“Each song of 3 Idiots has been written from a state of mind of the youth.” – Shantanu Moitra

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You have heard his work on the brilliant soundtracks of Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Parineeta, among others, plus some of those advertising jingles that go through your head are probably a product of composer Shantanu Moitra’s musical brain. On December 23rd you will see his tunes in action in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots which stars Aamir Khan, Madhavan, Sharman Joshi and Kareena Kapoor. In this fabulous interview with Stacey, Mr. Moitra gives some insight on what the film’s music is all about, how it is to work with Rajkumar Hirani, why he dislikes remixes plus many more raag tidbits so read on!

How did you get involved with the project of 3 Idiots?

This is my second film with Rajkumar Hirani. I guess he was happy with my first film, which was
Lage Raho Munna Bhai. I guess what happens in this organization, because it is such an intense roller coaster ride, is that by the time you come out of it you’re so fatigued that you can’t bear to work with anybody else. So, all of us, sort of by default, started working together. I remember at that time Aamir had not been cast; it was just discussing the story and the concept. After a few days, Raju broke the news that Aamir was going to do the film and we were sort of over the moon because he’s one of my favourite actors.

What sort of brief did they give for this soundtrack?

As a brief, it has been one of the most complex ones on this film, and that is because we were talking about the youth, and there has been no more complex creature on the face of the Earth than the youth. Fortunately that is a stage that one has been a part of a few years back, so each song has been – how do I put it – has been written from a state of mind of the youth. Each song had its own brief.

The first song that we created for 3 Idiots was ‘Give Me Some Sunshine’. These English lines were mine, which I was just kind of doodling and Rajkumar Hirani thought they were great lines, so he said let’s use them. Of course then the Hindi takes over. That’s the state of mind that I was in my final year at college – wondering – there are certain things that I haven’t done right and I wish I had another chance. I think many of us believe that if you had one more chance we could have lived it differently. There are a lot of my friends from college who are very successful abroad, but still they call me up and say, you know you are very lucky to be doing what you love to do. You realize it’s not success – it’s basically your heart – are you really happy with what you’re doing? That was the brief of this song.

‘All Iz Well’ is this mad song sung in the college hostel, but in that mindlessness there is a philosophy ‘Murgi kya jaane aande ka kya hoga”. What does the chicken know about what is going to be. Will it be a chicken or a fried egg? Will he live or will he be on the frying pan? (Laughs). That is the philosophy and mindset of students in India and perhaps all over the world, too. So therefore, why worry! Just chill, blow your whistle and sing ‘all iz well’! That is the philosophy of the song. The brief of the song was, hey, keep it as wild and unpolished as possible because they wanted to capture the sound of the youth and the youth’s atmosphere. I remember when I was in college we didn’t have money to buy guitars and drums but what came free was the spirit and so we would play anything! Trashcans, dust bins canteen tables, steel plates, and create music. That is what I have done in this song – I have used bottles, plates, tables etc.

Then there’s ‘Behti Hawa Sa Tha Woh’. With this one, we reflected how, in our life, we all meet someone who comes and touches us, reaches us, enlightens us and then moves off very, very simply with no big disturbance. Then you realise later on, where is this guy, where is he, and you always seem to remember him.

Then one of my very sweet tracks that I have done is ‘Zoobi Doobi’. The love song between Aamir and Kareena’s characters, which has a retro feel. In the film I guess Aamir tells Kareena that actually when you truly fall in love you actually find the moon really big, the water very blue and find yourself gliding in the air. This track is kind of a tribute to the great Hindi film love songs.

What are your influences and inspirations?

I guess life and its experiences! I am a happy person and that really works because when you’re happy, and when you are happy with what you are doing, it comes from within. I travel a lot – it’s one of my passions – so I meet a lot of different kinds of people. In your life you can be sensitive enough to be a part of many situations. I think when you are a doing a song it draws from these small, small windows in your life and so you kind of look into it and say, okay, fine that is how it was, and I think that’s how the melodies do come in.

So what is your favorite picturization of one of your songs in the movie?

Good question. Hmm … ‘Zoobi Doobi’! It’s a crazy and wild one. Aamir and Kareena’s chemistry is awesome. The retro-feel way it is shot! It’s in the rain and Aamir and Kareena are looking really hot. It’s a great song and I love the picturization!

And what’s your favourite track from the album?

That’s a tough question because they’re all my babies and I’ve worked so hard on them. Uh…. maybe ‘All Iz Well’! I love that song – it’s something that really excited me when I did it!

So, when you’re working in the studio with singers how much of a brief do you give them?

You know I learned very early in my career in the recording studio the microphone is a very dangerous element. The key is to capture that one magical moment in front of the microphone, which can forever go down in history. My brief really starts much before the recording, three or four days before, when I go to the artists and start talking with them about the music. I kind of warm it up. On the day of the recording, especially if we are doing something like say ‘All Iz Well’, which is a fun song, I try to have the atmosphere more light with lots of laughter, lots of jokes, and in that moment somewhere you quietly start recording. I guess that is how I keep it … that the mood of the recording studio is in sync with the song I am recording.

Coming now to Sharman’s debut as a singer on ‘Give Me Some Sunshine’ – how did that come about?

Actually, I had lived with Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s voice for almost a year because he did those lines and then when the song was picturised it became very obvious that Sharman’s voice would be used. I think Sharman has done a brilliant job. Instead of coming across as Sharman Joshi, he comes across as this guy who is completely disillusioned, you know? The way he pitches his voice, the way he talks about it, and he is almost laughing at himself. Especially this one line that I really love how he says it “Concentrated H2SO4 ne poora, Poora bachpan jalaa daala” – basically talking about things like Chemistry lab this and that. The fun went away just the numbers remain and it has completely burnt my youth up. This complex philosophy has been so beautifully done by Sharman Joshi. That shows the pedigree of him as an artist, because you have to understand this is just the voice and to put that across he truly has a lot of talent.

