Aarya 2, Mumbai Diaries are masterclasses

“The point of an OTT score isn’t just to enhance the onscreen drama. The music should do the storytelling’: composers Vishal Khurana and Ashutosh Phatak talk about composing for Aarya Season 2 and Mumbai Diaries 26/11 respectively.

The second season of Aarya, the Disney+ Hotstar moody mob series created by Ram Madhvani, and the first season of Nikkhil Advani’s Mumbai Diaries, the medical drama fictionalising the bloody 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, offer two of the year’s best television experiences.

There are many similarities to draw between Aarya and Mumbai Diaries: For one, both shows revolve around dissecting the anatomy of survival in the face of an unspeakable tragedy. There is a razor-sharp clarity in vision: Aarya and Mumbai Diaries consistently remain in command of their maze-like narrative, compelling and ambitious in their insistence to eschew conventional storytelling tropes. They are created and helmed by two filmmakers who appear to thrive in the luxury of long-format storytelling. And both Aarya and Mumbai Diaries are shouldered by an extraordinary cast, in particular the nimble lead performances by two actresses (Sushmita Sen, Konkona Sensharma) who turn the exercise of performing into an art of reacting.

But perhaps the most visible connecting thread that ties these two shows together is their distinct musical language. Aarya and Mumbai Diaries are defined by their soundtracks: Madhvani and Advani employ music as a crucial piece of the emotional puzzle of their shows — it does not come before or after the script but instead co-exists with it. Take for instance, their understated, atmospheric background scores that commit to emphasising tension, contradictions, and sentimentality without drawing attention to itself. Both inarguably also offer the year’s best OTT soundtrack experiences, following in the footsteps of Alokananda Dasgupta’s mighty Sacred Games score and Achint Thakkar’s edgy Scam: 1992 earworm.

Scoring a show, spread out over eight to 10 episodes, is a demanding and inventive exercise, wholly different from scoring a movie where there is little room to experiment. In Hindi movies for example, a soundtrack is judged largely on their songs, and the act of “scoring” becomes perfunctory. At most, composers become imprisoned by scenes, scoring them literally in a bid to spoon feed viewers about the emotion they should be feeling in any particular moment. Essentially in movies, music composers come in last.

That was not the case with Aarya and Mumbai Diaries — composers Vishal Khurana and Ashutosh Phatak were involved with both their shows from the very beginning. Both of them are having a similarly momentous year, having created gritty scores that elevate the purpose of Mumbai Diaries and Aarya. Khurana, a regular Madhvani collaborator, responsible for the music of Dhamaka (2021) and Neerja (2016), prefers composing maximum music on the script itself. For the first season of Aarya, released in 2020, he started the scoring process by composing a number of musical themes before the edit. It allowed Khurana the ability to compose freely, helping him bring alive the various emotions in the story without being limited by the visual landscape of the show in any manner.

“The themes that I make are long pieces, a complete expression of the emotions I feel in the script and its characters, like the emotion of threat, tragedy, intrigue, conflict or innocence. I also use these different tracks to build specific character themes later on,” says Khurana.

But ahead of the International Emmy-nominated show’s second season, creating a distinct soundscape for Aarya was not Khuarana’s only priority. The composer instead was clear about giving a new identity to the show’s music instead of taking the easy way out and building upon the sonic palette of the first season. Aarya Season 2, for instance, has more character themes than the previous season.

When Phatak started composing Mumbai Diaries on the other hand, he had just finished scoring Feels Like Ishq, the Netflix India anthology series, and The Empire, the ambitious Mughal dynasty drama also created by Advani. With Mumbai Diaries, Phatak had the opportunity to reign back the sound. In that, the music had the luxury of being more thematic. Phatak approached the job of composing the show like a stunt double — ensuring that the score stepped in as support, whether it was visually or in terms of acting.

But soon, he realised that Advani achieved a degree of finesse with Mumbai Diaries that his score did not really need to do any heavy lifting. “I realised that I wouldn’t have to worry about supporting scenes and guiding them to a satisfying emotional conclusion because the show already achieved that through its writing and performances,” said Phatak. “My music instead, needed to enhance what is already there from a point of view of communication, and not make up for the absences.”

That meant that the soundtrack had the free reign to embody its own individuality, allowing the composer and former Blue Frog founder the leeway to play with sound to create an environment that was buttressed by musical tension. The result is a layered score and masterful songs like the Jubin Nautiyal-sung ‘Yeh Haalath,’ and ‘Paar Hoga Tu,’ which is sung by Anand Bhaskar, and written by Niranjan Iyengar. Phatak’s work on Mumbai Diaries in fact manages to set a reference point for the musical grammar of long-format shows, borrowing from the grandeur of movie soundtracks and tempering it with refined sound arrangements. “Mumbai Diaries was more about being in the moment, and capturing the feeling of the moment. The music was naturally atmospheric,” explains Phatak.

Both Phatak and Khurana enjoy the challenge of composing OTT soundtracks for different reasons. The collaborative process of working, which usually involves composer-director duos coming together to decide which specific plots and scenes need to be highlighted or subdued with music (Phatak and Advani worked on the music for The Empire without meeting in person even once), and freedom of time is an obvious attraction.

Khurana specifically finds it a medium that empowers composers to churn out experimental and exciting music. “It’s a bit like the situation with Hindi film music in the 1940s, when composers were free to create music as they pleased as there were no reference points.” The digital medium similarly is not weighed down by musical roles or trends yet, allowing composers an unconditional scope to express themselves and head in wildly different directions.

In Aarya Season 2, Khurana’s score is built on raag-based melodies that are complemented with orchestral and choral music. In comparison, for season one’s chant-like ‘The Bhagavad Gita Song,’ Khuarana presented the philosophy of the shlokas in the Bhagavad Gita in the form of a song, juxtaposing it with the deep conflict that Aarya, the eponymous lead, was dealing with in the show. The track boasted contrasting influences: Sanskrit shlokas, earthy sounds of the shehnai and sarangi, programmed along with other electronic sounds and hip-hop elements. It was, quite simply, the crowning glory of the show. For the second season, Khurana chose to retain a short instrumental version of the track in one of the episodes.

When composing for shows, a process that takes anywhere between a month to three months, Phatak feels liberated by the option of digging deep into the talent pool of young and upcoming musicians. But more importantly, what he felt weirdly satisfying about the process of composing an OTT soundtrack is the fact that he was not brought in because of his name, but because of his previous work.

Both composers, having a similarly momentous year, cannot also stress enough about the musical literacy that has been possible because of streaming platforms. A background score is no longer meant to just be a diversion tactic. Audiences watching long-format shows are now engaging with the music on a deeper level, which include paying attention to the background scores. Both the scores of Aarya and Mumbai Diaries participate in the show’s proceedings instead of being estranged with it. It makes for worthy accompaniments of two extraordinary shows.

“Sometimes, your job as an OTT soundtrack composer really is to make sure you’re not noticed,” Phatak says, citing the example of Game of Thrones, where the score never takes centerstage despite being fantastic. Aarya and Mumbai Diaries come very close to achieving that same feat, ensuring that audiences are alive to the possibilities of the music without being distracted from the essence of the story. Khurana and Phatak make it look a little too easy.

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