As someone who’s helmed the background score for Bollywood hits such as ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan,’ ‘83’ and most recently ‘Cuttputlli,’ the producer feels wider awareness and acknowledgement are still missing
Cricket analogies come easy to Julius Packiam. The New Delhi-bred Mumbai-based composer is the mind behind adrenaline-fueled, dramatic background scores for action flicks such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Dhoom 3, Ek Tha Tiger and more over the last 15 years in Bollywood. Given the wide variety of genres, moods and scenes he has to serve, Packiam likens managing it all to how you play a spin bowler and then a pace bowler. He says over a Zoom video call, “You have to learn to adjust to different pitches too, just different conditions. Whether it’s comedies or murder mysteries or action dramas, you’ve understood the skills of the craft and you have to apply it.”
Last year, Packiam got to combine his love for cricket and music, when he began working on the score for sports biopic 83, which follows the World Cup winning story of the Indian team. Thanks to his friendship with Kabir Khan, the composer got to attend a six-month cricket camp along with all the actors, conducted by bowler Balwinder Sandhu. Packiam recalls about the camp, “It was a bucket list item for me to meet all these past cricketers. They were heroes of mine from childhood and they would visit the camp often.” With the buzz of the camp and energy to inspire him to create the background music, based on what transpired each day on set and at the camp.
From Kabul Express in 2006 to a majority of Salman Khan-starrer movies, Packiam has built his reputation well in Mumbai. Still, there’s ways to go in terms of the recognition due for background score composers in India, according to him. There have been gradual changes and now, a more discerning viewer is present along with more meticulous filmmakers and producers, even. With Rolling Stone India, he chats about the long way ahead for background music in India, why 83 is among his favorite projects and more. Excerpts:
What do you feel about the way composing background music has evolved in India? What kind of change have you seen?
I haven’t seen a sea change or like a drastic change, but it’s just been a gradual change. And moreover, because of the kind of exposure that Indian cinema is getting internationally, and the exposure that Indian audiences are getting to international cinema… especially with the advent of OTT, it’s become evident that people have kind of been exposed to international cinema and then noticing that cinema abroad is a little more real and visceral. Now, people want to use their head while they’re watching the film, they want to be involved, they want to feel invested. They don’t want to be brainless like earlier, where they’re asked to leave their brains at home.
With that in mind, I think now directors and content providers are getting a little more obviously aware, and they are trying to create cinema, on the lines of what is being created outside India. And I’m not talking about just the West. I mean, cinema in Asia as well, Korea, Iranian cinema, and cinema from within our own continent is very good and provocative and it’s stimulating, and it’s good writing and good storytelling.
What steps do you think still need to be taken to give background music more footing and credence?
Awareness is a big one for me. Especially starting with just the acknowledgement that when music is made in a film, it’s often written [and credited] as “Music by so and so”… it should be music of the film! Not just the songs, you can write the songs by so and so, also, and the music of the film is done by so and so. But out here, it’s very skewed. And it’s very weird out here. Even if there’s one song for the film, it’s written as “Music by this person and the rest of background music is something people don’t understand what it means. And they don’t even give any credit. It gets lost in the noise of it all. And people don’t care about the other part of the film, they only care about songs and they think that the person who has done the songs has also done the background music.
Does it feel like it’s only recently that terms like sound design and mixing or even background score have come more into public consciousness in Indian film music? Not just with audiences but with film producers and directors as well.
Oh, yeah, they [movie directors] have become more aware of these other technical aspects to filmmaking now, and they realize the importance of all these ingredients as very crucial to the final product per se. And if you’re below average, you will not focus on these technical aspects, your film will not work, it will sound very below average, at least for the international audience. But Indian audiences are getting more aware now and their palate has become even more discerning and they are realizing that these are very important aspects.
Does the filmmakers’ understanding of these concepts mean that they would also poke around in what is essentially your area of expertise?
