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Interview Bengali

I try my best to use live music, within the limitations of budget and time: Prabuddha Banerjee

Banerjee, among Bengali cinema's top music directors today, speaks about his career and why he loves composing background scores.

Roushni Sarkar

Prabuddha Banerjee, one of the most sought after music directors in Bengali cinema today, began his musical career as lead guitarist of the Bangla band Nagar Philomel.

A brilliant student, Banerjee had initially chosen a conventional career path, becoming a mechanical engineer and taking up a job, but his passion for music eventually prevailed and led him on to the path he is treading today, with a fair amount of respect and recognition.

Banerjee made his debut as music director with Goutam Halder’s Bhalo Theko (2003) and has since scored the music for over 20 films, including Ekti Tarar Khonje (2010), Phoring (2013), Nagarkirtan (2019), Jyeshthoputro (2019) and Konttho (2019).

He has four more releases lined up for later this year or early 2020. Banerjee has designed the sound for Arijit Biswas’s Surjo Prithibir Charidike Ghore and scored the music for two more films of director duo Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy and for Nazarband, a Hindi film by Suman Mukhopadhyay.

In an interview with Cinestaan.com, Banerjee narrated his journey from independent musician to in-demand film music director and also spoke of his preferences and priorities while scoring for a film. Excerpts:

How was your musical life before you stepped into the film industry? Were you into it since childhood?

Yes, since I was four years old! I started learning Western classical violin when I was five and continued till I was in class X. I also used to play the harmonium, the harmonica and the piano. It was mandatory in Calcutta School of Music to learn to play the piano along with the violin.

When I took admission in Jadavpur university to study engineering, I began listening to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan more. They inspired me to learn to play the guitar. I borrowed the instrument from a friend and started playing. I am a self-taught guitarist.

In 1983, one of my friends formed the band Nagar Philomel. They were looking for me as a violinist, but their guitarist and my classmate Amyt Dutta left the band to dedicate himself to jazz, blues and rock music. Hence, I joined as a guitarist and harmonica player.

In 1984, they launched an album and that was my first experience of recording. In 1985, I got into a job and I could then primarily pursue music personally. Sometimes I would do a few shows on American protest songs.

I continued with my job for 18 years. Then, in 2003, I decided to quit and pursue music full time. It was a massive risk for me because all my savings went into building my house. I struggled initially, then gradually got sucked into the advertising business. Now it is 2019 and recently I have tried to do fewer ad projects while the number of film projects is increasing gradually. My passion is for film background scores and I am trying to focus in that direction.

Which was your first film project?

I first composed and did the background score for Bhalo Theko in 2003. That film was a debut project of many artistes, including director Goutam Halder, actress Vidya Balan and actor Parambrata Chatterjee.

Cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay is a dear friend. He first approached me to do the music for a documentary called Bell Metal And Other Stories in 1996. I used to often discuss with him regarding my music career. In 2003, he approached me with Bhalo Theko as he was the cinematographer of the film. I was quite excited to get an offer sitting at home, without any self-promotion.

Initially, Madhuri Dixit was supposed to be cast in the film. However, she was carrying then and Vidya Balan was cast instead.

See, there is no formal training for film background score. I am a film buff and I watch films from across the world. I did not get into programmed music and rather used various live instruments, did notations and conducted the recordings in a very classical way.

I got satisfaction when I received the Filmfare award for Phoring in 2013. It also had an entirely live music arrangement. Till now, I try my best to use live music unless the film demands a lot of digital sound.

What do you think are the negative aspects of programmed music?

Primarily it loses out on the human touch. Secondly, using samples in digital recording takes away its exclusivity to a great extent. At the same time, it is not possible to write down notations, arrange musicians, and conduct recordings always due to lack of time and budget. Suppose I want to use a 70-piece orchestra, or even a 40-piece orchestra. I will hardly be provided with the required budget. Also, there is no studio floor here in Kolkata to accommodate so many musicians. For that, I will have to go to Chennai or Mumbai. Also, sound engineers of this generation are not trained to record in an analogue setup. This is the trend of dubbing. The use of programmed music has increased a lot and there is also dependability in it. The entire dynamic depends on film economics.

