I had the chance to speak with Varshil Patel of Penn Masala about their “Evolution of Bollywood” YouTube video that has received over one million views in less than two months and made all of us feel very nostalgic! Here is what he had to say:
To start off, can you tell us a little about the history of Penn Masala?
Penn Masala was a brainchild of four founding members who shared a passion for both Hindi and Western music. In 1996, they did something that had never been done before – combined various music styles from both genres to create music with an entirely new sound. With the support of friends and South Asian societies across the North East and Canada, Penn Masala’s early tape recordings were well-received. It all started from there. Next thing you know, the group started receiving invitations to perform at college campuses around the US and even got an opportunity to be featured in “American Desi” in 2001, starring Kal Penn. Eight studio albums and many tours later, we are grateful to our fans all over the world for the support they’ve given us over the past two decades.
If you could recommend one Penn Masala album for me to listen to, which one would it be?
We would recommend listening to our eighth studio album, Kaavish, as it embodies our most recent innovations in regards to sound and creativity. We experimented a lot with different languages and arranging styles, which really expanded our musical boundaries and brought us to show that a “cover” need not be exactly like its original.
Tell us about your latest track and music video “Without You.”
We had been listening to David Guetta and Usher’s track for a long time and when we heard the Murder 3 soundtrack, we were inspired to create a mix of Without You and Teri Jhuki Nazar. After recording the track, we thought of an interesting story that could go along with it, and recorded a music video featuring Arts House Dance Company (one of the extremely talented dance groups at our college). Also, shout-out to Lukas Arbogast for filming and editing!
What all is on the agenda for Penn Masala this year?
After our release of “Evolution of Bollywood Music”, we were honored to have performed at the IIFA Awards in Tampa, Florida. We are done for the summer but really look forward to performing again in the fall and releasing some more new content.
Since Penn Masala has been around for so long, have any former members tried their hand at becoming singers/musicians as their full time career?
Many of our alumni still pursue music outside of college, to varying degrees. Wherever they are though, they all still continue to care immensely about Penn Masala and support the ventures and efforts of the current year’s group. Our alumni are in fields ranging from start-ups to medicine to banking and more; we are extremely fortunate to have such a wide array of alumni that are just a phone call away.
Which artists do you look up to for musical inspiration?
We are inspired by a great variety of artists and groups, but we definitely have some favorites: A.R. Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan, Coldplay, Beatles, Ne-Yo, Bruno Mars, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Do you think movies like “Pitch Perfect” have influenced a capella groups to take it up a notch, adding choreography, etc.? If they made a South Asian version of “Pitch Perfect” – would Penn Masala star in it?
Definitely! The increased media attention that movies like “Pitch Perfect” are giving a cappella music has caused a huge spike in the popularity of the genre, and has thus inspired many groups to step it up by recording more tracks and performing more often. If there was a South Asian version of the movie, we would love to be in it!
Penn Masala is pretty popular among South Asians, have you come across any obsessive fan girls or fan boys?
We have some incredible fans across the world that always inspire us to produce more and more music — we occasionally get letters and messages expressing personal support. We are blessed to have had the support that they have shown!
Finally, what was your inspiration behind the “Evolution of Bollywood” video?
We heard another a cappella group called Pentatonix do an Evolution of Music video for Western music. We loved it, and wondered hey, why not make a similar video for Bollywood music? The Bollywood genre has evolved so much over the decades and we really wanted to show this in a musical format. From there, the project really took off as we began to select songs for different decades, arrange them in an aesthetic way, and move forward with recording the track.
“Naatu Naatu” is one of the most memorable sequences from S.S. Rajamouli’s epic action-drama “RRR,” and has assisted the Telugu-language blockbuster in becoming one of the highest-grossing films at the worldwide box office. With music by M.M. Keeravani and lyrics by Chandrabose, “Naatu Naatu” is a celebration of regional music, dance, national identity, and male friendship.
But long before the song began collecting its accolades, its infectious tune and fast-step dance, performed vigorously by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, became a viral sensation outside of the film. It’s now the first song in a movie from India to be nominated for an Oscar and also to have won a Golden Globe.
When asked about the song’s ripple effect across the world, Keervani remarked,
For us — the musicians and artists — social media is very powerful, because of the internet and reachability. Nowadays, globally, anything that is different by nature, anything that is innovative, a little innovative, will catch instant attention.
