Having completed 18 years in the Hindi film industry with over 300 songs, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are not your typical Bollywood composers. Despite being associated with some of the biggest names in the business, they have managed to stay away from the “hits and flops” dynamics of the industry.
“Honestly, even if we are right on top or there are no releases for two years, it doesn’t affect us,” says Shankar Mahadevan. So their comeback — with two consecutive successful albums Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB, for which they won the National Film Award) and 2 States, after a relatively quiet two years — will be an unfair way of looking at the trio’s personal journey. In between Zindagi Na Milegi Na Dobara (2011) and BMB (2013), they did a number of offbeat projects such as the animation film Delhi Safari and a film on the Chittagong uprising, Chittagong (2012).
It’s this spirit, within the framework of Hindi cinema, that forms their essence. It comes from their varied backgrounds — Shankar’s inventiveness as a vocalist in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, Loy Mendonsa and Ehsaan Noorani’s indie roots as guitarists. The refreshing change in the language of Hindi film music they ushered in with Dil Chahta Hai (2001) may have been inconsistent over the years, but there is no denying their honesty as musicians. “The most important thing is to have your own identity and originality,” says Shankar, “What may be good may not be successful, and vice versa.”
The title song of Kill Dil, their latest album, is both. An irresistible concoction of Spaghetti Western music and a “buddy duet” fashioned like old school Hindi film style playback singing, it segues into a grungy, rock mode in its hook. And the title song, which was meant to capture the spirit of the film, emerged purely out of improvisation. “The idea came up with the guitar playing style of Ennio Moreconi (composer of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Loy did the ‘wow wow’ vocals. It’s when we started working with the vocal melody that Shankar thought of the Kishore Kumar kind of yodelling, and it became truly eclectic,” says Ehsaan.
The music in Kill Dil was a result of working with two of their favourite collaborators Shaad Ali and Gulzar. The three get back together after two solid albums in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007) and Bunty Aur Babli (2005). “Shaad’s musical sensibilities match our own and he’s one of the guys we connect with. He has a strong sense of Indian classical music and is ready to experiment. He is desi but in a cool way,” says Shankar. They have taken “maximum advantage” of Gulzar’s presence by using him as a sort of sutradhaar reciting a couple of lines in four songs of the album. “It binds the album together,” says Loy, “We want to do wholesome albums, that work as one”.
The scene is a bit like fashion trends, agrees Shankar, but the trio doesn’t seem to adhere to them unless required. Kill Dil brings back a few yesteryear singers such as Sonu Nigam and Udit Narayan even as it has place for young voices such as Arijit Singh and Siddharth Mahadevan. The composer’s next includes Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Mirza, where they work with Gulzar again, Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, Nikhil Advani’s next, Rock On 2 and two Marathi films, among others.
Irrespective of the changes within the Hindi film music scene, the trio remain unaffected by their all-inclusive approach. “In many ways it has become like a commodity. Good things fizzle out, mediocre things become big hits, but just for a couple of months. We strive for longevity,” says Ehsaan. “The sonic quality of songs have really gone up, but I wish there was more depth in the melodies,” says Shankar.