Sagar Desai, winner of Best Music at Imagineindia 2020 for Kadakh

Sagar Desai is a prolific international musician based in Mumbai, India. He has composed music for 18 Indian, French and American films. A self-taught musician, Sagar grew up jamming with his cousins in the suburbs of Chicago. After earning a degree in Architecture from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, he began his career at a design firm to further his interest in the visual arts. Two years later, he moved to Chennai, to help a friend produce an album which never got made. Sagar was led to musician Sandeep Chowta while working on ad films. After two years in Chennai, he moved to Mumbai, to work in the Hindi Film Industry. In Mumbai, Sagar worked with artists such as Pritam, Vishal-Shekhar, Sivamani and Adesh Shrivastav. He also formed a band with friend and rapper Blaaze, called Zambezi Funk, before striking out on his own as the Music Director for the critically acclaimed film Mixed-Doubles. Since then, Sagar has composed tracks and background music for 17 films. Most recently, Sagar has composed the background score to The Japanese Wife by Aparna Sen, A Death In The Gunj by Sen Sharma and Kadakh by Rajat Kapoor. Two time winner for Best Music at Imagineindia International Film Festival Madrid.

A Death In The Gunj’s soundtrack comprises of 19 short tracks of which only five has vocals and these are in languages that range from Assamese to Oaroni (a language pertaining to a Jharkhand tribe). Every element is what one would typically call a “background score”. It is a rare instance, even for a mainstream film, to have its background score picked up by a label. For Desai, it is certainly an achievement.

The score for this film was composed in an unusual way: as a response to the script, way before the shooting began. “When you don’t have visuals and you only think of music, you come up with more evocative stuff because you are only using imagination. This process turned out to be good for me as well as for the film,” says Desai.

Konkona Sen Sharma / Sagar Desai

Peter Weir’s 1975 Australian mystery drama Picnic At Hanging Rock was an aural reference for this film. Sen Sharma tried to emulate its mood and atmosphere with the visuals, while Desai tried to capture the emotions of its theme music – a pan flute piece played by Romanian musician Gheorghe Zamfir – in his track called ‘Sweater Theme’. But Desai couldn’t find any pan flute player in India, so he had to do with the Indian flute. The composer faced the similar issue with a kind of harp he wanted to use in the soundtrack. After finding no one here who could play it, he eventually outsourced it to a woman in Los Angeles.

Sagar’s choice of instruments tells his penchant for organic sound in his compositions – be it the evocative eerie A Death In The Gunj or Hindustani classical based Ankhon Dekhi which is dipped in the milieu of the film. One of the reasons, he thinks, that made his music of …Gunj memorable is, that it’s accompanied by rich and powerful visuals. “Music can make visuals work, but visuals can also make music work,” he says. “It’s a two-way street.”

For Desai, “A film must be good for its background score to be noticed,” he states, citing the example of a recent Hindi comedy release where he found the background score, “pushing everything that is on-screen so hard that it destroyed whatever humour was there”. As a comparison, he puts his score in indie comedy Bheja Fry for perspective, where, he says, he tried to capture the sentimentality of its lead character Bharat Bhushan, which is opposed to what a typical score of a comedy film would do.

Not only Desai finds the way background score is composed for commercial films demeaning to the art, but calls the process perfunctory. It’s one of the reasons, that Desai has stayed away from working for commercial films. While the film industry might have been quick in stereotyping him as an indie artist, Desai says, “Indie or mainstream doesn’t matter, as long as they know me and consider me for songs as well as the background score,” he tells me over the phone. For the composer, it’s being stereotyped just as a “background score wala” that is his real fear.

As opposed to the perception that off-mainstream artists look at mainstream music disdainfully, Desai is well aware of current Bollywood music and thinks that there is good music happening now more than ever. “There’s Amit Trivedi, Sachin-Jigar, Ajay-Atul, Sneha Khanwalkar. It’s not only Rahman anymore,” he says.

Like anyone who steeped in music in this country, Desai, too, idolised Rahman and his early work. Talking about his early days and inspiration (he also mentions Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maachis), he reminisces about coming from the United States where he worked as an architect to teach himself the art form. “Pandrah saal ho gaya (It’s been 15 years),” he states simply in his anglicised Hindi.