INTERVIEW | We should celebrate indigenous music, says composer Jakes Bejoy
In a long, candid conversation with Team TNIE, Jakes Bejoy speaks about letting go of an American dream job, his working process, giving due credit to underappreciated talents, and more.
Over the past five years, Jakes Bejoy has established himself as one of the most formidable, in-demand music composers in the Malayalam film industry.
The refreshing notes in films such as Monsoon Mangoes, Dhruvangal Pathinaru, and Queen sounded his arrival on the scene. Then came the Ranam soundtrack, which cemented his place as a trendsetter. And, of course, the pan-India big bang with Ayyappanum Koshiyum. The man, whose goosebumps intro BGM for Kalki was used by Usain Bolt, opens up.
Tell us about the impetus behind composing the Ranam soundtrack.
I had worked on several films before that, but I didn’t think they produced the desired success. It was, in fact, director Nirmal Sahadev who urged me to do these tracks as I wished without adhering to any norms in the industry. That’s how these tracks were born. They are a reflection of my experiences and also representative of my efforts to imbibe Western influences in the industry. It was just going to be another track in the movie. I never imagined it to have such a big following. I got a lot of appreciation for the tracks.
Is there a Ranam sequel in the works?
Definitely. We are hoping for something much bigger, and Raju (Prithviraj) has an emotional connection to that world.
A script’s theme, plot, conflict... what’s most important for your work?
Everything. I need to know all the acts and how the story unravels itself. In fact, I need to know everything that this story imbibes. Especially now. Earlier, I was just happy to get a movie to work on. Now, after doing so many movies, I feel it’s imperative to get my head into the script and be inspired by it. So, I think that connection with the script and the aura behind it is essential for my work. That’s not all. Songs now run independently of the movies that are getting released today. It seems as if they are a different body of creative work altogether. So, everything is important.
How important is a soundtrack?
You see, you can’t imagine a theatrical experience without a good score and visual treat. It defines a movie. This might change in the future. As of now, from a film’s announcement to its eventual release, you need something to connect with the audience and lure them to the theatres. It’s achieved through songs. Even today, people remember songs from old movies, even if not the movies per se. Songs connect to memories. They live on as a part of nostalgia. So, yes, the soundtrack is very important.
Now, songs are being produced with reels in mind. Is this trend a challenge?
It’s challenging and exciting at the same time. Malayalam did not have such a cross-culture movement such as this. These new formats help take the movie pan-India. This is crucial for new movies, especially those donning mega stars. In the case of Dulquer Salman, he is no longer a Malayalam actor. So we have to play this pan-Indian connection to our advantage. This trend is here to stay. Taking the Kalapakara song in King of Kotha, for example, we intended it to reach the Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi markets as well.
You imbibe a lot of Western sensibilities in your songs. Are all audiences accommodative of this
With the onset of OTT platforms, everyone is watching everything. The number of purists who analyze songs is less today. If a song is good, people will hear it. So there should be something in it that attracts them. Something hummable.
That said, the role of lyrics is very instrumental too. Malayalam lyrics are the hardest to crack. It is so difficult to write ‘mass’ songs in Malayalam without them being cringy.
Just like catchy songs, native songs and ones with a rustic style has been gaining momentum, but at the same time, such genres have to be handled carefully. Thoughts?
In Malayalam, native songs pick up really fast. For example, the songs in Kaduva and Ayyappanum Koshiyum don’t have complicated lyrics and immediately appeal to the Malayali sensibility. While doing research for Ayyappanum Koshiyum, I realized that we have over 300 folk styles.
How did this idea of choosing Kalakkatha and such native songs happen in Ayyappanum Koshiyum?
