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Interview Assam Hindi

Appreciation from the audience matters more than awards, says Anurag Saikia

The singer-composer from Assam speaks about his equation with director Anubhav Sinha, his love for Assamese folk music and his upcoming projects.

Suyog Zore

Singer-composer Anurag Saikia, one of the youngest music directors to win a National award, for Yugadrashta, a non-feature film, is riding high following the success of his melodies like 'Ek Tukda Dhoop' from Thappad (2020). In his short career so far, the 32-year-old has touched many milestones. 

His father, Dr Anil Saikia, is known for promoting Assamese folk music and was conferred the Pratima Barua Pandey Memorial Award in 2011 for his contribution towards the preservation and popularization of the folk culture and music of Assam. His mother, Dipali Dutta Saikia, is an All India Radio artiste. So it was natural that Sakia developed an inclination towards Assamese folk music from childhood.

Saikia has composed music for a few Assamese films, for which he has also won many awards. The singer-composer moved to Mumbai in 2011 and started working on albums and films. He has received praise from both the masses and the classes for his compositions in films like Karwaan (2018), Mulk (2018) and, most recently, Thappad (2020).

Anurag Saikia spoke at length with Cinestaan.com about his musical journey. Excerpts:

It seems you have a good equation with Anubhav Sinha. You have composed music for his last three films.

Yes, I think I'm really lucky that I have been part of Sinha sir’s films, at least from Mulk (2018) to Article 15 (2019) to Thappad (2020). I have always been a fan of his musical sensibility, from his first film Tum Bin (2001) to Ra.One (2011). His musical sense is very different and very melodious.

It’s a blessing for me that I’m working for him. When a director is a musical person, it becomes easy for the composer. Since he knows exactly what he wants, he brings out the best from both the composer and the lyricist. So it has been a great journey working with Anubhav Sinha sir.

All the three Anubhav Sinha films you have worked on dealt with different social issues. How did you approach your compositions?

Mulk, Article 15 and our recent collaboration, Thappad, have different themes and deal with different social problems and that's why Anubhav Sir helped me a lot, especially during the briefings. The way he narrates the story, you instantly understand what he wants and it makes your job easier. I personally do lots of research, like for Mulk I researched on qawwali.

I come from Assam and we don't have a qawwali tradition in our state. So to understand the nuances of the genre, I visited many dargahs where people sing qawwalis, especially the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi, and spoke to various people.

I did the same thing for Article 15. But for Thappad, I did something that came naturally from my heart as I personally connected with the story. 'Hayo Rabba' from Thappad is a folk song originally sung by Reshmaji from Pakistan. I have grown up listening to folk music. Thappad is something that truly came from my heart with the help of our lyricist Shakeel Azmi and Anubhav Sinha sir.

What is your general process of composing? Does it change with each film or remains constant?

You can't strictly use the term 'process' to describe it. But when I work for films, it’s a different thing because I go with the story, the vision of the director. But when I compose singles, I do something that comes naturally from my emotions, from my own life.

Some music directors compose the tune first and then get the lyricist to write lyrics. Do you prefer that or do you prefer to compose on the lyrics?

I work both ways. For instance, with 'Ek Tukda Dhoop', the composition was done first, while for 'Hayo Rabba' I had to compose on the lyrics. In fact, for the Mulk qawwali, the lyrics were written first. It was the same for 'Heartquake' from Karwaan (2018). The lyrics were written first by the director, Akarsh Khurana. So, I’m okay working both ways. Ultimately, the song and the outcome should be good.

How much has Assamese folk music influenced you?

My parents, Dr Anil Saikia and Dipali Dutta Saikia, are known for promoting folk music in our state. Coming from such a family, Assamese folk music was a huge influence on me and my music. My state is full of tribes and I have grown up listening to tribal music. Then there is my family, where music is practised like a prayer.

Were you disheartened that Karwaan (2018) didn't get the recognition it deserved at award shows despite receiving a lot of recognition from music connoisseurs.

Look, I started my journey by winning a National award in 2013. After that I worked in Assam for a few years where I also won a few awards. But in the last few years I have learned that awards are just for that moment. You enjoy that moment of glory, you post it on social media, get 500 likes, and that’s it. It doesn’t help you in the long run. It’s the audience and the people for whom you are working, their appreciation which will help you in the long run, not awards.

But it’s also true that when you receive an award,  you get the satisfaction that people are recognizing your work. But for someone like me, who has come from such a small town, composing music for Hindi films is in itself an award.

You have also composed background scores for films and web-series. What is that process? How different is it from composing songs?

