Wayne Sharpe: American composer in Bollywood

Wayne Sharpe: American composer in Bollywood

By his own admission, Sharpe is as "white and Western" as they come, so how did he end up composing music for "Raajneeti", one of this year's most anticipated Bollywood films?

Every Bollywood era produces one or two patriotic hit songs that become staples at local Independence Day celebrations for years to come, and "Dhan Dhan Dharti", the theme of "Raajneeti", looks well on the way to continuing this tradition. 

But what sets the recently released film apart is that its theme song was crafted by American composer Wayne Sharpe.

Sharpe has some help, of course, with legendary lyricst Gulzar's penmanship set to a score performed by a European orchestra and sung by Shankar Mahadevan (and another version by Sonu Niigam).

Wayne SharpeThe background score for "Raajneeti" is NYC-based composer Wayne Sharpe’s third project with Indian filmmaker Prakash Jha. He previously provided scores for Jha's "Apaharan" and "Gangaajal", and has won a Filmfare award for the latter. "Raajneeti" is a study on Indian politics described by audiences as a cross between the Godfather and the Mahabharata.

We met the talented and unassuming composer at his lovely sea-view room in Juhu's Novotel Hotel in Mumbai, a place he's called home for more than a month now.

CNNGo: How did the opportunity to compose a patriotic Indian song in Hindi for "Raajneeti" come about? 

Wayne Sharpe: Prakash was at my studio in New York and we were figuring out the background score for "Raajneeti". He explained the significance of the patriotic "Vande Mataram" song and we spoke about creating a score loosely based on it. He returned to India and I flew down later in February with the theme, Gulzar heard it and liked it instantly. We decided to have lyrics in it and that's how "Dhan Dhan Dharti" came to be. 

CNNGo: Do you understand Hindi? Especially since the Hindi dialogue in this film is more sophisticated than usual. 

Sharpe: I get translations and videos with subtitles when I am working but it's not the same. I am learning the language. Gulzar took me through the lyrics of "Dhan Dhan Dharti". I read a book with Gulzar's lyrics and I was blown away by the poetry of his writing.

CNNGo: How was working on "Raajneeti" different from "Gangaajal" and "Apaharan"?

Sharpe: "Apaharan" and "Gangaajal" were smaller, more intense films that needed a different kind of music. "Raajneeti" is a massive story. It is a political saga with many characters and interlinked plots. There's also a lot more work, there are about 95 pieces of music in it and it also has more Western musical influences.

CNNGo: You were somewhat of a musical prodigy, playing complicated classical pieces on the piano when you were six. How has your exhaustive background in Western classical music helped in composing for Bollywood?

Sharpe: I have had 25 years of classical piano training and studying Western orchestra works and I draw a lot from it. I think that’s what makes me different as a composer. In India, my specialty is bringing Western sounds to Hindi film music, a blend that’s accessible and interesting to the audiences here. For instance, for the "Apaharan" theme we had an American singer, Nicky Greogoroff, and she lent a haunting, melodius tone and everybody loved it. For "Raajneeti" I recorded bits at Prague with members of the Philharmonic Orchestra and used more Western instruments, like the piano, with good results.

The point is the sounds have to blend. I did not want to throw in a few token Indian instruments like the tabla or the flute to a Western score and say, "Here you go!"

CNNGo: How would you evalute Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif’s chemistry?

Sharpe: I had discussions with both of them about their characters, told them about their musical theme and the touch of melancholy in it because they don't end up together. But as an on-screen couple they are meant to be together, their chemistry is so natural.

CNNGo: Who are the musicians you look forward to collaborating with?

Sharpe: Ah! There are so many of them. I have enjoyed collaborating with the Midival Punditz and Karsh Kale. I have also spoken to Anoushka Shankar. I have worked with Ustad Sultan Khan whom I greatly admire and respect. I am very eager to work with AR Rahman. I also have immense respect for Kailash Kher and I have spoken to him about getting together. Watching Zakir Hussain play tabla was a humbling experience. I would love to collaborate with him too.

CNNGo: How is it working in Bollywood compared to the American entertainment industry?

Sharpe: It is different but there's more spontaneity here. Everybody improvises really well and it leads to serendipitous melodies, which is exciting for a composer. 

CNNGo: What do your friends and family back home think about your working in Bollywood?

Sharpe: Pagal ho gaya hain kya! (Laughs aloud). They say, "Wayne you're so white, so Western, how did you get involved?" It’s hard to explain but I don’t feel like I came to India, I think India came to me.

CNNGo: How much time have you spent in Mumbai? Where do you hangout?

Sharpe: I visit Mumbai often. My goal is to spend three months a year here and the rest in America, split between New York and LA. This time I have been here for 40 days. I love the buzz and energy of Mumbai city. I also love the warmth and hospitality of the people. I have made friends here who are more like family now. As far as places go, I enjoy the performances at Blue Frog. I also unwind at Zenzi and I like the sea. That's why I choose to live in Juhu, so close to the ocean. 

Aarthi Gunnupuri is a Mumbai-based freelance writer. She loves writing on culture and travel, as well as gender and development.
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