Sohail Sen belongs to the fourth generation of a family of composers, including his father, Sameer, who produced 1990s hits such as ‘Ole Ole’ from Yeh Dillagi.
He’d known, since he was a schoolboy in Andheri, that composing for Bollywood was what he wanted to do.
As a child, he learnt how to play the piano and tabla. After Class 10, he dedicated himself to the art and craft of composing music, learning from his uncle, Lalit, and his father, Sameer, who quit composing in 2003 and focused all his energies on grooming Sohail.
His influences range from Bollywood music director Madan Mohan to Hollywood maestro John Williams, and he is extremely adept at using music production software. Still, it wasn’t easy for him to break into the big league.
While his music was critically acclaimed, the first two soundtracks he worked on — for What’s Your Rashee? and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey — failed to make an impact, mainly because the films themselves flopped at the box office.
His big break finally came last August, when he was working on the music for Mere Brother Ki Dulhan.
Aditya Chopra, director and creative head of Yashraj Films, came by and asked him to compose some songs for an upcoming spy thriller, Ek Tha Tiger.
Suddenly, Sohail was part of Yashraj Films’ biggest movie ever, with a reported budget of about Rs 80 crore.
Two months later, the film’s star, Salman Khan, invited him over to offer tips and size him up. “Salmanbhai made me listen to a lot of world music,” says Sohail, 28. “His inputs really helped shape the songs for this movie.”
Ek Tha Tiger, which releases on August 15, is Sohail’s ticket to the big league. It’s a ticket he has worked towards since he was 16, assisting his uncle Lalit, a singer and composer.
By age 24, Sohail had worked on the background scores of several Balaji Telefilms serials and was looking to make the switch to Bollywood. Then fate stepped in, in the form of filmmaker Danny Boyle.
For years, Sohail had wanted to work with Ashutosh Gowariker, who had till then directed the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, Swades, and Jodhaa Akbar, all of which had been scored by AR Rahman.
“I felt I could compose the kind of music he needed in his films, because it laid emphasis on melody and wasn’t purely commercial,” says Sohail.
In 2008, through his father, he managed to secure a meeting with Gowariker, who agreed to come to his studio and listen to a bank of 25 tracks.
Two months later, he called Sohail in for a meeting that lasted two hours. “He asked me all sorts of technical questions,” says Sohail. It turned out that Rahman didn’t have the time to do the music for What’s Your Rashee? because he was busy composing the score to Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winner directed by Boyle.
Though What’s Your Rashee? failed at the box office, it led to his next two films, and then Ek Tha Tiger. That hasn’t been easy going either. Sohail spent a year creating nearly 45 ‘scratch’ (temporary) tracks, of which three have made it to the final soundtrack.
“It was quite draining,” he admits, with a laugh. “Whatever I created had to be approved by Adi Sir [producer Aditya Chopra], Kabir Sir [director Kabir Khan] and Salmanbhai. It wasn’t easy to please them all.”
Nonetheless, Sohail is excited about this film and the future of Bollywood music, which he says is getting extremely competitive. “With talent like Amit Trivedi and Sneha Khanwalkar out there, everyone is forced to be at the top of their game and use diverse influences,” he says. “In another two or three years, Bollywood music will be indistinguishable from world music.”