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Mar 04, 2021

'Rockumentary': A Ballad to Indian Rock Seven Years in the Making

'Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock', slated for theatrical release this week, digs into decades worth of stories to chronicle how the independent music scene in Indian has reached where it has today.
The Local Train. Photo: 'Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock'

The Indian music scene has come a long way over the decades – from jazz at Kolkata’s Park Street in the 1930s, the five-year Simla Beat contest in the 1970s, the impactful visit of the Beatles to various venues cropping up in Delhi, Mumbai and other cultural hotspots. And in the days before the internet, access to recordings was hardly easy – it took time for music from international artists to trickle to India. Radio, of course, played an integral role in the heady, groovy days of the 60s, where you could listen to English music on BBC and Voice America on short wave radio before the advent of records. Later, Channel V and MTV would make a splash by bringing music from the biggest international artists around the world in the 1990s.

These snippets of history have been captured in Abhimanyu Kukreja’s film Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock which took a painstaking seven years to put together. The film has been screened at various international film festivals and is now slated for theatrical release on March 5.

In an interview with Kukreja about his efforts to make the 79-minutes comprehensive documentary on the history of rock ‘n’ roll in India, the music journalist and filmmaker spoke about what drew him to the scene, the making of the film and the legacy of the Indian music scene.

What was your introduction to rock ‘n’ roll, and how did you get drawn into the Indian music scene – so much so that you decided to become a music journalist?

My introduction to rock music was during my university days in Delhi, and it hit me really hard! I started with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden – basically bands that were a part of the Seattle grunge movement. I still remember being hooked to a couple of late night graveyard rock shows on MTV and Channel V where they would play all these bands from the 1990s. One of the shows was Luke’s After Hours, from when Luke Kenny used to be a VJ. People from my generation – I was born in the 1980s – mostly got introduced to rock music by listening to the bands that were ruling the international charts in the 1990s.

I wanted to do music documentaries from the very start, and the Seattle grunge movement had inspired me quite a bit. Actually, the first music documentary I wanted to make was on the grunge movement, but I think it was a very amateur thought. Later, when I got a break in one of the mainstream English news channels, I got some exposure to the Indian independent scene.

It made me wonder about how we all know stories of western music bands, but what about our own Indian bands? I knew a lot of stories about Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin etc… but I had no clue about what bands were playing in India during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. That question prompted me to start digging deeper into the roots of rock ‘n’ roll in India.

For the film, you’ve dug up a lot of archival footage. How much of an uphill battle was it to source and stitch it together?

This documentary took seven years to make for a few reasons. First, when I started the research process in 2008, not much literature could be found online about the history of Indian rock. Second, the funding of it – that’s where my co-producers Elizabeth Coffey and Saurav Dutta came in handy so that we could finally finish the film. And yes, it was a very difficult film to stitch together.

The backbone of the film was stitched at its scripting stage because that is when I had decided how this film would flow and that is should run chronologically. I had already scripted the voice overs and made counters of the interview bytes that I wanted to use in the film. So we approached the editing table, we knew what we were doing. My direction to the editor was very clear – fast cuts, lots of montages and lots of music breathers that the audience can listen to and enjoy.

We edited this film the way feature films are edited because I did not want the documentary to become boring in any way – it should be a gripping watch for the audience. But honestly, it took a lot of time to watch hundreds of hours of footage and convert it into a script that made sense. The other challenges included who to keep and who to not keep in the film. This is a 79-minute feature length documentary film and obviously cannot include each and every band that has contributed to the rock ‘n’ roll scene in India. This film is also captures my personal journey, wherein I am the protagonist and my journey runs in parallel to the story of rock music in India.

You’ve roped in many of the ‘greats’ of the Indian rock circuit for interviews like Lou Majaw, Tripriti Kharbyngar, Susmit Bose, Gary Lawyer and Rahul Ram, among others. What are some of the favourite stories you’ve heard while making the film?

All of them have very unique and different stories. In fact, anyone included in my film could rightfully have individual documentaries made on them. I just envy the stories of the older generation because they seemed to have had a lot of fun in their days, but their struggles were also harder than the present generation. They did not have access to good western instruments and even their favourite western music albums. But they crossed that obstacle as a community that has now managed to open doors for present day rock bands in India.

Beyond the musicians, there have always been others who have formed the backbone of the music industry – from counterculture publications to organisers hell-bent on promoting local bands. After working with Amit Saigal at Rock Street Journal for a couple of years, I have an idea of what goes into making the scene happen. What’s your take on that side of the industry and its functioning?

It is the passion of people towards this genre of music that keeps them going! Amit Saigal, the founder of Rock Street Journal is clearly the ‘father of modern day Indian rock’ and I’ve included a special tribute to him in the film. It was his magazine that became a platform for music gigs and a lot of bands that are successful today. I still remember going to the three-day Great Indian Rock festival as a college student where all the top bands from India would travel to play at Hamsadhwani auditorium at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan.

Similarly to what RSJ did in the 1990s – and its influence continues till date – in the 1960s, we used to have a magazine named The Junior Statesman that used to cover a lot of independent Indian bands and big international acts coming to India. Then, there was the Simla Beat contest that used to happen in the early 70s, where all the bands from across India would go and play annually. So every generation and every era, someone has come in and saved the day for rock ‘n’ roll in India!

