Over the course of 34 years, composer M. Keeravani has steadily established himself as one of India’s preeminent film composers. It makes sense that he was called upon to write several songs for RRR’s soundtrack when it came time for S.S. Rajamouli to mount the most expensive production in the country’s history. Keeravani significantly contributed to the film’s soundtrack, in addition to providing the film with a score. He can also claim credit for composing the hit song “Naatu Naatu,” which quickly became a massive worldwide sensation after the film was released into theaters.
Zita Short had the opportunity to sit down with Keeravani and chat about his long and storied career.
Zita: How did you first become involved in this project?
Keeravani: I was commissioned to compose six to eight songs for this movie, RRR, in addition to providing a musical score. I was in charge of the entire music department. I had all the lyricists working for me, as well as having musicians and singers as my subordinates. I had to take care of all those elements of the production. “Naatu Naatu” is one of the seven or eight songs that we recorded as part of this process.
Zita: Was it important to you to tie the film’s overarching themes into the film’s score?
Keeravani: In my eyes, the score is supposed to mirror the emotions of the protagonist. I like to keep it simple. I don’t provide musical accompaniment for scenes in which my compositions wouldn’t serve a necessary purpose. That’s how it should be. Not only for this movie, for any movie. There should only be one major theme. I commit to that theme and attempt to keep the audience engaged throughout the film. Whether it’s a story, whether it’s a major theme, whether it’s a protagonist or an antagonist, there should be one principal message. A significant perspective or goal that viewers can follow along with. I feel that it is important to keep elaborating and expanding the main theme. Whenever a change occurs in the score, it has to somehow relate back to that single theme.
In RRR, that theme is friendship. Friendship between two people who accidentally meet and form a close bond, without being aware of the other’s political agenda. In the end, that’s the story. That’s the basic story; how a friendship between two people progressed into animosity, before returning to normalcy. I try to follow along with the theme, so whatever comes to my mind, whatever songs I compose, will be related to this single theme. There won’t be much deviating from this theme. That’s how I usually work.
Zita: The song possesses quite a comedic tone. Did that distinctive tone emerge out of the creative process or did you have that idea in mind from the very beginning?
Keeravani: It has to be lighthearted because it’s a song of celebration. These men want to celebrate their ethnicity, their nostalgia for the past, and all of the nice things about their motherland and their homeland. There was no serious content that we had to convey within this song. It’s all about celebrating joyous moments and showcasing your dancing abilities. In the end, the song emerged as a defense against the intimidation, ill treatment, and hostility that they face at a party. Naturally, they end up singing in their own style. They want to prove themselves in the language they know. Through the use of body language and choreography, they assert their national identity. They want to show the world how special they are in their own way. So lightheartedness was an important ingredient in this song. It’s a package of humor, energy and confidence.
Zita: What was it that set you on the path towards the career you have today?
Keeravani: It’s a long story because I have been a composer for 34 years and worked on over 240 movies. It was a long, long journey. I started off learning violin and later on I started learning to play piano. So those are the basic instruments I play. I started to develop an interest in composing music for films by watching movies and listening to many Telugu, Indian, and Western songs. I took inspiration from many different sources. I began assisting a couple of famous composers and after a couple of years, I got my big break from a local producer. I end up composing music in almost all Indian languages. Fortunately, RRR happens to be a movie that covers almost all of the major languages.
Zita: The song and the film have been so widely embraced. How does it feel to be part of a worldwide phenomenon?
Keeravani: I’m very happy about that. This has been a collective effort. There are many people involved in the creation of this project, and the development of this song. The lyricist, the choreographer, the director, the artists, the dancers, the programmers and, of course, the musicians. Everybody gave their best and that’s what brought this song into the world. This recognition is kind of overwhelming for us.
Zita: What was it like to see the now-legendary “Naatu Naatu” choreography for the first time?
Keeravani: The choreography is too good. The choreographer has to be given most of the credit for the rapturous response that the song has received. It’s very innovative and we all knew that Prem Rakshith would come up with something special. He’s always coming up with something new. He’s a very hard worker and a very kind human being. I appreciate the fact that he put so much effort into coming up with this dance. He’s the one who brought the song to life.
Zita: It’s relatively rare to see a spontaneous musical number in an English-language production nowadays. Do you think that there’s any chance that Anglophone filmmakers will take inspiration from Indian cinema and revive this trend?
Keeravani: Well, the main difference between Indian and British cinema is that British production houses buy songs that are already popular and integrate them into scenes in a poetic manner. However, the song is rarely the main focus and frequently gets pushed into the background. In India, it’s not like that. The song is treated like a proper song. It’s like a classic musical, like The Sound of Music (1965) or Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Maybe the trend will make a comeback and every film will feature at least one musical number. I look forward to the day when Western movies begin to highlight songs more effectively. Clearly, audiences like this song and as long as you come up with a good song, people will respond to it positively.
Zita: You have such a large and diverse body of work behind you. How does RRR differ from some of the smaller productions that you have worked on?
Keeravani: This type of blockbuster provides you with the opportunity to gain more artistic freedom. It also saddles you with a lot of different responsibilities. You can experiment on many different levels but you still feel the pressure of working on a high budget production. It has to be great and you can’t make any artistic compromises. You have to stay true to yourself. It’s a difficult task but, at the end of the day, it’s enjoyable. We got such great results and it’s nice to sit back and celebrate.