No Music Is Less: interview with filmmaker Sriram VegarajuMay 15th, 2011 | Posted by in Uncategorized
The musics of India and America serve as the backdrop for Sriram Vegaraju’s film Distant Beats. The story of the ongoing mixing—and remixing—of Western and Eastern music finds expression in the characters of four musicians, two Americans and two Indians, and their interactions as they come to know each other and learn about one another’s music and history. I recently interviewed the film’s director.
Charley Cvercko: What got you into filmmaking, Sriram?
Sriram Vegaraju: It was a passion of mine from childhood.
CC: Where did you spend your childhood?
SV: Southern India, which is rich in movie making.
CC: So you grew up watching Indian films?
SV: Yes, and quite often English films.
SV: Satyajit is more like art film making, different from traditional Bollywood. There are multi-regional, and multi-lingual film flavors across the country.
CC: I think the only more traditional Bollywood film I’ve seen is Mother India, and that’s not very recent either. So I’m ignorant of modern Bollywood.
SV: Mother India is a patriotic film, in the Bollywood style.
CC: But is it generally true that music is very important in most Indian filmmaking?
SV: Yes, very important—both music and dancing.
CC: Is that the element that identifies a Bollywood film? The singing and dancing?
SV: It’s almost a requirement. A big part of it. Moreover in a typical Indian film action, romance, sentiment—it all comes in a package in one film.
CC: I noticed the musical scenes in Distant Beats are kind of set apart stylistically; removed from the more naturalistic plot. Is that generally true of Bollywood, or is that a choice you made specifically?
SV: Not necessarily. The musical scenes and dances connect the story and cut short multiple scenes to establish the theme.
CC: What are some of the English-language films you remember from growing up?
SV: I grew up watching Hitchcock and James Bond movies which are big in India. I am big fan of God Father trilogy myself.
CC: What do you think you might have picked up from those films?
SV: The element of surprise, and climax in different tone. My next film is a thriller. We might probably shoot in July/August timeframe, in India.
CC: Will it take place entirely in India?
SV: Yes, this project will be completely planned for India. A straight feature length in Telugu.
It will be translated into English for film festivals later.
CC: How much time do you spend travelling back and forth?
SV: 4-6 weeks depends on the project.
CC: What was involved with making Distant Beats in two such distant places?
SV: I went to Seattle Film School. I wanted to do a project and I explored different subjects. Music wins! Then I wrote this story. It is about bringing Indian classical music into the light. This music form is becoming extinct due to modern flavors and “remix fever” in India. That was the main driving factor in building the Govind’s character in Distant Beats.
CC: Do you listen to a lot of Indian classical yourself?
SV: Yes I do. There are many flavors of classical: instrumental and vocal. I chose vocal singer as a lead in this film. This film has few Sanskrit hymns “slokas.” Which is rare feat in regular films.
CC: I know very little Indian music. I know Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but he’s Pakistani. Is there a similarity?
SV: Yes. He is another classical vocalist. The one in Distant Beats is age-old traditional music, preserved as a rare art form in India. This music is practiced by very few and this art form requires an uplift.
CC: So there’s an activist element to your film: your hope that it will help in preservation of Indian classical music?
SV: Yes. Govind struggles to elevate his music form to that of modern music. But he fails in the modern time auditions to impress up on. There are few big names who dedicated their lives in this form of music. Mr. M Balamurali Krishna and MS Subbulakshmi.
CC: Have you been able to work with them at all?
SV: I couldn’t. But I am fortunate to get comments from famous director Mr. K Viswanath, during movie premiere in India. He is on the facebook page of Distant Beats, his interview and post-premiere comments. His movies Sankarabharanam andSwarnakamalam are along similar lines. You can say Govind’s character is somewhat inspired by Sankarabharanam.
CC: What do you hope to achieve with Distant Beats? Is it raising awareness of this preservation issue?
SV: That is correct. Also tie these forms to modern music—no music is less!
CC: What is your dream as a filmmaker? Do you have one big project in mind you’d like to accomplish some day?
SV: I am more attracted to social problems and issues that require attention. My projects will always connect to one or both of these elements. Dream is to combine these elements commercially and balance the filmmaking experience.
CC: Will it be an Indian film, or an American film?
SV: It will come in Indian and American versions.
At this point Scott Mantei, who wrote much of the music for Distant Beats as well as playing the part of Frank, chimed in:
Scott Mantei: Hi Charley, Sriram brought me on to add some of the musical elements to Distant Beats. I wrote the theme song and the three string-quartet pieces. All the other songs came from Parthu in India.
CC: Hi Scott. Can you talk about your experiences? How you got involved, etc.?
SM: I’ve always been into music composition, and have studied all kinds of styles. So when Sriram asked for an upbeat theme song, I had a pretty good idea how to handle it. And by the way, Sriram wrote the lyrics for the song. I wrote the music and produced the song. Also, it was quite interesting to write music for the little girl symbolic scenes [in the prologue].
CC: So you did all the incidental and credit music?
SM: No not all, Sriram’s friend in India, Parthu, did all the Indian songs. He is a professional singer and music director for Indian films. So it was fun to be able to work on this “global” project
CC: What did you learn as a musician from working on Distant Beats?
SM: A lot! As I’ve said, I’ve done a lot of composition before, but not directly for film. Which requires being able to meet tight deadlines. It was interesting producing the CD, Music from Distant Beats. Combining all the songs to make a cohesive whole.
Sriram’s reminding me, I should talk about my daughter’s role. She played the little girl in the symbolic scenes. Those scenes are very special to me because it’s my daughter along with my music.
CC: Was she cooperative?
SM: She was very cooperative! Up to a point, where she got so tired she just laid down and didn’t want to get up. She was only two at the time.
Sriram returned to the interview:
SV: I wanted to add few things about other elements in the movie. Indian folk music is brought into light, which is famous in Indian villages. This art form equally requires attention. Raaga plays this role in Distant Beats. Andrew and Jennifer characters should have been elevated on pop and instrumental. Personally I believe we should have added more musical references to Andrew and Jennifer before closing on the climax. This is one thing I will correct if I shoot this film again.
CC: I can see that each character represents a particular style and history.
SV: Right: Andrew character supposed to develop a connection to Indian music and romance with Raaga to balance the main plot. Eventually, the school is chosen as the first project to benefit from this universal music (Jennifer’s and team’s dream). These children are challenged in many ways to lead a normal life, yet want to be “stars,” in my personal interactions with these kids offline. In my opinion they are already “stars.” So no person is less—all they need is a little hope from all of us.
Coming to the crew—both the cinematographers did a fantastic job. Music you already got from Scott. One last thing: The Vedam song between Pundit and Govind is actually Hindu mantras, i.e., Vedic chants in Sanskrit.
Here is the website Music of India about classical singers with more details on the genre and traditional heritage.