Songs Of The Twisted Road


Sneha Khanwalkar is Bollywood’s third ever and hippest woman music composer, says Isha Manchanda

Sneha Khanwalkar
Tuning fork Music composer Sneha Khanwalkar

IN THE winter of 2008, a Bengali man and a Marathi girl brought us infectious music straight from the heart of Punjab and Haryana — a pleasant surprise after a decade of simplified trash passed off as popular Punjabi music. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye’s music was fresh and startling. Its 24-year-old composer (now in the company of Jaggat Bai and Usha Khanna) was Bollywood’s third ever woman composer. She finds that fact peculiar. Peculiar, because she thinks the industry is perfect for women. “I’m still to record with a female musician”, she notes, surprised.

Sneha Khanwalkar, Oye Lucky’s music composer had been sent from Indore to Mumbai to get into engineering college but she knew at 18 that she wanted to be in the movie business. “My mother’s family had musicians from the Gwalior gharana so I learnt music at a very young age. We were asked to perform at every family function so I went through a short period of being anti-music. But I loved movies. Everyday, on my way to school in the bus, I’d play the Rangeelatheme in my head. I would dream of arriving at school in a helicopter, wearing an outfit like Urmila’s. After I decided to compose music, I didn’t tell my folks. I had changed my mind so many times.”

When she heard that Dibakar Banerjee, the director of Khosla Ka Ghosla, was looking for a music composer, she pestered him until he agreed to meet her and explain his brief. She made up her mind that she was going to find a radically new sound which would be relevant to the movie by travelling into rural North India. But just before she set off she had her heart broken. “One moment I’d be down in the dumps and the next I’d be completely overwhelmed by all the great music I was discovering.” Such as the folk music of Des Raj Lakhani who sang the moving Jugni.

The only girl in a Scorpio full of Jat men, on her way to a music festival in Haryana, Sneha wished she was invisible

“Everyone I met on the road was very interested in my age and marital plans.” The only girl in a Scorpio full of Jat men, on her way to the Raagini music festival in Haryana, Khanwalkar and her cameraman had serious doubts about what they were doing. “I wasn’t about to quit but I did wish I was invisible when I realised I was the only woman at the festival.”

The soundtrack that Sneha created was deeply layered, desi and modern, repurposing folk for the urban angst of the Punjabi heart of Delhi, talking greed, corruption, isolation — effortlessly mocking all of Bollywood’s previous attempts at romps in the mustard fields.

Though widely praised for her experimentation, Khanwalkar doesn’t wish for the Bollywood peculiarity of song-dance routines to fade away. As she excitedly talks about the industry’s promise to young musicians like her, there’s no room for the ‘struggle’ in her conversation.

Far from her anti-music spell she now looks at everything as a musical project. While rejecting all offers to do Oye Lucky-like soundtracks she has bizarre dreams. “I passed all my viva exams by composing songs out of them!” She is curently thinking of converting history and civics school syllabi into songs for easy listening.

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