The Fakirs of Banaras

The Fakirs of Banaras

One of India’s foremost bands, Indian Ocean, breaks away from their formula to compose music for Masaan that reflects small-town India’s rooted yet modern vibes.

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Members of Indian Ocean in Varanasi while shooting for a video for Masaan.

When director Neeraj Ghaywan began working on Masaan, Indian Ocean was a natural choice for the film’s music. The film explores the changing face of small-town India in the age of e-commerce and social media even as the traditional “values” continue to live on. This paradox, of an India that is “modern yet rooted”, has been an integral component of the band’s music. “Jamming with the band is like walking into a hostel room. While making music, they discuss a number of ideas, from current affairs to the Theory of Evolution,” says Ghaywan, to whom members of Indian Ocean have been his “college icons”.

Only on occasions do Indian bands compose music for films. Even though Indian Ocean’s filmography is not long, the Delhi-based fusion rock band, has done some impressive work in the past. The band’s debut was Black Friday (2007), which includes their biggest hit so far titled Bandeh. This was followed by the satirical Peepli [Live] (2010) and last year’s documentary on electricity theft, Katiyabaaz (2014).

Their fourth film, Masaan, however, is a step in a new direction as it’s the first feature film by Indian Ocean without two of the key founding members, Asheem Chakravarthy and Susmit Sen. Explains Nikhil Rao, who has replaced lead guitarist Sen and brings his Carnatic and jazz influences to the band’s sound, “Typically, songs by Indian Ocean are long with lyrics that last no more than three minutes. The rest is instrumental with long guitar solos. We couldn’t do that in Masaan where music is vocals-driven and the emphasis has been on creating good lyrics and a hummable tune.”

The difference is obvious in the film’s three tracks. The band does a few other firsts with their latest feature film project. They roped in non-members for vocals (Swanand Kirkire) and also a lyricist (Varun Grover). The film also features Indian Ocean’s first “love song”, Tu kisi rail si, borrowed from Hindi poet Dushyant Kumar’s work. “It took us a few attempts to get it right. Neeraj wanted it to capture the small-town romance, the excitement two people feel when they see each other for the first time before falling in love,” says percussionist and vocalist Amit Kilam.


Negotiating with the two setbacks, of Chakravarty’s untimely death in 2009 and Sen’s exit in 2013 following creative differences, was difficult. There was a lull in between when the band didn’t create anything new, limiting themselves to live performances.

One of the senior members of the band, Kilam admits that “a sameness in our sound” was palpable. Indian Ocean was trapped in a formula it unknowingly created. “For example, we had to have a three-minute guitar solo by Susmit, else a song felt incomplete,” he recounts. But the success of Tandanu (2014) — their last album where they collaborated with other musicians — and working on Masaan, has helped the band find a new direction. “It is a democratic space where exchange of ideas is encouraged. The sound, too, has evolved and is now more light and fresh,” points out Kilam, adding that they are aware that their fans may not like everything the band does. “But we create music that makes us happy; we only hope that the audience will share the sentiment with us,” adds Kilam.

In September, Indian Ocean will take off for a month-long tour of the US. Away from the mainstream, the band continues to thrive and earn new fans through their live shows. The band is also composing the background music for an independent Marathi film on a social issue, titled Silence.