Ajay-Atul’s score for Sairat is as audacious as its plot

The music of Sairat, the highest-grossing Marathi film until date, is as audacious as its plot and has one of the best crossover scores we’ve heard in years. National Award-winning composers Ajay and Atul talk about finding their rhythm.

Written by Lalitha Suhasini | Mumbai | Updated: May 22, 2016 10:07:42 am
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It’s after work hours on a weekday. At a theatre in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, a reedy young man stands up and breaks into a crazy, convulsive dance, much like what is seen on screen as soon as the boisterous Zingaat, blockbuster Marathi film Sairat’s party song, if you will, begins to play. His friends follow suit and the rest of the audience, surprisingly, does not raise a cry or ask this dancing crew to sit down. Far away in Delhi, everybody’s blasting Zingaat at house parties. Multiplexes in Bengaluru are filled with whoops and claps too. For Ajay and Atul Gogavale, such success has taken its time to arrive. But now, it is theirs for the taking.

As teenagers in Maharashtrian small towns such as Rajgurunagar and Shirur, brothers Ajay and Atul spent hours composing tunes set to poems from their school texts. This was several years before cable TV network and internet connectivity. Tapes — both audio and VCR — were their window to the world of music. The self-taught siblings showed precocious talent and were often asked to perform at school and public gatherings, including Shiv Sena’s first outpost in Pune, in 1984, with party supremo Bal Thackeray in the audience. “We didn’t even know who Balasaheb was or what was happening, but were asked to sing some Shivaji Maharaj powadas (historical ballads),” says Atul, 42, the older of the two, when we meet them at their office in north Mumbai.

Also read: Sairat box office collections: Nagraj Manjule’s movie mints Rs. 65 crore

One evening in 1989, Atul had rounded up an audience and collected money to rent out the VCR for the Kamal Hassan-starrer Appu Raja. “I’ll never forget the music of the film. This was the first soundtrack by Illaiyaraaja that we’d heard,” recalls Ajay, 40. “Until then, I thought music could only make you dance. I never felt that music could make you cry or laugh,” says Atul.

Ajay-Atul’s score for Sairat, Nagraj Manjule’s heartbreakingly real love story set against the backdrop of caste differences, ticks all of these boxes — it makes you laugh, cry and want to fall in love. But most strikingly, it recalls the oeuvre of Ilayaraja. The swooning string arrangements alone are an example of orchestral genius and hark back to Ilayaraja’s ground-breaking soundtracks for Tamil films such as Moondram Pirai, Mouna Ragam and Nooravathu Naal in the Eighties.

Led by a live orchestra comprising 66 musicians, including a 45-member string section, six-piece woodwinds, a 13-member brass section, one harpist and conductor Mark Graham, Sairat’s soundtrack brings together Maharashtrian folk, Celtic tunes and Western classical music. “Who says a musical expression of love set in a village had to be played out only using a dholi or a shehnai?” says Ajay, “We were tired of that and wanted a global sound that was rooted in a local musical form.”

Also read: Meet 15-yr-old Rinku, aka Sairat’s Archie: Maharashtra’s latest film sensation 

So they spent six days in Los Angeles working with the orchestra at the Sony Scoring Stage, a venue where scores for films such as Gone With The Wind, Doctor Zhivago, ET and Toy Story have been brought to life. “We were under the impression that we’re the first Marathi composers to work with this orchestra here, but no other Indian film has been scored at that venue,” says Ajay.

Again, it was Ilayaraja’s music that drew them towards symphonies. “We didn’t know what symphony meant until we heard Ilayaraja’s 1988 album, Nothing But Wind, which he made with Hariprasad Chaurasia. We came across a symphony on the album called Mozart, I love you. We wondered, Ai, yeh Mozart kaun hai (Who is Mozart?),” says Ajay.

Soon after, they found the other greats JS Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. However, none of this knowledge passed muster when it came to finding work in Pune in the Nineties. “The first question that anyone in the industry asked us was who our guru was and what kind of training we had received. When we said that we were self-taught, people would instantly turn their backs on us,” says Ajay.

Soon after school, both brothers did a series of odd jobs — Atul worked as a salesman and a compounder at a doctor’s clinic. “I ironed shirts for 30 paise a piece. I did this for about nine months until my father asked me to stop,” says Ajay. Getting an engineering or medical degree, which is what most of their friends pursued, was unthinkable for the Gogavale family. “Even in those days, we had to pay a couple of lakhs as an admission fee and our father was a government servant in the state revenue department, so he couldn’t afford it,” says Ajay.

What the brothers did convince their parents to do was buy them a keyboard. “It cost close to a lakh and both my parents borrowed money to get us a keyboard. Both Atul and I couldn’t sleep that night thinking that if we didn’t land some work, all this money would go down the drain,” says Ajay.

Around the same time, the Marathi music industry saw a rash of Hindi film remixes. “They would be played at every Ganesh pandal and that really pricked us. We felt divinity deserved respect,” says Ajay. In 2001, turning to Western classical music again, Ajay-Atul composed a symphony-inspired devotional album titled Vishwa Vinayak. The album was well received, but brought in no new work, recalls Ajay. “For two years, we just waited. We told ourselves that we were being tested by Ganesha.”

Back then, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had not yet been formed. The younger Raj Thackeray had time for pursuits other than rabble-rousing politics; he met Ajay-Atul at a music event. “He also likes western classical and really appreciated our album,” says Ajay. It was Thackeray who introduced the brothers to filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who gave them their first film score for Gayab, a supernatural thriller released in 2004. “When Ramuji asked us about our work and we mentioned that we’d only worked on a devotional album, he looked worried. But once we played him Vishwa Vinayak, he began narrating the film’s story. We were puzzled and asked him what he was talking about. Then, he laughed and told us that we were going to compose for Gayab,” says Ajay. Of course, its title track opened with a symphonic-style chorus.

But it took eight years and an item song in the Agneepath remake, featuring Katrina Kaif, for Hindi film audiences to take note of the composers. Pulsing with Maharashtrian folk beats, Chikni Chameli was one of the biggest hits of 2012 and the next year, Ajay-Atul took home the National Award for best music direction for the Marathi film Jogwa, a love story set in rural India that addresses sexual oppression.

Also read: Why Bollywood should be scared of Marathi film ‘Sairat’? 

The brothers have come a long way from being composers strapped for money, and have turned producers for the film Jaundya na Balasaheb, a comedy that is slated to release later this year. “You know how Marathi films run on a small budget and it’s six of us producing the film. We also wanted to produce Sairat,” says Ajay.

Had they produced Sairat, which had collected 60 crore at the time of going to press, the brothers would have struck gold. Audiences across the country can’t seem to get enough of it. Neither can his young children, says Ajay. “But we don’t want them singing these songs outdoors. All my six-year-old son wants to do when he comes back home from school is dance to Zingaat. I let him listen to it once a month.”

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