COVER STORY: Meet The Bandits
Beneath a rollercoaster love story, Amazon Prime Video’s latest musical series ‘Bandish Bandits’ explores what it means to be a young artist in India, tell us Shreya Chaudhry and Ritwik Bhowmik
Witty repartee, tender scenes and unavoidable melodrama aside, the three-minute trailer to the musical series Bandish Bandits conveys a certain depth that you don’t always see on Indian screen. Taking India’s classical musical heritage – shastriya sangeet – and its continued love for modern pop, the lead characters of Radhe (Ritwik Bhowmik) and Tamanna (Shreya Chaudhry) grapple with ideas of identity and artistry.
Directed by Anand Tiwari – an actor who’s often provided comedic succor in films such as The President Is Coming and led the charge as director for 2018 rom-com Love Per Square Foot – and produced by Amritpal Singh Bindra, Bandish Bandits aims to shun tropes and show the true brew of Indian music culture. Chaudhry tells us over a Zoom call, “The most important thing in all of this was Anand and Amrit constantly telling us that irrespective of whether they [the characters] are from different worlds, they respect each other’s world. There is no sense of, ‘Oh my world is better than yours’ or anything like that. At no point do the artists look down on each other’s musical world.”
Nevertheless, nothing works without a good love story on Indian screen and Bandish Bandits does provide even on that front. Bhowmik adds, “It’s not a storyline that goes from two people falling in love, followed by conflict and then climax at the airport. It’s not that love story. It’s a love saga.” Across 10 episodes, Bandish Bandits weaves together the story of a young classical vocalist from the fictional Rathod gharana in Rajasthan who becomes an unlikely teammate for a city-bred pop musician with her eyes set on global stardom. Bhowmik and Chaudhry may be the new faces at the center of the series, but Bandish Bandits is anchored by veteran actors such as Naseeruddin Shah, Atul Kulkarni, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Sheeba Chaddha and Rajesh Tailang. To top it off, Bandish Bandits enlisted ace composer trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for their first-ever series gig. It’s led to a versatile score as well as songs which straddle powerhouse Indian classical and Rajasthani folk, dancefloor-friendly electronic pop and of course, the inevitable fusion of many worlds reflected in the show.
In a chat with Rolling Stone India, Chaudhry and Bhowmik take us through the prep that went into their roles, the music in the show and how Bandish Bandits is likely to answer some questions about the way musicians are perceived in India. Excerpts:
In terms of timeline, can you tell me a bit about what it was like getting enough time to prepare for your roles as well as fully understand your characters? When (month/year) did you clinch this role and what was it like undertaking a big lead role like this?
Ritwik Bhowmik: I think it was October 2018 when I got onboard and we started shooting this project a couple of months later. The first thing that happened after we signed on to the show and became Radhe and Tamanna was that we started doing workshops for singing classes. We had to undergo classical music training.
When they told me there would be these workshops, I said, ‘But you told me there would be a playback singer?’ I was told, ‘Yeah, but do you think it’s going to be easy to lip sync to classical music?’ Oh boy, did I have no idea! When the training started, I realized there’s so much to it. Three months of training… I might have not become a singer today but I definitely have a lot more respect for all singers on the show now. The amount of work and passion and the years they put into becoming the people that they are for their craft. I’ve learned how to act to be a singer for sure but to sing, it’s going to take me a couple of decades for sure.
After that, we started shooting and our [music] coach, Akshat Parikh — he was there with us throughout as well as Anand sir, directing us through the scenes. But Akshat has been a prominent part of this, because he was guiding us through the classical parts and you cannot go wrong with that — the right kind of gestures, the facial muscles and understanding of raag, aalap and swar. The scale of what you’re singing at that moment… it’s not as easy as just singing and saying a word. There was so much more to it. It’s been a very long journey and it’s going to be a journey that lasts a few years and hopefully until the end of time, because I’m in love with music all over again.
Shreya Chaudhry: Even for me, we started the workshops at the same time but my journey was a bit different from Ritwik’s. I play a pop star, so I didn’t have to dive too deep into the shastriya sangeet bit of it but both our characters create music together, of course. I trained with Akshat as well and I remember him telling us that the basics of music is the same everywhere, be it western classical, Indian classical, pop…
What was really different was my notion of classical music changed. I’ve grown up listening to a lot of genres of music because of my parents, then my older brother and after that, my friends. But with this show, I found myself listening to classical music and actually enjoying it. That will always stay with me.