You have been trained in Western music and gained experience in it since childhood. How do you contextualize your experience and knowledge while scoring Bengali film music?

I don’t think it is too difficult a process. Proper training in any fundamental form of music, be it Eastern or Western, classical or jazz, makes it easy to adapt into different contexts. I feel film background score has an independent language. It only has to be appropriate. A lot of people say my music is very elementary and I create sounds which can belong to any country.

Training in Western classical can definitely add to the execution, in arranging tonality and harmony lines. Satyajit Ray used the sitar, sarod, flute, cello, various types of instruments in his films. He was also primarily trained in Western music, yet he would create a sound that would be exclusive and independent enough to be customized and appropriate for his films.

In Nagarkirtan, there were many kirtan songs, but the background score was quite international.

I was conscious not to use any element of kirtan in the background score. Nagarkirtan is not about kirtan. The story of the film is universal. It relates to a burning issue that has led to a constitutional change in our country. My prime focus was to convey the emotions portrayed and featured by the director. In fact, there is a lot of Latin American and Italian influence in terms of the instruments used in Nagarkirtan. I have used the bandoneon, ukulele and esraj as well.

You have worked with various directors. With whom does your musical thought process synch the most?

I think I have been very fortunate in this regard. Both the clients from the film industry as well as from the ad world have mostly approached me with certain liberties. Kaushik [Ganguly] was extremely busy during the making of Nagarkirtan. He asked me to watch the film and the next time he visited me, I was done with scoring one third of the film. When I asked for inputs from him, he gave me absolute freedom as he liked my work entirely. He did not want to direct me. In the entire process, he only asked me to change the music in a single sequence where he did not want my interpretation. He did not go into the subject of whether it was good music or bad music. I quite admired the way he considered my interpretation but did not want it in terms of the holistic view of the film as a director.

Also, Shiboprosad Mukherjee, Nandita Roy, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Indranil Roy Chowdhury gave me a lot of liberty. I generally discuss with the directors and do a scratch of the basic sound palette of the music. The rest of the path gets defined.

I had an extraordinary experience while scoring the music for Rituparno Ghosh’s documentary Jibansmriti. He wanted a theme which I created and personally loved as well. The first day when he listened to it, he went gaga about it. The next morning when I woke up late, I saw seven or eight missed calls on my phone. When I called him back, he said, “The theme you created yesterday is not good, get rid of it.” I did not ask him the reason and complied with his wish. In my heart, I was quite curious, wondering what made him change his mind.

Then I created another theme and called him up. He called me to his place and prepared a good lunch for me, as he would normally do. I designed the entire music in guitar, but it did not particularly sound like one. He really liked the new theme and confirmed it.

Later, he asked, “Why did you not bother to ask me the reason for rejecting the previous theme?” He was almost complaining about it. “What kind of music director are you to not ask me the reason for rejecting your tune?" he said. "Are you trying to act so professional, bereft of any emotions?”

Then he explained that the theme had a very rich melody. The film was about Rabindranath Tagore and, quite naturally, his songs would dominate the film. The melody-rich independent tune would have diverted the focus of the audience, creating a rift in their mind. He rather chose the theme with a neutral fabric that could support the content and be interspersed with Rabindra sangeet as well.

I think it was a matter of great insight to reject a very good melody for valid reasons.

Are you happy with the recognition you are getting now as a music director?

Any artiste wants recognition. There is a difference between fame and recognition. To get recognition for doing something completely on your own gives you a lot of encouragement and inspiration. It reflects your artistic capabilities, when people love your work and it has nothing to do with fame.

One can be famous in many ways. In the last 16 years, I have learnt that it is not necessary to do good work to become famous. Also, fame is never long-lasting if it is not for the right reasons.

I don’t really bother thinking of the number of films I am doing. I will never compose songs for the sake of making them hit numbers. That would not come to me naturally. If people like my work I will be encouraged; if not, I will keep working on it.

Banerjee (right) with the team of Jyeshthoputro