Konkona is an amazing director, we connected beautifully: Sagar Desai

Sagar Desai grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Jamming on paper, carpeting and guitars with his cousins from an early age, he finally managing a keyboard at the age of 16. His musical journey then took him to Madras and then Mumbai. After working with such names as Pritam, Sandesh Shadliya, Vishal-Shekhar, Sivamani, Aadesh Shrivastav he final struck out on his own with the film 'Mixed Doubles' by Rajat Kapoor. We spoke to Sagar at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival where his latest work as a music composer ‘A Death in the Gunj’ directed by the massively talented Konkona Sen Sharma had its world premiere.

The film is deeply seeped in atmospherics. What was the brief given to you by Konkona?
Firstly Konkona had me read the script ahead of time. I actually composed most of the music based on the script and most of what I had composed originally ended up staying in the film. Her brief to me was specific to the setting, the time, the place and the people. When I read the script I understood the tone of the film. She made me hear a flute piece from a film called ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock.’ That was her one musical reference to me, the quality of that flute which we used in a couple of places in the film.

How was it collaborating with Konkona to create the music for the film?
It was extremely smooth. Konkona is such an amazing director. We connected beautifully and understood each other from the beginning. Together we were able to discover and work on particular nuances that elevated the musical score. It was creatively a lot of fun and I don’t say that frivolously because some musical scores don’t happen so smoothly, so much so that sometimes they don’t happen at all. But in this case there was perfect communication and understanding between us. Konkona is very intelligent and gave lots of input. She is so clear and extremely sensitive. In the beginning I had made some random musical pieces based on the script and what she did in her edit is listen to what I had composed and put it in certain places in the film.

What is your process when it comes to composing for a film?
For me the process starts with a musical thought or idea. For ‘A Death in the Gunj’ it was a certain of change of cords. Once you have a musical idea as a base you take that and it grows from there like a tree. You take one small part of that stretch it out and make new branches from it. It happens organically. The musical score usually ends up being part of one single entity like a tree. From one musical thought many emerge and they are all connected. By the end of a film, I always try for the arc which I give to the musical score to have a sense of connection of all the themes.

The film is set in a very particular place and time, 1970s and the resort town of McCluskiegunj. What challenges did this pose for you musically?
The instinct of any composer would be to take sounds that would be relevant to the setting. We worked with singers from the region and brought them into studio in Mumbai. We actually also brought this huge drum from there which you just cannot find in Mumbai. So we had the drummer and his daughter who is singer come to Mumbai and perform a few songs. They gave us the skeleton, idea and delivery of how it should sound. I recorded a lot of stuff with them and they can be heard in several places in the film.

With the film set in the 70s my initial instinct was to have that old time rock and roll feel with guitar but it was sounding forced and didn’t have the depth which was required. At the end of the day you need to connect with the characters on screen even more than the setting. Even if the piece of music is not exactly related to the 1970s or something they would have heard at that time, if it’s working for the character that is the most important thing.

What are your thoughts on the state of background music in Indian films?
Generally the rule of thumb in Bollywood is the bigger the film the less important the background score, the smaller the film the more important the background score. I tend to work on the smaller films where the background score is most given due weightage. Ideally a music composer would like to strike a balance between both, smaller films and more mainstream projects. In the those mainstream projects it is almost like music isn’t even an art form, it’s more like a technician’s job where sound, genre, time and space all become irrelevant and you are just highlighting exactly what you see on screen which I don’t do. I find it very offensive. I would rather do it at all than do stuff like that.