Article Hindi

The sound of music in Vishal Bhardwaj's films – Birthday special

A filmmaker who started out as a music composer, Vishal Bhardwaj uses compositions and theme sounds as an integral part of his films to build scenes. On the actor's 52nd birthday (4 August 1965), we take a look at how the director has managed to enrich even the adaptations of Shakespeare with music.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Shriram Iyengar

In an interview with the Hindustan Times newspaper in 2015, director Vishal Bhardwaj mentioned Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) as the film that drove him 'mad'. He said, "In 1996, during a travelling film festival, a number of my friends, including me and Hansal [Mehta], went to watch Pulp Fiction. We all went mad with the way Tarantino had messed up the timeline in the film."

The timeline was not the only thing that left an impact on Bhardwaj. The film's music did, too. In 2009, when Bhardwaj released Kaminey, the trailer contained all the elements of a Tarantino film — gore, cuss words, quirky characters. But what stood out were the familiar strains of the title track 'Dhan Te Nan', which paid homage to the theme music of Pulp Fiction.

As a director, Bhardwaj has pushed boundaries with his adaptation of Shakespeare in films like Maqbool (2004), Omkara (2006), and Haider (2014). He has also borrowed from literature within the borders in films like Makdee (2002), The Blue Umbrella (2005) and 7 Khoon Maaf (2011).

While literature forms the meat and bones of Bhardwaj's films, its soul often comes through music. For someone who began his film career as an assistant music director, Bhardwaj has an innate understanding of the relationship between music and emotions in Indian cinema.

In most of his films, music acts as the characters' inner voices, speaking when the characters are silent.

Sample this scene from Omkara, when Saif Ali Khan's Langda Tyagi (Iago) warns Deepak Dobriyal's Rajju that Omkara is stealing his girl. As Tyagi goes from friendly to frightening, the slow strain of a whistle mutates into an ominous military march, emphasizing his words in the scene.

The reverse of it is found in another scene, when the same characters are involved in another conversation. This time, the music starts playing when Rajju turns the table on Tyagi, mocking him for his impotence against Omkara's power.

This time though, the swagger is absent. Bhardwaj tames it to a motif, with mournful violins playing out Langda Tyagi's growing envy.

Bhardwaj is a protege of writer-director Gulzar, a frequent collaborator, and uses music to add emphasis and atmosphere to his scenes. However, the music is never intended to upstage the dialogues in the scene. As someone who admires Shakespeare and Ghalib, it is easy to see why the director maintains a safe distance between his music and words.

In Maqbool, the director showed the first signs of his literary intelligence by adapting Shakespeare's cursed Scottish play, Macbeth, to the ganglands of Mumbai. In this scene, where Pankaj Kapur's powerful ganglord puts a pesky politician in his place, the music remains invisible throughout the dialogue. It bursts out synchronously with the violence of Kapur's don, and then lingers through the rest of the scene to underline his presence.

At the New York Indian Film Festival in 2015, the director spoke about the importance of music in his films. He said, "In India, people may forget the film, but if a song becomes popular, they will always remember it. In fact, people may forget the actors but not the song. We are so culturally rooted in music and dance. And my bread and butter for my physical body and soul is music."

Perhaps this common ground of music is also present in the director's personal life. He is married to Rekha Bhardwaj, a fabulous singer trained in Hindustani classical music.

The soundtracks of films like Omkara, 7 Khoon Maaf, or Haider are proof of Vishal Bhardwaj's ability to manipulate music as a situational tool. In Haider, the entire song of 'Bismil' replaced the Shakespearean 'mousetrap' play to allow Shahid Kapoor's Hamlet to confront his uncle.

Or the use of 'Beedi Jalayile', a raunchy desi number, as the pivotal moment that sets Omkara on the path of doom.

To say that Bhardwaj uses such musical props only in his Shakespearean tragedies would be wrong. In 7 Khoon Maaf, he transformed the Russian folk song 'Kalinka' to create the signature song for Susanna. A frenzied dance number, it highlights Susanna's ability to seduce people and rouse them to a frenzy while underlining her own free-spirited nature.

His recent Rangoon (2017) featured Kangana Ranaut whipping up a storm with 'Bloody Hell', another signature track for her character in the film.

Apart from the character's signatures, the director uses music as a crucial part of his film's finale. In Kaminey, the director's own Pulp Fiction tribute, he transforms the climactic moment with a rock theme. The building violence of the music follows the erupting violence on screen.

With credits as composer for films Maachis (1996), Satya (1998) and the television animated series The Jungle Book, Bhardwaj has displayed a repertoire of film soundtracks that have left an impact. Having turned director, he has slowly evolved to create films that seamlessly integrate music into his stories.