He didn't believe in incidental music: Shyam Benegal on Vanraj Bhatia

Topics Indian Cinema | Music | Bollywood

Vanraj Bhatia. PHOTO CREDIT: Zubin Balaporia, CC BY 4.0; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0; Wikimedia Commons
Veteran composer Vanraj Bhatia, who died at the age of 93 on May 7, forged one of Indian cinema’s most enduring collaborations with filmmaker Shyam Benegal. The pair worked in 16 movies — starting with Ritwik Sharma, Benegal recalls their partnership and what made Bhatia a very special music director:

“We did a large number of advertising films before movies. First of all, he was very learned. He had studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and also in Paris where he trained under Nadia Boulanger, one of the greatest teachers of Western classical music.  He was already trained in Indian music before he went to Europe. So he had a wonderful blend of both.

When he came back to India, he got a job as the head of the music department in Delhi University. And later he began to compose music for the plays of Ebrahim Alkazi, who was the head of the National School of Drama (NSD). But he was getting a bit restless, I think, because he wanted to do music for films and various other things. So he came to Bombay (now called Mumbai) and from then on our collaboration began.

He did practically all the music for me. In those days early in my career I was making advertising films largely and a few documentaries. He gave music for all of them and we were doing well. So when I started making feature films, the same thing happened. He gave music for a very large number of my films. It was as though he could anticipate what I wanted even before I could brief him. We worked together from the early 1970s all the way until the last feature film that he did for me, Hari Bhari (2000).

After that he was also coming to the end of his creative period in many ways, yet he was getting very interested in the work he was doing, which was writing operas. All of that kept him exceedingly busy and very creative till the very end. So he had a very full, creative life.

As a composer, he was extremely creative and also somebody who could write music for all instruments, specifically for rhythm sections and various other aspects. He was a composer in the truest sense of the term. When you say you are a composer, it means you write for all the instruments, whatever composition you have decided on. It’s not about five people playing the same melody together. That’s how it used to be, but he brought in a completely new way of composing, which is how it should be. He was very innovative, too. He could work with large orchestras as well as few people. He wrote every little note and gave it to the musicians to play. He didn’t just expect people to think up an idea and play something. That’s what made him who he was, which is why he was made the head of the music department in Delhi University. Of course, he hated it because he wanted to work hands-on, creating music of his own rather than teaching people.

For me there was no question that he was very special, because he created the kinds of sounds that were totally complementary to what I was doing. If you say the first arc of the circle is visual, the second arc would be the sound component and he contributed a great deal to that, to give you a kind of cinematic experience that was what you wanted. That was his great ability.

We never did incidental music. You didn’t give music to underline an emotional or a dramatic moment, because you know that is cheap and an easy way out. He didn’t believe in it. Neither did I. In that sense we worked well together.

All professions have a kind of cartel. He was not in the cartel of music directors that conventional film directors wanted to use. They didn’t see him as adding value to their work. But that was rather silly because he was hugely talented."

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