If you are a Hindi music fan, then I am sure you have hummed or even sang along to his tunes. Ehsaan Noorani is one part of the master music director trio of Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy (SEL). SEL have composed some of the greatest songs in Hindi cinema, including our pick for best song in 2009: ‘Iktara’ from Wake Up Sid. The trio always try to better what they have done before and have succeeded outstandingly in their compositions for My Name is Khan. It is, according to Ehsaan, more of a background score, not your typical filmi soundtrack, since there are no lip synch songs or item numbers. Not what you would expect to go with a Karan Johar directed, Shah Rukh Khan – Kajol starring film, but the story of My Name is Khan is not what you would expect either, and the music matches the mood and the feeling of the film perfectly. I got the chance to have a chat with Ehsaan about the music of My Name is Khan – have a look at what he said.
What was the brief that Karan Johar gave you for the music?
Well, actually there was no particular brief. He just read us the script of the film and we basically got an idea of what kind of music the film required. Of course, he and we were on the same wavelength. We wanted to keep the music very simple, very lyrical and melodic, without getting into any item songs or forcing in a club song or anything of that sort.
Tell us about composing the music – how did you guys work together.
The first song that we composed was ‘Sajda’, which was the song Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sung. It was a very smooth process. We just sat in the studio with Karan and you know, it all fell into place.
So tell us about the other songs do you have a favorite?
I like this song ‘Noor-e-Khuda’, which has been sung by Shankar, Adnan Sami and Shreya Ghosal. That is a very interesting song, you know. It has got a young, very acoustic feel to it. Actually the entire album is a really nice mellow album, but I guess ‘Noor-e-Khuda’ would be a favorite.
The music certainly has a different vibe and feel and sound. What have you done differently in MNIK?
Like I said, the songs are very simple, the songs are very under-produced. There is none of the electronic stuff, none of the Punjabi stuff, in the sense that it has none of the dance-Punjabi-bhangra kind of stuff. There are no item songs, so there is no ‘It’s the Time to Disco’ or ‘Where’s the Party Tonight’ (laughs), like Karan has always done in his films. You can’t do that kind of music in a film like this.
There seems to be a lot of Islamic influences.
Yes, yes, definitely there is a lot of the Qawaali influences in the music because it is about a guy whose name is Khan, and that would be the strong backdrop for the film.
There is also the instrumental…
That is the theme of the film and it appears in quite a few places in the film – in some certain crucial places. hat was fun composing. We love doing that kind of stuff.
Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
What we normally do is we compose the melody first and we come up with some rough words, just as a working thing, but very often a lot of the words get used in the final track. Like ‘Sajda’ or ‘Tere Naina’ that Shankar came up with, those words could be used in the final track. Then Niranjan, of course, he wrote some beautiful lyrics. So, normally it is the music first, the melody first and then the lyrics are written but it does work vice versa, too.
The lyrics are gorgeous; tell us about working with Niranjan Iyengar.
There were no lyricists yet and we were just working on the melodies. We called him because he is writing the dialogues for My Name is Khan. We called him in to just write some rough words, and those rough words finally became the words of the song. From literally writing one song, he ended up writing the entire album.
It seems they are much more background songs or for montages than how songs usually are used in films.
They are all background songs and lyrically and situationally they are very important to the film, because like I said, they are not forced in like we would have done in earlier films to have that popularity value. Karan is very, very true to his script and each song comes into a situation where it is required to come. Of course, you could show the scene without a song too, but it helps, and give it that certain buoyancy which is required for an Indian film.
It seems that lately more of the songs in many films are being used as background. Do you like that as a musician and a composer?
Yes, there is nothing wrong with it. That is the way it works in most part of the world, where there are films that are not necessarily musicals all the time. It is good to do that, too.
In what ways has this album been a challenge?
See, the thing is, doing anything good is a challenge. (laughs) For us, every film that we attempt and every song that we attempt is a challenge because you are always trying to better yourself. There is a lot of pressure from ourselves.
How do you decide which voices will fit your songs?
It is a thing of trial and error. There are of course the established voices, but then also you try something new. It is an experiment you have to try, and most of the time it works out.
Who do you like working with?
Well, all the singers, whether it is Shafqat Amanat Ali or Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, they are all great singers and always fun to work with. I mean, they are immense talent, there is a lot of talent there. They always deliver.
How long does it take to record a track, say, for example, like ‘Sajda’?
It all depends. We are always treating the song all the way to the end. The actual recording could take between 4 to 5 days to 10 days because we always want to do another thing to the song right to the end.
When composing songs, do you hear a melody in your head and then write it down on paper or do you guys jam together to get it?
What we do is jam together, though sometimes you may get a melody in the strangest of places. Luckily mobile phones can record so we can get it down on the mobile phone and that is a great help. Most of the time it is about jamming in the studio and coming up with something spontaneously.
Is it the guitar that you compose on?
Yes, I definitely mostly compose on guitar, but like My Name is Khan the theme, I wrote on keyboards.
SEL has done a variety of albums, from the spectrum of Rock On to My Name is Khan. Tell us how you can go from one end to the other with such ease.
It is basically the script that determines what you write. I mean you can’t put a song like ‘Rock On’ in My Name is Khan. (laughs) Well, you can, you can, but it wouldn’t be very appropriate for the kind of film that it is. Literally, it is about the script.
Karan Johar has said this is his bravest film yet.
Yes, it is.
Would you say that the music of the film reflects this?
Yes, definitely, because like we said, he has not done the clich