We will rock you
The coolest cats of indie rock, Uday Benegal and Siddharth Basrur, on their acting debut with Aadyam's #SingIndiaSing
Rockers are the luckiest sods in the world. They get the screaming fans, the hall of fame, the women. So, when actor Suchitra Pillai asks this writer, "I want to know why only these two are being interviewed," indicating Indus Creed frontman Uday Benegal and prog rocker Siddharth Basrur, playwright (and mid-day columnist) Rahul daCunha cuts in, "They're rockers, yaar."
Pillai, Benegal, Basrur and a few other actors are rehearsing in Khar for #SingIndiaSing, an upcoming musical to be staged in October, which has been written by DaCunha and 'Bugs' Bhargava Krishna, and directed by Nadir Khan (12 Angry Jurors). The plot follows a bunch of singers competing against each other to win a televised singing contest. The writers had conceived the play eight years ago. "There's a reason why it took so long," says DaCunha.
"Because every three years, something came into the system that made it richer. In 2010, reality shows weren't that big. Bigg Boss came in, and became an asset to the musical. The power of the Internet wasn't there in its Twitter and troll form. Each phase in India's growth has added to the story. It needed the last eight years for the urgency, for the country to change, for the Internet to get more vicious."
The cast of #SingIndiaSing includes 11 actors and 18 dancers
As a musical, #SingIndiaSing crosses genres — rock, pop, Bollywood, Carnatic and hip-hop. There's no lip-syncing and no spoken dialogue: it is a narrative, but in song form. Benegal and Basrur, who were approached to play the leads last year, are aware that they aren't actors. Benegal admits as much to Basrur, "I'm probably a shi***er actor than you are."
But the opportunity was too good, and too rare, to pass up. "In principle, I said yes, because I'm always up for something new," says Benegal. "Of course, Clinton [Cerejo] being the music composer was very reassuring because the music will be of a certain standard."
Branson meets Ambani
Basrur plays Vishnu, "this quintessential, angry rocker, who's trying to use his anger for the greater good," says Basrur. "He is extremely righteous. A little too righteous." Benegal plays Channel, a media baron, along the lines of Richard Branson. DaCunha says, "He's the younger Ambani. He's not Mukesh, looking at [only those] businesses that will 100 per cent make money. He's Anil who thinks of himself as a little sexy." DaCunha had locked Basrur in his mind eight years ago, but Channel took some time to cast.
"Channel became truly interesting because we didn't have a genre of music sorted for him," he says. "We wrote this song called Ching Ching, where Channel needs help and he sings to god. We see his roots as it were. So even though in life he is quite a sophisticated guy, eventually he is Tirupati. When Clinton composed it, we knew there's only one guy in this city who could play the part."
Benegal has another theory on his casting. "The first time they played the music, [DaCunha told us], 'We kept in mind your personalities and created these characters around them.' Suddenly, a revelation happened: Rahul thinks I'm a ba****d, because that's what my character is." DaCunha wisecracks, "We thought a lot: who's a ba****d in the rock world?"
To give them due credit, Benegal and Basrur have stepped out of their comfort zone for #SingIndiaSing. They've been through a few essential movement and character workshops, and inessential — according to me — vocal training. But, Basrur corrects us, "After I started coming to Marianne [D'Cruz Aiman, vocal coach], I realised that my technique is extremely wrong. I have been putting unnecessary strain on my vocal chords. There are so many muscles you can use to propel sound."
Benegal says, "Marianne has certainly introduced me to a whole new universe. With each of us, she's analysing our voices and figuring out where our strengths and weaknesses are, and employing techniques to smoothen those things. It's helping me in my regular stuff. I felt it very much at my gig in Delhi recently. Every time I would slip back into the pattern of the old ways, I would consciously bring back Marianne's technique about taking the pressure off the larynx."
Horror of horrors, Basrur also had to take dance lessons. Benegal says, supportively, "Arre, he's become a champ." Basrur adds, "I have two left feet. It took me a while to loosen up. On [a song called] Citylights, I was doing almost everything the dancers were doing, but I just could not keep up with them. So, they stripped, stripped away and now it's barely like 20 per cent of what it was. I'm actually enjoying it."
DaCunha got his dream cast, because before being their leader, he's their fan. "When I hear these two guys sing, I can't explain it," he says. "All my favourite rockers, like Chris Cornell, their ability to scream, they're going into some foghorn situation, and then they go ballad. You think that can't be the same voice. It's another level of control, where you're going up five octaves and then you [climb down]. Sid has that. He has two songs, one where he goes insane with screaming, and then he sings the most poignant song. The rock voice when it goes into ballad mode, it kills me."
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