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Mohan Kannan: It’s tough to deliberately sound bad

Updated on: 15 May,2023 07:25 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sonia Lulla |

Accompanied by Chandan and Abbas while discussing The Playback Singer, composer Mohan on his tryst to find a singer who could convincingly trace the protagonist’s journey from being a novice to a skilled musician

Mohan Kannan: It’s tough to deliberately sound bad

Chandan Roy Sanyal, Mohan Kannan and Abbas Tyrewala

In what may best be termed as a glimpse into the collaborative conversations that take place within the studio as they join hands for The Playback Singer, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Mohan Kannan and Abbas Tyrewala pique curiosity with the promise of transporting us back to the ’90s as they narrate a tale of music and ambition. 

In this interview, they discuss the making of the project that promises to present a musical that film aficionados will remember.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Chandan, you’ve stated in past interviews that you believe the genre of romantic musicals has gone amiss. What do you think has gone wrong? 
Chandan: I wouldn’t say anything has particularly gone wrong. When I was growing up in the ’90s, and wasn’t exposed to world cinema, my father would listen to music by [Mohammed] Rafi, Kishore Kumar, and Manna Dey. It was always about music, and story-telling through music. If the music isn’t good, audience members would sneak out for a smoke, return and say that they couldn’t comprehend the film. That [magic] is now missing. Now, it’s all about collaborations. You never have two hands come together to take a story forward, in the way that Mohan and Abbas have come together. It’s all about understanding what the character feels, and how they take the story forward. 

Mohan, as a musician, you would probably have an opinion on the best way to approach a musical?
Mohan: Chandan had involved me in the production work right from the beginning; it has been six years now. Abbas and I have worked together in different capacities; as co-musicians and a director [and composer] too. 
In this film, the storytelling goes ahead with music. We are back to lip-syncing. Casting a singer has become important, like it was in the past. For instance, if Kishore Kumar sang a song for an actor, it appeared that that voice belonged to that actor. 

Chandan: When Mohan would explain [a song] to the singer, I could see him help them understand its emotion. A singer may be skilled, but to help them find the voice of the character is a different process. That’s what you will get to see in this film. The characters blend with the music, which blends with the story, and the film. 

What was the difference in your approach to creating music for the ’90s?
Mohan: In ’92, cassettes were on the way out, and CDs were in. In the ’80s, people started to record singers and musicians separately. That was a change that began to happen. Also, AR Rahman entered the industry then, and changed its soundscape. With Roja, not only did he introduce a distinct south Indian flavour to music, but there was a difference in the production too. For me, this was exciting. I’d keep telling Chandan that [we could divide the music of the film] into pre and post Rahman. That was an idea I held in my mind. I was excited to show such a varied soundscape.

To highlight my point further, I’d discuss casting the [voice for] the lead female character, Suman. We are showing her journey from being a less confident singer, with a raw voice, to one who goes to auditions, and finds her place on the [stage of the finale round of a competition]. I had to find a singer who could do justice to  this journey with her voice — showcase rawness in the early part of the film, and then mould it into a mature voice as she became better. This was tough, because it’s tough to fake that and make a singer sound bad, deliberately. So, I had to make a composition that was not in the singer’s comfort zone, so that she could sound raw, but good. 

Abbas: In commercial cinema, it is not like we don’t have musicals. But, [makers focus on] songs that play a role in marketing instead of those that take a story forward. Now, we consider a film a musical if it has popular songs. But this may not be accurate. Our film, of course, is one that uses music to take the story forward. Working on it has hence been enjoyable. 

To give you an example of how we are approaching it, we have been discussing our take on one of the songs, which will be in either Malayalam or Tamil. We are considering how we should approach the song-writing for the translated Hindi version. The lyricists then, were not very accomplished, so, the writing wouldn’t sound as polished as a piece written by Gulzar would. We are wondering if our translation should hence be one that doesn’t seem polished or well-rounded, as it was then. We aim to capture the same feel. That is an enriching process. 

Mohan: Also, we are trying to create a back story for each song. In one [of the early] scenes, she sings for a few people on her terrace. We’ve given thought to why she would sing that song, which is one that her grandmother would sing to her. And the reason is that because it’s a song she has known since her childhood, she’s comfortable singing it. As the film progresses, and her personality changes, you can see her become confident and ambitious. At that point of time too, we have thought about why she would select the songs that she does. 

Since this film tells the tale of a female protagonist, was there ever the need to get a female musician’s input for the music or the narrative?
Abbas: I came on board late, but, I think Chandan and Mohan would not have thought about it in terms of selecting a male or female [writer]. It’s an interesting question — to consider if a female lyricist would capture something about the [protagonist’s] frame of mind, but as a storyteller, I’d like to think I am accomplished in telling the stories of women too.

Mohan: When we jammed with the singer, we could see her character [shine]. When she rendered it, the song was built differently too; it took shape. The singers I know are extremely talented. When they come on board, they add character to a song in every way. 

Is there something else with regard to the music-making process that you’d like the readers to know about?
Mohan: We want to release the songs in the same order that they appear in the film, so that the viewers can understand how the film proceeds. We also don’t want the process to become too intellectual where the emotions get [camouflaged]. This is also my tribute to a lot of the artistes I have grown up doting on, like Rahman, Jagjit Singh, and Ilaiyaraaja, among others. For me, to create something that pays tribute to them, without aping them, is gratifying. 

Also Read: 'The Kerala Story' crosses Rs 100 crore-mark at domestic box office

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