#BehindTheLens: Mithoon talks to us about being a music composer, working on Shamshera, and more!

Sakshi Sharma
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How is a song created and what goes on behind the process of making a music album for a film? Music composer, Mithoon spills all the beans about composing in this fun chat.

Music is an art form that's just felt not seen. It connects us all in a weird, unique way that we probably can't even comprehend. The perfect blend of a rhythm with lyrics and music composition that ends up making everyone feel something. What is it about Tum Hi Ho from Aashiqui 2 that still makes it the most beloved song and how is the entire album of Kabir Singh so loved? What came first for Tum Hi Ho, the composition or the lyrics? What was the inspiration behind it? Music composer, Mithoon deep dives into the process of music composing and his varied work and explains the process behind this melodious art form!

Music composition is that invisible yet visible part of the film that makes the soul of the film. Without it, any content will feel bland and tasteless just like sabzi without masala! Most often we listen to songs but don't realize the impact that they have on the storyline. And most importantly, we realize a singer's effort and give them due credit but not the music composer who's the mastermind behind it all. Mithoon explains that a music composer plays the role of a film director when it comes to music. A supremely talented music composer whose musical graph is only increasing day by day, Mithoon creates a lot of music that we currently enjoy on loop. He recently worked on the YRF production Shamshera.

And here's what he had to say!

Also Read: #BehindTheLens: Production Designer Meghna Gandhi talks about designing for Rocket Boys, Pink, Manmarziyaan, and more!

While the singer becomes the face of the music, it's the music composer who's the director of the ship. But what does a music composer really do?

Being a music composer is a multi-faceted job. As you must’ve noticed, we have two terms for the same profession, music composer and music director. They are basically two facets of the job where music composition means creating music in terms of melodies, arrangements, orchestration, and instrumentation and that’s what we call composition. While music director, the term actually comes from broadway which means putting together an entire piece of music. It's directing like what a film director does, directing the actors! So any good director would know the emotion himself about what the actor has to perform, so similarly a good music director would exactly know the emotion of the song that the singer has to perform. The singer as you rightly said, becomes the face of the song but the emotion of every line, every word is something that comes from the music director who directs the singer and the instrumentalist in the way that he wants them to perform and the entire content creation is something the music composer does for a film. 

You come from a musical family. When did you realize that you're really interested in this and want to pursue it professionally?

Initially, as a kid, I always wanted to be a concert pianist, I wanted to perform western classical music on the piano around the world, and Hindustani classical as well. But as time went by, I fell in love with Hindi cinema and its pillars like Guru Dutt, Manmohan Desai, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand, and later on Subhash Ghai, Raj Kapoor, and composers like Madan Mohan Sahab, Naushad Sahab, Rashmikanth Pyaarelal and obviously A.R.Rahman sir. And I felt genuine love and attraction for Hindi cinema, not the glamor and the fame that comes with it. I’m talking about the love for cinema, the love for creating music and putting it onto a reel. So at the age of 16, I decided I wanna be a Hindi cinema composer and I started working towards it.

How did your journey actually begin? What were the first things that you did?

The first thing that I did was I started listening to a lot of Hindi film music, be it the 50s, Husnlal Bhagatram, Shri Ramchandra, Madam Noor Jahan, Suraiyaa Ji, obviously our very own Lata Ji, and then Shankar Jai Kishan, Madan Mohan. Trying to understand what is the job, jaise aapne pehle mujhe pucha ki what does a composer do and if you see the contribution that Naushad Sahab has to a Mughal-E-Azam, you will exactly understand what the job of a music composer is. It literally is parallel to a director if I may say that. So I listen to all these things because it’s very important to go into your history, koi bhi kaam karna ho toh itihaas mein vo kaam kisne kiya, kaise kiya ye jaana bohot zaroori hota hai. So I spent a lot of time listening to it and by the time I was 16, I was already a trained pianist so it was simple for me to grasp and understand the work even technically, and I would re-create and write down a lot of the earlier arrangements, just to see that you know how am I grasping out of it, and by the time I was 18, I was assisting my father for his background scores, and when I turned 19, I signed my first film and never looked back after that. 

So to understand music composing in a practical sense, and take in your recent projects like Shamshera, can you explain what really is the process? Does the script come first? How do you go about it?

I think every composer has their own method of working, and I can only speak for myself. I don’t have a song bank per se but rather I like to work as you said, on a brief. So I always like a copy of the script, or if not that then I need a couple of sessions with the director to understand what he’s looking for from me. Every film is not about creating a so-called hit song, but it’s about understanding the aura of the film, the zameen of the film, and what is the film going to stand for. Every film has its own texture, so the kind of film like Shamshera which is a period film is based in 1871 and hence it has a very different sound to it. Karan Malhotra believes in larger-than-life Hindi cinema, so I have created that kind of sound for the film in every song, the instrumentation, the poetry, the rendition, and understanding of the world of Shamshera, and working according to what the director has in mind. If I am doing something like HIT, I’ve collaborated with Arijit and Sayeed Qadari, so there it’s a very contemporary film. We used a lot of contemporary textures, the poetry is very heartfelt, and it’s about the inner struggles of a police officer, so there’s a lot more silence in those songs because that’s the kind of film it is. The character is not in your face, he’s got a lot of layers to it, he’s got a dark past, so those kinds of things we consider and then we come to the sur of the film and what is the home ground of the film and from there we try and experiment and go into different avenues.

