Composer Ram Sampath and singer Sona Mohapatra live on love, music and unwavering work ethics
Anand Holla (MUMBAI MIRROR; January 13, 2012)
Last May, a week before Aamir Khan’s ambitious TV debut Satyamev Jayate was to go on air, the fate of its rousing title song was perched precariously on Ram Sampath’s platelet levels. Sampath and songstress wife Sona Mohapatra, had discarded a bunch of songs that would be played at the end of each episode, days before he was admitted to Jaslok Hospital with typhoid and malaria. “After watching 20 hours of the show’s footage on various issues, we realised that we would have to start from scratch and create songs that surmised the respective subjects. Also, we didn’t know which of the eight options we had worked on would be used as the title track,” says Mohapatra.
While the duo struggled with deadlines, Mohapatra heard rumours that Sampath could be replaced. The producer of Khar-based recording studio Om Grown Music met Khan to sort things out. “I told Aamir that nobody could get the emotional context of this show better than Ram. He told me — Ram will only do it…don’t worry,” she says. Sampath, meanwhile, rustled up a mini studio inside his hospital room to complete the work. “Aamir trusts me because our relationship is based on integrity,” he says.
Integrity is a recurring theme in a life-and-times conversation with the 30-something couple. Before he trickled into public consciousness with the Delhi Belly (2011) and Talaash (2012) soundtracks, Sampath first came into the public eye for suing producer Rakesh Roshan, in 2008, in the Krazzy 4 copyright infringement case that stunned Bollywood. The High Court ruled that the film’s title track was pinched from an advertisement jingle composed by Sampath. He got Rs 2 crore as settlement. “After that, we were out of work for a year. It was very tough for Ram to find his way back. Fortunately, many ad guys just couldn’t do without him,” she reveals. Both recount how their friends and colleagues scared them into letting it pass. Sampath says, “Life had given us this chance to take a stand. We realised we can’t negotiate with people’s fears.” Last month, when a political party invited Mohapatra to sing the SMJ song Mujhe Kya Bechega Rupaiya at a rally, she refused when she learnt it would involve political posturing.
The two still remember how their first meeting, a decade ago, had sparked off a serious soul connection. “I wanted to give him a demo CD. He made me wait for nine months. One Sunday, he called me to Bandra’s Octavius studio, where a tiny-looking, curly-haired boy, dressed in a tee and shorts, asked me for my demo. I had waited too long to meet some assistant, so I said — Get me Ram Sampath, please,” she laughs. That meeting stretched till the following morning, as the two chatted about films, music and world views over coffee at Hotel Sea Rock. “Her face fell when I told her I was not interested in making pop music. But I offered her a maand song (a Rajasthani folk music style) for Ram Madhvani’s indie film Let’s Talk,” says Sampath, who is still bitter about the way composers and songwriters were treated during the Indi-pop era. Though Tanha Dil and Bhool Jaa propelled the singer Shaan to instant fame, nobody knows that Sampath composed and cut the album. “It was an extremely painful experience to be abandoned by the industry,” he says, “Sona gave me clarity, strength. I don’t fear failure now.”
Sampath though is known for ad jingles like Airtel’s Har ek friend zaroori hota hai or Jo tera hai…, Thums Up’s Aaj kuch toofani karte hain and the Docomo hum. Mohapatra playfully cribs that he doesn’t cast her often. “He was the busiest ad music director, yet I sang just two jingles in the first four years. He chooses me only when I fit the brief,” she says.
Mohapatra credits Sampath for introducing her to the “sea of world music”. “He is my music encyclopedia, but he is crazy,” she says, pointing to the drawers spilling with CDs and large music systems in every room of their minimalist Matunga home. “I listen to an obscene amount of music. I don’t know how else to live,” rues Sampath. Mohapatra admits that she likes to dress up and attend parties much more than Sampath does. “We have our own lives that way. I holiday on my own. But that’s because he takes up more work than I do. We work together all the time except when I go on tour to perform,” she says. When they travel, Sampath drags Mohapatra to three concerts a day. “It becomes a bit much,” laughs Mohaptra, adding, “Call it self-centered-ness, but I love listening to my own voice. I celebrate myself much more than he does.”
Sampath, who is known to be a perfectionist like his friend Aamir, admits that Mohapatra is a terrific work partner. “She understands why I need days on end to fine-tune a piece of music. Often, when she has asked me to stop tweaking a song, she has been right.” Sona jumps at this, and says, “He would call me acoustically impaired if I would ask him to not stress over a song for 10 days. Ultimately, he would strip it back to its basic avatar.”
Both hope to stay away from making “vacuous, generic Bollywood music” which Sampath says, insults our collective intellect. “An artiste needs to engage with the world. Like somebody great once said: Boring life toh boring awaaz,” he says.
Despite a shared work ethics and value system, the two are different personalities. Mohapatra is known to instantly voice her outrage, while the reclusive Sampath broods. “We are happily unstable,” says Sampath. “We live like kids. There is no plan. We refuse to let things worry us. We only worry about having fun. We aren’t affected by cynicism or the lure of earning more and planning our careers. If there is an aim, it is to get better at what we do, not to make hit songs.”
“We enjoy our little bubble,” Mohapatra adds.