It’s very important that there is teamwork involved in filmmaking. Filmmaking is not just one person skills, and you have to just swallow whatever the professional has to offer you. It’s the director’s vision at the end of the day, he sees it a certain way. Everybody else’s vision? Yes, there could be suggestions, but it will be finally what he likes. Because he’s the producer, that’s their moolah going into it, they realize that at the end of the day, they know certain aspects of filmmaking, and they share it with us. It is not an intrusion. In fact, it’s, it’s only beneficial. It’s working together as a team that’s most important.
What have been one of your favorite projects in the past that was very fulfilling?
The one that comes to mind is 83, which I worked on and it had a lot of interactions with players. I did a cricket training camp with them, because I was very fond of the sport. The director [Kabir Khan] wanted a kind of a score that had a certain period vibe to it as well. It would have sounded like you’re from coming from the Eighties, and the kind of pop culture that was there and what kind of sounds really were popular then how to interpret it now. That was a very good experience.
I really enjoyed doing Tiger Zinda Hai , which was a very intense movie. The director Ali Abbas Zafar had very intelligent suggestions. There was one scene where Salman [Khan, actor] comes out with a massive machine gun and starts firing at people and destroying everything around him. He wanted the music to be counter scoring. He wanted just a Spanish kind of flamenco guitar playing there. It was an interesting approach.
For Dhoom 3 , the director Vijay Acharya had a lot of interesting suggestions. He wanted us to take the Dhoom theme and make something different out of it, make it into a more intriguing kind of a melody, rather than a pop/dance melody and how it can be used in an investigative way.
Tell us about the cricket camp that you were part of for 83. Do you get to dive into this kind 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 being conducted by none other than Balwinder Sandhu, who was part of the original team.” And it was pretty close to my house. So Kabir said I can just go and hang there and maybe help around and stuff like that since I played cricket as well. I grabbed it both my hands and my jaw fell to the floor, really.
I was watching actors like Tahir Raj Bhasin get into the character of Sunil Gavaskar. Tahir hadn’t played cricket in his life and he’s a soccer player. To get 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 challenging. I was watching it right in front of him, in real time. I’ll never ever forget it.
As far as going and doing this kind of research problems, I don’t do it that often unless I get the opportunity and the director wants me to be then come to the set. When Dhoom 3 was happening, I would go and check out the sets at Yash Raj [Studios] and I was working there. So I would see the set. So I would get the kind of a vibe of what the scale is and try to figure out the kind of mood the score requires and then you go back to your desk and it’s a work in progress.
Music production and composing has changed over the years, especially in the sense that people can enroll for masterclasses and the technology can be acquired to do this all from home or just a single laptop. What do you think about this?
There just weren’t any courses or masterclasses back then! [laughs]. I’m very happy about the changes. This is the right way it should be. I think every human should have access to every art form, in that sense.
It’s a very open playing field, you can have a laptop at home, either your home or you could be sitting on a beach or on a mountaintop. And you could be making music that is on the top of the charts, anywhere in the world. You can create orchestras, to, you know, a person, yodeling over with a guitar on the sidewalk.
I’m telling you, with the kind of technology that’s there, even a discerning ear can’t make out the difference between what’s live and what is programmed. That’s a very equal opportunity kind of a scenario. So music composing is no longer for the elite who studied in Berklee or the best music colleges of the world. I’m not discounting the fact that people who’ve learned music are not good or whatever. It’s just that everybody can read music on a laptop, you don’t even have to learn music to create music anymore. I’m very big about it. I think it’s perfect.
What’s coming up next for you?
There’s a movie coming out, called Bloody Daddy with Shahid [Kapoor] in it and that’s an edgy thriller about a drug heist, and it’s a movie just based on 24 hours, and it’s very edgy thriller. And the one that I’m currently working on is called Adbhut. It’s supernatural thriller. That’s also for an OTT platform. It has Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Diana Penty and others in the cast. So yeah, they all very different kinds of stories. I’m getting to wear different hats every time I work on a film now. It’s really interesting and I’m enjoying it.