We can produce a song that’s either terrain-based or character based. When I heard that subject, I decided to go with terrain-based music. Ludwig Goransson’s music in Black Panther, which has a strong native flavor, was an inspiration. So I decided to meet an Adivasi troupe in Attappadi. While
recording music samples, Nanchamma’s voice stood out. We then took the samples of the instrument scores played by the troupe, worked it on our keyboard in the studio, and blended the composition well; that’s how the Kalakkatha track was born. You can’t think of Ayyappanum Koshiyum without this song.
Do you have plans to explore something new?
I have plans to delve deep into folk music. I’m working on an independent project called the ‘Roots’ series, which aims to bring out those hitherto unexplored folk genres and present them in a way that piques people’s interest. We know the story of Nanchamma and her song, but I intend to explore the stories behind the making of such music and the culmination of the process through this series. The idea is to identify singers from Attapadi, Malappuram, and Wayanad and bring them to public attention. I would entrust a director I know with each episode. Dijo, Nirmal, Jayan Nambiar and Ratheena are on the list. There is a plan to launch it on a platform.
We should give due credit, and celebrate, the work of indigenous communities. People need to hear and see these artists’ innocence and passion for the music. I don’t need to wait for the next film to introduce them, do I? It’s inspiring to see composers like Santhosh Narayanan and his collaboration with an artist like Anthony Dasan in Tamil. For example, I called Arivu to do that empowering end credits song in Kumari.
You’ve now reached a position where you can attract a lot of underappreciated talent. Would it have been possible in your initial phase?
I believe I’m still in the initial phase. Though I did about 15 films last year, I’m still fighting and expect criticism from my family and the people I work with. There’s constant learning. Collaborating with other artists also helps you widen your horizon. King of Kotha, for example, has artists like Dabzee, Asal Kolaar from Tamil, and Roll Rida from Telugu.
In Hridayam, we saw Vineeth Sreenivasan and his team releasing audio cassettes. In addition, they also made an effort to educate the audience on the choice of instruments used, through YouTube...
See, it shows Vineeth’s sensibilities to music. He has a good compositional sense, and he is also a director. He can apply that confidently. If directors are musically inclined, it helps the film massively.
How was your experience with Sachy?
He was a brotherly figure to me. He always addressed me ‘kutta.’ Even if you were meeting him for the first time, that conversation and experience would remain in your mind. He was someone whom we could trust blindly. His absence is truly felt today, as we have a dearth of quality writers. He was a rare package — a voracious reader and an academician with incredible cinema knowledge.
‘Every kid should learn to play a musical instrument
Do directors and composers disagree in any area often?
A trailer is where there is often a disconnect between the composer and the director. Trailers should ideally be cut on a soundtrack. You see this done well in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie. What a superb trailer that was! It is cut into one song. You get a tempo. What usually happens is that an amalgam of clips is joined together to create some commotion. Trailer is one area where we can emulate the West.
Directors are expected to have clarity in thoughts, can you pick anyone who has a clear idea of the project and communicates properly?
I think most of them have that quality. More recently, I was impressed with Vignesh Raja’s (Por Thozhil) command over the craft. He doesn’t encourage anyone to interfere in his work. Joshiy Sir is another taskmaster, who communicates his ideas clearly.
Could you give us an idea of the composer, sound designer, and editor’s rapport and their collaboration?
After the director’s vision, it is the editor who designs the musical flow. When there’s proper pacing, it is easier to do the music. Then comes the role of a sound designer and musician. If there’s proper coordination between all of them, we can get some unexpected cinematic moments.
While composing, do you go with your first instinct, or do you have a couple of options to choose from? Also, do the director or the producer encroach on this decision-making process?
It depends. For the song ‘People of Kotha’, I had done a few versions—an edgy version, a contemporary version, and the current one. It was my call which one should finally go. First, I ensure I like the song. Then, I may heed the opinion of the director. The producer doesn’t usually have a say.
Was there an unused song or tune that you used in any other film?
‘Parayuvan’ was a track I had composed long ago for another film. However, the director didn’t like it. I tried giving it to another director, who also didn’t like it. Eventually, during Ishq, I suggested using it because the lyrics synced perfectly with the visuals.
