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By TUNE IN TO ALOKANANDA DASGUPTA, 30, THE LATEST KID ON BOLLYWOOD’S MUSIC BLOCK Picture: Sayantan Ghosh Mohua Das What is your message for Alokananda? Tell
  • Published 30.08.14

Living with a famous filmmaker father (Buddhadeb Dasgupta), how did the musician in you surface?

Yes, I was totally brought up on the doors of a filmmaking lifestyle — films being screened at home all the time, books about films but Baba always wanted my sister (Rajeshwari, five years elder) and me to be classical pianists. He put us into Calcutta School of Music at the age of four or five. He romanticised and thrived on the idea of us being classical pianists. My mother (Kuntala) on the other hand wanted us to be dancers. So whatever they weren’t and had wanted to be, they wanted us to do. From a very young age we were learning both Odishi and classical piano and we had a natural instinct for both. At the same time, we were sucked into the whole mode of learning for the sake of exams. In fact I played at a concert where I fared very poorly. I couldn’t complete what I was playing because I was so nervous. I disappointed my father who was in the audience. I could see his face. At that point I told myself that I refuse to be under that much pressure and decided not to be a classical pianist. It was later when I was around 14 that I met a lady called Fauzia Marikar who taught me to love music and re-routed me. I started to analyse classical piano, appreciate and realise that it’s not about exams. It also made me want to pursue music studies for which I went to York University in Toronto.

The thought of filmmaking never crossed your mind?

I did go through a phase where I liked all the arts. I used to paint, I wanted to dance and I loved foreign films because of Baba but filmmaking never came up. On the contrary my sister was interested. She writes scripts, has assisted my father and writes lyrics for me but I had nothing to do with filmmaking. Baba was encouraging of whatever I chose to do but he had told me, ‘Remember, when you don’t have anything, you’ll have music’. Now I can tell he was right.

Female music composer/director is so rare. Were you challenged or inspired to become one?

Super inspired. It was after I started going to Mrs Marikar that I discovered that thing within me. It was like Archimedes screaming in the bathroom ‘Eureka!’ Very suddenly I discovered I could create music. Before going to Toronto I had to prepare some sample compositions for admissions. It was a discovery when I was spending a lot of alone time with the piano. I went on to major in classical piano along with composition, history and theory. There were a lot of female music students in class who later went into teaching or performing but there were hardly any into composing. When I decided to make this a career, a lot of people warned me that it wasn’t a safe choice. Towards the end of my graduation I had been hired by film students to compose for their degree film and I found great joy in it.

Do you remember the first piece of music you wrote?

At the age of eight or nine. A silly little thing on the rhyme A flea and a fly in the flue. I played it on the piano and wrote out the notation.

You came back and chose to work in Bombay. Could you relate to the Bollywood sensibility in music?

My mother was unwell. I came back to India thinking I would return to Toronto but that never happened because of the course of events (Alokananda lost her mother the same year). I moved to Bombay with the hope of working in music but not knowing where I’d fit in. Also, there was this strong sense of not being influenced by Baba. It would be an honour to work with him but oi chhaya te aami kaaj kortey parina. I had to make it on my own. And to be honest there was no influence of him in Bombay at all. Amit Trivedi did not know who my father was for the longest time.

How did Amit Trivedi happen to take you under his wings?

In Toronto I had watched Aamir and the music really stuck with me. Till then I wasn’t too fond of all the music that was happening in India. I liked (A.R.) Rahman and after him it was Amit Trivedi whose music I really connected with. On getting to Bombay I just cold-called him and after two or three text messages, he replied. He was very interested in the fact that I had studied classical music and felt I would bring something new to the table. So I met him, played him some of my music and started working. I assisted him on Udaan, Chillar Party, No One Killed Jessica, Aisha. It was quite ruthless actually because I was trained in a different idiom. In Bombay everything is deadline oriented, a lot of mass music is created and everything is sequenced via computer not acoustic instruments. I never knew how to use these softwares so I was left alone in a sequencing room where I had to figure out how to program. I was also the only woman doing programming and there was nothing like being let off easy or early because I was a girl. Everyone is very easily replaceable in Bombay, so I tried my best to stay on and work late every night for nine months. I didn’t land in Bombay on my feet, landed on my back so I had to do everything in order to get up.

Bombay is already saturated with many talented composers doing experimental work. To top that, do you find a gender gap when it comes to getting work or people taking you seriously?