So what is it like working with Rajkumar Hirani?

Genius is often a very frivolously used word, so let’s say this in sync with the film: He’s obviously an idiot! Why he’s an idiot is that he’s chosen his own path, his own language of films, and he believes in the film that he does. I know him as a human being; he reflects the film that he makes. When he’s doing Munna Bhai that’s who Rajkumar Hirani is and when he’s doing 3 Idiots that’s who Rajkumar Hirani is. So, that makes it more fun and you know that this guy is honest to his craft and to himself.

Who do you like working with most as a singer?

These are very, very tough questions! It’s like one of those tough questions you get as a child, who do you love best mom or dad! (Laughs) In fact a question like this should be taken to be a violation of human rights! (Laughs) You know that I have done, by coincidence, lots of work with Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghosal with Parineeta and all the stuff they have done, and it so happens they’re two of the finest singers in our country. But again I have done a lot of work with Shaan, too. The good part is that among all these heavyweights I have been able to introduce a new voice like Suraj, who sings Give Me Some Sunshine. That is the right combination, that if one can with each film or two films get some new voices in along with the heavyweights. That is how new voices can be introduced.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

That it is not a job! I left my job in the corporate world because I didn’t want to ask my superior to take a leave. Precisely the reason why I left it. What I really like about this job is that I can take off any time without asking and do it on my terms and conditions. The joy of getting up in the morning and saying, ‘I’m going to record a song today’ is fantastic!

How do you feel the music takes the story along?

I am very confident when you see the film you’ll feel that the music is not an item on its own. In Indian films many songs are great, but they’re on their own and not really part of the film. But the place where I work both the producer and director believe that the song cannot be an individual entity. It’s part of a cinematic process and story telling process and therefore when you hear a song like Behti Hawa or Give Me Some Sunshine it has relevance and a narrative style. My confidence is that the songs will grow more when you see the film.

Why are remixes done?

Another good question; if you know the answer then please let me know. These are all things I have never understood. I am not particularly in favor of remixes, and that too of modern songs, because modern songs are in itself like remixes so what is the point? I would much rather, and I think I speak on behalf of the fraternity, that if you only have 4 or 5 songs in the film and you want to give the audience their value for money, have two more songs which match with the film but are not in the film which are an opportunity to show a music director or a writers’ craft rather than remixing a track. I don’t think people buy albums thinking remixes are involved. I hope things will change. There was a time when all the songs were remixed, at least now it has come down. It’s just a passing phase, I hope.

What sort of music do you listen to in your spare time?

Because of this travel lust of mine I listen to everything, everything which sounds good to my ear. I love languages. Languages that I don’t understand makes it even more exciting for me. I have a huge collection of world music, which is again kind of mixed, and I have all the original stuff, which is very exciting. Indian music really is an amalgamation of all kinds of style. That’s what is so great about Bollywood music. In Indian songs, you get to use reggae, R’n B, hip-hop, jazz, etc. It’s all there. In my spare time I actually don’t listen to music. I have too many hobbies, to many things I am interested in.

When you’re about to start a project, does the music roll through your mind until you get it down on paper? How does that work?

That’s actually a very interesting question, and I will give you an answer that many would’ve not told you. The toughest part of creating music is really respecting the other person in the room. I spend a lot of time getting to know the other person because any creative process is about trust. So, say suppose I am sitting down with you and I don’t know you and we are creating music together and you say, ‘you know what the third line doesn’t really work for me’ and I don’t even respect you so I am thinking, ‘who the hell are you to tell me that’. Whereas if I know you well, I know your musical intuition and what you understand, then if you say ‘that third line does not work’, I would say “okay, if you don’t like it, let me see what I can do”. So it’s really about trust, because it’s not something that’s a physical object, it’s tunes hanging in the air. What really takes the time, first and foremost for me, is to be comfortable with that person and make that person comfortable with me. If that does not happen, I don’t do the project. I have spent many years and still do advertising jingles. When you have 8 or 10 clients in front of you, each has a different background of music and each passing judgment on 30-second melody; I know what this is like. Therefore that is why I first get to know the person better, to know their musical taste. I give him a lot of CDs, and get him/her to tell me what is their genre of music, what do they love, what excites them. Once I understand that, it is almost like psychotherapy: I understand and get into the brain of this person, the director and okay, this is the palette this person likes: reds, oranges and blues … he doesn’t like greens, he doesn’t like pinks and he doesn’t like black. Therefore I know the shades to play with. Then, when I start composing, I have to keep in mind the story, the character and the director’s taste.

So keeping so many things in mind must be difficult?

Yes it is, but thanks to my training in advertising jingles it’s become better now. It’s a great learning ground for me.

What’s coming up next for you?

It’s a film of Shyam Benegal (Zubeidaa & Welcome to Sajjanpur) called Well Done Abba. That is due early next year!

Lastly! What is your favourite song out of all that you’ve composed?
It’s a song from the film Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi by the director Sudhir Mishra. The song is ‘Bawra Mann’. It is my favorite song. It’s one of the early songs I did and very satisfying to me.

It was a wonderful experience talking with Mr. Moitra. I love when someone loves what they are doing and are truly dedicated to making a great product – whatever that may be. He takes tunes from the air and makes music, and I for one admire that so much. I wish him the best of luck in the future and can’t wait to hear the next song I am going to add to my Fav Bollyplaylist!
3 Idiots opens Wednesday, and from what we hear it is a movie that is not to be missed, so be sure to check it out!

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