In Ishq, after Shane comes out of the house after harassing Shine and his family, you underline it with rousing background music. Was it your call?
It was a collective decision by me and director Anuraj. Initially, it was a bit difficult for me, but I was convinced that we were not justifying his actions. It’s just his ecstasy after taking that revenge, which people misinterpreted as glorification. It’s a matter of different perspectives.
Composer Johnson master had a magical sync with lyricist Gireesh Puthenchery. Is there a lyricist like that for you?
I’ve collaborated the most with Joe Paul. More than comfort and sync, he’s someone I can call any time for corrections. I like working with lyricists who help us imagine the intended imagery. I learned the importance of that after working with Sachy ettan. Santosh Varma is another example. In Kaduva, there is a song called ‘Paalvarnna Kuthiramel’, which gave me a transcendent feeling; it matched the story and images perfectly. I’m working in Vilayath Buddha with Anwar ikka (Anwar Ali), who has a different approach. The same goes for Rafeeq Ahammed.
Do you think composing a melody is more challenging than fast-paced numbers?
I can’t differentiate like that. When we start composing, all we have is a blank canvas. From there, we start adding each element. I’ll either land on a groove first or might collaborate with the lyricist to crack the lyrics. It differs with each song. But yes, a melody is comparatively easier to develop if you have an idea or a rough version ready, whereas a fast number needs more effort because you need to layer the rhythms and lock the groove properly.
Are you conscious of the longevity of your music?
Absolutely, I’m trying to increase the longevity. It’s easy to make a score, but making a long-lasting song is something else. It takes a lot of effort.
Some songs aren’t instant hits, only a few people would connect to them, like ‘Aalmara Kaaka’ from Padmini. Do you feel satisfied when a song works out only among a small crowd?
While making that song, I didn’t think much about the commercial side of it. I just wanted to bring out a vibe by adding some R&B. Now, through reels, the song has been gaining some traction. Also, the song ‘Iruvazhiye’ from Operation Java is now being noticed thanks to the reel culture—all such responses do satisfy me. I believe any song will get it's due if there’s a soul in it.
Aside from collaborating with singers from various languages, you also regularly get actors to sing. Is that purely a marketing gimmick?
I recently got Chackochan to lend his voice for ‘Love you Muthe’ from Padmini. It’s a cute song with catchy lyrics, so I felt Chackochan’s voice would be apt. Since he hasn’t sung many songs, we knew it will help this song get a wider reach. When it comes to musically intricate songs, I don’t think actors would be thought of as an option. However, in the case of Karthi, they wanted a celebrity singer, and that’s how he was chosen.
Have you come across any actor who enthusiastically gets involved in music-making?
Prithvi has a sound idea in almost all departments of filmmaking. Dulquer also shows a lot of interest. While composing for the teaser and motion poster of King of Kotha, he gave some valid suggestions. I’m currently working on a Telugu film where the actor is actively involved. He’s concerned about boosting his image and keeps sending references to inspire me. But I’m okay with it. As far as my creativity doesn’t get affected, I’m fine with taking anyone’s opinions. To include these suggestions or not is ultimately my call.
You once mentioned hitting rock bottom before you found success. Could you describe the journey out of it?
After engineering, I decided to pursue music professionally. Then, I had an album to my name and some songs. With this, I was able to bag some offers. But I knew there was more to learn. So, I went to the US to gain some exposure. Even after 3-4 years of returning, I couldn’t crack the industry. I had very few projects during that time and unfortunately, they didn’t make any impact. My family was also not happy with my new career choice. After all, I had left a 5-figure salary job at Walt Disney to return home. But I always had hope. I knew what I was doing, and I believed in my abilities. I knew it would eventually work out. Also, I knew there was no point in asking for a chance in the film industry. As technicians, you should establish yourself with your skill, or else you will always be undermined. You have to prove your worth. Back then, my biggest strength was my friends circle. We helped each other, and we succeeded together.