You have also done the background score and lyrics for Shamshera. And for a film like this which is a larger-than-life magnum opus film, how does the process for BGM go because the film is majorly dependent on that as well, given that the audience understands the value and recognition of BGM today?

When I develop the songs for a film, as I said earlier, I’m not trying to create only hit numbers, I’m trying to create the sound of the film, to create the grandeur of the film. So when I did Shamshera, the idea was to create a theme song. The first song is the title song which talks about the largeness of the character, and the courage of the character and that’s why I wrote lines like “saason mein toofano ka dhera”, and in the teaser we got Ranbir to say all of it himself. We made him say “Sasoon mein toofano ka dhera, nigahein jaise cheel ka pehra, koi rok na paaye isse jab ye uthe banke savera”. When you hear these words, you understand that we’re talking about a big character, we’re talking about a man who cannot be stopped, who cannot be challenged, we’re talking about a brave character. We develop these kinds of lines, sounds, and instruments and put them together. Then the background score becomes an extension of these songs. So if you'd experienced Shamshera in the theaters, you would understand the songs are not separate from the BGM, they’re all an extension of each other, and they all convey the same thing, some with vocals, with Sukhwinder Singh’s voice, with Aditya Narayan’s voice, saying the same things but with instruments, so they all are contributing to the same emotional experience. 

Aashiqui 2 and Kabir Singh are probably your most record-breaking film albums to come out and considering that these films did well because of the music, I would love to understand what went behind making the music for these films.

The process is more or less the same from my side. When I was doing Aashiqui 2 there was no intention behind making the biggest song of the decade or whatever people call a song like Tum Hi Ho, but the idea was to create something which is very honest, which is very original, and which is very true to its character in the film. So Mohit Suri and I spent a lot of time working and talking about the characters of Aashiqui 2, we talked about RJ or about Aarohi, talking about that how they both were really kids at heart, they really fell in love like children and obviously a lot of complications in their relationship, probably the age difference, alcoholism that was there and the changing career graph. RJ is going down and Aarohi is going up, so all of these complications added to the layers but at the same time they were just kids at heart who were just madly in love with each other. These things are very important when you talk about getting the right emotion for a song. So Mohit Suri and I spent a lot of time understanding how the music should be, we spoke about life, we spoke about relationships, we used to chat about our own life sometimes, and then he would leave me alone and I remember one quiet afternoon I was sitting, there was nobody at the studio apart from me, I was on my piano and I just came up with this melody, it just came in my head (continues to sing the melody).

And it just felt right. I discussed this with Mohit once again and he told me that what if we used words like Tu Hi Hai or Tum Hi Ho or it is just you and nobody else for me, even if the relationship structure is not right, there are a lot of challenges but my heart is not gonna accept anybody else now life means you, Zindagi ab Tum Hi Ho. So all of it just came out of a conversation, and the greatest poetry comes out always of the conversation. And finally, we put together a song and we delivered it, not knowing what’s gonna happen. I never expected Tum Hi Ho to become such a big song in the world actually when I traveled to the US in 2014, I saw the song play over there. I saw American bands, German bands, and Irish bands cover the song, many contemporary Arabic musicians also covered the song. So the process is very simple and very honest, you just wait back and watch what happens after that. 

How do you feel when you get such a great reception to a song or an album? I still love listening to Maula Mere Maula to date. How does it feel when your songs go across periods of time?

I feel great, honestly, because ultimately the purpose is the connection, the purpose is you want your music to reach as many people as it can, you want it to speak to as many people as it can. So it has been great for me and also music has never been about the fame or the numbers but it's about the connection with the people, so the more it is the better for me. So when a song is hit, it’s hit because a lot of people connect to it so I really love that feeling. The first song that I heard of mine playing in an auto was Tere Bin from Bas Ek Pal and it just felt so great that my song is playing in an auto. These kinds of moments are what an artist lives for and I just wanna keep doing this, I just wanna make music that people connect with, that’s extremely important for me. 

You mentioned how closely you work with the director for a film. How has your experience been of working with them? Do you have any favorites?

I can’t point out anybody because everybody has their own way of working but I like directors who sit and give me time and who collaborate with me in a way that really brings out the best in me. I really enjoyed working with Karan Malhotra because I think he brought out a side in me that probably I also did not know existed. He brought out a very expressive side to my music. And I love working with Mohit Suri because he works with my silences very well. I am working with Anil Sharma for Gadar 2, and he’s a veteran, I mean he has done work even before I was born. So I’m loving the space that he is giving me and he is allowing me to keep the music of Gadar 2 very contemporary at the same time, keeping his sensibilities intact. So with different people it's different like I worked with Sandeep Reddy Vanga on Kabir Singh and Sandeep as we all know he’s very expressive, he doesn’t restrain himself and that’s why the poetry of Kabir Singh, there were words like ‘Cheen loonga’ ‘Rab ko maine keh diya’ ‘ Tere sath ho jaayenge khatam’. It was very out there, very unrestrained, that’s because of the influence Sandeep had on me. So I like these kinds of directors who give me time and understanding because I don’t really like to function out of a song bank.