It all started with a TikTok dance challenge where thousands of fans mimicked the dizzying hook step, choreographed by Prem Rakshith, garnering hundreds of millions of views, and making the song a bonafide global phenomenon. Today, the official YouTube video has well over 123 million views.
While the science behind why certain songs have a higher virality is widely debated, Keeravani attributes a large part to the song’s instant connection with the masses to its unusual 6/8 time signature, taken from carnatic music — which he believes is “inherently encoded in the human body.”
For non musicians, he vocally percusses the rhythm, “thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha, thik-i-tha tha-ka-tha.”
[This beat] will give you instant energy. Like suppose, you’re going low on sugar. So there are things like instant energy boosters; like you consume some aerated drink or a cup of coffee with sugar. And instantly your energy is boosted. So six, eight will give you an instant feeling to get up, create some steps and dance. There is a swing in the beat. So you will react to that beat — involuntarily you will react.
Before Keeravani wrote the music for “Naatu Naatu,” Chandrabose was given the challenging task to pen the lyrics to this rhythm. Continuing a long-standing collaboration that began 29 years ago, Chandrabose has co-written over 400 songs with Keeravani, including this iconic title track — his only co-write on “RRR.”
Regionality played a significant role in the composition.
Ram comes from Andhra and Bheem comes from Telangana. Both dialects are different; the slang is different. So, there is a challenge to write both slangs in one song. Everybody should understand those words. That is the challenge.
Chandrabose explained how he needed to appropriately incorporate the various dialects from the regions the primary characters were from, and reflect colloquialisms from 100 years ago, when the film’s story takes place, that is also recognizable to present-day listeners.
In [the lyric] ‘Yerrajonna rottelona mirapathokku kalipinattu’ (which translates roughly to “like eating a jowar roti with a chili” in English), ‘thokku’ means pickly, like mango pickle. In Andhra, it is known as ‘pachadi’ and in Telangana, it is known as ‘thokku.’ So, everyone can relate and connect [to] that word. And since ‘thokku’ belongs to Telangana, that line is sung by Bheem.
The original Telugu version of “Naatu Naatu” was also dubbed and released across a variety regional Indian languages, including, “Naacho Naacho” in Hindi, “Naattu Koothu” in Tamil, “Halli Naatu” in Kannada, and “Karinthol” in Malayalam, and has collectively been streamed over 92 million times on Spotify.
Chandrabose remarks that he envisioned the lyrics to 90 percent of the song in half a day, but it took about 19 more months to finalize the song in its entirety. This was in great part due to the time spent on researching the dialects and finalizing each word to the overall ethos of the song. Rajamouli had given strict direction that the song should authentically be about one’s nature, their culture and countryside, and be universally respectful.
When asked about how they scaled this process across the other five language releases, Keeravani recalled that they had to prioritize lip sync.
Since it’s a dance number, there is a combination of close shots and long shots. So the long shots are spared, but in the close shots, they need to be as close to the Telugu lyric, I mean, lip wise.
He added that the writing team had to make some concessions,
There will be a certain amount of compromise in the meaning of the lyric. But that is inevitable. As long as the song is conveying its main essence, it has no problem.
Culturally, India has a rich history of celebrating songwriters, composers, and music directors in cinema. However, this recognition does not always translate to credit and compensation. For example, “Naatu Naatu” was extraordinarily successful on TikTok, but TikTok isn’t available in India, creating complex monetization adversities. It’s especially important to understand that India’s non-bollywood and independent music market has a nascent publishing infrastructure and is traditionally known to have a work-for-hire payment model where song contributors are not offered royalties.
Speaking optimistically to changing times, Chandrabose shared,
I’m getting royalty from past 12 years (from performing rights societies IPRS in India and PRS in the U.K.).
He explained that, especially with viral songs, some songwriters and composers have only limited careers in the “limelight,” but “after 10 to 15 years, they cannot get more work and they cannot get money.” He speaks to songwriting royalties as a key to retirement for the next generation of song makers.
So, at that time they will receive these IPRS royalties as their pension to meet their needs. They will get these amounts in their old age that will help them a lot.