Today, my favorite songs on the entire album are the classical parts. As much as I enjoy pop and I think I always will, there’s a very special place for shastriya sangeet in my heart. Our teacher wouldn’t just tell us, ‘Yeh aise gaa ke sunao’ (‘Sing it in this manner’). He would also talk to us about a bandish or aalap and why people sing the way they do.
In terms of references and maybe your own influences as actors, can you tell me a bit about what went into becoming Radhe and Tamanna once the cameras started rolling?
Bhowmik: Honestly, I really broke my head over understanding this guy. He’s so far from who I am. He’s not an urban city boy; he’s not my age. I really believe he’s nothing like me so how do I understand him? I was doing a bit of research, watching a lot of films, talking to a lot of people only to later realize that at one point, I got really frustrated and told Anand sir, ‘Please tell me who this boy is and why he is so obsessed with his craft? Why does he do what he wants to do? Why is he behaving this way?’
Anand sir said, ‘Just tell me something, why do you want to act?’ I gave him an answer and he asked, ‘Why do you behave this way towards your craft?’ I gave him that answer and he said, ‘Now make that Radhe’s answer.’ That just solved everything for me and after that, once the cameras rolled, I had my musical training with me, I had my research, I had three-four months of prep with me all at the back of my head. All I had to do was be me with all that knowledge. That’s how Radhe was created.
Chaudhry: When I first read the script, I felt Tamanna was quite different from Shreya on paper. I had a few references pop into my mind. Of course, I idolized quite a few pop singers growing up as well, and then I had a very interesting chat with Anand and he said, ‘We don’t want people to say that Tamanna reminds them of Britney Spears or anyone else. We want Tamanna to have that kind of impact on audiences.’ She enjoys performing, creating and composing music. That’s what she loves the most and you can see that.
Anand told me there’s always a common ground and I have to find it. There was a really interesting piece of advice that he gave me. Every time I got stuck on why my character was doing what she was or behaving a certain way, Anand said, ‘You have to be your character’s defense lawyer.’ You have to be convinced 100 percent why she’s doing what she’s doing. Even the showrunner and the writer of the show were there every day on set… In that sense, there was a very strong backing.
Music was the bigger creative well that you drew from for your roles in Bandish Bandits – in terms of understanding India’s music culture and living that through your characters. What was that process like?
Bhowmik: Most of the info we needed was in the script. What you’re asking me right now is addressed in the show. The history of music, diversity of it and the comparison of music in this country through every genre, artist… is dealt with in the show. Most of the research we needed was in the text. It was a very detailed script.
It’s about music as an artform at its core and two artists and families of artists. It’s about people who have grown their entire world around an artform….
Of course there’s a love story, because that causes that big bang, that moment when everything opens up and music takes over everything, and you start seeing so many facets of it through the eyes of the artists and their emotions.
Ritwik, as someone who’s also been a dancer for many years, how has Bandish Bandits changed your association with music?
Before I was a dancer, I used to be part of a boy band in school. Music has always been a part of my life. I used to play guitar back then and then I became a dancer, so music became an even more integral part of my life.
What I’ve realized is some little things like how for a dancer, a bar is often eight counts but for a musician, a bar is four counts… Has it really made a difference to the amount of love I have for music? Not really because I’ve always had an immense amount of love for music. Has it opened up my mind to accept everything that’s out there to make it my own, to learn to enjoy it? Yes, Bandish Bandits has definitely done that for me.
Shreya, as someone who represents the pop music side of things in this story, what kind of music informed your character?
She’s from the world of pop and I think that genre is not alien to anybody – we’re all very aware of what pop music is. In general, when I was prepping for the character, I did try to gather more from pop music. I am a fan of it, so it was never tricky at any point to think of an artist or a song as a reference or anything like that.
It was such a nice spread of music in the soundtrack, thanks to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. We would be practicing the songs. Tamanna, at the crux of it, is a composer. She loves performing and what was really interesting was that I started having conversations with a lot of my friends who are singers and performers and composers about the technological part in the music industry. Using all these software and things like that, I realized there’s been such a change in terms of the technology available today to create music. She really represents the music that is, if I may say, ‘commercial’ and it’s very widespread today – the pop and electronic world of music. But at the same time, what draws her to Radhe’s character is the fact that he is so talented and has so much discipline towards his craft. All of these things meant that I couldn’t just limit myself to pop music.