Since you are getting a lot of projects, are you selective about your work or do you just accept whatever comes your way?
Due to Covid, I didn’t do any projects in 2020 and 2021. However, in 2022, all of these works came my way and I committed to them. But this year, I’m taking one or two projects at a time, because if there’s a lot on the plate, it’s difficult to give undivided attention to each film. This will, in turn, affect the quality and moreover, our health will get messed up due to added stress.
How do you keep yourself sharp?
In the morning, I have a cycling routine, then I listen to the playlists. If I’m not having a tight schedule, I make sure to watch something, at least for 30 minutes in my home theatre, some ideas will strike after that.
How do you overcome creative blocks?
A producer need not understand my creative blocks, so I just keep working (laughs). Sometimes, I take a break and go home to refresh myself by spending time with my family. But these breaks shouldn’t be too long because then you won’t feel like resuming work. I know many people who keep waiting for perfection and waste their time. But the key is to get started somewhere. It might not be your best, but criticisms will only make you better.
Another thing that affects creativity is deadlines. How do you deal with it?
Yes, deadlines are hurtful, but I’m now used to it. The biggest challenge is when a release date is announced, and you’re forced to work accordingly. I remember the time when Jana Gana Mana and CBI 5 were slated to release on the same weekend. It was probably the most testing phase of my career. Similarly for Forensic, the producers were keen on a particular date for release. We somehow managed to finish all the work and release it. The film’s fate would’ve been different if the release was delayed by a week because the pandemic worsened by then.
Could you name your favorite music directors?
AR Rahman sir is the one who has influenced me the most. I also love Johnson Master, Devarajan Master, and Vidyaji’s works. Internationally, I’m a huge fan of Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Ludwig Göransson, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross.
Do you have any favorites among your peers?
Currently, in Malayalam, a lot of interesting experiments are happening. Sushin Shyam, Justin Varghese, Vishnu Vijay... everybody is doing well. There’s a healthy relationship among all of us.
Is there a go-to person to clarify your music-related confusion?
I recently joined the executive committee of FEFKA’s music directors’ union (FEMU), where I interact with people I once looked up to, like Deepak Dev, Rahul Raj, and Ronnie Raphael. I’m particularly loving the long conversations with Deepak Chettan, which sometimes go beyond music to ideological levels. He is one of my earliest inspirations, who, I believe, introduced a new sound pattern in Malayalam cinema with his initial films like Chronic Bachelor and Symphony.
Could you share more about FEMU and its functions?
FEMU is an organization for the music directors community, and we currently have around 110 members. This year, we’re planning many new projects, which include a music festival, live stage shows, and a new YouTube channel. The revenue generated from these projects will help our fellow composers, especially veterans, who need financial assistance. It’s empowering that we’ve such an organization as it lends a feeling of oneness among us. It’s also gratifying to give back to the community.
Sometimes poor audio quality in theatres hinders the overall movie-watching experience. What are your thoughts on this?
Recently, while watching one of my films, I had an overwhelming experience. An emotional scene was playing on screen but the music on the left side was completely silent. I’m sure the audience wouldn’t have felt any impact. Imagine the effort that goes behind the production of an audio or a scene. It’s not fair when theatres take such matters lightly. On a positive note, there are some theatres that ensure a wholesome experience by having proper communication with us. It is high time that a common standard is implemented in the theatres for audio quality. At least a funded society has to be formed to do weekly checkups.
These days we see parents forcing kids to take up music to compete in reality shows. What’s your take on it?
I’m totally against such publicity-hungry stunts, but I strongly insist that every kid should learn to play a musical instrument. Not everyone can sing, but learning to play an instrument is an extra skill that will boost confidence. Playing polyphonic instruments like piano and organ will also help in brain development. Years later, it’s these skills that will remain and not what you studied for your competitive exams.