Alokananda Dasgupta: A Music Composer Whose Perspective And Philosophy Defines Her Work
One of the biggest web series in India, Sacred Games, had its second season released last month on Netflix. While we are awestruck with this incredible series overall, one of the things which stands out is its brilliantly composed music, especially its title theme song. The person behind the extraordinary OST, Alokananda Dasgupta, is a very talented composer and a nuanced artist. We were fortunate enough to have a conversation with her and know more about her, and the process behind composing something so complicated and unique. Here is the excerpt.
Firstly, congratulations on your recent success with the soundtrack of Sacred Games Season 2. As was expected, the soundtrack truly captured the urgency and impending doom theme of the second season. In this context, how did you approach scoring for the season 2? Was there a change may be in the way you looked at the characters and storylines in composing?
Yes. The season 2 story is what made the soundtrack. I basically followed the narrative. As you know, season 2 goes a lot darker and it goes into the truth, the urgency, into the whole sacredness of the Sacred Games and into the character of Guruji (Played by Pankaj Tripathi). The Guruji’s character is the one that I had to follow the most as that is what is striking in season 2. And everything that Guruji is saying and his conversations, there was an element of silence because people have to hear what he is saying, and there was an element of a quiet, slow impending darkness, a quiet sense of impending doom, where I had to hold back even more. I was nervous and scared because season 1, I had done without any expectations as I had no idea about the magnitude of the show, so I did it without any fear and really loved to see the things that I was scoring.
Season 2 had this added pressure as now this is something big and thereby I had to do certain things, but Vikram (Vikramaditya Motwane – Showrunner of Sacred Games) taught me to hold back and told me that it’s not about showing off or it’s not about your last chance to score a lot of things, it’s just to follow the quiet sense of darkness and the bigger truth. So I think I held myself back a lot and used the same sound structure and the same soundscape that was used in season 1 but make it more ominous, quiet and make it more impending basically.
If the writing is good and if the person who is guiding you is good, then you don’t have much problem. Having already read and watched season 2 and having the guidance of the showrunner, it was like I already knew that this is the direction I have to move. There were dangers of overdoing season 2 because of season 1 or danger of under-doing it. There is a danger of trying to overstate the danger of the impending doom or trying to overstate the suspense. There were a lot of these landmines, but you have to avoid these. I had to steer my thought towards the right direction and it took time and it was stressful for me as I was scared this time. In season 1, I wasn’t so scared. I was very happy with my kind of quiet life of hiding in the room. During season 2 suddenly I realized that people have heard this music and people have watched the show, thereby there will be a certain expectation out of proceeding too. So the benefit was I already knew the sound structure, I already knew the zone having done season 1 and that was a huge benefit. I knew the zone, I knew that the family that I belong to, I had to keep to that family the musical family, I couldn’t stray from that. But there was an added pressure of having to make it good musically.
You’ve become a household name courtesy Sacred Games. How did the show itself change the way you compose or approach a project if at all? Do you say that scoring for a web series is more demanding than a movie due to its long run time?
To answer the first question, I think with Sacred Games, so far in my life, I haven’t had any negative experience from it. It has taught me to love good projects because my battle in life is about getting good content. My problem is that you have to wind me up like a key in a toy. The only way I can get wound up is if the content is good, it is up my alley and if it is something that I personally love. When starting out, one has to do all kinds of things and even in life, you have to work on things that you don’t like. No one is so lucky that they exactly get a project that’s in their zone, but Sacred Games has spoiled me in that way because I watch dark things, I watch these kinds of content. I have watched dark drama and dark crime. I love the genre of horror, drama and more. I mean, I’ve said this before, the darker, the better for me, basically. So it is something that I have enjoyed watching.
