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It's The Time To ... Disco

Kal Ho Na Ho, Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy bring a new-age zing to filmi music

It's The Time To ... Disco
Atul Loke
It's The Time To ... Disco
Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are clearly out to rock popular Hindi music, six at a time. At their unpretentious recording studio in Mumbai, the trio is working with Javed Akhtar on a project. They are also discussing music for a TV serial. Shankar Mahadevan slips out to lay down the vocal tracks for his composition Cupid Cupid. Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonca will record an ad jingle here later, and by the time Akhtar returns tomorrow, the three would have recorded another jingle.

Their song, Main Aisa Kyun Hoon for Lakshya, an upcoming film starring Hrithik Roshan and Preity Zinta, is already a hit. Though it's clearly a Hindi film song, it clearly carries influences from a musical intelligence open to the world.

It makes for a different yet accessible sound audiences seem to be warming up to. Which is why today they seem surprisingly busy for a group whose best-known album, the soundtrack of the Farhan Akhtar film Dil Chahta Hai, was initially dismissed by music company executives as "too Malabar Hill". They were told their music sounded like jingles, and wouldn't click. At best, they would be cool but niche; people who made music for young, fun, multiplex type movies.

But then came Kal Ho Na Ho, a big Bollywood studio film meeting a breezy, independent look, and the three became the toast of an industry getting zippier and less self-conscious.

They couldn't be less traditional Bollywood. Ehsaan is a rock and jazz guitarist, Loy composes ad jingles, and though Shankar sings playback, he's as busy writing software and singing classical music. But this is what makes them so New Bollywood—and so popular with the industry's new-age directors Farhan Akhtar, Shaad Ali, Nikhil Advani and Samir Karnik.

That's not to say they only do out-of-the-box movies. In fact, it is Bollywood that is getting out of the box to embrace them and others who didn't fit in the old Bollywood mould.

The turning point, as we said, was KHNH. Even with that movie, there was some worry that the trio was a little too "out there". As Loy says of Dharma Productions, whose film it was, "They were associated with more traditional (film) music and wanted that along with the crossover sounds that Bend it Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding had." The seemingly disparate requirement yielded the year's most popular album and the music directors, who like to think of themselves as a band, were on their way to mainstream stardom.

Yet individually, they insist they'd never have imagined they could be mainstream Hindi music directors and have clung ferociously to successful lives outside the industry. Loy and Ehsaan make very popular remix albums and Shankar says he has a whole other life as a playback singer in Tamil and Telugu films. "The different experiences we have outside help us compose music. We come to the studio with fresh ideas," says Mahadevan about their frenetic pace of work. Loy has made music for the new Infosys jingle, Shankar is going on tour with tabla great Zakir Hussain and guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin.

Their association with New Bollywood means they never stray too far from their eclectic musical tastes. Amid banter and 60 missed calls on Shankar's cell (surely a post-KHNH phenomenon) they discuss music and record everything they jam on to computers, then pulling it out for the composition or laying over another track created during yet another conversation about music.

It's an approach that distils their different influences, and segues very well into Bollywood's recent focus on the lucrative overseas market. They have been able to comfortably blend eastern and western musical styles, sans the self-consciousness that betrayed several of Bollywood's earlier forays on to foreign screens". I think that for many expat Indians, Hindi film music was alien from everything else they heard," Loy says.Which helps explain how an audience used to hurtling from one wedding song to another took well to their music, nearly bereft of filmi frills.

In KHNH, for instance, the three say they were almost surprised by the huge response their retro dance number It's the Time to Disco generated. The song no doubt has a catchy rhythm all its own, but it also hints at an evolving Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy signature sound. They have brought a new, almost minimalist sound to Hindi films, often luring in newer audiences. All three agree it comes from their different musical backgrounds. "People notice the difference," says Shankar. This difference also stems from their readiness to experiment and defy traditional Bollywood wisdom. "Earlier Rahman was the only one who was doing different things. But now younger people are not scared to try new things," he adds.

Today, the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy effect is spreading in the industry. New music directors like Vishal Shekhar are bringing their own styles to Hindi film music, in movies like Jhankaar Beats and Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part 2.

Their music has been critiqued for being too much for the young, which is probably why they'll tell you about their work for Honey Irani's Armaan. The movie wasn't a hit, but the music was well received, and not particularly by teenagers.

It is with Irani's son Farhan Akhtar—with whom they had their first huge hit—that they may get over that bugbear. His film, Lakshya, is a coming-of-age movie on an urbane young man (Roshan) during the Kargil war. And apart from Main Aisa Kyun Hoon, a dance track best tried only by those blessed with plasticine bodies, the songs are mellower than dance-crazy teens might jig about to. They are also working on music for Mira Nair's Vanity Fair and Revathy's Phir Milenge, among others.

Whether or not the audiences they seek are mature, one thing is clear amid their chaotic multi-tasking from background scores to serials to cupid songs—the infectious energy their music is known for. When Noorani asks Mahadevan if the serial project is "completable", grins all around leave their energy-driven working style unspoken. They just need to stretch themselves a little more to fit some more music in. And of course, they will. Breathless. The name of Shankar's solo album.
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