I have a theatre background and have travelled with lots of drama groups to various theatre festivals in different parts of the country, like the National School of Drama's Bharat Rang Mahotsav and Jashn-e-Bachpan, and to places like Shantiniketan.

I really love doing the background score because when I was doing music for plays, it came naturally to me. It’s a different world altogether because while giving background music, you have to say things that are not there on the screen. There are no dialogues in some scenes, so you have to express that scene and its emotions only through the music. I think it’s very challenging.

It is more challenging than composing songs because when you are doing a background score you are into the film. I still remember I scored for Anurag Basu’s TV series, Stories By Rabindranath Tagore. I think that is my most favourite series. I got to learn a lot from Anurag Basu sir and, of course, Tagore, who according to me is one of the finest geniuses India has ever produced.

Do you insist on reading the script beforehand?

Yes, I insist on reading the full script. I also take the narration from the director. But yes, reading the script is very important, because that’s how you understand the vision of the director and the writer. And you know exactly what is going to happen and what the film demands from you. Sometimes, due to lack of time, you don’t get to read the script because the film has already been shot. But I personally do prefer to read the script first.

I noticed that in your short career you have never repeated a singer for your songs. How do you choose your singers?

Actually, the singer is like the face of the song. So you have to be very particular while selecting the singer. Sometimes suggestions come from the production house or the director. But in my case, I have been lucky that I have been given the freedom to at least record with singers of my choice. More than 90% of the time, the person who has recorded the scratch for me ends up singing the final track. It may be Raghav Chaitanya, Suvarna or Sharvi. They had sung the scratch and ended up singing the final version.

When I start composing, I think about the voice and compose it in that way. I also experiment with a lot of singers until I am satisfied with the result. If I’m convinced, I request my director and producer to go with that voice. They also trust me and my ability and don’t interfere much.

You have also scored for web-series like Gullak and Cheesecake. What was that experience like?

Even though it's a web series, my approach and effort are the same. I never differentiate between web-series and films. But I really want to say that I have worked with a lot of people, but working with TVF is something different. They are all super-talented people. Most of them are IITians and very sensible. So the experience you get working with them is really good. And it's also a very fun environment. I have done Gullak and Cheesecake with them. There are a few more projects in the pipeline. That way, my web journey has been really interesting. 

The Gullak background music had a 1990s feel to it. How did you come up with the idea?

Director Amrit Raj Gupta, editor Amit Kulkarni and I, we are all kids from the 1990s. So we came up with the idea that let's do something that was mostly heard in the 1990s. That’s why, instead of using synthetic sounds, we used acoustic string instruments like the mandolin, dutara and ukulele, which were mostly used in the 1990s. Though the series is not set in the 1990s, the music kind of reminds you of that period.

Is there a difference between album and film music?

Yes, there is. First of all, you can do whatever you want when it comes to the album. You choose the genre, you can choose the story. But a film is different. Here you are bound by the script. Character, story, screenplay, you have to take all these things into consideration while composing music for the film. But when it comes to albums, you are a free bird.

What is that one genre of music you want to explore now?

There are many, actually. Country music, orchestral music, there are lots of things to explore. I have just started my career and I hope that I get to explore all the genres of music in my coming projects.

What are your future projects?

There are many things happening. I am doing lots of singles which will be released soon. There are a few web-series but I’m not at liberty to share details yet. I hope this year is going to be really special for me. I pray that I can continue to work hard as I did for my past projects.

What are you doing during the coronavirus lockdown now?

It’s a tough time for the entire world. So we are all at home. I have stopped going to the studio, meeting new people or even taking on new projects. At this moment, I’m watching a lot of films and listening to new music. Most importantly, after the release of each of my projects, thousands of young people send me cover versions of my songs. So what I’m doing right now is listening to all those covers from my latest film Thappad, especially the 'Ek Tukda Dhoop' number. I’m trying to reply to them as well as trying to figure out how we can develop as a nation and work in the future.

How has the lockdown affected the music industry?

It has affected everything. Not just the music industry, but other important institutions like education and business as well. Like I said, it’s a very tough time that we are all going through now. And I hope and pray we will come out of it unharmed. But for that, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to strictly follow the instructions issued by the government and take necessary precautions.

What do you think about the 'janta curfew' on 22 March and people coming out on to the streets to celebrate?

I did support the 'janta curfew', but I think the message was not sent out properly. That’s why people were confused and came out on the roads to celebrate. You can’t totally blame the people since everyone is not educated and news-friendly.

Also, India is such a problematic country, with so much unhappiness, that people find pleasure in celebrating such small things. That’s why we have a tendency to go out and celebrate. This is really a tough time and I hope we come out of this situation soon.