So having worked in Sacred Games, it spoils me, that I have got the taste of blood now. I’ve got the taste of working in something that is up my alley. Thereby, I will constantly be searching for that. It has spoiled me in working with a showrunner and director like Vikram. I can’t stress on it enough, everything makes a product, and just one thing cannot make the product good. The kind of sensibility Vikram has about scoring, the knowledge he has is incredible and he’s extremely intelligent. If I give him a piece of score, which is not going well, he understands that I have a vision. He lets me get it out of my system and he understands that this is probably something that is program now. It will be recorded, and it will be different later. He understands technicalities which is such a boon. As a composer, it is a huge boon to work with a team, the editors and all of them who actually did this spotting also for me and they would place a piece of reference music in the scene. So it was a culmination of effort, where people are intelligent and creatively on the same page. I think I’m very much spoiled now. I’d be looking for somebody, like him in everything I do, which is really bad, because I won’t get somebody like him for every film. And I won’t get something like Sacred Games all the time. So I think with the positive experiences, I have got the taste of blood with that.
And to answer the second question, it is a highly demanding timeline, that’s the only disadvantage. I mean the negative side of the web series is the time. There is a different structure to it and you have to follow a certain template. If a huge project has to be done in a short amount of time a lot of things have to be in tandem and a lot of things have to go accordingly. The sound, the mix, DI, everything has to go accordingly in tandem. It cannot be random as there is a pattern and there is a specific method to this madness also. And that’s the only way you can achieve to make such a big thing in such a short time. So time is definitely a factor for web series. And obviously it’s extremely exhausting. But I, fortunately, treat every episode like one film to do my musical breakdown which allows me to process it and helps to think about how I will approach it. Every episode for me is one full film. Thereby I have to state what I need to state in that episode. So that is how I approach it. Obviously, the story is there, episode 1 has a different story, episode 8 has a different story and something else happening, and the characters are evolving. For those, you follow the story, but for me as a structure, it’s one hour almost. So, that’s how I do it and that’s my personal method of approaching it.
Going a step back, could you help us know where and when your journey start towards composing? And if we were to consider Sacred Games as a defining moment, how did it happen?
I started when I was studying piano at York University in Toronto. That was my instrument. I was studying music and composition and theory, and history but I’ve always kind of practiced piano in a room alone. I have never played in a band or played jazz. I’ve never really had people around me, so I never really thought of ever performing. So, I used to compose a lot for myself and I was very scared to show it to people. At some point, I knew that this is what I enjoy doing.
Especially, I love the behind the scenes aspect of it. I’m terrified of performing in front of people. So, this gives me the kind of opportunity to still be locked in a room, just like how I used to as a child to practice piano for hours. This is still the same process and I mainly work alone. So that kind of solitude and that sort of inwardness matched with what I want to do in terms of my career and all that. So, I knew I wanted to do it, obviously, I didn’t know how and when. My first film Shala, the Marathi film, happened completely by chance, through a friend of mine. Gradually, Fandry happened, followed by Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa. Then I started working with Vikram (Vikramaditya Motawane) on advertisements. We did a lot of ads together. And then I did the movie ‘Trapped’ with him. After that, he just approached me for Sacred Games. So that’s how it happened, and we had no idea what we were getting into back then. I just thought it was, you know, something that I could do. Later, I realized, you know, there’s a lot of fear involved in starting with this project. I’m scared of everything, basically, always full of self-doubt and all of that so yeah, that’s how I got Sacred Games.
That’s amazing. Among other things you mentioned about, like working for two films with your Father (Buddhadeb Dasgupta). And obviously, as we all know how acclaimed a filmmaker he is. So how was it like growing up and during your childhood days maybe, were you always interested in you know filmmaking or any aspects of it?
My sister (Rajeshwari Dasgupta) and I were never really interested in filmmaking. My sister used to write a lot. My father wanted my sister, to write all the songs for me. She’s a brilliant writer. She actually wrote a couple of songs for Sacred Games Season 1 & 2 as well.
My father wanted both of us to be classical pianists. And so, we both started learning the piano from a very, very young age. My great grandfather from my mother’s side was also a songwriter in Bengal. So music was always there. But most importantly, my father had this giant repertoire, you know, and giant library of films, which he used to watch. And I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but we were around, although most of them were adult films. Obviously, we weren’t allowed to watch somethings, but mostly we did watch movies which were beyond our age and grasp. We grew up watching Paris, Texas (1984), and Dreams (1990) etc. So at that time, I couldn’t understand anything, but I remember I was always extremely interested in the music of these films. I could identify the film with music. And it stayed with me to the point that much later in life, I would still recognize – the slide guitar from Paris, Texas and stuff.
