London-based Benedict Taylor, trained in the viola and the violin, and Mumbai-based guitarist Naren Chandavarkar met by chance. Benedict was working at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation and Naren was still in college when they met through a common friend. “I think we first met on a train to a music concert, and quickly discovered a shared taste in music and beer. We became good friends, and knew that we’d want to collaborate together at some point,” recalls Naren. “Sometime later, Naren was asked to score That Girl in Yellow Boots by Anurag Kashyap, and called me up in London to ask me to co-compose the music,” Benedict adds. That was 2010.
Cut to 2021, Naren-Benedict is regarded among the most interesting contemporary music composers and their filmography consists of movies like Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2013), Avinash Arun’s Killa (2014), Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata (2016) Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab (2016) and Sonchiriya (2019), Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2018) and now Sherni. The duo is also the musical force behind Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa from the anthology, Ray.
According to Benedict, one key element that has made them such a force to reckon with, apart from being each other’s bouncing boards, is that they always have a new perspective on their own work. “So there’s rarely a time when we allow the material to drift,” he says. We caught up with the duo for a freewheeling chat. Excerpts:
Sherni would have been a difficult film to compose music for. What was the brief around which you developed this soundscape?
Benedict: We started by attempting to hone in on the overall zone and narrative arc of the Sherni world. Amit (Masurkar) allowed us the freedom to explore innovative musical avenues. He wanted to find the right space to support the narrative and setting of the piece.
Naren: Amit and Dipika Kalra (the editor) invited us to see the film as it was getting cut, and that’s when we started ideating. Amit, Aastha (Tiku, writer of Sherni ) and Dipika’s focus with the brief was to talk about the ideas that went into creating the film, and the motivations for each character. We wanted to make sure the music didn’t overly simplify or demonise any of the characters or settings. Amit was also especially keen that musically we start with a completely blank slate, and find our own vision to translate what was in the film into a musical language.
What were your reference points?
Benedict: It is a big film that requires a certain expanse and vastness in the music. That was an exciting challenge. The reference points were the visuals and final edits that faced us. The scope to write to these visuals was a reference enough.
Naren: While there were references in the edit, Amit was keen that we disregard them and start anew.
You are known for being rather experimental with the instruments you use, what were the innovations that happened for Sherni ?
Benedict: We made particular use of certain manipulated live string sounds, which formed a foundation for some of the key themes and motifs. Using these we attempted to create tension and release alongside a poignancy that the film deserved.
Naren: We a lot of fun and radically pitch-shifting string and folk instruments — tumbi, bansuri, strings, and percussion — and playing with their tonality to make them sound like something completely new.
You guys had worked on Masurkar’s 2018 film Newton as well. How different was the approach to music?
Benedict: With Newton we had to figure out musical character traits that could align with the protagonist in a rather esoteric manner, drawing on the humorous sides of different human nature, often through much sonic experimentation. We came into Newton as a finished film work, requiring music composition, whereas we were involved with Sherni from earlier on. This difference in time can allow for a different creative process, though both scenarios have their benefits.
Naren: They were different both in scale and approach. Newton was a more minimal score, with a deliberately small, quirky ensemble. The world and story that Amit and Astha painted in Sherni was on a much larger canvas, and we wanted the music to reflect that. So, it had a more expansive, expressive sound. The score for Newton was also more character study, exploring the idiosyncrasies of Newton, his conflict with the army general, and then his growth towards the end of the film. Sherni zoomed out more, and while we did follow Vidya’s journey, the focus of the music was to also underscore the magnitude and varying politics around T12, and the fallout it can cause. The tone of the score was more serious, in comparison to Newton.
You have also worked on web series — Paatal Lok and Betaal. How different is it to compose music for that format?
Benedict: It is different in that you are working on a long format project, spanning many, potentially long, episodes. The music may evolve in a different manner in order to fit with the narrative and final realisation of the episodic work. Many purposes of the music may be similar to those in film, but the process can be quite different.
With Paatal Lok, finding the zone of the overall series was exciting as it encompassed many elements — for example the feeling that is ever present through the series, we had to encompass musically but with many different realisations, alongside developing a sonic space that might encapsulate the visuals and geographical setting of the series.
Naren: The longer length allows for a more involved building of any musical arcs that stretch across the story. There’s a difference in how you structure things musically over that length as well, as compared to a feature. Though how that’s done varies a lot from one series to another, as it depends on how the story and edit is structured as well. There are also basic practical considerations; you need to write a lot more music!
Your music is often somber and contemplative. Do you consciously choose such projects or is it the other way round?
Benedict: No not at all. We have had some projects which require these qualities, and have enjoyed making music in this area, where it suited. But equally we have made music in many varying styles, as shown in films like for Ship of Theseus, Newton, Killa, Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya, Tryst With Destiny and in web series like Paatal Lok and Ghoul; all requiring their own very specific styles and differing energies.
Naren: I’d agree. Hungama Hain Kyon Barpa in Ray, has a score which is quite different from anything we’ve done! As does Newton and some others. That said, I don’t think we’ve sought out projects of that description. We really enjoy trying to find a new sonic identity for every project we work on, and the more different they are from each other the more challenging it can be! So we’re always looking for new kinds of musical challenges to dive into. Sonchiriya, for instance, was a great exercise in trying to find our twist on a Western. While more recently we’ve been having a blast working on a score that’s steeped in a kitsch ’80s Bollywood sound.
Bollywood was known for its songs but slowly it seems with the change in content that space is taken over by background scores. How do you see this change?
Benedict: The so-called background score is fundamentally important to the making of films. It fulfills an important role in the narrative and cinematic space of a film or series. This is unceasingly interesting for us as it allows one to creatively get into the very core of a film, and develop and support the narrative itself. There is huge scope to explore creatively as score composers, which is another area that drives us.
Naren: Score can become an essential part of the storytelling and language of a film, and finding the unique musical language for each project can be a challenging and enjoyable process. I think we both have in common a love for all kinds of music — in that it’s not predominantly limited to one genre or style — so having the opportunity with each new project to find a completely different musical world can be very gratifying.