The lyrics of any music is a mix of your conversation with the director and your conversation with the script or brief, correct?

Absolutely! Bang on! I think it's a mix of both. Because what I speak to the director helps me understand what is he looking for and when I spend time with the script it adds my interpretation to it. I don’t want to be a puppet or a machine so a director constantly keeps on coming to me to tell me what they want. My interpretation, my perspective, and the way I see those characters add something to the film, right? So I think it’s a mixture of both!

Moving on from working with directors to working with singers who ultimately become the face of the music, how is the process with them considering you have worked with Arjit Singh and Atif Aslam?

I think the process is the same for me when I work with any singer for that matter. Arijit and Atif in fact both had their first songs with me so there’s a lot of emotional value that I share with both of them. The process is the same for me, it’s not really different for different singers. In fact, I’m very grateful my singers understand the way that I work and they respect the space and time that I need. Initially, I worked with a lot of new singers because I needed time, I wanted singers to give me time. So the relatively new singers, aspiring singers could give me a lot of time. So today that is something that I still I need from my singers. I need them to understand where am I coming from, what's the journey of the song, what kind of expression, what kind of tone, and what kind of projection I am looking for, and that sometimes takes time so I think the process is very simple. Just give me time and I’m glad that all my singers respect that and that just brings the best out of them and the best in me as well. 

You're majorly a music composer but you sing as well. Does wearing two hats interfere with each other while working?

Not really. I don’t sing too much but yes, singing is a part of my job profile, so if I have to sing a song, I have to. I always tell my singers that the closer you are to me the better. That’s what I want, I want someone who can bring my expression to the table obviously adding your own character to it as well. But when I sing myself, I just react to what I’m feeling. If I'm feeling good then it’s good, if I'm not feeling good then it's not my song and I have to get somebody else for it. 

AR Rahman sir once spoke about his inspiration and how he finds music in even the leaves moving when the wind blows past through them. Where do you draw inspiration from?

Rahman sir is a guru for a lot of people from my generation so when he says something like that we definitely agree with that. And obviously, we all have learned through the process of hearing music and I think as you evolve in life you realize music is actually shruti, when you talk of shruti or when you talk of dhwani, or you talk of naad as we call it in Sanskrit, I think it's there everywhere. I think the most important element for me is I think the human side of music, not the performance side. Because we talk of stories, stories of people like you and me. So when I can touch on that aspect, that really inspires me, then I can understand the character’s silence or the brashness of a character. When I did Ji Huzoor from Shamshera, so Ranbir also is playing Balli in the film and when you look at him he is brash, he is nonsensical. He is out there and he doesn’t really care whether you like him or not, he’s not giving you an option. So when I try to reach out to that character through my music I try to bring out that element, so when my director listens to the song he should hear Balli, he should hear his brashness. So that process of translating human emotion into sonic music is very inspiring for me. 

While people have their favorite numbers, what's that one melody that's your favorite from your journey?

They keep changing actually, on different days I’m excited about different songs that I have done. Since you’ve asked me this question, currently my song from Shamshera which is a qawwali called Kaale Naina has me very excited because it is my interpretation of a genre called Hindi film qawwali. When you talk of songs like Parda Hai Parda or Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahi, or Haal Kya Hai Dilon Ka Naa Pucho Sanam, they come under a genre called Hindi film qawwali which isn't a pure qawwali but it's a modified form. And this is the first time I’ve done a song like that which is sung by Neeti Mohan and Shadaab Faredi and Sudesh Bhosale Ji as well. So I’m really excited about the song that I could do something like that and I’m waiting to see how people feel about it. 

Music that you currently like which isn't created by you.

I’m really tripping on Phir Na Aisi Raat Aayegi by Pritam and Amitabh Bhattacharya, sung by Arijit. It's from Laal Singh Chaddha and it's a beautiful song. 

Do you have any favorite melody in English?

Not really, I don’t listen to a lot of English music, I don't relate to the English language as such even though I speak a lot. But when it comes to music, I relate to Hindi or music of our languages, whether it is Tamil, obviously music of Rahman sir, Harris Jairaj, MM Kreem, and the music of Sali Chaudhary, especially the music that he’s done in West Bengal. Robindo sangeet is the work of the master, of Gurudev as we call him and Gujarati folk music, Sorghum sangeet and obviously the Rajasthani maand, and the poetry of Punjab, I think this is what inspires me and I think it just drives me insane. 

Since directors are very important for a music composer to work with, is there any director that you really look forward to working with?

I’m just feeling blessed right now because I’m getting to do every kind of music that I want to do. I have a project lined up with Mohit Suri, then I am doing a film with Dharma Productions, I am doing something with Anil Sharma, and I am also working with Revathi Ji from the south. So I’m really content with the kind of music I’m doing and anybody, any director who has the vision to do real or original music, that’s very important, with all humility I’ll be happy to be at their service.

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