I used to tell my father, rather remind that I had watched the movie when I was six years old. I could associate music from my childhood to the present times. I could identify Satyajit Ray’s scores as well. I was an avid listener. I did learn the piano as well. But filmmaking or doing music, I never really had the confidence for them basically. So, I never really thought that anything would come out of it. As I said, I would always do it just for myself and never show it to anybody. So that’s how I think my parents have been huge influences on my life. My mother -- she wanted us to be a dancer. So I and my sister used to dance – I used to do Odissi, for a very long time. I wanted to pursue that in my life. So, music and dance were always there.
Thus, it’s a huge advantage to be raised in a family, which is, you know, intensely art-oriented. We used to have paintings all over my house, books are filling up the house and so. The presence was always there, that is a huge benefit. But I did not know what I was going to do with all this information. It was just there in my life. That and then there was a lot of fear and pressure of leaving my father to pursue my own thing. Again, there were the studies which we needed to pursue too. So, you know, there are all these things which happened. And my mother, she passed away just when I finished my studies in music, so a lot of things happened in my life, which all had effects and influences on my decisions. So, I don’t remember exactly the moment that I decided, but yeah, I had decided that I wanted to decisively compose at a certain point in life.
So now what are the procedures and processes that you employ while picking up a project? Any checkboxes that you need to tick before coming aboard?
Well, I still haven’t learned my lessons. I still make a lot of mistakes. I think, going forward, my first checkpoint would be to make sure it’s an efficient team that I’m working with -- full of intelligent people who are interested in collaboration. That would be my number one, checkpoint. The content and the nature of the people as well, you know. As arrogant as it sounds, it’s extremely important for the people you work with to have that level of emotional intelligence or creative intelligence or artistic intelligence. You want to be inspired by people, you know. You need to be working in an environment where you are looking at somebody in awe and thinking that this is not about me, it’s an entire team working towards something.
You want to work with people who understand what you want to do, and what you don’t want to do. I think I can only work properly and happily with projects that are my kind, you know. I can no longer put up that face and the mask and work on any project that comes up.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in the future. I shouldn’t be saying all of this, anything can happen. I might have to do a lot of things that I don’t want to do or not. But ideally what I want is to do what I like. Because I’ve got a taste of the joy in working in a project that you like, or something that you yourself would want to watch. I’m first an audience by the way. We are striving on a diet of films, and you don’t really have any social life. You end up watching films and shows all the time. All our lives. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what we’re turning to right now for, you know, for any kind of health and relief. So, I’m first an audience. For me to get something that I would like to watch, will be my biggest checklist. And if I’m able to do that project, I’ll be very happy. Because, whatever content you end up watching, you are processing it and internalizing it. It fits into your interests and in turn defines it. The same is applicable to a piece of music which you hear is cool. It inspires you. I want to score what I would like to listen to.
Now let’s talk about some of your work. You’ve done movies like Fandry and Trapped, and recently Sacred Games. In these kinds of projects, music adds a lot to the narrative. On the other hand, if you take Breathe or BA Pass, the music becomes a background tool. In this context, how much of this comes across as your decision and how much of it is a Director’s call?
It’s a bit of a tricky question because it completely depends upon that situation. It depends upon the director and project. If there is a certain project, where you and the director have the same taste in music and the same taste in cinema, and the same goal for that particular project, then it’s absolutely fifty-fifty input. It becomes a beautiful balance of you and the person guiding you on the same journey.
But it’s not always that ideal. There are times where, you know, that it doesn’t happen. In that case, the ratio is always changing. Sometimes it is thirty-seventy or even sometimes ten-ninety. It depends upon all the circumstances. So, there are times that you know, one has to forgo their personal idea for that score of, because somebody else wants something else. So, it’s basically a juxtaposition of all of these things and it’s very circumstantial.
Let’s take Trapped for example. Much of the narrative is driven by sound design. So then, could you guide us to the process of approaching such a project? How do you define that?