Language has always played an interesting role when it comes to rock in the Indian subcontinent. There was a massive shift from English lyrics in, say, the 1990s, when we got bands like Parikrama and Indian Ocean – who wrote lyrics in Hindi. More original music also popped up in Bengali and Malayalam. Has it helped develop a wider audience over time?

Language plays a very important part in deciding your audience. As Luke Kenny said in the film, “If the Swedish band Abba was to sing in only Swedish, then there would be a problem.”

In a country like India where we have several regional languages, I think the audience is bigger when we sing in a language that they can understand. At the same time, it does not mean that bands singing in English do not have an audience. In fact, for the old timers, I think rock ‘n’ roll is an English form of art. But as you said, the 1990s were a turning point, when a band like Indian Ocean was formed – a band which is highly inspired by rock ‘n’ roll but their sound is undefined and lyrics are in Hindi.

Another band – The Local Train – they sing Hindi rock, and look at the following they have in such a short stint as a band. Then there is Avial singing in Malayalam. The list is endless… but I think this is what is happening in India now. As Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram says in the film, “Earlier we used to look to the West, but with our cultural confidence growing, we do not look to the west anymore.” Bands are now experimenting with a lot of Indian sounds.

Also read: Indian Rappers, Rock Bands Are Creating New-Age Protest Songs

Your film introduces us to the contemporary music scene – after making viewers aware of the decades that came before that have shaped the scene as it stands today – where a mix of indie, folk, blues, metal and progressive rock finds place in our playlists. But with a booming electronic scene, do you feel bands are no longer getting the stage space they need to continue India’s treasured rock ‘n’ roll legacy?

World over, electronic music has come in in a big way and rock has been sidelined. But in India, the scene is different, because we have festivals where the line up is of mixed genres, unless it is a specific EDM devoted festival. EDM cannot take over rock music in India because of the simple fact that our bands have started to resort to their regional languages and the masses in India are lyrically aware. EDM has its own following and will continue to, but those into the rock scene in India are very loyal to it.

Also, it is about the times. But sound can always make a comeback. Can you believe that EDM is so big in western countries but just last year, The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ album was back at No. 1 on the charts half a century after it first released! And last week, ACDC’s album ‘Back in Black’ was charting in the Billboard 200, making it one of the biggest charting efforts ever in the history of music. Rock has such strong roots and influence in the history of modern music that it is safe to say, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ will never die!

You’ve had a successful run of the international festival circuit over the last couple of years. What has the reaction been, considering not many would be aware of the thriving scene India has been witness to over the decades – especially considering the ever-looming shadow of Bollywood.

Internationally, people do not know that India has a rock ‘n’ roll history. They know us more because of our classical music heritage and, of course, Bollywood. Personally, when I travelled to these film festivals internationally, people were shocked to see the documentary. And the international influences in the film was something that connected the western audience to it.

For example, we went and shot Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in Rishikesh where The Beatles came down to practice transcendental meditation and went back to release the ‘White Album’. Another incident that has been covered in the film was how Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did a spontaneous jam session in a small disco named ‘Slip Disc’ in Colaba, Mumbai.

It’s not just the western audience that is unaware of the Indian independent scene, but even our Indian masses have no idea about it. That is what makes the film such an interesting watch. I was at the CBFC Board just last week to get the certification done for the film. I had asked for a U/A certificate – which means 15+ mature audience – but after watching the film, they offered me a U certificate and said that this film needs to be seen by more people. I am forever grateful to whoever that kind gentleman was – I can assure you he was not into rock ‘n’ roll, but still enjoyed watching the film. A U certificate means that even school children can watch it and get to know about this very important part of Indian history.

Also read: How Music Has Long Offered Voice to the Voiceless

What are your thoughts on the continuing elitism in the Indian music scene? This comes out in various ways, from class privilege to sexism. Women, especially, continue to be undermined and face prejudice in work environments in the music industry.

It is a strange fact, that when we talk of rock ‘n’ roll, then the first thing that comes in our mind is an all boys/men band. People cannot imagine an all women’s band. That is why I specifically wanted to cast an all-women band in the documentary and this is exactly what they say in the interview I conducted. I hope our audiences are mature enough to accept women-centric lyrics – something ‘The Vinyl Record’ does, as they sing about the problems they face in society as women.

If you had to unequivocally name a couple of bands/musicians for people to add to their list of favourites – for their music as well as their stories – who would those be?

All the musicians in my film are special in their own way and it is very hard for me to single out one or two. But if you see the list of musicians featuring in my film, these are the Indian bands I listen to in different moods. When I feel like listening to some Hindi rock, then I listen to Indian Ocean, The Local Train and Agnee. When I want to listen to hard rock, I really like Girish and the Chronicles. Indus Creed and Parikrama are evergreen! And then there are a lot of these unknown old albums recorded by Indian bands in the 1960s and 1970s, which are getting remastered and being sold as collector’s item’ for very high prices. I think the album named ‘Obsession 77’ by Atomic Forest was one of my best discoveries in the film.

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