There are some fairly seasoned names whose voice you were portraying in Bandish Bandits – Jonita Gandhi, Armaan Malik, Mame Khan and more. Which has been one of your favorite songs/compositions from the series and what did you dig about it?
Chaudhry: I feel so excited about the music! Earlier, we used to have the songs on our phone for practice and we couldn’t make anybody listen to them. But I would often feel like singing the songs randomly, when I was sitting with my friends and they’d be like, ‘What song is that?’ And I’d say, ‘Nothing!’ I was waiting for the album to come out, because it’s been such a joyous experience having these songs and listening to them.
Initially, my favorite song was Tamanna’s most popular song; it closes her concert. It was like the pop star moment of performing on stage with thousands of people watching. But by the end of the shoot, especially when we were shooting the climax, my most favorite song from the album was one of the classical songs. That pleasantly surprised me. I think there’s a song for everyone on the album.
Bhowmik: Like I said, when I was in school, I was in a boy band. I moved from listening to Hinder, Green Day, Linkin Park and Sum 41 to today working in a pure classical show. When I listen to both these styles of music, I think, ‘What if they collides?’ It would sound heavenly. A lot of people are doing that – they’re making contemporary music but using Indian instruments. That’s great, because it sounds magical. You’re going to get a huge amount of it in this show.
There’s a song called ‘Garaj Garaj’ which is in megh malhar raag; that song is out of the world. It sounds beautiful and is composed beautifully. Hopefully when you see the show, you’ll feel it’s performed beautifully too. That’s my favorite song and there’s another song called ‘Chedkhaniyaan’ which is fusion and it’s very sweet and romantic.
Chaudhry: It was very surprising, I think for Ritwik and me as well, we both obviously haven’t sung these songs but we really enjoyed listening to them so much. One day, when we were shooting one of the bits, one of our crewmembers – somebody from the lights team – had not even heard the song but by the end of the shoot, he was singing it. I saw that and felt, ‘Our work is done.’
In India, there are always so many love stories at the center of everything – TV, short films, movies, web series and of course previous musicals too. It feels like Bandish Bandits also uses that tradition vs modernity element that we all live amidst in India. What are your thoughts on this?
Bhowmik: What Bandish Bandits has done – and you can gauge from the trailer that it’s about two people falling in love and the conflicts between tradition and modernity – is show so much more in terms of tradition deep down to its roots. We talk about it in detail. When we show modernity, we go deep down that route as well. We showcase the collision between. The love story is about 1/10th of the show. You’re going to know why this guy sings classical music and know every single thing about where this guy comes from.
It’s the same for Tamanna – you get to see the kind of hardships she goes through and the life she leads. Why is she the person she is? Why is she so strong-headed and all these things. It’s not just about music but also about people who are artists and human emotions in general. That is what I feel makes Bandish Bandits stand out from any other musical or show or film about music. This is also rare, actually. I don’t think we have too many shows that talk about music as an artform at its core.
Chaudhry: I believe that no love story exists without any conflict. At the crux of it, they are bound by music and in the past, we’ve had stories where people fall in love because they’re bound by music and have a similar passion for music. But the situation for these two characters is very novel. They would have never crossed paths if it wasn’t for this one situation they find themselves together in.
I think that hasn’t been done recently. The reason they’re torn by legacy – you’ll understand more when you watch the show – isn’t just set as a tradition vs modernity element. It could also just be somebody’s disciplines and principles. I think the writers have done such a great job of presenting all this in such a new way. The basic concept of the show comes from a story that our writers heard one day from people, so it’s a reflection of real people. The entire set up, when it comes together, is really novel.
From the trailers that I’ve seen so far, this definitely feels like a well-paced storyline – what were your thoughts on seeing your character arcs grow? Especially since in a series, the creators always leave enough room for more development.
Chaudhry: You’ve hit the nail on the head. I think the most amazing part of playing a character in a long-format show is that you have so much you can build on. The graph is such that you’re not limited to just two hours or a couple of minutes in the case of a short film. This show is over 10 episodes and you actually see the growth of the character. When I read the script, it was such a rollercoaster trip. Life in general is like that and Tamanna’s life sees a lot of ups and downs and just seeing that play out was amazing.
Bhowmik: Both Shreya and I, and everyone who worked on the show — we all consume a lot of content on the Internet. We know that when you make a long-format show, there are story arcs and character arcs and a lot of sub-plots. I really want to give credit to the writer [Adhir Bhat], because when I read the script, I felt it was one of the best researches on human emotions that I’ve ever come across.
All photos by Amazon Prime Video