See, this is another thing. I think my problem is that I’ve been spoiled with the entire team of Vikram because in Trapped the sound team was the same. Anish John did the sound for Trapped and Sacred Games as well. Again, he is a friend from college and shares the exact vision as all of us. So, there’s a huge contribution from Sound, as he takes everything that I make, and makes it sound what it is right now. Of course, there is no battle between sound design and music. There is this perfect balance that Anish creates. That happened in Trapped. Trapped involved huge amounts of sound designing, and the same is the case with Sacred Games.
Vikram has a keen ear for sound and mixing, which normal people would not really care for. So thereby there’s an extremely beautiful balance of sound design and music when it is his project. And I think I’ve had the opportunity to get that fine balance only in Trapped and Sacred Games Season 1 & 2.
You’ve worked extensively with Vikramaditya Motwane, in Trapped, and in Sacred Games, alongside Anurag Kashyap as well. How was the overall experience like during these projects? And what is that one thing that you consider as motivation coming from Vikramaditya Motwane?
See, I had assisted Amit Trivedi, a long time back, on the film called Udaan. And I had fallen in love with the film, it was one of the best films that I had watched in a long time. I was highly moved by that. I never thought I would ever get to work with Vikramaditya (director of Udaan) but I did.
You know, we are always wearing masks, always trying to network, we’re always trying to do all these things of pleasing other people to get work, you know, to show off your work and all of that. For me, I can only create the best work, when somebody inspires me. When somebody doesn’t inspire me it is a very, very torturous process for me. So, I was in awe of this man who’s created Udaan.
So, then onwards all the projects that I did with Vikram, from commercials to Trapped, everything has been a culmination of understandings. I mean, Vikram is a man of few words. He says very little. He only says what needs to be said. He’s got this beautiful balance of emotional intelligence, practical intelligence, and creative intelligence. And his guidance is important because I think we share a similar taste in music. And him and I, also do a lot of exchange of references. So, we have this process, where we send each other reference tracks, of what we think it should sound like. And the reference tracks probably might’ve had nothing to do with what we’re working on, but we understand what we need it for, and that makes all the difference. Thus, I think it’s very difficult to find an intelligent filmmaker, who has got a very, very keen sense of music.
Anurag, I had never worked with him. I only worked with Vikram all through the Sacred Games, because he was the showrunner for the entire show. And that was a huge thing. I mean, it’s so important for a show to have a showrunner because you know, what you get is consolidated advice. I don’t end up getting advice from multiple people. I’m only getting advice from Vikram, who can maintain the consistency, the level, and the quality perfectly and singularly. Not just the sound and music, but also Visuals, DI, Graphics everything. He oversees the project, making sure all of them are in place and consistent.
Vikram being an intelligent person himself steers any project with utmost care and acumen. And he’s exactly the kind of personality that I like – the smart, quiet and has a great taste in music in terms of references and knowledge in music. You must be able to share certain ideas with me that are in common and work well for the project. And I think he has that, and he understands the overall vision. So that’s how it’s been with Vikram. So, it is very important to me personally that I have someone who has a similar taste and sensibility in music.
Now in this age of worldwide OST’s being readily available, and people really taking a keen interest in the music used for movies and web series alike, what are the challenges you face to bring about original compositions and how do you work about it?
For me, tougher challenges are dealing with the ways of the industry. It is film music, right? I’m not independently composing. I’m not drinking a glass of wine and sitting on my piano and composing. This is a grey area of composition for films. I think the challenges for me is mainly dealing with industry-related technical issues.
The process of composition is the loveliest. There are minimal challenges over there. Of course, there are the challenges of whether I’m understanding the film or not. Perhaps, it’s a domino effect -- if you love what you’re doing, and if the person guiding you is good, then all of these challenges are easily accomplished. You know, like everything fits, basically. So, the challenges for me to see, to crack the music or trying to crack the zone, are rewarding. Unfortunately, there are other challenges as well. There are challenges of the industry, the challenges of following certain rules and certainly like dealing with people, mainly are my biggest challenges, I think.
Looking back at your journey, what would you think is the one thing that you might have done differently? I mean, like, Do you regret not taking up a project or not being able to deliver to the fullest?
