Anoushka Shankar: Mira Nair wanted music with a strong Indian sound but also a global sensibility
Musicians Anoushka Shankar, Alex Heffes, and Kavita Seth talk about what went behind creating the soundtrack for Mira Nair's mini-series, A Suitable Boy
Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy, which recently began streaming on Netflix, owes its diverse soundscape to three renowned musicians: singer-composer Kavita Seth, who composed and sang the ghazals, and acted as Saeeda Bai's voice; the sitarist-composer Anoushka Shankar and Alex Heffes duo, who collaborated to create the ethnic soundscape of the newly free India in the 1950s. In this interview, they shed light on their process, working with acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair and the logistical challenges of making music remotely…
What was Mira Nair's brief to you?
Kavita: Mira was extremely clear about her requirements, and knew what ghazals she wanted, and knew even the situations they were to be used in. She has a great sense of music, and often says that the best part about films is music creation. All I had to do was compose and record. It was easy for me.
She also explained the setting to me, the ambience of the 1950s, and said I would be the voice of Saeeda Bai. I had all this in mind while composing. She was part of all our rehearsals, and we had a lot of fun.
Anoushka: Mira told me that she felt my style would be a good fit for A Suitable Boy. She wanted music that had a strong Indian sound but also a global sensibility. I was honoured to be asked but was a bit doubtful about timings as I was meant to be touring at the time. Of course, the lockdown changed things. Then, she suggested I work with Alex Heffes, which was wonderful. Together, we were able to achieve her vision.
Alex: Mira always has a vision for music in her films; music is another character to her. Here, she wanted to show the incredible diversity of the different cultures and Indian music. It is such a sprawling story that I think Mira was looking for a way to help the audience through all the different characters and their stories. We took time to find the different instruments and sound palettes that would work for the characters.
There's a special theme created for Lata. Could you tell us about the process of creating character themes?
Anoushka: Lata's theme was focussed on the sitar. I wrote a melody on the sitar, which he orchestrated.
Alex: There was a lot of back and forth before we showed it to Mira with bated breath, and she loved it. With the pandemic, we only managed to get into the studio one time together in London. Otherwise, we were all working remotely from different places.
Anoushka: Our conversations were different, based on the scene. Working with Alex was easy as he is a free, open-minded collaborator. There were loads of pieces that Alex made and would then send to me to write melodies on top of. It was a free-flowing process even with the logistical challenges of the lockdown.
Kavita ji, interpreting classic poetry to contemporary forms isn't new to you as you have created an album out of Rumi's poetry before. How was this time different?
There is a difference when you compose for yourself, and when you compose for a series. When you are the voice of a character and there's a different emotion to cater to with each song, there are several things you need to keep in mind. As the series is set in the 1950s, we had to record live with the musicians. I was told about the style of the performances back then. And I had composed how it was done back then, choosing Raag-based tunes. It was so much fun to record live that I wrapped up work in three-four days what was to go on for 10-15 days.
Alex, while speaking of Queen of Katwe, you had mentioned that you found blending the original songs into the score challenges. Was there a similar situation here?
Here, it was easy because Kavita had already recorded and I didn't have to do anything. But incorporating all the Indian musical elements we needed was a logistical challenge. We recorded bansuri, violin, tabla, among other instruments. Doing that over Zoom, in different time zones, was challenging.
What is your favourite pick from A Suitable Boy's soundtrack?
Kavita: Every song has a different colour... it is tough to pick one piece (laughs).
Alex: What I really enjoyed was the music at the very end. It is the music that we use for Lata's mother. It was to capture all the train rides, and travel to find Lata a suitable boy. When Mira heard it, she said she was dancing around at home. We wanted to end the series with the same uplifting, fun tone.
Anoushka: Quite a few pieces actually… like the songs sung by Kavita ji which were stunning melodies and poetry. But for myself, it would be Lata's theme as it was what we began work with. Also, the opening credits, which we had composed based on a raga my father had created called Swarna. He wrote it for India's 50th year of independence; it was perfect for the mood and context we wished to achieve.