When music composers Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa were working on Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and struggling to finalise its title track, Loy asked its director Nikkhil Advani to meet him for breakfast. When they met, Loy thought of a tune and put it down on the piano soon after. “Ehsaan walked in and added something to it. Shankar added his bit. Before we knew it, the song Kal Ho Naa Ho was ready,” recalls Loy.
Loy believes the essence of every song, book or movie can be captured in one line. “Once you get that one line, you can expand on it,” he says. Ehsaan chips in that they composed Dil Chahta Hai songs in three days. So, making music has been a cakewalk for them? “Not always. A simple song like Where’s the Party Tonight? (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, 2006) took the longest, almost two weeks. Sometimes, the simplest of things can be hard to crack,” says Ehsaan.
Almost 25 years after the music composers, popularly known as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy or simply SEL, joined hands for a successful collaboration, they made their web series debut recently with Bandish Bandits (streaming on Amazon Prime Video). Set in Rajasthan, the 10-episode series follows the story of young Radhe, who is determined to follow in the classical tradition of his grandfather, and Tamanna, a pop sensation, seeking international success. The premise of the show leads to a comprehensive album that features Indian classical music, Kabir’s dohas, thumri, folk songs, pop and electronics, among others.
“Music becomes more beautiful if you expand your horizon, go beyond the barriers. At the end of the day, there are only seven notes. You can’t go beyond that. Every music of ours is a collaboration of musical genres. That’s what we have been doing for the past 25 years,” says Shankar, who was trained in Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions. Ehsaan is a guitarist with a deep understanding of western music, while Loy is a multi-instrumentalist.
Even though they got their first break with the movie Dus in 1996, it was never completed. Their first release was Shool (1999) followed by Mission Kashmir (2000) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001). The trio has worked on several major albums such as Salaam-e-Ishq (2007), Taare Zameen Par (2007), Rock On!! (2008), Wake Up Sid (2009), Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Mirzya (2016), among others.
The album of Bandish Bandits is a fine example of how the varied backgrounds of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy come together to create their kind of music, a beautiful blend of tradition and contemporary. It features Kabir’s doha Sunta Hai and thumris such as Labb Par Aaye. It also has contemporary numbers like Chhedkhaniyaan and Couple Goals. “In a project like this, you get a chance to work on classical and semi-classical music, apart from collaborating with folk musicians of Rajasthan. You can create a modern track and merge it with Indian classical music,” says Shankar. They had finished working on the show much before the lockdown. “Music is very much part of its screenplay,” says Loy. They had to pre-record all the musical pieces including the riyaaz done by a character or a Guru giving lessons before the shoot.
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Does classical music occupy as much space as it should in the mainstream space? “Indian classical music should reach a bigger audience but I don’t think people are letting that happen. Producers and music companies say Indian classical won’t work. That’s not true. In Luck By Chance (2008), we have a classical-based song Sapnon Se Bhare Naina. The use of such music requires the vision of a director and Zoya Akhtar has worked with it beautifully,” says Shankar.
The composers describe their process of creating music as “very organic”. Ehsaan says: “We function more like a band. We sit together with a blank slate and come up with little ideas. Then you see ideas developing at the end of three hours. Sometimes in 15 minutes, you get an entire song.” Filmmakers they work with also enjoy their process. Ehsaan shares that director Shaad Ali recently sent him their photograph taken with Gulzar during the making of Kill Dil (2014) with the message, “I am missing this”.
The lockdown has given them a break from the hectic schedules to reflect and relax. Shankar has been watching old movies and listening to old songs, apart from cooking every day. “I never had the time to take a step back and do nothing. It’s a great feeling when you know you don’t have to do anything tomorrow or the day after,” says Shankar. Loy has been reading and transcribing some music. “We needed some time to focus on what we want to achieve in music,” he says.