I always ask people to forget any clichéd ideas about Hindi cinema when it comes to the kind of music I make. Yes, I write scores for Bollywood, but you won’t often see sexy girls gyrating to my music. The films I choose to work on, like Gangs of Wasseypur, which was a hit last year, are about heavier subjects such as revenge and drug addiction. My name on the bottom of a film poster is a kind of brand – people come to see the films I’ve worked on because even if they don’t know my face, they know my reputation.
I spend most of my day in the studio, a soundproofed little oasis in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri West. The suburbs are where all the film studios are and that means that the street chaos of Mumbai’s less central neighbourhoods is pushed up against great big high rises, surrounded by construction and swarms of cabs. The noise pollution is unbearable outside the studio, but inside there are no sounds but music. Musicians from all over India work at all hours on the melodies I write. I’ve been working with some folk musicians from Punjab for a film that is coming out later this year and we jam until we can’t play any longer. Then a boy comes to bring us chai, and we press on.
I never pictured doing this kind of thing as a kid. I’m 33 now and I grew up in Santacruz, another Mumbai suburb. That’s where I discovered the album that made me fall in love with music: the score to the 1993 Tamil action comedy Thiruda Thiruda, by A.R. Rahman. I still play that album when I need inspiration. It switches between staccato dance rhythms and heartbreaking a cappella arrangements. There’s nothing else like it in Indian pop music, not even by Rahman himself. It’s a masterpiece.
The first instrument I ever played was an electronic disk that I borrowed from my neighbours when I was 13. Honestly, I have no idea what you’d call this thing. All I know is that it was round and when you touched it, it played different notes, sort of like a keyboard. I was obsessed with it and never wanted to give it back. When I finally did, I decided I needed an electronic instrument of my own to replace it. So I saved my pocket money – Rs3 here, Rs5 there – and eventually, when I was 16, I bought a Casio keyboard for Rs1,800. It was about a quarter of the size of the synthesiser I use today. I’m self-taught – everything I’ve learnt about making music I taught myself by toying around with that silly keyboard.
After school I studied commerce at St Lawrence College in Santacruz. I was a terrible student, struggling to pass my classes. But I did theatre on the side and that represented an escape. Playing the keyboards in shows introduced me to other musicians, and when I got out of college, I played in a rock fusion band. We made very little money, so we gave up touring and started to do freelance advertising jingles for things like orange soda and skin-whitening cream.
During my breaks from ad work, I started composing original songs because I was bored. I never thought anything would come of them. But one day I was scouted to work on a new film. I had low expectations, but it turned out that the film-maker in question was Anurag Kashyap, and the film was 2009’s Dev D, one of the most critically acclaimed Indian films of the past decade. Overnight, everything changed. I had money. I was a successful artist.
Hundreds of Bollywood films come out every year. For me, only four or five are worth seeing. I reject many of the scripts that get sent to me. I only take on the ones that move me – and that sets me apart from a lot of other composers.
Now that I’m in this position, I’ve promised myself that I won’t stop making music until the day I die. Sometimes, it feels like my life is just an incredible accident.