associated. The film was first recognized at Busan International Film Festival in Korea where it was featured in competition and received critical and audience appreciation for its cinematography, story and of course the music. A lot of research and detailed work has been done on every element of the film keeping in mind the mood and narrative of the film. A lot of heart and soul and years of hard work has gone into the making of Jal.
MR: This may seem like a superficial question but how has Bollywood hurt or helped the cause for getting appreciation of Indian films and filmmakers?
GM: An Oscar nomination or win is huge, of course! It’s a wonderful validation of your hard work and talent. Being recognized on this huge platform by the biggest and the best also means that the film gets exposure all over the world. And if that happens it just makes it easier for us to continue doing the work we believe in. Jal is my first and it has been a huge struggle to make this film. If a nomination or win happens, it will make the road ahead easier.
BG: I feel the clichéd side of Bollywood which emanated from vaudeville – like format spilled over to the screen from the stage has run its course. It has helped primarily through gifting the world a huge treasury of songs and music which has been loved and appreciated widely. But the clichéd format has often clouded the minds of the world audience and they have unfortunately missed some gems from India in the process. This has been detrimental to getting appreciation.
SN: First of all I shun the word Bollywood. I find it to be a very tacky nomenclature for an entertainment industry as unique as Indian Film Industry. The dominance of Music, song and dance in 99% of the films here, coupling with some of the world’s most fanatic fan following, gives it a character unheard and unseen anywhere in the world. Ironically that trait itself isolates it from world platforms. Jal perhaps, is in this celebrated race predominantly due to its unique musical approach and its clever usage of music confirming to International norms. With all humility, no piece of the music of Jal, can be used in any of the other films in contention in the list, it is that unique!
MR: In your opinion, which scenes marry the music to the visuals best in the film?
GM: Honestly, I think all of it is very important. The work that happened on the music and background score of the film was very extensive, over almost a year. Each and every sound was worked upon with a lot of thought, keeping in mind the space and emotions of the film. Cinema is an audio-visual experience. And that is how we worked on and edited this film from the very beginning. I do have a few favorite sequences, of course. One is where Bakka is completely shattered and is hallucinating just before the twister. Then in the end when Bakka is being dragged through the desert… Also the sequence where Kim is being chased by Kesar with a dagger. Sounds are as important in invoking an emotion or conveying something as the visuals.
BG: The opening scene where the camera moves over the parched land and a frame drum played over it. The sounds created from dead skin – on the frame drum – almost sound a death- knell for life in the water afflicted area. The oboe that serves as Bakka’s theme is next. Bakka’s is a water diviner and seems to have supernatural powers. It was important to use a sound that was alien to the terrain so that Bakka was connected to something beyond his immediate surroundings. It breaks the familiarity of the character from his surroundings. I also like the impassioned drumming – using a huge variety of drums – during the water ritual. The distinctive drum sounds used here are very different from the much used tympanies and other orchestral drums normally used in films. The exotic cry of the song “Jal De” (give me water ), the romance of the song “Ankhiyan Tihari” (your eyes) and the final climax where the chanting is used to denote a much larger force in action are also some of my favorites. I think the soundscape of Jal has a unique character and that is what is drawing people to it. It is a tapestry of fresh new sounds that put the visuals in a more pointed context.
SN: For me, the opening scene sets the tone of the soul of the movie and its music.
MR: What advice do you have for new musical artists and filmmakers?
GM: Musically, like I said, cinema is an audio-visual medium. Maybe because of my background as a classical dancer and in theater, my vision and thought process is always an amalgamation of sound and visuals. In fact even when I am writing a film, I start collecting sounds and make notes. Sometimes I write my scenes with an audio reference. I even pre-recorded some references to be used while shooting important sequences to get that mood and rhythm. Also, editing is not just editing the visuals, how you edit your sound will make a tremendous difference. I also completely believe in research and detailing. Shooting is just one part of the process. A lot of how the film turns out depends on your homework before the shoot and during writing and in the post-production. The key is in details. The rest, I think the safest thing to do is to take a chance and follow your heart!
BG: Learn your craft first. Then proceed through life with sincerity and passion. As you grow richer as a person, your work becomes deeper and more meaningful.
SN: I see a lot of creative artistes, singers, composers, directors, and writers etc., wasting their precious time criticizing other people’s work. Analyzing is imperative. Being a cynic, is anti-God. We close the doors to our creative and learning faculties when we are too critical in life. I have done that in my ignorance in my initial days too. But I got the point soon. Everyone around, is a guru, teaching you two things. What to do and what not to do. Listen!
MR: Will you all be working together again in the future?
GM: We have connected creatively during Jal and my kind of cinema matches their world of music. For every project of mine, I know how I want my sounds to be like and that is always the pre-requisite for who I need to associate with to give me that world.
BG: Of course, this is just the beginning!
Sonu Nigam: I would certainly want this bonding to bear more fruits for a long time to come.
MR: What do you picture reaction being to an Oscar nomination or win? In the long run, does it matter?
GM: An Oscar nomination or win is huge of course! It’s a wonderful validation of your hard work and talent. Being recognized on this huge platform by the biggest and the best also means that the film gets exposure all over the world. And if that happens it just makes it easier for us to continue doing the work we believe in. Jal is my first and it has been a huge struggle to make this film. If a nomination or win happens, it will make the road ahead easier.
BG: The Oscar is the biggest validation to cinema- related work in the world! Of course it matters! We believe we have a very special distinctive sound which is the result of life-long research, sincerity and experimentation. A recognition as huge as the Oscar can inspire us to work harder and can be a window to future opportunities which can then showcase our talent.
SN: Over the years having been bestowed with the most respected awards worldwide, I have come to believe that awards are like gifts. You love it when you receive it. But you shouldn’t complain when you don’t. I haven’t received one yet but I can assume that an Oscar must leave a lifelong impact on the receiver.
SCOTT WEILAND RELEASES HIS “MODZILLA”
photo credit: Jamie Weiland
According to Scott Weiland…
“I feel that ‘Modzilla’ exemplifies the overall sonic quality of the album. The guitar sound and the vocals show a ‘no holds barred’ approach. It’s a fresh sort of retro but modern too, and I think that both the STP and VR fans as well as new fans will gravitate toward it.”
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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