September 13 2015
Composer talks exclusively to us about the challenges of making one of the most innovative TV documentary programmes ever to be made in, and about, India…
IF YOU WERE to turn the smash hit “Slumdog Millionaire” into a musical with children at the very heart of it, it might look something like the BBC’s “Mumbai High: The Musical” – at least in spirit.
A musical one-hour long documentary, it turns the spotlight on the dreams and hopes of teenagers attending a school in the sprawling Mumbai slum area of Dharavi; and will screen on BBC 4 on Monday (September 14) at 10pm as part of the broadcaster’s ‘India Season’.
Through numerous songs, we learn about how several special children see their world and the future in front of them.
Just like “Slumdog Millionaire” it appears upbeat and positive and is a glimpse of a world where poverty and destitution can be overcome. One of the children featured lives in a tin shack by the railway; another speaks six languages but still worries about global warming, despite being only 12.
For Nainita Desai, commissioned to compose the songs and music on “Mumbai High“, it was both professionally and personally, a demanding and affecting project.
“It was a sort of coming home,” Desai revealed to www.asianculturevulture.com. “The children were wonderful and inspiring.”
Before “Mumbai High”, she had never done any work with a South Asian angle to it.
“I never got offered work to write Indian or Asian influenced music for a feature, it never happened,” admitted Desai.
Commissioned by BAFTA winning director Brian Hill who had been working on the project for around eight years, Desai hadn’t had much experience of actually writing songs.
Very much a sound designer, when she emerged from university, her work for legendary film director Bernado Bertolucci on “The Little Buddha” (1993) and musical icon Peter Gabriel at his Real World Records Studio and label, helped to put her on the industry map.
Since then, she has been in much demand for TV and film projects but never for a full-length feature in a South Asian context. She had, however, won an award for her music on a short film, “The Little Terrorist” and the film was nominated for an Oscar in 2004. Last year she was also involved in another short, “Checklist” a political drama with a South Asian angle, garnering an award nomination for music and sound.
So, not only was she composing a major music score for a considerable South Asian centred production for the first time, but creating songs too.
“He (Brian) had the idea before ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ but was working on it on and off, and only got the funding in April,” revealed Desai.
“He asked me whether I could write the songs.
“It really was a baptism of fire – I said ‘yes’, because it was a project that interested me so much – I thought I just have to do this and jumped at the opportunity. Then I panicked,” she joked.
But she didn’t have a lot of time, only starting in May, and it meant filming on location in June, with the onset of the monsoon. She enlisted street poet Alex Frost to help her hone the lyrical content of the songs.
Desai was also shown clips of the children the production company wanted to feature in its documentary – none of the subjects were chosen for their musical ability.
“Some of the children were very poor singers – they didn’t have any sense of pitch or timing which was a huge challenge.
“The film is about the power of education and how important it is to the children, so they chose these children not on their musical ability, but their stories. There are 7-8 of them and all from very different backgrounds. They all have hopes and dreams and ambitions to make something of their lives. They are wonderful.”
The children who attend the Chhatrapati Shivaji school in Dharavi speak a variety of languages and so Desai, whose mother tongue is Gujarati, had to write with this in mind. The production decided on Hindi (the national language), Marathi (the local language) and English (regarded as a second national language).
“I had to write each song in three days, the music and the lyrics, my Indian language skills are poor,” Desai conceded, “though I understand Gujarati fluently.”
“I initially wrote the songs in English. The music had to be very diverse stylistically with Indian influences. The songs had to match the personalities of the children and had to be catchy and memorable.
“They range in style from western pop, Bollywood lating, RnB, urban ballads to ambient songs sprinkled with authentic Indian elements.”
“It was very important to me whatever the language these songs were sung in, the rhythm and metre and poetry of the English lyrics had to be the same whatever the language.”
She sent her songs off to a Bollywood lyricist Arun Kumar, who translated the songs. She then checked the translations, kept the same melodies and sent the versions to a vocal coach Agnel Roman in Mumbai.
She then flew out herself and had limited time to record the children singing their songs in a studio and taking a rough mix of the final songs out to the location for filming.
“The process was the same as a Bollywood movie. We used the playbacks and filmed the children singing and dancing in various locations. There is a spectacular end finale featuring 1,000 children singing and dancing, and mixing it with living singing,” explained Desai.
It’s clear she’s built a fantastic rapport with her young charges and hopes the world, not just a BBC audience, will get a chance to see their exuberance, warm spirit and determination to make a better life for themselves and those around them. A longer version of “Mumbai High” will be cut for the film festival circuit.
“It’s very difficult to watch and not be moved. They were an absolute delight to work with,” said Desai.
As part of the final process of making all the music for “Mumbai High“, she recorded with a 28-piece string section in Bulgaria to boost the sounds of the original Indian music.
She also called on India-based musicians Sabir Khan on sarangi, Amar Sukhi on Bollywood saxophone and UK based musicians, Jyotsna Srikanth on Carnatic violin, Alok Verma on tabla, Mehboob Nadim on sitar and Alex Teymour Housego on Bansuri Flute, to raise the level yet further.
Desai has also contributed to the music on other parts of the BBC’s Indian Season this autumn, composing music for Sue Perkins’ documentary on Kolkata (broadcast last week) as well as well as the history run of three, “Treasures of th Indus (which concludes tomorrow).
Passionate about music from a young age, she learnt Indian classical styles through sitar and tabla lessons at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Hammersmith and grew up in Balham, South London. Her family were never opposed to her career in music but did wonder whether she might ever do what they saw as a “normal job”.
Clear-minded and focused, she got her first breaks in the more technical aspects of sound and music production in film and TV, but as well as playing and experimenting with a wide variety of instruments from around the world, it’s clear she’s growing and expanding her range – especially in the more creative aspects of music in film and TV.
Hill, who is regarded as a pioneer of the musical documentary and had won a BAFTA for “Feltham Sings” in 2002 and high praise for “Songbirds” in 2005, had come across Desai’s TV and film work and had heard her scores for trailers for Nordic noir TV, including “Wallender” and “Borgen” and subsequently asked her to score his feature documentary, “The Confessions of Thomas Quick“, about Sweden’s most prolific serial killer, released in UK cinemas this summer.
He was impressed by her songwriting skills, when she wrote a song for the popular Viking songstress Eivør Pálsdóttir for the feature and asked her to write the score and the songs for “Mumbai High: The Musical“.
What makes Desai almost unique is that while she has largely worked in western musical genres along with her partner Malcolm Laws for almost all her working life, she’s also always had a foot in World Music and has begun to engage more professionally with her interests in Indian musical styles.
“I’ve always had a real passion for music,” revealed Desai who along with Laws make up a company, Soundology. “I got involved in every type of musical activity you can think of – singing, playing, writing; and world music was a serious hobby and I listened to everything from pop, rock to Indian classical music.
“I loved film music growing up and loved the heyday of classic Bollywood cinema. I remember going to the local cinema with my parents.”
Remember AR Rahman’s big cinematic breakthrough in the West came with Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” – now maybe Desai’s looking the other way …
Main picture top: Mary and Philomela (courtesy of Brian Hill, Century Films)
- ‘Mumbai High: The Musical’, Monday, September 14, BBC4 10pm.