Upon concluding our chat with Chandrabose and Keeravani, we marveled at the amount of progress that has happened for independent and non-hindi language music communities around the world. The virality of “Naatu Naatu” is a testament to the musical prowess out of South Asia, but also challenges the Western notion that Indian music is narrowly defined by belonging in the catchall ‘world music’ category, or the sounds of the sitar and tabla, or a lightbulb-twisting Bhangra club-hit wonder, or, if nothing else, then Bollywood — all in large part exclusively North Indian. Unfortunately, this distinctly important nuance still plagues Western media and major music institutions.
Recently during a Songwriters Hall of Fame conversation with Oscar-nominated songwriters, Paul Williams incorrectly introduced “Naatu Naatu,” as “the first Hindi-language song ever nominated for an Oscar,” which is spliced with not one, but two errors — not only misidentifying the language but ignoring A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho!,” a Hindi song which was nominated and won in 2009 for the same category. As South Asian artists around the world begin to traverse into global markets, we hope to see more Western entities taking the time to research, hire South Asian contributors, and execute due diligence to minimize inaccuracies and cultural erasure.
“RRR” is streaming on Netflix and Zee5. On March 3 it will be re-released in over 200 US theaters as part of ‘The RRR Fan CelebRRRation’. Check your local cinema guides for one-off theatrical screenings.
September 14, 2023September 14, 2023 3min readBy Marium Abid
Pairs are made in heaven, and who better than the “Made in Heaven” expert crew to bring them together? Gracing our screen after three years, Zoya Akhtar’s brainchild “Made in Heaven” returned to Prime Video on Aug. 10 with seven episodes.
Set six months after the first season, Tara and Karan (played bySobhita Dhulipala andArjun Mathur) return with their original crew to plan magnificent weddings.
Although grand weddings are at the forefront of the show, there are multiple subplots to keep you hooked — maybe even shed a tear or two. The crux of the storyline is still Tara and Karan’s lives as we see them on a rollercoaster of emotions trying to manage their erratic personal lives.
Keeping true to its spell-binding depiction of weddings, love and relationships, every episode explores a challenge that is deep-rooted in South Asian norms and behaviors. With Kabir Batra’s (played byShashank Arora) voiceover — who’s also the photographer and videographer for the Made in Heaven company — this season makes us question whether the core of a marriage is love or flamboyance.
The season-opening leaves you mesmerized and wanting to fall in love; the extravagant set and a glamorous display of high fashion are true inspirations for whenever there’s a wedding in the family. The artistic works Sabyasachi, Gaurav Gupta, Tarun Tahiliani, and many more, steal the show; their trendsetting designs are a sight for sore eyes.
While this season brings forth many new faces as supporting characters, such as Dia Mirza and Sanjay Kapur, we also have some new members joining the original crew of “Made in Heaven.”
Mona Singh enters as Bulbul, wife of Jauhari (played by Vijay Raaz). She is introduced as a domineering auditor but as the show progresses, we witness the many layers of her character unravel; including that of a strong matriarch. One of the most compelling aspects of the show is her fight to save her son — who gets involved in a case of school harassment — and her and Jauhari’s approach and sensitivity toward the situation.
With her outstanding acting, Singh breathes life into the character. She exudes the panache of a businesswoman while perfectly depicting the complexities of a strong woman with a violent past — the mystery of which we learn as we move toward the end of the show.
Bulbul, however, is not the only new character on the show. Played byTrinetra Haldar Gummaraju, Meher is a trans woman in search of love and companionship. With Meher’s character, the makers have brilliantly opened the doors for more inclusive stories to come to the fore.
While each episode is a different story tackling some of the greatest shortcomings of our society, the lives of Tara and Karan remain at the center of it all; their characters evolving with every new challenge that is thrown at them. We see Tara “drop” from her previous known status of being a Khanna to just being Tara. Her story is one of identity, ownership and self-discovery; Karan’s, on the other had, is that of grief as we see him grapple with finding acceptance and drug abuse. Their struggles add substance to their characters navigating the privileged world; gravely reminding us of all that’s flawed.
It might feel a bit preachy and overwhelming at times, especially when two issues are being addressed in one episode. But in the end, it all makes sense…thanks to the extraordinary acting, marvelous direction, opulent sets and impeccable styling. “Made in Heaven” season 2 has to be your next binge-watch.
Few people can call themselves rocket scientists. Even fewer can say they are a rocket scientist-turned-actress, producer and Broadway star. Salma Qarnain is a Pakistani Muslim woman who can claim the title.
