“Now Indian moviegoers want to feel invested in watching a movie”
Analogies to cricket are easy for Julius Packiam. The New Delhi-born, Mumbai-based composer is the mind behind dramatic adrenaline-fueled background music for action films such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Dhoom 3, Tiger Ek Tha and more over the past 15 years in Bollywood. Considering the wide variety of genres, moods, and scenes he has to serve, Packiam likens managing everything to how you play a spin caster and then a beat caster. He says on a Zoom video call: “You also have to learn to adapt to different terrains, just different conditions. Whether it’s comedies, crime novels, or action dramas, you’ve figured out the skill of the trade and you need to apply it.
Last year Packiam was able to combine his love for cricket and music, when he began work on the score for a sports biopic 83, which follows the story of the Indian team’s victory in the World Cup. Thanks to his friendship with Kabir Khan, the composer was able to participate in a six-month cricket camp with all the cast, led by bowler Balwinder Sandhu. Packiam recalls the camp: “It was on my to-do list for me to meet all these former cricketers. They were my heroes from childhood and they often visited the camp. With the buzz of the camp and the energy to inspire him to create the background music, based on what happened every day on set and at camp.
Of Kabul Express in 2006 in a majority of films starring Salman Khan, Packiam has built his reputation well in Mumbai. Yet, there is still a long way to go in terms of the recognition due to background music composers in India, according to him. There have been incremental changes and now a more discerning viewer is present with even more meticulous filmmakers and producers. With Rolling Stone Indiahe talks about the long way to go for background music in India, why 83 is one of his favorite projects and more. Excerpts:
What do you think of the evolution of background music composition in India? What kind of change have you seen?
I haven’t seen a drastic change or drastic change, but it’s just a gradual change. And further, due to the kind of exposure that Indian cinema gets internationally and the exposure that Indian audiences get in international cinema…especially with the advent of OTT, it has become apparent that people have kind of been exposed to international cinema and then finding that overseas cinema is a bit more real and visceral. Now people want to use their heads while they watch the movie, they want to be involved, they want to feel invested. They don’t want to be brainless like before, where they are asked to leave their brains at home.
With that in mind, I think now directors and content providers are becoming a bit more aware, and they’re trying to create cinema, modeled on what’s being created outside of India. And I’m not just talking about the West. I mean, the cinema in Asia too, in Korea, Iranian cinema and cinema from our own continent is very good and provocative and it’s empowering, and it’s good writing and good storytelling.
What steps do you think still need to be taken to give background music more weight and credibility?
Awareness is important to me. Especially starting with the recognition that when music is made in film, it is often written [and credited] like “Music by so and so”… it should be the music of the film! Not just the songs, you can also write so-and-so’s songs, and the music for the movie is done by so-and-so. But here, it is very distorted. And it’s very weird here. Even though there is a song for the film, it is written as follows: “This person’s music and the rest of the background music is something that people don’t understand what it means. And they don’t even give any credit. He gets lost in the noise of it all. And people don’t care about the other part of the movie, they only care about the songs and they think whoever did the songs also did the background music.
Do you feel like it’s only recently that terms like sound design and mixing or even background music have become more public conscious in Indian film music? Not just with the public, but also with film producers and directors.
Oh yes they [movie directors] have become more aware of these other technical aspects of filmmaking now, and they realize the importance of all these ingredients as being very crucial to the end product itself. And if you’re below average, you won’t focus on these technical aspects, your film won’t work, it will sound very below average, at least to international audiences. But the Indian public is becoming more aware now and their palate has become even more demanding and they realize that these are very important aspects.
Does the filmmakers’ understanding of these concepts mean that they would also delve into what is essentially your area of expertise?
