The young music director talks about the burden of being AR Rahman's protege and how director Sekhar Kammula helped him become a better human
Ch Pawan, the film composer who makes his debut with Sekhar Kammula's Love Story, was a sportive child at school with a great passion for cricket. Though both his father and grandfather have been cinematographers, films weren't on his mind for a long time. It was during the late teenage years that prompted him to discover the beauty of music in all its depth. He was quite curious about the effort that goes behind any song that leaves a spellbinding impact. So curious that he wanted to study in a music school, reading up on the life stories of global musicians, watching films based on them. He was focused on his effort, trying to create a distinct identity with his sound, eventually earning a place in composer AR Rahman's core team and the opportunity to work with director Sekhar Kammula. In an exclusive conversation with OTTplay, Pawan opens up on his musical journey in elaborate detail.
You're the third generation in your family to have entered films. Your father Vijay C Kumar has had a nearly three-decade stint in the industry with a fair share of highs, lows and struggles. Were there any concerns from his end about your interest in cinema?
For many years, my father was slightly reluctant about me getting into the industry. He didn't feel it was a safe place. Everything changed when he met Sekhar Kammula; it convinced him that there are still good people around in the industry to work with and make films for the love of the craft. It's the very reason he was fine with me about making a career in music. For me, it was never about movies. Even when I was working with AR Rahman, I hardly did it intending to become a music director. I watch tons of films but never thought of making a career out of it. I had this vision of creating a band and surprise people with our sound across the country.
And it paved the way for you to reach AR Rahman's studios?
Yes, but there is some context to it too. I studied music right after my Intermediate at KM Music Conservatory. I researched new sounds in my college and tried to find a space I resonated with. It's in the last year of my college that I began understanding compositions from a technical perspective. I was performing at an event, playing something very experimental and underground and I was surprised to receive a call from Rahman sir's team. He asked me to join his team, do whatever I want and told me that he enjoyed my sound, taste with music. He told me to go all out and crazy with my experiments. Not many people understood the music that we were doing but AR Rahman was the first person to appreciate our efforts. He, in fact, told me to remember my sound and not lose it at any cost.
How did the stint with AR Rahman shape your musical sensibilities?
In the initial weeks of joining his team, he had once given me this huge setup of synths used in the olden days to make different tunes. While I was adapting to it for some time, he asked me to play something suddenly and liked it immensely. I was on board for the team that was working for The Fakir of the Venice and Rahman asked me to go all-out wacky with it. He's crazy about experiments, to try new sounds and is as enthusiastic as a millennial to push the bar. I worked on creating a dark sound for Sridevi's Mom later (it won a National Award) and was part of projects like Sarkaar, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Mersal.
I travelled with him for shows as a technical assistant on stage. In studios, he's extremely chilled out but during shows, he's very meticulous, it has to be bang on. He is always eager to put up to the best show. He wakes up at 6 am in his hotel room and starts working on music. With the teaser of Vikram's Cobra that was barely 30-40 seconds long too, he worked round the clock and was ready to go to any length to surprise audiences with his soundscape. I just had tears in my eyes noticing someone with a 30 year-long career have that kind of passion working on a film teaser as well. Whatever I know about scoring music for movies today, I owe it to Rahman.
Was the Sekhar Kammula world a complete turnaround? How did the opportunity come together?
Honestly, I've been trying to work with Sekhar Kammula for the last five years. I was rejected for Fidaa and another film of his too. Sekhar sir is very demanding, he always wants something more and better. It was with a rough version of Ay Pilla that helped me bag Love Story. He later tested me for several song situations. I think I was responding well and only then, he gave me the actual song situation for this number, Evo Evo Kalale. With most of the songs in the film, we created multiple versions and improvised them with time. Saranga Dariya had an electronic version and a folk version and we finally ended up blending the two for the final result. Chitram Choosi was reworked because we wanted to do justice to Mittapalli Surender's extraordinary lyrics. I had no complaints; ultimately it's another good number in my bag. I wanted to give this song a Coke Studio cum Telangana vibe. Sekhar Kammula is all about perfection; he lives for films and is ready to do as many corrections until the last minute for the best result.
Sekhar Kammula's films have always been in the news for their music and Love Story is no different. People always have had high words of praise for his musical sensibilities. What makes him tick and how does he inspire musicians?
Let me tell you about the way he narrates his stories first. His narration isn't just about the story, it's very deep. He talks about architecture, politics and the minute elements that constitute his world. He knows music from the 60s to the work of Lady Gaga too. When I began working with him, I had this western classical hangover and used to suggest something similar. We had a very special conversation then. He said, "For movies, he told me to know my audience first." He truly believes people in India watch films to forget their worries for a few hours and enjoy the music within that space. He reminded me that not all may be privileged to be musically aware. Sekhar Kammula encourages my independent music leanings but is very clear about what he wants from film music. He likes people who question him. He suggested I introduce newer musical influences gradually and not impose them upon crowds at once. These conversations were eye-openers. My very idea about music had changed ever since. He made me a better human.
You started exploring your musical interests at 20, at a time when most of us would've already developed specific tastes with what we like and what we don't about music...
It was my education at KM Music Conservatory that changed it all. I understood how music was like an ocean, got to know its history, science and it was as complex as any other course in an engineering college. The stint was about self-discovery as much as music. I wanted to become a film director and learn every aspect of movies initially. I may have been slightly late to learn music but my friends say that's the reason why I'm able to come up with the new, refined sound now.
How different is your father at work and home? Does work feature in your discussions regularly?
My dad and I hardly discuss work. He always asks me to have patience. We never got into specifics of the project anytime and it gave me the space to discover myself. He is quite similar at home and work. He came up from nothing to become what he's today. His world always revolves around work. He is a fun person but work is his priority on most occasions. On the sets, he is immensely serious and focused.
The reason behind Love Story's success as a music album is a lot because of the time audiences got to grow with it. The film continues to break records every day...
I thought that the time over these two years would be a disadvantage. There's a reason behind it. Evo Evo Kalale, for instance, had a future bass sound, which is wearing out now. I was scared that the sound will fade away by the time it would release. However, it surprisingly worked the other way round and people have loved, lived with the songs all this while. It's only in the last few weeks that I realised that a year and a half is a good time for people to appreciate my music.
While working on a film score, you tend to watch a film so many times and are at risk of losing the ability to judge your work. How do you know if something is actually working or not?
The best thing you could do is to distract yourself from the movie, read a book, work on a different number and return to work. You always have a different perspective on music when you listen to it after a break and notice the flaws as well. It's a never-ending process. That's why there's nothing like a perfect score. You just try to better yourself from time to time.
Has the attention around you and your music, for your every first film, been overwhelming in some way?
There was a lot of pressure on me from the beginning, especially that I was AR Rahman's student and also that it was my first film. I have to live up to his name and that of Sekhar Kammula and the huge cast. It was difficult to handle the attention. A lot of friends complained that I locked myself in a room, didn't lift their calls and only focused on work. Moreover, Sekhar Kammula's movies are close to my heart, especially Anand and Godavari and I had to be doubly sure that I sustain those standards he has set.
How would you describe Love Story in a nutshell?
It's something more than a love story; it's intense and epic in every sense of the word.