Artistry runs through Qarnain’s veins. Her grandfather was a filmmaker in Bombay and Karachi, before passing away at a young age. Her mother performed in plays throughout college. Now Qarnain is using artistry to build empathy, playing characters that represent her family’s story and promoting Black and Brown allyship through Black Man Films — the production company she co-founded with Roderick Lawrence.
Qarnain grew up in the Midwest but traveled back to Karachi often. Some of her earliest memories were in Karachi singing along to the Beatles and pretending to be Ringo Starr. When her family moved to the United States, typical of South Asian immigrant parental influence, her interest in math and science and immense love for Star Wars led her to pursue aerospace engineering, hence rocket science. Her mother’s passing forced her to rethink her goals and when she wanted to achieve them.
Today, she describes her purpose for creating art in profound terms.
I want people to be equal. I want people to understand we’re very much all together a speck of dust in the entire universe, and that there are so many more things we share than we don’t.
Starting entertainment work in the aftermath of 9/11 made it clear how she, a Pakistani Muslim woman, would be seen.
I remember [at] that time… Friends of mine told me, ‘Don’t let anybody know x, y, z about you, because they may have a bias against you. Something might happen.’
The beginning of her career was defined by how Western culture perceived Muslims and South Asians. Her first entertainment gig was as a casting assistant in Washington D.C. She noticed if South Asians were cast,
They were going to be playing something stereotypical to what a South Asian person is thought of… that could be the geeky, mainly male, math nerd, or a terrorist.
While the position provided an opportunity to learn about what it took to become an actress, Qarnain also leveraged her responsibilities to make a change — if a role didn’t absolutely require a white actress, she would gather diverse resumes for the casting director, slowly trying to shift the idea of what a person of color on television had to be.
With people of diverse experiences joining writer’s rooms and a “pipeline of young South Asian actors,” the industry has improved but isn’t close to equitable. She sees “Life of Pi” on Broadway and Black Man Films as ways to combat that.
Broadway’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel brings a multigenerational South Asian cast to the stage and has Qarnain playing two roles — Pi’s (gender-swapped) biology teacher, an analytical, guiding mentor, and the Muslim cleric Pi studies under. “Life of Pi” is one of Qarnain’s favorite novels for being a story about faith, storytelling and the power of both to provide hope. She took a callback for the role via Zoom in an Applebee’s parking lot.
I feel very invested in both of these characters. Just because they are absolute extensions of who I am as a person, and to have this be my Broadway debut — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
She got to play a Pakistani Muslim character once before in the off-Broadway play “Acquittal.” It was the first time she could represent an authentic story. In “Life of Pi,” Qarnain helped workshop the scenes with the cast and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti to make them more authentic.
She absolutely took our suggestions and comments and reactions, for myself, from another person in our cast – who’s also a Muslim – and then from castmates, [who are] Catholic and Hindu, to understand what would work and what would people respond to. That’s where the gift was, that [Chakrabarti] was very receptive to what we had to say.
Black Man Films and her partnership with Roderick Lawrence run parallel to her theatrical journey. The pair formed the production company during the pandemic through a short film that Lawrence created to explore Black men’s mental health. As an enthusiastic fan of Lawrence’s work and having wanted to begin producing for film and television, Qarnain joined the project immediately. The short film, “Silent Partner,” went to 21 film festivals and won Best Short at several.
It was never done for accolades. It was done because there was a purpose and message to the story around Black men’s mental health told through the lens of micro-aggressions in the workplace.
The second short film, “Speak Up, Brotha!” was released in late March and will be played at Oscar-qualifying film festivals, this summer.
For Qarnain, Black Man Films is a platform for change and Black and Brown allyship.
I want people to look at our films and understand where they are, who they are in this film; in “Silent Partner.” If they’re complicit in propagating systemic racism, and, if so, what are they gonna do about it? How can they start? How can they talk to their parents? How can they, you know, engage with other South Asians and put a stop to colorism and any racism that exists against the black community?
Telling stories that reflect the experiences of people of color gives creatives the power to build systems that can improve people’s lives.
There is a racial hierarchy that exists and if we want to break that, we have to be a part of building everything, not just for us, but for everybody who isn’t white.
She is confident that the stories she’s helping bring to life will do just that and change the world in the process. From “Life of Pi” to “Speak Up, Brotha!” the possibilities for encouraging justice and empathy are endless.