It is very important that there is teamwork involved in the making of a film. Filmmaking isn’t just an individual skill, and you just have to swallow whatever the professional has to offer. It’s the director’s vision ultimately, he sees it in a way. Everyone’s view? Yes, there might be suggestions, but it will ultimately be what he likes. Because he’s the producer, it’s their moolah to go there, they realize that at the end of the day, they know certain aspects of cinema, and they share it with us. It’s not an intrusion. In fact, it is, it is only beneficial. It is the teamwork that is most important.
What has been one of your favorite projects in the past that has been very fulfilling?
The one that comes to mind is 83, which I worked on and had a lot of player interaction. I did a cricket training camp with them because I really liked the sport. The director [Kabir Khan] wanted a sort of score that also had a certain period vibe to it. It sounded like you were from the 80s, and the kind of pop culture that was there and what kind of sounds were really popular so how do you interpret that now. It was a very good experience.
I really liked doing Tiger Zinda Hai , which was a very intense film. Director Ali Abbas Zafar had some very smart suggestions. There was a scene where Salman [Khan, actor] comes out with a huge machine gun and starts shooting people and destroying everything around him. He wanted the music to be counter-scored. He just wanted some kind of Spanish flamenco guitar playing there. It was an interesting approach.
For Dhoom 3 , director Vijay Acharya had a lot of great suggestions. He wanted us to take the doom theme and make it something different, make it a kind of more intriguing melody, rather than a pop/dance melody and how it can be used in an investigative way.
Tell us about the cricket camp you attended during 83. Do you have the opportunity to dive into this type of involvement to research the film for your score?
I was very lucky because I knew the director very well. Kabir [Khan] is an old college friend of mine. So he said, “By the way, there’s a camp for all these guys run by none other than Balwinder Sandhu, who was on the original team.” And it was pretty close to my house. So Kabir said I could just go there and stay there and maybe help out and stuff like that since I also played cricket. I grabbed it with both hands and my jaw dropped to the ground, really.
I was watching actors like Tahir Raj Bhasin step into the character of Sunil Gavaskar. Tahir has never played cricket in his life and he is a footballer. Getting him to bat like Gavaskar, who has one of the most impeccable forms, just because he looked a lot like him even though he’s never held a bat in his life – that was tough. I watched him right in front of him, in real time. I will never forget him.
As far as going and doing these kinds of research issues, I don’t do that often unless I have the opportunity and the director wants me to come on set next. When Dhoom 3 was going to go see the sets at Yash Raj [Studios] and I worked there. So I would see the whole thing. So I would get the kind of vibe of what the scale is and try to figure out what kind of vibe the score requires, and then you go back to your desk and it’s a work in progress.
Music production and composition has changed over the years, especially in the sense that people can sign up for masterclasses and the technology can be acquired to do it all from home or with a single laptop. What do you think of that?
There were simply no courses or masterclasses back then! [laughs]. I am very happy with the changes. It’s the right way to do it. I think every human being should have access to all forms of art, in that sense.
It’s a very open playing field, you can have a laptop at home, either at home or sitting on a beach or on top of a mountain. And you could make chart-topping music anywhere in the world. You can create orchestras, for, you know, a person who yodels with a guitar on the sidewalk.
I’m telling you, with the kind of technology out there, even a trained ear can’t tell the difference between what’s live and what’s programmed. It’s kind of an equal opportunity scenario. Thus, music composition is no longer reserved for the elite who studied at Berklee or the best music schools in the world. I don’t discount the fact that people who have learned music aren’t good or anything. It’s just that everyone can play music on laptop, you don’t even need to learn music to make music anymore. I’m very big on this. I think it’s perfect.
What’s the next step for you?
There’s a movie coming out called bloody daddy with Shahid [Kapoor] in it and it’s an edgy thriller about a drug robbery, and it’s a movie just based on 24 hours, and it’s a very edgy thriller. And the one I’m currently working on is called Adbhut. It’s a supernatural thriller. It is also for an OTT platform. It has Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Diana Penty and others in the cast. So yes, they are all very different types of stories. I wear different hats every time I work on a film now. It’s really interesting and I like it.