Arts

How do you conjure Mumbai with music? Meet the composer behind Netflix India's Sacred Games

Alokananda Dasgupta first remembers connecting with a film score when she was five or six years old. Now, composing is her life.

Alokananda Dasgupta first remembers connecting with a film score when she was five or six years old

(Photo by Craig Boehman Photography.)

Her father dreamed she'd become a classical pianist and her mother hoped she might become a professional Odissi dancer. But Alokananda Dasgupta hated the idea of public performance.

Still, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons and Odissi classes since she was 4, along with her 9-year-old sister Rajeshwari, when she was growing up in Kolkata, India.

At first, the tutors would come to their home, where the sisters would practice on what she calls a "very old rented Bosendorfer" piano. "It was much later that we were introduced to a proper music school, but we weren't taught the way Western classical music is supposed to be taught...we just read music and regurgitated it at every final exam," Dasgupta says. "It was very oddly and sketchily done, whereas I wanted to sink my teeth into it." She's talking to me via phone from Mumbai, India, where she now lives and works as a composer.

Dasgupta's latest work can be heard in Sacred Games, Netflix India's first original series that has received rave reviews. The first season of the show introduced viewers to the mean streets of Mumbai through the story of the honest cop Sartaj Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan) chasing down a notorious gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Besides a stellar cast and exceptional writing, the brooding score plays an important and impressive role in creating the atmosphere.

Early life

Dasgupta has always been aware of how a musical score can affect how an audience experiences a television show or movie, but she credits her home life and eventual studies at York University's music department for truly opening her eyes to the possible variations.

Her father is the veteran Bengali arthouse director Buddhadeb Dasgupta, whose movies have regularly been shown at the Toronto International Film Festival's Masters series. He'd bring examples of world cinema to their Kolkata home — movies like Paris, Texas (Win Wenders, 1984), Frantic (1988, Roman Polanski) and Dreams (Akira Kurosawa, 1990). Since Dasgupta didn't get to see her father much as he was always busy with work, she'd watch these movies with him.

"I was five or six years old," she says. "I didn't understand them. I tried to understand them through their music and that stayed with me unconsciously." Years later, she would discover that it was Grace Jones's version of Astor Piazolla's "Libertango" that accompanies the opening credits of Frantic, or that Chopin's "Raindrop Prelude" features in Dreams. For a long time, these were just melodies playing in her head.

Dasgupta says she always felt a connection with music — wanting to shut herself in her room and listen to the wide, encompassing collection of vinyl and cassette tapes in her parents' home that included Pink Floyd, Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Rabindra Sangeet (songs written by Nobel Laureate Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore), Begum Akhtar (famous Indian ghazal singer), Cliff Richards, Elvis and some contemporary songs by famous Indian composer A. R. Rahman.

Unfortunately, shutting yourself in a room to listen to music was not an option living in a joint family home. Still, whenever she got a chance, Dasgupta would would try to tape herself on a cassette recorder behind closed doors.

(Photo by Craig Boehman. )

'A whole new world'

After a bachelor's degree in English from Kolkata's St. Xavier's College, Dasgupta applied to York University's music program — though there were doubts about her decision. Family and friends questioned why she wanted to go abroad to pursue music versus a degree in medicine or engineering. She was unsure whether she would fit in with other students, ones who likely had more musical training than her. While she didn't want to be the classical pianist of her father's aspirations, she was unclear what her eventual goal would be.

"The need was a bit too strong — the clarity was there that I should do this," she says.

At York, Dasgupta felt a whole new world had opened up before her. In India, she struggled under the power play that is often part of the student-teacher relationship, or the guru-shishya parampara, where students don't really get a chance to question the teacher. Learning music was much more collegial at York University. "I remember the very first day, one of the professors — Rob Simms — he played a lot of music and asked us to write down our thoughts on style, mood, time signature. From the very first day, there was so much freedom," she says.

There were also new opportunities. Dasgupta had been composing songs for a long time, but never had the nerves to perform them in front of an audience. But when her filmmaker friend Xisela Franco asked her to score a short film, Dasgupta took the chance.

Family tragedy and a new start in Mumbai

Throughout her studies, Dasgupta had been mulling about returning to India after finishing her degree; a call from home in January 2009 made the decision for her. She was told her mother was going in for a minor surgery, but it turned out she was dying from cancer. Her family had not told her about the diagnosis so that she could concentrate on her studies.

"I went to the hospital straight from the airport," says Dasgupta. "I spent nine months there, doing my courses by correspondence in between taking her for treatments. In fact, I did my exams in the hospital. I sent them off, still thinking she would be better and I would return to Toronto...but she passed away in November [2009]."

(Photo by Craig Boehman Photography.)

Four days after her mother's death, Dasgupta flew to Mumbai. She could not bear to be in Kolkata and wanted to immerse herself in work. She found the number of music composer Amit Trivedi through some friends; she had liked his work in the film Aamir. She went to his studio, showed her work and asked if she could assist him, which she spent the next few months doing for movies like Udaan, No One Killed Jessica and Chillar Party.

"It was hardcore," says Dasgupta. "I had no in-between time to think. People were harsh, some were kind. But I just threw myself in it. I had a small room in the studio where I would try and notate — try to help wherever I could...the only thing that made sense for me was to keep making music."

Then a Toronto connection came back into her life: a friend of Franco came to Mumbai to shoot the Marathi language film Shala. Dasgupta signed on as the composer, which lead to other projects like the critically-acclaimed Marathi film Fandry. She also composed the score for two of her father's films: Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa and Tope.

In 2014, Dasgupta reached out to Vikramaditya Motwane, who had directed Udaan, to collaborate. Her first venture with him was a short ad film called "Ghar Wali Diwali." That led to work on several others — including a film called Trapped, about a man trapped alone in an apartment building, that features very little dialogue with the music playing a significant supporting role.

Bringing Netflix India's first original series to life

When Motwane first called Dasgupta to tell her about Sacred Games, she thought it was just any other project. But then the magnitude of it all started sinking in. Anurag Kashyap — another TIFF regular, whose latest film Manmarizyan will debut at the festival this year — would direct the series along with Motwane.

"I knew this was going to be great not just because of Netflix, but because of the content, the visuals," she says.

It took some time for her to figure out the sound of Sacred Games that included several discussions with Motwane. "We didn't know what people expected for a show to be launched by Netflix India, with its mix of mythology, religion and politics. It also needed to have a global appeal," she says. "Are people looking for a Stranger Things? That's not going to happen. This is not Narcos either. It couldn't be 'Indian exotic' to appeal to a wider audience."

Instead of the usual sitar strains or boisterous Bollywood dance music used in foreign productions set in India, Dasgupta went for what she calls a "hodgepodge" of orchestral instruments: ethnic instruments and pagan chants that suggested something supernatural and ominous. Her approach worked. Right from the opening credits, the tone of Mumbai is set — a city that's at once colourful and chaotic, full of twisting alleyways and surprising characters underneath looming Bollywood billboards that dot the horizon. A shootout scene in the first episode is accompanied by a lilting melody; its romantic notes incongruent with the flying bullets and shattering glass.

"The balance was to take the cliches and break it, but not be conscious of it either. My desire was to make a score that was in the background, not to overpower the visuals," she says. "There is a huge use of silence."

The resounding success of Sacred Games has shone a spotlight on Dasgupta, fulfilling a little of the dream her parents had for her when she was a child. While her performance is ostensibly behind the scenes, the music she is making is front and centre.

About the Author

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. She has been published in Canadian media including CBC, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Walrus magazine. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com.

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