'Breathe' Composer Alokananda Dasgupta On How She's Finding Her Feet In A Man's World

Between raising the profile of background scores to finding her feet in the boy's club of Bollywood composers, Alokananda Dasgupta discusses everything.

It was a phone conversation but the biggest takeaway of our interview with musician Alokananda Dasgupta is that she has the clarity of an established director. She knows exactly what she wants to say, and anything disingenuous won’t do. Like when she was asked about the work that inspires her, she thinks long and hard for almost 45 seconds without trying to fill the awkward silence with a name.

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Having written scores for last year’s Trapped, the recently-concluded Amazon original Breathe and the upcoming Netflix original Sacred Games, Dasgupta’s filmography looks both tastefully curated and intentionally low-key. It has the precision of a young actor trying to build credibility through a variety of short films, web series and critically-acclaimed films. From being one of the few women in the profession, the lack of respect for background scores in Indian films, to the different techniques to tackle assignments of different lengths – Dasgupta spoke about everything:

1. Coming from a family where your father is an accomplished poet and a director, how did music happen?
Music happened through him actually. Our father wanted us to become classical pianists and we got into music through playing Western classical. Even otherwise we were always surrounded by cassettes, vinyls, we were listening to all kinds of music and talking about it. But I think, the main focus was always that my sister and I learn the piano and not do anything else. He was a unhappy when he found out eventually that I wouldn’t be a pianist, but was somewhat relieved that I got into compositions.

2. Was it always film music or did you harbour ambitions as an indie music artist?
It was neither actually. I went to York University where studied classical piano (theory + composition) and realised that everyone upon graduating suffered from existential questions like – what now? What should I do now?

People in general look down upon you, if you tell them about your degree in music because it is not a degree in medicine. Bollywood films were never on my radar, even though we had grown up watching them. And all that changed when I heard the music for a movie called Aamir. I was still studying and that was my moment of realisation that these kind of films are also being made in Bollywood. And this kind of music can also work for them.

3. What were your influences while growing up?
There were many, many influences and there was absolutely no filter in our consumption. I remember listening to Ry Cooder’s slide guitar in Paris, Texas (1984) at the age of 8-9 and it really stayed with me. And then obviously the main themes of Feluda and Pather Panchali stuck with me, we would hum it all the time. I liked scores from the very beginning and I absorbed them even without being completely aware of it. In India, background score isn’t something people would pay attention to or even listen to an album full of background theme music. Which I guess is slowly changing…

ALSO READ: ‘Mukkabaaz’ composer Rachita Arora is the shot in the arm that Bollywood music needed

4. Is it? Is the Bollywood audience changing?
I think people underestimate the audience, the truth of India is if you’re not making songs then you don’t matter. But then there are also you and I, and so many like us who listen to soundtracks for Hollywood films or look up OST albums on YouTube at 3 in the morning.

5. How does the process change between films and a web series differ – at what stage do you come in either of them?
Breathe was my first web series, and I came in during the post-production after they were done editing the episodes. I’m also doing Sacred Games (Netflix web series starring Saif Ali Khan), and over there I came on board much earlier… at the start of post-production. I read the screenplay for the show and came up with a few ideas of my own. The process is quite different, with a web series it’s far more mechanical. For Sacred Games I had a few ideas to draw from, but with Breathe it was watching the episodes, talking to the director and coming up with it.

6. Your score in Trapped was obviously fantastic – was there ever a doubt in your mind about how would you go about scoring a for a film set in a room?
Yes. I really loved the visuals of Trapped. And in spite of being a huge fan of survival films, I had not seen something like this. The narrative in the film inspired me. There was so much scope to work without making it fully avant-garde. The director Vikram (Motwane) was absolutely thorough about what he wanted, and we arrived at it after many, many conversations. Overall, the brief was to find a way to depict urban isolation.

7. Fandry is one of my favourite Marathi movies, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that you scored the film. How did you start with Marathi and not Bengali?
It was by chance, a friend was working on Shala and he recommended my name to the director (also making his debut). He heard my stuff and he liked it. Most of the same unit from Shala, went on to make Fandry and I was hired once again.

8. The films/shows that you’ve worked in has been an interesting mix – is it what you were offered or was there a conscious choice to work with quality films even if they are a little low on profile?
Projects in the beginning was whatever I was offered, I wasn’t in a position to pick and choose. So I guess I became lucky with the ‘crowd’ I was surrounded with at that time. Now, obviously I have some choice about doing one project over another. Short films have been a great area to experiment, and in the end I want to work in a film that I would be excited to sit down and watch.

9. You’ve hit a music composer’s block – what is the one album or song, you would turn to for inspiration?
(thinks for a long time) If I wanted to make someone hear the sound inside my head, I would make them hear the soundtrack of Dead Man (1995). Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (1998 album) is something I keep going back to. The soundtrack of Her (Spike Jonze’s film), very minimalistic and something that really works for me. Currently, Call Me By Your Name… to name a few.

10. You are in esteemed company in Bollywood – where only Sneha Khanwalkar and Mukkabaaz’s Rachita Arora are your female contemporaries. Is it any different/difficult looking for work as a female musician?
I don’t have any context. I find it difficult to find work that matches my sensibility, but gender-wise I have no context. It’s difficult as in… you might be too emotional or sensitive to handle certain ‘situations’. But where it comes to reaching out to people I identify with, want to work with, work for films that I really want to watch… that’s the difficult part. I don’t know if my gender affects that in any way.

10a. Have you ever faced any condescension/discrimination in any form, at the workplace?
In the beginning of course, but in undertones. Nothing to write home about. It’s the usual problem with authority, problem in taking instructions from a woman… especially someone young. These issues are definitely present, but I haven’t really let them become an obstruction for me.

A still from Zach Braff’s ‘Garden State’.

11. What is a recent movie or show you saw, whose music you wish you had composed?
Call Me By Your Name, of course. And maybe even The Fall, I’m really into dark stuff like that so maybe if I get an opportunity like that.

12. Is there a director in India or the world, who you would give your right arm to work with?
Yeah, it’s kind of silly. I really want to work with Zach Braff (of Scrubs fame). The soundtrack of Garden State was one of the most memorable moments which made me want to write scores of my own.