Q&A with composer Amit Trivedi on ‘Udta Punjab’

June 1, 2016

In nearly a decade of composing for Hindi films, Amit Trivedi has kept his music fresh and evolving. A self-confessed fan of A. R. Rahman, Trivedi’s scores for “Kai Po Che“, “Ishaqzaade” and Dev D have found him plenty of fans in Bollywood.

But when it came to composing for Abhishek Chaubey‘s “Udta Punjab”, a film about a rock singer addicted to narcotics, Trivedi said he had to be extra cautious.

He spoke to Reuters about that process, why he doesn’t want “corruption” in his songs, and why creativity should come with social responsibility.

amittrivedi3Q: What was your brief for ‘Udta Punjab’?
A: The film is based on this character called Tommy Singh. He is a singer and rapper. The entire music had to be told through his journey and character. So we had to create an album which is trippy, edgy and he is a singer from Punjab in the film. There are many singers in Punjab who sing and rap and he couldn’t be sounding like any of them. He had to sound different. His personality is hard core. He is always high and using profanity every second minute. What kind of songs would he write? We had to think of all that when composing.

Q: Is it easier when the film is about a musician or music, does it make your job easier?
A: No, in fact, it is tougher. You have to speak his language. I have to get into his head. And Tommy Singh is out there, in every way. There is no filter. So obviously, his songs will reflect that attitude. But it is a challenge because I have to make sure it doesn’t offend anyone – the media, censors, the aam janta (general public). We had to make sure some filters were put.

Q: How do you do that?
A: You have to be conscious of it. You have a social responsibility too. Definitely, we have freedom of speech, but there is not a line drawn. A lot of things have happened, and there has been a divided house – whether it was the AIB roast or even the recent Lata Mangeshkar incident. Some people found it cool, others thought it was bullshit. It is kind of warped, this idea of freedom of expression – are we supposed to express freely or not. There is no yardstick.

amittrivedi2Q: As a creative person, how does that affect you?
A: If this guy (Tommy Singh) keeps using all kinds of bad words in the film and if that comes in the song, I am taking too much liberty of being a creative person. Somewhere, I also have a social responsibility. When I hear kids singing “chaar botal vodka” (the lyrics of a popular Punjabi song), I don’t feel good about it. That is why I have to draw the line somewhere. And you will always have a divided house. There were people who loved the roast and laughed their guts out. I thought it was cool too. But there are people who wanted it banned.

Q: Is it better then to err on the side of caution?
A: I don’t want to offend anyone. As we speak, you know the film is on the edge (referring to Udta Punjab’s trouble with India’s censor). Even when it comes out, people will say, why should we talk about drugs and addiction. Others will argue that these stories need to be told – they are happening in your backyard. These things will happen till the whole country evolves. Shellee, who wrote the lyrics for this film was an active part of the censor board committee for five years. So I had a censor right there. Every time I wanted to go overboard, he would stop me and say ‘this will get cut’ or ‘this will never pass’. We had to write reams and reams of pages of lyrics and music. We had to filter and cut down and then select the most politically correct ones and put that out.

Q: Is this new for you? Have you had to do it before?
A: It is not new. We’ve faced this before too. In “Aiyyaa“, there was song called “What to do”. I was against it, Amitabh (Bhattacharya, lyricist and Trivedi’s long time collaborator) was against it, but the director wanted it. There was sexual moaning and all kinds of things happening in that song. Thankfully, that part didn’t come out and people don’t know about it. But that’s where Amitabh and I decided that we have to be cautious. Whatever we put out has an impact on society and we have to be careful about that.

amittrivediQ: Does this caution hamper your creative process?
A: It is a personal choice – Just because Tommy Singh keeps [using abusive language] in the entire film, I will not want that corruption in my song. It is something in my personality. I remember during one award function, when Rahman sir had come up to accept an award for “Pappu can’t dance saala” and he apologized for the word saala in the song (saala means ‘brother-in-law’ in Hindi, but is also a slang word used as an insult). I mean, he apologized for saala and we are crossing other boundaries here.

Q: But doesn’t this hamper the way you compose for your films?
A: No, I don’t think so. There are smart ways of saying it.

Q: Like ‘Bhaag D K Bose‘?
A: Yes, exactly. That was smart.

Q: But a film like ‘Udta Punjab’ is steeped in reality – all the things you want to avoid in your songs are actually happening in real life, and therefore in the film. Isn’t it a grey area?
A: Absolutely, it is a grey area. There were lines in “Udta Punjab” that we removed at the last minute. If they had come out, Varun (Grover, lyricist) and I would have been in jail right now. Or some Mahila Morcha (women’s organization) … My studio would have been broken by now. Who wants to get into all that? We decided not to push ourselves too much. The same thing can be said in a different way. So let’s keep it that way.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter at @shilpajay and Tony at @TonyTharakan. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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