Circa April 2011: I was in my 9th standard. Like any 90s kid, it was the time I discovered Linkin Park, Eminem and Backstreet Boys. There was a newfound respect for everything Western and a puchham for everything home-made. The fact that it wasn’t a particularly bright time for Malayalam films and music, didn’t help my situation. I was going someplace in my friend Adarsh’s car one day, and they were playing recent Malayalam songs. Within two minutes of each song, we’d skip to the next one – because one, we were young, dumb and impatient – but two, because the songs reeked of a certain familiarity. And then Nee Akaleyano (from City of God) played. I remember having goosebumps the first time I heard that song. The sound was nothing like I had heard before in Malayalam. And I remember going back home and listening to the entire album on loop. That was my introduction to Prashant Pillai.
Over the years, this man married sound to light in very interesting ways, and created many memorable moments in cinema. He’s done the music and/or background score for some of the best films that were made in the country in the last decade. Shaitan (2011), Amen (2013), Angamaly Diaries (2017), Solo (2017), Ee Ma Yau (2018), Mukkabaaz (2017), Unda (2019) and Jallikattu (2019) – this is just a personal curated list from his already high QC filmography! Of late, he has also been actively creating content on social media platforms (watched his BTS clips with the crew of Jallikattu yet?) and has an interesting website as well. We recently caught up with him to know more about his craft, his plunge into entrepreneurship, his take on the COVID-19 situation and more. Read on!
What kind of music did you listen to as a kid, back in Pune?
I have three main sources of influence for music. First is my father; I used to listen to a lot of music that came on Ceylon radio – specifically Jayachandran’s songs, because my dad was a big fan. Second is my mom; she would get a lot of cassettes of Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar and that’s how I heard a lot of music. Third would probably be my friends, who introduced me to music by AR Rahman and many other artists. And fourth, a bonus one is Channel V and MTV, where I got to listen to a lot of Bollywood composers like Jatin Lalit, Annu Malik and Nadeem-Shravan. I’ll also add the rise of the 90’s Indi-pop to this mix. I’ve heard a lot of Biddu, Colonial Cousins, Shaan, Bally Sagoo and many more whose sounds I used to love.
Looking back, do you think those songs have had an influence in the way you make music today?
Their sounds have definitely influenced my sound in some way or the other; I can’t pinpoint and say..But way before Rahman happened, there was Annu Malik, there was Jatin Lalit, there was O.P Nayyar saab, there was Naushad saab and many such legends of that time. All their sounds have definitely influenced me. And then, of course, post-Rahman, there was a lot of his music that I heard. So yeah, they do have sprinkles of influence in how I think – or rather, used to think – about my sound.
A majority of the films that you’ve been associated with, come under the label of “unconventional films”. Today, if I know that Prashant Pillai is doing music for a film, I can confidently bet my money that the film would offer an offbeat viewing experience. How exactly do you select your scripts?
I made it a point to curate my career. I chose to select the kind of people whom I want to work with. It was their dedication and passion for the script that wanted me to work with them. Over the years, it’s turned out to be a career where anyone who wants to make an experimental film or needs an experimental sound, comes to me. So that was the only little effort I had put in – that I want to work with good, genuine and honest filmmakers.
Adding on to that, what movie genres do you enjoy as a viewer?
I watch almost every other film under the sun. Except for horror films – I do not enjoy watching horror films. One specific genre of film that I like is just plain drama films – I love them. And I also love rom coms.
The opening montage of Jallikattu is one of my favourite moments from your collaborations with Lijo. Could you go back in time and take us into the brainstorming sessions that led to this idea?
Not just the opening montage, there were pieces in the film which were composed well in advance, and then after the film was done, we worked, reworked, and derived the sound. Definitely Lijo sat with me and we worked frame by frame and scene by scene to design the sound. That opening score is one of the best examples I can cite for our collaboration – where we had fun, and experimented a lot, to give you the experience that you are seeing today.
You’ve covered a plethora of genres in such a short span of time. What’s the one genre you’re still waiting to explore? And do you have fears of being bored eventually?
So there’s no specific genre of music that I would want to work on. It’s just that I need to find interesting scripts to work on. And yes, after a point you do get bored. If you keep getting the same subjects, the same scenes and the same structure of things – it gets monotonous. But luckily there are a few filmmakers I love working with who always bring something new to the table.
You have spoken about how AR Rahman has been a profound influence as well as a mentor to you. What was your biggest takeaway from his mentorship? Has it helped you as a mentor to youngsters today?
The biggest mentoring I got from Rahman was that he hired me as a complete newbie, not knowing anything about films and film music. I took a leaf from that experience and have mentored new talents who have worked with me as assistants and then have gone to become music composers. Right now, I mentor newcomers and freshers from my own lessons and learnings from being in the creative industry for almost 15 years.
It’s not common for people in the creative field to be active entrepreneurs. Tell us a little about your business venture, and what inspired you to start this journey.
I’ve always been a tech nerd right from my college days. I always wanted to venture into some kind of business. Funnily enough, I didn’t know the word “entrepreneur” existed. I kept working on different projects – right from selling internet connections to doing graphic design and whatnot. But only in the last six years have I really put in effort into building an online business. It’s too early for me to share what it is. I have a milestone I need to reach and only after that I’d probably share what that business is. But it’s a creative online business, for which I chose not to use the clout that comes along with my name and fame. Over the last few years, all of my interest and my focus is towards building and scaling this online business.
With COVID-19 affecting all lines of work, do you see a silver lining in the current situation?
The reality is that it’s going to be a tough situation for common people, specifically creative people. And especially those people who have not pivoted themselves to earning multiple streams of income. So the ones who have set up systems and who have businesses which are designed to fetch additional revenue per month – I see the silver lining there. And to those who haven’t – start it! This is the best time to kickstart your online business.
Your Instagram page has a lot of motivational quotes. You seem to be a strong optimist. What helps you stay motivated in an overtly challenging and hectic work environment?
I’m generally a curious person. I always tend to see good things in whatever is presented to me. And that curiosity lets me experiment and be fearless. I always call myself a fearless creator. This approach is what has helped me scale whatever little milestones in my music career and my entrepreneurial journey until now. To get this core and other networked thoughts to make one a better creator is what I try to share through my posts. So the optimist part is what you all see, but for me, it is about being actionable and getting things done!
What’s the one thing you’d want to tell creative entrepreneurs who may be floundering in the uncertainty posed by the COVID-19 situation?
Upgrade your skills. Work hard to learn and expand your skill sets. Utilizing the right skills is what will empower you to pivot quickly and not complain. Don’t lock yourself geographically to the town, city, state or country you’re in. Expand your reach globally. This is the best time to be a creator. Set up systems and businesses that can fetch you recurring monthly revenue. There is a lot of free material online to learn from. Start from a side-hustle that makes money and scale it all the way up to a full time income.