Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

‘I wondered what would courage sound like’: Tajdar Junaid

The musician on scoring for the Oscar-nominated Writing with Fire, being a sought-after composer for independent cinema, and how wars impact artistes

Tajdar JunaidTajdar Junaid (Credit: Gitartha Goswami)

Mumbai-based Tajdar Junaid, 41, had never envisioned becoming a film composer when he started playing music at the age of 15 in Calcutta. All he wanted to do was play Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin), the song that inspired him to be a musician, and to knock on ace guitarist Amyt Datta’s doors to take him in as a student. Last year, during the lockdown, he composed a single (Reach Out) with old friend Warren Mendonsa/Blackstratblues, both sitting in two countries, “to tell people this (pandemic) will pass”. Mendonsa moved to New Zealand during the pandemic. From buying one of his first electric guitars from Mendonsa to being a part of the latter’s solo project Blackstratblues’ first tour in 2006, the two crossed paths during the Great Indian Rock concert days. Junaid, who’s keen to work with a “favourite” musician, Lucky Ali, has, over the years, bored with just playing the guitar and doing covers, has sauntered into the ashrams of the Bauls of Santiniketan, collaborated with different artistes, picked up myriad sounds, styles and instruments, and transitioned from just an indie musician to also scoring for indie films. This year, the spotlight is on a slew of such films scored by him, one is at the Oscars.

His music is distinctly earthy, exploring cultures and sounds, blending the Argentinian Ronroco with dotara and baul singing, for instance. If it’s local Northeastern sounds in Axone (2019), a film on the racism Northeastern people face in Delhi, it’s the interplay of a major (happy) and minor (sad) note to reflect different emotions around the reality that death is nigh in Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation (2016), set in Varanasi. “Different settings trigger different emotions, which then trigger different sound frequencies,” he says. In Achal Mishra’s Dhuin (2022), the swelling, empathetic music had to establish a “gentle despair, a subtle shade of blue”, of being stuck between dreams and duties, the protagonist (Abhinav Jha) is torn between giving his savings to his father and wanting to leave his city to follow his dreams of becoming an actor. It is helplessness and anger at gender-based violence (stories of domestic violence, marital rape, acid attack) in WOMB: Woman of My Billion (2021), directed by Ajitesh Sharma (who was an assistant director on the Emmy-winning series Delhi Crime, 2019). Both Dhuin and WOMB (premiered in London) showed at Jio MAMI online screenings recently. Or the sound of grit in the Academy Award-nominated Writing with Fire, in which, at the end, the music changes markedly, “the credit music/end title and the end piece of the film is by Ishaan Chhabra (Omerta, Budhia Singh, Shikara), an old friend/collaborator of the filmmakers (Dilli, 2011),” says Junaid, who was associated with the film for over two years since 2018-19, but wasn’t available for that end schedule. His international projects include the Australian The Waiting City (2009), Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President (2014), and the upcoming Isabel Herguera and Gianmarco Serra’s Spanish animation film, Sultana’s Dream, based on Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain’s 1905 feminist utopian story in Bengal. Edited excerpts:

A still from the Oscar-nominated film Writing With Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

How would you define your sound?

I have never been a fan of brackets, genres, or being categorised. In fact, every time that happens, I want to break free in my next project, I want to try something new, which I have not done before. I’m a kid in a toy store, where I’m only exploring what the 12 notes of music has to offer, and then realise there are notes, hidden stories, in between the notes. So, 12 notes give birth to 12 million notes, and I’m looking out for these hidden stories. Same with instruments, this instrument (Ronroco) will have its own purpose in Mukti Bhawan, and serve a different purpose in my album Dastaan (2013), the music from it was used in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film. I want to just fly; I can’t be restricted. It’s great fun to combine different worlds together. I’ve been curious as a musician, and have picked up different schools and styles of music, different instruments, perhaps, that has given me a unique voice which the filmmakers align to. I’m always on the lookout for fearless filmmakers, fearless musicians, to collaborate with people who break boundaries and brackets, people who have something strong to say.

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How different is it to make music for cinema?

For cinema, you have to understand that whatever you have learnt as an artiste, it does not mean a thing if it doesn’t work for the scene. If the scene demands one note, or dissonant chords, you have to let go of your ego and deliver that.

A still from Achal Mishra’s film Dhuin

Tell us about your impressions of Writing with Fire.

When I saw the film, I was flabbergasted. I was like, boy, we have so many complaints, that I have to have a MacBook and a certain brand of guitar to create music, but look at these women, they don’t have electricity at home, yet they have to charge their phones to capture the next day’s news and interviews. It made me think a lot, and respect what I already have. I thought where are Meera and the other Khabar Lahariya journalists summoning this courage from, that despite struggles at home, male toxic energy on the field of work, they go to work and bring the truth, knowing very well that they might run out of funds tomorrow. In a scene, when asked how she keeps going, one of the protagonists, Shyamkali, says, ‘mera dil mujhe hausla deta hai (my heart gives me hope)’. You understand that the human spirit is fragile and yet so resilient.


How did you arrive at the sound for the film? Were any modifications made?

The film doesn’t start off on a hopeful note, so, for the starting music, I thought it best to not start off on a hopeful note. I felt these courageous women have to be shown for what they are. Over the course, I wondered what courage would sound like, musically. If I had to show their despair of not having electricity at home, but having to report to work with phones charged, what would that feeling be? The sound of strong grit, the music came from there.

The film is one of the first instances where I got overly attached to a character and created a very dark theme for the person, to suit his personality. But in hindsight, it was not the right way to approach it. It was too dark, and stuck out. After discussions with (the directors) Rintu (Thomas) and Sushmit (Ghosh), we decided to bring it a couple of notches down to align with the film’s overall score.

A still from Ajitesh Sharma’s film WOMB Woman of My Billion

Have you got offers from Bollywood?

Of course, I have. I’m looking out for exciting scripts that I can align with, if there are songs which are soulful, emotive, emotional, if they convey something to the people.

Russia and Ukraine are at war, artistes are being cancelled, what is the role of art in a world in crisis?

I feel in history, art has always brought people together and tried to soothe the nerves of people. I hope and pray that this insanity in Europe gets over. It has affected me personally, too, my sound engineer is Russian. We were working on Sultana’s Dream. He was in the process of mixing my music, but his software stopped working since the American companies stopped supporting that recording software. He has two daughters and a wife to take care of, but I’m also not able to transfer the fees to him, because the banks don’t allow that now. In yet another instance, in one of my music recording groups, a sound engineer from Kiev (Ukraine) sent a very sad note, he’s walked for 10 days to Portugal, with his wife and his family, and he said, I could only walk away with one microphone, while I have an entire studio with expensive equipment in Kiev. For people from other countries, it’s time to question, are we going, are we being led by our leadership, in the right direction? Is the leadership what we have been promised? So, when artistes make these films, we are questioning society. Whether it’s in India, Ukraine, Russia, or Hawaii, whether it’s Putin, Indira Gandhi or Mozart, what you leave behind is how you’d be remembered, and that’s what matters. I would rather believe in the dreamers than the naysayers.

First published on: 26-03-2022 at 12:48 IST
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