I have regretted doing a lot of projects that I did not have my heart in, that I cannot mention. As I said, not everyone gets the opportunity to do exactly what they want. So, I’ve done a lot of projects that I haven’t had my heart in. And I’ve told myself that you know, I do not like this, but I’m doing it. But I don’t regret it because I had to do them at that time.
But what I do regret it is that I had continued working for myself, you know, continued composing for myself or even practice the piano and continued to teach the piano. I did a double graduate in English Honors and in Music, but I couldn’t get to do my Masters in Music, because my mother passed away right after that. So, I really regret not doing it, so that I could have an opportunity to write and teach at some point. Basically, I wish I had focused more on the non-business aspect of films. I dived straight into film music, right? So, I wish I had more of that opportunity of studying music and composing just for yourself. Or playing the piano for hours, just for yourself. And not waiting for validation, or for a producer or a director. Those were beautiful times, you know. So, I regret not having done that. And I really want to change that right now.
Having spoken of the past, I would really love to know what the future has in store for you. I mean, any web series or movies coming up?
There are many, but I haven’t signed any of them for two reasons. One is that I think I need a little bit of a break because I’ve done back to back projects – Breathe, Sacred Games, Leila and now Sacred Games 2. And some commercials and a movie as well, all in the span of a year basically. So, I think that I do not have too much of new ideas to offer right now.
And, it’s just the contractual process of certain projects that are taking time, which is why I haven’t signed them, and I can’t officially announce them. But there are a couple of interesting series. I’m doing Sudhir Mishra’s series ‘Serious Men’ (based on Manu Joseph’s novel) that I’m supposed to start working on in December.
Before we wrap up things, I would want to ask you like some random fun questions.
So what are those web series or movies that you would have loved scoring the OST for?
Movies that I would want to score for..
1. Slacker by Richard Linklater (1990).
2. Adaptation (2002).
3. Deadman by Jim Jarmusch ()1995).
Five web series or movies, that you watched recently, which you think stood out for their soundtracks?
1. Barry, recently I watched it. Loved the score for it.
2. Chernobyl’s score was beautiful.
3. And then, of course, Game of Thrones, but it’s too larger than life.
4. Then, I liked the music for True Detective a lot.
5. Fargo series was great too.
Five films would be --
1. Garden State (2004) by Zach Braff is one of my favorites. He basically just compiles the soundtrack, and I love the idea of it.
2. I watched a film called, Prince Avalanche (2013) and I loved the score for it.
3. Also, Wild Country.
4. I recently rewatched Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya, the score of which I loved.
5. I love the horror genre, and I loved Ray’s MoniHara for the soundtrack. The score was so ahead of its time.
Let’s move on to the next one. Could you name the biggest influences to your mark of music?
Western classical –a giant influence on my work. Well, I kind of figured out from a very young age that, you know, that I have got to hold on to this with dear life. And then, a lot of the work of a band called Massive Attack, which is exactly the kind of work that I want to do, and I haven’t yet. Then, there’s Trent Reznor, the style of music that I want to do as well. A lot of Ravindra Sangeet, a heavy dose of which has been a part of my upbringing. A lot of Bengali Folk that I’ve been privy to. Again a lot of Bollywood influences. I’m a huge fan of A R Rahman. His scores and also Satyajit Ray’s scores have been a huge influence from a very young age. Also, I used to listen to Beatles like the world was ending tomorrow, on loop every day and night. I was a Beatles Fanatic, as I used to collect their Anthologies, I was fascinated by their stories. I was obsessed with the band. So yeah huge doses of all of these.
So, finally is there a filmmaker that you would really like to work with someday?
I would love to work with this gentleman called Zach Braff. I would have loved to obviously work with Roman Polanski. But yeah, these things will never happen. I would love to work with Vikramaditya again and again. I would love to work with Bill Hader, who’s direction and filmmaking, the dark comedy, is something that I’m identifying with a lot recently.
Thus, Alokanada Dasgupta shares her perspective and her way of work and tells us about various things from her life. We wish her all the very best, as she is raking up the stairs to become an icon of music composition with her exemplary work. Cheers!