Pritam and the Politics of Bollywood Music
How a music composer accused of serial plagiarism went on to rule charts in an industry that values hits over innovation
A glass containing a green juice sits atop a teak coffee table in Bollywood composer Pritam’s music den, located within a residential area in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb. Next to the glass is a tiny vial of medicine bearing a label in microscopic print. Pritam is sitting on the corner seat of a brown L-shaped sofa, busy fielding incessant calls on his cellphone. It’s 7.30 in the evening and he is having a bit of a bump trying to put together a small dinner party for his wife. It is her birthday today and he had forgotten to wish her in the morning. To make matters worse, it is a dry day.
There’s a soft knock on the door and a staff enters to clear the table. Taking the cue, Pritam does a swift bottoms-up with both the glass and the vial and hands them over to the man. After years of letting his health go to the dogs to keep his job, the 45-year-old composer is now making an effort to eat and drink right. His hawkish home staff keep a strict check on everything that goes into his body, and as much as he craves rice every afternoon, all he gets most times is a bowl of soupy vegetables.
The decluttering has also extended to his work. From slamming as many as 19 films a year during his most maddening years, he is now taking up not more than three to four projects. His reputation as Bollywood’s most consistent hit-maker is now a given.
Who started the fire?
The saccharine soundtracks of Nineties Bollywood films championed by the likes of Anu Malik, Nadeem Shravan, Jatin-Lalit and Anand Raj Anand were a formidable force that showed no signs of fading away even by the turn of the millennium. Back in the day, a song didn’t qualify as filmi material till it had a mawkish melody and the vaporous vocabulary of pyaar, ishq and mohabbat. Interestingly, this uncool Bollywood was, to some extent, offset by a burgeoning brigade of major label-backed Indipop stars; Lucky Ali, Silk Route, K.K., Euphoria et al were a rage and defined the young (but also mainstream) sound of India. The real alternative voices, on the other hand, such as rock bands like Pentagram, Indus Creed, Indian Ocean, Thermal and a Quarter and Motherjane, all of who took off in the Nineties, were doing their own thing but not at a level that captured the imagination of the entire nation.
As far as Bollywood music was concerned, something had to give. A.R. Rahman provided the first big break with Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela in 1995. Although the young composer had already spawned a sonic revolution in the South music industry in the early Nineties—Bollywood got a whiff with Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995), both Tamil films by Mani Ratnam that released Hindi soundtracks—it wasn’t until his Hindi debut Rangeela came out that Bollywood experienced the full impact of Rahman’s genius. The man would go on to compose some of the most memorable soundtracks in contemporary cinema, such as Dil Se…(1998), Taal (1999), Lagaan (2001) around the noughties to the relatively more recent Rockstar (2011) and Highway (2014).
If Rahman pioneered a new sound that was probably impossible to carboncopy, there was brewing alongside a more popular music upheaval that would soon sweep mainstream Bollywood. In 2001, Dil Chahta Hai came as cool breeze with its relatable script and music (courtesy the then-newly formed composer trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who had worked on Mission Kashmir (2000), Rockford (1999) and Shool (1999) previously), almost paving the way for a new breed of films with modern plots that demanded a more youthful musical approach. Some of the earliest films Pritam composed for, such as Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai (2002) and Dhoom (2004) fell in this zone. As did fresh-on-the-block Vishal- Shekhar’s Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi (1999 and Jhankar Beats (2003). The musical overhaul brought by a few of these composers in those few years set a blueprint for what Bollywood music would sound like by and large for the next decade. Their combined discography would introduce millions of uninitiated Indians to rock (Life In A… Metro, 2007; Rock On!!, 2008), sufi rock (the entire Vishesh Films oeuvre in the past decade), flamenco (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, 2011) and bossanova and swing (Barfi!, 2012). And, of course, also birth the scourge that is the Bollywood item song.
“The current commercial sound of Bollywood was shaped by three of us: Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and me,” says Pritam, putting his phone away. “Till today, everybody is following the same template. After our batch, nobody has changed the sound yet. We are, in fact, waiting for someone to change it.”Pritam, the trendsetter?
Bollywood music-making follows a depressing, predictable pattern where a composer that hits the jackpot with a new idea triggers a domino effect among others who try and crack the ‘formula.’ This herd mentality is probably Bollywood’s biggest bane. Fortunately for Pritam, he’s always found himself to be a trendsetter rather than a follower in the game of hits. His track record of chartbusters is unmatched and even some of his shittiest songs have gone on to become humongous hits (remember “Gandi Baat” and “Kaddu Katega”?). How did all this happen? Pritam credits this success to his inherently mainstream sensibilities. “I am a mass-y guy, so most times, I know whether a song will click or not. Also, I like simple stuff. If you give me a complicated idea, I will simplify it. You see, commercial songs have to be simple, because they have to be understood by everyone,” he says, adding, “But there’s a trap there— you can’t get very simple also. So you always have to balance that. To use [filmmaker] Mukesh Bhatt’s golden words, ‘Make the new sound familiar and the familiar sound new.’”
“I am a mass-y guy, so most times, I know whether a song will click or not… If you give me a complicated idea, I will simplify it.” – Pritam
Born into a middle-class family in Kolkata in 1971, Pritam Chakraborty moved to Mumbai in 1997 after completing a degree in sound recording from Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In the first few years of his career, he worked mainly on ad jingles and TV serials, and bagged his first film, the blink-and-miss Tere Liye directed by debutant Sanjay Gadhvi in 2000. He teamed up with fellow struggling composer and neighbor Jeet Ganguly for this project. The duo also worked together on their next film, the fairly successful Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai, before parting ways.
A few well-timed hits early in his career, such as “Sharara” (Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai) and the Dhoom soundtrack was all it took for Pritam to quickly gather more projects. Since Bollywood follows a buy-out system, and not a royalty-based one, most composers use a hit song as a carrot to bag more work. He says, “Our equation in the industry is weird. We are given a package deal and once we are paid the money, our rights are gone. So, everyone tries to clinch as many projects and earn as much money as possible.” In his 15-year career, Pritam has composed for over 100 films, ranging from the utterly entertaining Jab We Met (2007), Ready (2011), Cocktail (2012), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) and more recently, Dangal (2016) to the downright scummy Crook (2010), Bhram (2008) and My Name is Anthony Gonsalves (2008). “Back when I was doing 19 films a year, I produced a lot of trash songs. Even when I would lose interest in the project, I would somehow complete it half-heartedly and send it across,” he says.
Things are quite the opposite now. Today, if a project fails to keep him excited or motivated, he quits it in a heart beat. It’s a privilege he has earned the hard way.
From plagiarist to hit-factory
“I know your last question will be about plagiarism. It’s always the last question,” jokes Pritam, broaching the topic prematurely and rather sportingly so. “See, to be honest, I never thought it [copying] was a problem in Hindi films. As a kid, you saw legendary songs composed by the biggest [Hindi film] directors drawing influences from Western songs. Also, what happened with me was that in 80 percent of the cases, I was asked to remake a particular song, and I remade it. Most times, the director would come with it [the original track]. A lot of times, I was assured by the makers that the rights to the songs will be acquired, but it never happened.”
Pritam’s confessions about his own naivety are both alarming as well as strangely disarming. Although not one to deny he lifted tunes (“Everyone, including my lawyer back then told me that I should deny, lekin mere se nahin hota tha [I couldn’t bring myself to do it]”) he feels a lot of trouble could have been avoided if he had realized the gravity of the situation early on. “It was only in 2009 that I sat back and realized that something had really gone wrong,” he laments. But the damage was done.
Indian music plagiarism tracking site www.itwofs.com alleges 52 instances between 2004 and 2010 where Pritam’s songs are said to be “lifted,” “copied,” “plagiarized” or “similar” to those of tunes by other composers, who range from not-so well-known Arab and South-East Asian artists (such as Ihab Tawfik, Yuri Mrakadi, Kim Hyung-sub et al) to biggies like Boney M. and Damien Rice.
These were Pritam’s most inglorious years; trial by media was only natural. Tabloids splashed him on front pages labeling him the ‘Anu Malik of the new generation’ and YouTube playlists solely dedicated to juxtaposing the original and ‘remade’ tracks started doing the rounds. Pritam became the laughing stock of the industry. “If I didn’t have to do those 10-20 songs, maybe things would have been different,” he regrets. “I used to be so busy; the pressure of delivery was immense and there was no time to fight. Also, I am not a fighting type. So I just closed myself in a cocoon and kept working… But the shadow follows you wherever you go. The baggage carries on and you don’t feel good about it.”
So strong was the backlash that for years to come, the music composer would find his name dragged into even those controversies that had nothing to do with him. Sometimes, he would find himself accused of what he calls the most ludicrous of things, like in 2015, when it was alleged that the sprightly chartbuster “Manma Emotion Jage” from Dilwale was lifted from American girl group Fifth Harmony’s hit “Worth it,” which had released a few months prior. “The only common thing is that both songs feature a trumpet part!” More recently, another one of his compositions, “Bulleya” from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), came under the scanner for being ‘lifted’ from American rock band Papa Roach’s 2000 single “Last Resort.” His defense? “Both songs feature a classic chord progression, which you will find on many other rock songs too. Today, no composer would dare copy a song. Copyright laws are so strong that nobody wants to take a risk.”
So how did Pritam the plagiarist reinvent himself and go onto to become the go-to person for guaranteed hits?
The reasons are many. First, Pritam’s hit-to-miss ratio has been so high and consistent throughout his career that even the worst of plagiarism accusations have barely managed to affect his business as a composer. Till as late as 2010, for filmmakers, nothing really mattered as long as they got a hit song—by hook or by crook—and Pritam kept his promise every single time.
Second, you can hate plagiarist Pritam all you want, but you can’t deny him his talent. The man has a way with sticky tunes like perhaps nobody else in the industry. Even during his most embarrassing years, he managed to deliver one (purely original) hit after another. His versatility and ability to cook up a hybrid soundtrack that has the right amount of rock, reggae, bhangra, sufi, folk and country—and appeals to both tier 3 audiences and hipsters—is remarkable. What else can explain the triumph of Singh Is Kinng (2007), Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani (2009) and Love Aaj Kal (2009)—soundtracks that dominated playlists at sangeet parties and Bollywood club nights for at least a decade?
Third, Pritam enjoys an invincible first-mover advantage that is almost impossible to beat even today. The current indie-meets-mainstream sound that Bollywood still can’t get over—Pritam concocted it. He was the one who pulled Nineties Indipop singers like Mika Singh, Neeraj Shridhar (of Bombay Vikings) and Mohit Chauhan (of Silk Route) into Bollywood, forever changing the playback paradigm of the industry.
Also, since 2010, Pritam has reinvented himself as a visionary who can add value to a film than just work up a tasty recipe for hits. Soundtracks to films such as Dangal (2016), Cocktail (2012), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), R…Rajkumar (2013) and Ready (2011) are definitely more on-point and woven into the script than any of his previous works. He says, “Post all that [plagiarism accusation], I have been very particular. [While working on a song] if someone says that a melody sounds a little like another song, I change it immediately… I have become paranoid…but at the same time, you can’t get back at every faceless person on the Internet who points a finger at you. Whenever there is a face to a name and an accusation is made, my legal team gets back to them with a notice, which is what happened with “Pyaar Ki Pungi.” In 2012, Iranian band Barobax had to withdraw a plagiarism case and even apologize publicly to Pritam and the filmmakers after initially alleging that the Agent Vinod song was copied from their composition “Soosan Khanoom.” Turns out, the songs only share a common groove and this commonality alone couldn’t be used to press charges.
No competition at the top
Thanks to his unbeatable position in the industry, Pritam today doesn’t need to hoard more work than he can handle. In the past, a pile of work also meant relying more on the instinct of his programmers and producers, something which went wrong a lot of times and cost him his reputation. He’s learnt to say no to projects now without having to worry about future work. “The competition is very less. Bahut kaam hai sabke liye [There is a lot of work for everyone]. Today’s composers are not like the older generation—that lot used to fear ki mera kaam chala jayega [someone will take over], and would even badmouth each other.” Currently, he is working on three films—Dinesh Vijan-directed Raabta, Kabir Khan’s Tubelight and Anurag Basu’s much-awaited Jagga Jasoos, which also he calls his most challenging project to date. The Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif-starrer is a Les Miserables-style musical and features 29 songs. “That was at last count; the number keeps varying!” he reveals.
Despite his power, Pritam remains humble to the core and not in awe of his own genius. This, in turn, has made him approachable to all kinds of filmmakers, be it ‘offbeat’ directors like Nitesh Tiwari (Dangal) and Anurag Basu to the more mainstream manufacturers, none of who mind his eccentricities (every now and then the composer is known to go incommunicado, sending everyone into a tizzy, only to resurface with a sheepish smile). In an industry where artists proudly wear their ego on their sleeve, Pritam comes across as a friendly next-door neighbor.
Just last month at Radio Mirchi Music Awards where he won four awards, Pritam was the goofiest, most affable man in the front row, cracking jokes, backslapping fellow composers and cheering on performers. There was not one industry bigwig at the gala event that didn’t vie for his attention; young, glamorous playback singers in flowy ball gowns trekked all the way from their fourth-row seats to exchange pleasantries while industry veterans nudged him to sit beside them. Actors made it a point to walk up to his seat to say hi. Wannabe singers stole opportunities to ambush him and request for a phone number. Socialites demanded selfies. Pritam humored them all. Bollywood loves him. And why wouldn’t it—the music composer ensures, almost in a superhuman way, that every film he takes up has a guaranteed ‘opening.’ Meaning that it does great business in the first three days. Sadly, it is this very desperation for ‘opening’ business that has brought out the worst in Bollywood music.
When soundtrack, not script, is expected to bring business
Back in the day, apart from the composer, it was the director of a film who had the last word on the soundtrack. Things were best when they both worked in tandem. Some of Bollywood’s most ingenious director-composer partnerships have, more often than not, led to musically path-breaking films, be it Mani Ratnam and A.R. Rahman in Roja, Farhan Akhtar and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Dil Chahta Hai or Anurag Kashyap and Amit Trivedi in Dev. D (2009). Today, unfortunately, a film composer has to clear far more approval gateways than ever before. Everyone from the (male) lead of the film to the director and producer(s), as well as the music label distributing the album enjoys a veto nowadays. The many cooks almost always end up spoiling the broth. But not without stooping to their lowest first.
If Chennai Express’s “Lungi Dance” fiasco was anything to go by, Bollywood music-making is now reduced to being a sort of mucky marketplace where a commodity is sold to the highest bidder, or rather, hit-giver. In 2013, it was rumored that both lead actor Shah Rukh Khan and film director Rohit Shetty weren’t happy with the soundtrack exclusively composed by Vishal-Shekhar. Industry talk is that the filmmakers were underwhelmed by the music and fearing bad business ahead, pushed the panic button and brought on board rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh to work on a new ‘hit’ track. Vishal-Shekhar apparently wouldn’t have any of it. But after a whole lot of ugly mudslinging and refuting rumors, business sense prevailed and “Lungi Dance” was included in the soundtrack. Vishal-Shekhar reportedly withdrew from all film promotions.
More recently, it was reported that an anxious Shah Rukh Khan and Zee Music roped in Pritam at the eleventh hour to work on additional tracks for Raees, the soundtrack for which was initially worked on by Ram Sampath. Although Pritam’s name doesn’t feature in the soundtrack, his newly founded composer incubatory Jam8 is credited for “Zaalima,” “Dhingana” and “Saason Ne.”Leave them musicians alone
Although most composers at the top are beginning to safeguard their interests by designing tighter contracts, when panic strikes, frantic filmmakers almost always find ways to break rules. “The Bollywood film business is a three-day game over Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” says Amit Trivedi, one of Bollywood’s most distinct voices and the person behind the fascinating soundtracks for films like Dev D., Udaan (2010), Lootera (2013) and Queen (2014). Curled up on a daybed in his small but snug attic-style studio in Andheri, Mumbai, the music composer counts his blessings he hasn’t been dragged in the filth so far. But he is furious at the way things are going. “These directors and producers have started putting the pressure on the music composers to get them an opening, and when they don’t get a hit [in the initial days after the music releases] they resort to all sorts of unethicial things—they add and remove composers, treat them like commodities. And if they still don’t get a hit, they will take an old song and remix it in the hope that opening mil jayega [the film will do good business in the opening weekend]… I mean dude, wake up! You are in the business of making cinema, not music albums.”
Trivedi blames unreasonable filmmakers and goon labels for the stale sound of Bollywood. It’s simple, he says: making music is a creative exercise and when composers work with a sword dangling over their neck, shit happens. “Jaan mat lo musicians ki, script pe dhyaan do na so your film becomes a success by word of mouth in three days itself [Instead of flogging the music composer, why don’t filmmakers work their script instead?]. Don’t depend on the music alone to bring you business.” Ehsaan Noorani of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy seconds that. “It’s a bizarre logic that people would come to theaters because of a hit song. In their desperation to do 100-crore business, even people [directors/producers] who previously didn’t think like that are now beginning to think this way. It’s absurd!”
Both Trivedi and Noorani rue that some of the biggest composers in the industry have faced this problem. It’s an alarming trend but what is one to do? “At the end of the day, if your music flops, you’re the one who’s going to get fucked,” says Sajid Ali of the composer duo Sajid-Wajid, who are perhaps single-handedly responsible for designing the ‘Salman Khan’ brand of music—they’ve only almost always composed for the mega star, starting from Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya (1998) and Hello Brother (1999) to the Dabangg series and Ek Tha Tiger (2012); their last film with Khan was the tepid Jai Ho (2014). He goes on to drop more truth bombs: “If you fail, everybody will shoot you. The director won’t take you for his next project, the producer won’t entertain you and the star won’t pick up your call!”
Multi-composer soundtracks: Boon or bane?
To increase the probability of securing a hit, filmmakers have increasingly started customizing soundtracks with an assortment of artists, a trend that many composers see as dangerous. The ones who can afford to refuse work have largely stayed away from such projects, unless they’ve been coaxed or tricked into them. Popular opinion is that multi-composer soundtracks may sometimes deliver quick returns but they compromise the overall aesthetic of the film. Says Noorani, “If the music isn’t woven into the film and if the sound isn’t in sync with the script, there’s no point, you know.”
Interestingly, filmmaker-curated customized playlists have become great entry points for newcomers in the industry, who are able to bag one or two songs in one film, a couple in another and so forth. Does this mean Bollywood music is a more democratic place now than before? Not really. The industry does feature more composers today than, say, a decade ago, but most of them are clones of each other who are either following the latest fad or copying the handful of guys at the top. “Almost 90 percent of the people are blind. They follow the hit song,” argues Ali. The running joke is that a certain young composer who delivered a super hit song in the multi-composer soundtrack of a hit film in 2014 has been peddling his bank of songs to so many producers these days that most times, he is clueless as to which song will be picked by whom and appear in which film!
“I don’t see anything groundbreaking happening in the industry.” – Ehsaan Noorani
Those ruling the roost—be it Pritam, Vishal-Shekhar, Amit Trivedi or Shankar- Ehsaan-Loy—are certain they will never work on multi-composer projects. “For me, it’s either all or nothing,” says Trivedi, who is currently composing for Aamir Khan’s next, Secret Superstar, a musical with nine songs; Akshay Kumar starrer and Twinkle Khanna’s debut production PadMan, based on the life of India’s ‘Menstrual Man’ Arunachalam Muruganantham; Habib Faisal’s next; and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Fanney Khan.
Pritam, on his part, admits that if he ever has to share soundtrack credits with other composers, “it won’t be in a happy space.” He would only do it for emotional reasons: “Logically and professionally, it doesn’t make sense, but I would do it for some people with whom I share a special bond, like Sachin-Jigar—they used to assist me—or Arijit (Singh, playback singer), who I am very close to.”
Why Bollywood still doesn’t give a damn about innovation
In the past decade and a half, Bollywood has seen the entry, exit and re-entry of a colossal number of artists. Globalization and the changing milieu of films has brought with it a steady flow of talent that would have zero chances of survival back in the day. It’s difficult to imagine a song like “Badtameez Dil,” made up almost entirely of gibberish lyrics being part of, say, a Nineties potboiler (unless David Dhawan saw gold in it, of course). Or a voice like singer-songwriter Jasleen Royal’s finding representation on the soundtrack of a film, let alone a big-budget production (she featured in the soundtracks for Khoobsurat (2014) and last year’s Baar Baar Dekho and Dear Zindagi). The contribution of new-age lyricists like Amitabh Bhattacharya, Mayur Puri and Ashish Pandit has also been immense.
But sadly, for every gem that the industry throws into spotlight every now and then, there’s a corpus of same-old-shit that it shoves down our throat everyday. Says Noorani, “In terms of music, production and styles, I don’t see anything groundbreaking happening in the industry. I am not hearing anything good.” Trivedi concurs: “There’s no new sound coming out because people want to play safe.”
Pritam feels Bollywood has never really served as an incubator for newbies and that is the reason why the overall standard hasn’t really risen. Determined to change the scene for artists that want to learn the ropes of production and composing, he is currently working on his A&R project called Jam8. “Unlike the West, there is no concept of A&R in India, especially Bollywood. But I am someone who likes to promote new voices,” he says, citing how he pushes some of his more talented programmers and arrangers to turn composers. “I tell them, idhar aur kaam karke fayda nahin hai. [There’s no point wasting your talent in my studio].” Another fight that Pritam wants to take up, he says, is for composers and lyricists to acquire performance and moral rights to their compositions. He feels that the Bollywood music industry provides no incentive for young people to turn content creators, and that is why everyone wants to be a singer at the first chance they get. The latter, according to him, go on to earn a lot more money—mostly off concerts—than say, the composer or the lyricist, who create the track they sing. “If say, I earned five lakhs from a song like ‘Subha Hone Na De,’ Mika has earned minimum 10-15 crores. The difference is too much!” The same is true even for moral rights. He says, “Radios don’t mention the name of composers and lyricists and even ripped-off, pirated MP3s erase metadata that has our credits. So I want to fight for our rights. I really want to change the scene for the younger generation.”
Pritam photographed for ROLLING STONE India by Prabhat Shetty
Jacket and Shoes by United Colors of Benetton; T-shirt by Tommy Hilfiger
Denim jacket by LEVI’S
Knit by G-STAR RAW
Striped jacket by LEVI’S
Art Director: Amit Naik
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair: Team Hakim’s Aalim
Make up: Laxmikanta Vaishnav