Hesham Abdul Wahab: Our job is to create meaning out of oblivion

Hesham Abdul Wahab talks about Hi Nanna, the nuances involved in creating film music, and more
Hesham Abdul Wahab: Our job is to create meaning out of oblivion

When enquired about the origins of his name, music director Hesham Abdul Wahab says, “Hesham means to know everything.” Seconds after this reply, the composer cuts a picture of humility as he mentions that he has a long way to go while reiterating that he takes the ‘next big thing’ compliments with a pinch of salt. 33-year-old Hesham, who has been working in Malayalam cinema since 2015, rose to national fame with his work in Hridayam, a coming-of-age film written and directed by Vineeth Sreenivasan. He made inroads into Telugu cinema, with three of his films — Kushi, Hi Nanna and Spark L.I.F.E — releasing this year. While Spark L.I.F.E sank without a trace, Kushi’s music earned him some commercial acclaim. The Riyadh-bred, Kochi-settled composer talks to Cinema Express about working in a new language, bucking monotony, his take on the ethics of AI, and more. 

Selected Excerpts

With your work in Kushi and Hi Nanna, you are well on your way to becoming the most sought-after composer in the Telugu film industry. How do you feel about this industry’s reception of your work so far?

Every film is a test for you. It is too early for me, though, to be placed as someone reliable. I want to take small, steady steps ahead. One such step, which is in a hitherto unexplored direction, is the film I am doing right now with Rashmika Mandanna (The Girlfriend). As far as my recent releases are concerned, Hi Nanna is one film that has helped me explore myself a little more. I pushed my boundaries a bit in the process of composing this film’s music. Music from films like Hi Nanna and Kushi has the power to heal people, and I am glad I could do a bit of healing myself through my work.

Speaking of which, films like Hridayam and Hi Nanna deal with familiar, comforting themes. How do you manage to create something new within the boundaries of an oft-explored space like romance? 

It is not an issue faced alone by a music composer. Even directors, actors, and editors face this dilemma. So, it helps to have an entire team sit and figure out a creative solution collectively. That said, elements of novelty can be found in the story itself. There will also be subtle markers of difference found in the way each director treats their story. The end goal of say, all romantic tracks, is the same. All of them intend to make you feel warm and loved. The process to that goal is merely a permutation of a story and a set of collaborators who bring it upon themselves to make it come to life. Until the Ammadi song came out, there was no Ammadi song. Our job is to create meaning out of oblivion. 

How do you stave off boredom and monotony while working with the same set of genres often? On a related note, how do you distance yourself from the music that you have released? 

Once I finish work for a film, it is out of my system. I don’t revisit the music, nor do I retain the emotional attachment any longer. I leave my songs to the listeners and move on. It is as simple as that.

People have been comparing Samayama to Darshana

They are in the right to do so. Both the songs have similar notes but are put together differently This did not happen on purpose, and I have no qualms. I am happy that we have such smart, discerning listeners who quickly caught on to the similarities. Both songs are mine anyway (laughs). 

Could you speak a bit about the approach you used for composing Hi Nanna

Composing music for a film is an outcome of meeting the director’s requirements. For Kushi, we wanted to create something new in Telugu film music. And the audience received our work warmly, and as a result, Aaradhya and Naa Roja Nuvve, have topped all streaming platforms’ most listened-to lists. Hi Nanna is a delicate story. I tried my best to not make sounds that were too loud. Nor did I want any ‘needy’ instruments that would overshadow the work put in by the actors. We needed to create music in Hi Nanna that would reflect the tranquility of its visuals and production design. 

What is it like to work in a language you are not familiar with, though Telugu does share a few etymological similarities with Malayalam…

I like to arrange my entire composition around a single word, like Samayama, Gaaju Bomma or Ammadi. Irrespective of languages, there are single words that can connect us all. Anirudh and Thaman also do the same thing. For Ammadi, I specifically asked the lyricist Krishnakanth to find a colloquial word one can use to address a loved one in a domestic setting. That is how we stumbled upon this particular word, and then the entire song came out eventually. It also helps with the longevity of a song, if it is identified by a single word. But it does not work with every song. For Mukilinte and Manasse Manasse (from Hridayam), every verse was important. It did not bank upon a single hook, so to speak. 

Most songs composed these days do not follow the traditional pallavi-anupallavi-charanam format. What do you feel about this evolution? 

It all boils down to the film’s narrative, the music does not exist in isolation. For Hi Nanna, I was surprised by the way my music was placed into the film. The pallavi is here, the charanam is somewhere else. I have never found the need to add a charanam if a director does not require it in his story in the first place. Samayama does not have a charanam, but Gaaju Bomma does. So, in the film, we have gone with both traditional and non-traditional structures in the songs. 

Why don’t you try composing the longer version of a song for at least its audio-only format?

If you create one universal version of a song, it creates less confusion for the people watching the film. I would personally like to have one version of a single. Composing without a charanam brings forth its own set of creative challenges, which I enjoy taking on. 

You have mentioned using AI for Hi Nanna. What do you think about the ethics about say, recreating a dead singer’s voice for a song using artificial intelligence? 

I would not be able to comment on this issue specifically, but generally speaking, as long as the intention is right, if your purpose is right, we can embrace newer technologies. A knife can be used to cut an apple too, right? And lest we forget, artificial intelligence itself is the handiwork of the human species. 

What are your top non-film music picks as a listener right now? 

I like Prateek Kuhad’s music. Anumita Nadesan too, who also happens to be a good friend of mine. Internationally, I enjoy The Weeknd and Coldplay. 

What are your upcoming projects? 

There are just two films in my line-up right now — Rashmika Mandanna’s The Girlfriend, directed by Rahul Ravindran, and Sharwanand’s untitled next with Sriram Adittya.

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