Ram Sampath breaks into a shy smile when I ask him the question thats on almost every Bollywood-loving lip — just who is Ram Sampath? After all, little is still known about the man who first shot into fame when he sued Rakesh Roshan for plagiarism two years ago and is now hitting headlines for a song thats taken the country by storm. Not surprisingly, many now refer to him as the DK Bose guy — the man who composed and sang the current youth anthem Bhaag DK Bose in the new release Delhi Belly.
I am just a working composer, he says modestly. An hour later, I realise that he is not just an award winning jingle composer but a name to be reckoned with in the advertising and Hindi film industries. Yet — despite such prestigious awards as the Cannes Lion and D&AD award for his commercials — he is still the DK Bose guy for most people. And Sampath knows that well.
I dont think you can do anything new without pressing a few buttons, he says about the song which has raised a fair number of eyebrows for its use of words that sound like Hindi abuse. DK Bose at one level is cool because a certain generation doesnt like it, laughs Sampath.
The song is a runaway hit, but has evoked harsh criticism too. Anubhav Sinha, director of the coming Shah Rukh Khan film Ra.One, called the song vulgar — which invariably lead to a war of words. Believe me, he asked for a slap by saying all that, and I retaliated, says Sampath nonchalantly.
Clearly, the bouquets and the brickbats dont affect him much. We are sitting in his sound studio in the suburb of Khar in Mumbai. Orhan Pamuk, Bill Bryson and sound engineering books share space with his awards on the shelves. The rains have decided to give the city a miss on this cloudy afternoon but Sampath doesnt evade my question about whats in the song thats got everybody excited.
DK Bose is an old joke, says the man who describes himself as a musical schizophrenic on his website. People like the song because of its sheer melody and energy. The song identifies with the underdog. Its about how all of us have to run in our lives at one point or another.
Its easy to believe Sampath, for — despite his 34 years — he looks like a young college kid whos done his share of running. In his denims, black shirt and sneakers — with a goatee and pierced ears — he is not quite like the usual Bollywood composer.
By now the story behind DK Bose is part of Bollywood folklore. Initially, the Aamir Khan production — which is still making waves weeks after its release — was to have had only one song, which Sampath was to compose. The movies scriptwriter Akshat Verma had written a few phrases for us to take help from for developing the song, says Sampath. DK Bose was one of the phrases suggested.
When I saw the first edit of the film, I saw a lot of potential for an interesting musical score. I worked with the lyricists and developed the phrases into songs, says Sampath. He went on to make four tracks for the movie, fully aware that it might never be used.
But then one day I called Aamir Khan to say that I wanted him to listen to some songs, he recalls. Khan turned up the next day and heard the songs one after the other with a blank face. In the end he said, I love the songs, keep working on it. Thats when the idea of an album for Delhi Belly emerged.
In Delhi Belly, Sampath easily flits from one genre to the other, putting together rock, punk and jazz with thumri, baul and qawwali with ease — as if placing various disparate pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle together.
He initially sang the controversial song as a scratch vocal to help the would-be singer pick up the melody. But he adds that Khan and his wife, director Kiran Rao, insisted that he sing the song. Thats really how my voice stayed, he says.
I ask him about rumours that singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan, who had earlier been signed on as the films music composer along with his partners Ehsaan and Loy, was upset with Sampath for ousting him from the film. These are untrue reports, he says. In fact, Mahadevan was among the first to congratulate me for the success of Delhi Bellys music score.
The films director, Abhinay Deo, he explains, had insisted that Sampath compose the music for the film. Since Abhinay had worked with me in several commercials he felt more comfortable with me. Aamir was gracious enough to request Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy to make way for me, and they in turn were kind enough to oblige. I appreciate Aamirs belief in his director and for giving me an opportunity to score the music.
People who have worked with Sampath would vouch for his integrity and commitment to the profession. The advertising world stood by him when he sued filmmaker Rakesh Roshan, who had to eventually pay Rs 2 crore as damages to Sampath. The composer had accused Roshan of using a tune from a commercial for a mobile phone company in his film Krazzy 4 in 2008.
In an industry where big banners have often got away with plagiarism, Sampath decided it was time to claim his place in the sun. He was advised by some not to pick up a fight with the Roshans, who have been in the industry for eons. But I thought if we cant protect our work, its not worth creating, he says.
The success of his album has brought with it demands from Bollywood that leave him cold. This is what I have learnt from my last Bollywood adventure — never repeat myself or bow to popular demand, he says. People tell him kuchh alag chahiye, hit chahiye (we want something different, we want a hit). But then one cant compose songs with that demand, he says.
He recalls that his last big Bollywood hit Khakee in 2004, a Rajkumar Santoshi film that first showcased his talent, had led to similar demands. After Khakee, I got a lot of offers from Bollywood and they all wanted the same sound. But I didnt want to be stereotyped so I declined politely.
Thats not surprising, for Sampath has always been wary of taking the well-trodden path. Born into a middle-class South Indian family in Chembur, he studied commerce at the RA Poddar College, but never lost his passion for music. He started writing his own songs at the age of 10 and composing music by 12. At 13, Id formed a band with friends and we used to do gigs around town.
Having trained in Carnatic classical music for nine years, he was convinced that he was born to be a musician. The world of jingles attracted him. At 16, he started frequenting the offices of advertising firms with demo CDs. I used to just make cold calls at the offices of ad agencies. Finally I got my first break with a Thums Up jingle, followed by a score for Femina Miss India in 1994. The people hiring me didnt even know my age, says Sampath who now has around 5,000 jingles to his credit, including those for Docomo, Reliance, Close Up, Nike, Pepsi, Coke, Hero Honda and Sony Ericsson.
By the time he had graduated from college, he was much in demand in advertising circles. I had to beg and borrow from friends for high-end equipment as I couldnt afford my own stuff. During that period, I ended up working 20 hours.
The doors to Bollywood opened with a chance meeting with singer Shaan in a recording studio. We went on to make two successful albums — Loveology and Tanha Dil.
Around the same time, Sampath launched his own rock band Colourblind, and pumped all his money into it. Though it did very well we couldnt sustain the band. I blew up all the money Id made in commercials. By the time I was 22, I was broke again, he confesses.
So Sampath re-entered the world of music, but through a different door. Till now I was happy with my Carnatic classical and rock music. But now I got to know about our folk songs, world cinema and world music. In 2001, Sampath travelled across the country recording thumri singers for an album for the film Lets Talk.
He gives credit to Aamir Khan for his recent success in Bollywood. Sampath is working in Khans next film, to be directed by Reema Kagti. Khan, on his part, has hailed Sampath as a star. To be praised by Aamir Khan, whom I respect immensely, is more satisfying than winning a Grammy, he says.
These are exciting times for Sampath. Film producers are sending him scripts before asking him to compose music for them. But after Kagtis film, I am going to work on my wife Sona Mohapatras next album. Mohapatra, his wife of six years, is a musician and partner in his studio.
Sampath says he is now adopting a take-it-easy approach. I am very happy in the shadows; I dont want to be in the limelight. Even as a child I was always interested in the back of an LP cover and in reading who the technicians behind the album were, he says.
With DK Bose, Sampath may find it difficult to stay in the shadows. The DK Bose guy has to be on the move.