Not in terms of getting work but there are certain drawbacks of being a girl. We’re overtly sensitive. There are many things I wouldn’t be able to brush off that a guy is able to. I’m trying to grow a thick skin. I get very bothered when people are rude, don’t follow a method or don’t get back. I’m trying to develop my people skills because film music after all is a business. I’ve never felt discriminated but as a girl there is a bit of discomfort when you’re always, only surrounded by men. It’s a very male-dominated industry where men know a lot about the sound aspect. My roots are still acoustic but I’m learning the technological ropes. My medium of composition has become non-classical. I don’t notate anymore. I sit in front of the keyboard and doodle. I also realise that the process is very unromantic. Not like you’re drinking wine and coming up with grand melodies. Sometimes it’s as mechanical as sitting for hours with a cup of tea. I keep a recorder with me at all times. Sometimes in the middle of sleep or a meal I might think of a melody.

When did you go solo?

I started getting a lot of Marathi film offers but Shala and Fandry really stuck with me because of the brilliant scripts. Since I’ve grown up on foreign films, reading subtitles and relating to a film of a different language or culture comes naturally. Both Shala and Fandry required very classical background scoring, which is usually never taken as a separate entity in Indian films. Shala won a National Award and the music was heavily appreciated and Fandry won top prizes at the Mumbai International Film Festival and in New York. Fandry has opened doors for me in a way that a lot of people who had never heard of my music, called me. So let’s see where it takes me.

Are you only concentrating on films and a particular style or do you want to try out whatever comes your way?

I’ve done some minor advertising work but my focus is films. Initially I was very uptight about wanting to do background score. I used to think ‘Oh I’m a classical pianist and I’ll only do classical scores’, then I realised it’s nothing to be proud of because I’m not doing enough. I need to reach out and I’m absolutely open to everything now. I’ve created a bank of songs. For example, I’m very interested in Spanish horror films so I connected with one such filmmaker.

How would you describe your own style?

Very inspired by the classical idiom — harmonising melodies and having melody stick out as the protagonist. But I want to be experimental too. I’ve recently been toying with electronic music. My forte is to come up with interesting motifs on piano.

What does your father feel about your career choice now?

I think he’s still upset about me not being a classical pianist. He still wishes I was in Albert Hall with an audience of 50,000 giving me a standing ovation. In fact he sent my piano to Bombay very recently. In a way it’s good because I can now start teaching and stay in touch with classical piano.

Do you seek your father’s counsel?

He gives me very traditional advice, which I always don’t follow. I have my own method to my madness. I seek his counsel more on the business side and practical life advice.

You’ve done music for some of his projects. Advantages and disadvantages of father-daughter working together?

The minuses come first because I’m a daughter first and then a fan of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, the filmmaker. He has a lot of expectations and there’s no cutting me any slack. He’s even made me redo an entire film album at the last minute from scratch. So apart from a pressure of understanding what he wants there’s personally a pressure that people will talk: ‘Oh she’s Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s daughter, that’s why she is getting work in her father’s films. Must be super easy for her.’ In fact it’s just the opposite. All the work I’ve got in Bombay has been independent of any association with him. On the plus side, it’s a great honour because his films are brilliant pieces of work to score for.

Composers you admire most?

Internationally Thomas Newman and in India A.R. Rahman, Amit (Trivedi), Ilaiyaraaja and M.M. Kreem.

Your favourite film scores?

American Beauty, Her, The Last of the Mohicans and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight.

When in Calcutta, we are likely to find you….

Eating. I hate Bombay food. So you’ll find me at Peter Cat, Mocambo, Flurys, Shiraz, Tangra. Calcutta for me is a giant nostalgia. Coming back here roots me, grounds me. I refuel my balanced state of mind in Calcutta. I also find myself working better here.

What’s on your plate right now?

A proper mainstream Bollywood film, a Hindi independent film and a Marathi film. But I can’t name any because I’m yet to sign the contract. That’s an instruction from Baba (laughs)!


Who: Alokananda Dasgupta

Studied: At Calcutta Girls’ High School, English Literature at St. Xavier’s College and Music at York University, Toronto

Currently lives in: Bombay

Claim to fame: Music director for award-winning Marathi films Fandry and Shala, Hindi film B.A. Pass, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Trayodoshi/Quartet, Anwar ka Ajab Kissa and Woh

Fave sound: Water drops

A fave film by your father: Chorachor

A song on loop: Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren