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“Arijit Singh was destined to sing Akhiyaan Milavanga” – Mannan Shaah

Photo Credit: Supplied

Mannan Shaah’s “Akhiyaan Milavanga” from ‘Commando 3’ is being hugely appreciated by critics and the masses. Following the box-office success of the movie, the song is reaching new heights. The music composer and singer, who has earlier worked on the music of the ‘Commando’ franchise and ‘Namaste England’ (2018), opens up humbly and honestly about his style of work in the past and now, the work which went behind composing for ‘Commando 3’ and assisting Pritam Chakraborty.

There are praises coming from every corner for “Akhiyaan Milavanga” for ‘Commando 3’. You knew this song would work, didn’t you? Are you overwhelmed by the response?
Well yes I was somewhere sure and confident that “Akhiyaan Milavanga” would be well received by the audiences but honestly, I was never expecting it to become this big! I mean, it’s a rage to another level and that came as a big surprise for me. More and more people have been singing covers and sharing it on other platforms like internet, radio, etc. In almost 15 days since the song has released, there are more than 200 covers already available online and it’s a big achievement for a song like “Akhiyaan Milavanga”. Firstly because the song is a part of a non-musical action film franchise and secondly it is a difficult song to sing! I’m overwhelmed by the fact that cover singers chose “Akhiyaan Milavanga” as their cover song. It is definitely a challenge to cover it. Even had I been a cover artist, I would have thought twice before covering such a tough song. It has its roots towards classical music and I’m actually stunned and excited to tell you that the song has helped to discover such new and amazing talent all over the country! So that is I believe the biggest victory of the song.

It is quite well-known that you and Arijit share a very long friendship as you both assisted Pritam (Pritam Chakraborty) back in the days. Tell us a bit more about that and why you waited for so long to use his voice.
Arijit and I always wanted to collaborate and we’ve been discussing about that for a long time now. We just needed the right song to collaborate and I believe “Akhiyaan Milavanga” is a perfect song to begin our association. I missed him a lot in the ‘Namaste England’ (2018) album. I wanted to make him sing a song but unfortunately our dates were clashing as he was busy with concerts and I was busy with the release of the ‘Namaste England’ songs. But this time we were lucky to come together and now it’s going to be never ending. We’ll work on many songs and they all will be very challenging melodies as well. We want to make our association a special one every time we come together for something. We used to have a ball of a time working with Pritam Da. Late night music jams, recordings, mixing and mastering sessions. We both used to sing scratches for Pritam Da and I remember at that time also he used to sing scratches in one single take or max two takes. He was a perfectionist even then. And at the same time, he’s a wonderful human being. It is inspiring to know a person so talented and gifted as he is. I’m blessed to have a friend in him.

If Arijit Singh was not available for “Akhiyaan Milavanga”, who else could have done justice to the song?
Arijit was my first and the only choice for this song. I couldn’t think of anyone else besides him. The nuances and detailing the song required, I feel only he could pull it off with so much heart, passion and intensity. So had he not been available, I would’ve waited for him to be available to sing the song. He was destined to sing it and it just happened!

On which basis did you decide to zero in Sruthy Sasidharan for “Akhiyaan Milavanga”?
Sruthy has a certain maturity in her voice which I believe was perfect for the song. I was sure I wanted to cast a newcomer for the female part as I believe she would bring freshness to the tonality of the song. Sruthy had approached me last year with her voice samples and I was pleasantly surprised with the immense talent that she has! She had sent me a Carnatic Scat sung by her which left me stunned! I was totally blown away by it. So the moment I heard it, I decided to try her voice for “Akhiyaan Milavanga”. She dubbed her part from Kerala where she stays and sent it to me. Right from the first take, I was sure about her voice. Besides that, I feel she sounds superb with Arijit and compliments him with a lot of passion.

It appears that the other track you composed for ‘Commando 3’, “Main Woh Raat Hoon” sung by Ankit Tiwari got side-lined. I personally find it to be another high-quality composition. The way you ended the song is also very creative. Your thoughts?
It hasn’t been side-lined as such. It has a certain reach of its own and it is slowly reaching out to its audience. It is a situational melody and I purely made it as an experiment. I’m glad you like the song and I’m happy you understood the depth behind it especially as you pointed it towards the end of the song. That was the idea. The melody I wanted to keep it very simple and straight. I wanted to mainly play with the sound part of it. The music arrangements, thanks to my arranger Prasad Sashte, are the main parts of it which I believe have been instrumental in creating a drama in the visuals and at the same time I feel Ankit Tiwari has sung it beautifully. Abhendra Kumar Upadhyay has also written it very well. The song has inspired me from some of the great international classic numbers like “I Know You Baby” from ’50 Shades Of Grey’, “Carnival Of Rust” by Poets Of The Fall, also the title track of ‘Skyfall’. It’s a dark pop and rock spaced number which I believe has been rarely explored in our music scene. I feel we needed to have a Hindi song in this kind of a genre. There have been some really beautiful Hindi songs in the past of the same genre like “Gumnaam Hai Koi” from ‘Gumnaam’ (1965) sung by Lata Mangeshkar, then there was “Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil” from the film ‘Bees Saal Baad’ (1962) which is of a similar genre, again sung by Lata Ji. I’m highly inspired by such classics and the composers of these songs, Shankar-Jaikishan and Hemant Kumar respectively. The way they used to create a certain thrill in these melodies and the way they used to design the situation was unimaginable and unbelievable!

You are quite pedantic with the singers you select for your compositions. Explain the importance of having the right voice for your compositions.
Casting a voice is as important as casting an actor for a film. A voice represents a song just like an actor representing a film! One needs to be always aware about casting the right voice for a song. The song gets its own voice to express itself with the right singer. I believe we are all instruments of the song, right from the composer to the writer to the singer to every single player or technician, whomsoever is working on it, they’re only working for that one song till it is ready for release.

‘Namaste England’ (2018) did not do well at the box office and somewhere your music did not get its right due as you mentioned you worked really hard on this project. How do you deal with setbacks so early in your career?
I was unhappy with the performance of ‘Namaste England’ as a film. But I will always be proud of the music of ‘Namaste England’. It was one of the Top 5 leading albums of 2018 commercially and the audience here still listens to it and it’s a favourite amongst the listeners even today, be it “Tere Liye” or “Dhoom Dhadakka” or any song for the matter! I believe the music scene in our country has drastically changed and the music albums nowadays dissociate from the film irrespective of the film’s performance, thanks to the growth of the independent music scene. If the music is attractive to listeners, they’re bound to hear it. Biggest examples are ‘Delhi-6’, ‘Jab Harry Met Sejal’, ‘Salaam-E-Ishq’ and of course ‘Namaste England’ as well. I wished the film performed well. But ups and downs are a part and parcel of every creative person’s life. Even a legend like Steven Spielberg has given umpteen number flops. So the failure of one film doesn’t affect a creative person. I believe it motivates to perform even better!

Don’t you sometimes feel that your songs can reach a wider audience if they are picturized on popular stars like Varun Dhawan, Tiger Shroff and Ranveer Singh and if you work with bigger banners?
There are actually two sides to it. There are some songs which only require versatile actors to represent them as they’re more performance oriented; for example, dance numbers. Now a dance number needs a real good choreography and performance by your actor and at the same time it requires a lot of grace from an actor to pull it off swiftly. Even songs which have lip-syncing to it, they can be soft numbers too, they need a strong performance. I don’t believe that having a star or a big known A-Listed actor can make your song! Yes, all they can contribute by making the song reach a large audience in a short span of time. But after it has reached an audience, it is strongly the merit of the song that makes it work. Yes, I would definitely love to have a song with all these wonderful actors you mentioned. It would be a dream to collaborate with them.

What new music trends did you observe since the release of ‘Namaste England’ (2018) and how many of them do you approve or disapprove?
I don’t approve or disapprove of any trend. A trend is a trend and it kicks in and fades out with time. It is like a sea wave. It is that temporary in its approach. I believe in creating something fresh for my listeners and eventually if that becomes a trend, then that is what gives me a creative high. Trends are for analysts, not for creators. I believe in creation and the world is full of abundant creativity. As long as you create something of your own, it is certainly going to be accepted by the ones receiving it. Liking it or not is another terrain and that needs to be left to the ones receiving it as they’re the best ones to decide what works for them. It’s theirs, they’re the owners of it. I remember once Pritam Da told me, he told me that your song is your own song only till you are working on it. Once the song releases, it’s no more your own song.

What memories do you have when you sang for “Badal Pe Paaon” and “Thoda Sa Pyaar” under Pritam for ‘Kucch Luv Jaisaa’ (2011)?
Both are my favourite songs. I still have listeners coming and telling me about “Thoda Sa Pyaar”. They listen to it in their cars or on their iPods even today! Even “Badalon Pe Paon” is a special song to me. Pritam Da and Irshaad Kamil Ji are my favourite composer-lyricist duo and I’m fortunate to have sung for them at the very beginning stage of their collaboration. I was assisting Pritam Da then and I was fortunate to have bagged both songs.

Is it easier to compose for films or advertisements (ads)?
Both are a different ball game altogether. Composing for ads is another zone of music. Here in ads, you create for a client and to serve his requirement of the product which he would want to sell in the market. All your client knows is the saleability of his product when he is merchandising it.

Cinema is far bigger and beyond a product. It is the biggest source of entertainment after cricket in India. So I personally do not see it as a product. And that needs to be clearly known and understood in depth! Composing for a film is a very time-consuming task and there’s a lot more creative space and freedom given to every composer or a creative person working in the interest of a feature film. Filmmaking is today considered as amongst the toughest job in the world. A filmmaker is the captain of the ship for a strong reason. He has to take care of every department of the film right from writing to cinematography to music to editing to final mixing and mastering, etc. And a lot more associated to it. He has to keep audiences glued and entertained to the 70MM screen for those 2-3 hours. It is just that one big Friday he keeps waiting for all round his journey while he makes a film and so does everyone working for the film too and composer isn’t an exception either.

What has been the most challenging ad jingle you composed for?
I’ve recently scored for an advertisement called ‘Cricket Date With Dad’ for Thomas Cook, directed by Prashant Bhagia. It was quite challenging as there were many changes and suggestions from the client and I almost scored 2 to 3 versions of it as the client wanted to take a different route to it. It was a wonderful experience though. And all kudos to my director Prashant who is extremely talented and I believe will be making a feature film very soon.

You seem to be very interested in exploring independent music. Why? Can a composer focus on both, i.e. film music too?
I’ve always had a dream to collaborate with multiple artists all over the country. We have such rich music here. Every state has its own folk music and there are variety of musicians. There is immense talent in our country. I want to collaborate with these amazing musicians over various tracks and record with them. And yes, a music composer can focus simultaneously on film music alongside independent work. It isn’t really a task here. There are no deadlines in either of them. You have been given your own creative space to design your songs so in a way that isn’t really a challenge. Yes in advertisements, there are deadlines but the content barely one fourth of a song or even less than that, so the whole process is quite fast.

Being a composer, what do you think are the limitations of your voice?
I don’t see any limitations in my voice as such. I don’t see any limitation in any form of creation. I accept creativity the way it is. Everyone is unique. Everyone has a certain way of being uniquely creative. So is the same with singing too. If one person can’t sing something which the other can, that doesn’t mean that he has a limitation. At least I don’t see any limitation. Seeing it as a limitation would mean bringing in unnecessary comparison and grading to a talent. I’m someone who believes in a talent and I always try to see the best out of that talent rather than comparing. You see that is where competition arises. All these competitions are nothing but comparing a talent with another which is why I personally don’t endorse any of these because this is what will create limitations in our very thinking.

Does working with a new lyricist like Saahil Sultanpuri bring something new in your music?
Of course. It adds to a lot of freshness to the way the song is supposed to be. Lyrics always add character to the melody. Working with Sahil was I believe one of my best decisions I had taken. He brought in a completely new dimension to “Akhiyaan Milavanga” and that is what the song needed. It is actually the song that chose its lyricist and not me.

You eventually decided to become a full-fledged composer after assisting Pritam for two years. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for your career if you had assisted Pritam for a few more years to acquire more experience?
Those two years were equivalent to five years of assisting because we worked on more than 25 films only in those two years when Pritam Da was at the peak of his career. He was into another zone altogether and I consider myself the luckiest to have been working with him in those two years. I met almost every industry technician and musician working on his songs. It became a lot easier for me to approach a musician to record him for my own song later as they knew me personally by then.

The programming and structure of your songs may sometimes sound very much like Pritam. Are you going to take this comment as a compliment or constructive criticism? Explain your stand.
Is it? Well, honestly you are the first person to tell me this (Laughs). But anyway, I’d be happy if it does. I personally don’t think it sounds similar to his songs. He’s explored a lot into music now and is a legend already. I get inspired by his and Rahman (A.R. Rahman) Saab’s way of sound designing. On the sound and programming part, both are my role models.

What was the hardest assignment you worked on while assisting Pritam?
All were tough. Every album was special. I guess ‘Once Upon A Time In Mumbai’ and ‘Action Replayy’ were the most challenging then.

Many music composers, singers and lyricists today are managed by PR agencies. Do you believe in PR? Why or why not?
I never used to earlier believe in PR. But lately I’ve been doing it as I feel it’s a big platform to reach out to a wider audience to talk about what you’re doing. I do it to make myself and my work reach out to especially people who are not very well versed or are not very active on social media.

Talking about Indian instruments, how do you incorporate the tabla into your songs? For example, in “Ziddi Hai Dil” from ‘Namaste England’, you have used the tabla in the ‘antara’.
The tabla brings in an emotional factor to “Ziddi Hai Dil”. We had planned the song keeping in mind the situation where the song was a montage which was shot in London on various location and was majorly concentrated on the separation of the protagonists. So it was an emotional moment and the tabla I believe adds a tremendous emotional value to a melody which had majorly psychedelic trance and house kind of a sound to it. The tabla just completed the whole song. The tabla has this very tricky thing about it where if given the right kind of a sound space can do wonders! With “Ziddi Hai Dil”, it did wonders and till today, I’m happy with the decision to introduce it in the ‘antara’ as I feel it just pleasantly surprises me as a listener.

What is the formula for composing a ‘hatke’ song in 2019?
The only formula to compose a ‘hatke’ song or a fresh song is a strong melody. A melody is the soul of any song. The stronger the melody the fresher your song will be. Lyrics add character to the melody followed by the right kind of sound which just decorates the whole song. But without a strong melody nothing can work. And this has continued for ages! So may it be 2019 or any year, a strong melody will always play an important role in construction of a song.

Are you keen on collaborating with international artists and what additional value do they add to your songs?
Of course I want to collaborate with international artists. We recorded Rasa-Lila Buniatyan for “Akhiyaan Milavanga” who played an Armenian folk instrument called ‘The Qamancha’. Rasa is a brilliant artist and a very talented musician. She brought in a certain depth to the track which was much needed for the song. So yes, it would be my pleasure to collaborate with any international artist.

You are trained in Indian classical music under Late Pandit Vinayak Vora and you learned singing under Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan. How does all that training aid in producing quality music?
I trained under my Late Guru Pandit Vinayak Vora for 11 years and that was one of the turning points of my life. He brought out the composer in me. He was the one who was instrumental in recognising my skills as a musician and the kind of knowledge I attained from training under him, I would’ve been a lesser musician had he not been in my life. And of course with my present Guru Padma Vibhushan Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan Sahab, I have had some of the best moments of my life accompanying him on the Tanpura in many of his concerts apart from those amazing ‘riyaaz’ (vocal practice) sessions I had under him. He’s a father figure to me and it is he who made me believe in my singing capabilities and without him I wouldn’t have sung anything! He taught me the real meaning of ‘riyaaz’ and what music actually is! For him, music is a universal language and classical, jazz, pop, etc., they’re all chapters of it. As per him, music is a celebration of life and one of the greatest gifts God has ever granted to mankind and because of these values and deeds taught to me by him, I am what I am today. Khan Sahab holds a special place in my heart and I truly love him from the bottom of my heart.

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