The composer talks about working in a Lal Jose movie and the kind of music he loves to make
Composer Justin Varghese is all set for a cracking Christmas with two of his films, Meow and Ajagajantharam releasing in theatres this week.
“It is an exciting phase as these films fall into different genres. Meow is a family drama and has a soundscape that complements the theme while Ajagajantharam has a fast-paced narrative with foot-tapping tracks,” says Justin, over phone from Kochi. Ajagajantharam, directed by Tinu Pappachan releases on December 23 and Meow, helmed by veteran Lal Jose, releases on December 24.
“A Lal Jose movie was totally unexpected; he has directed some of the finest works in Malayalam cinema. Also, his films always have good music and he is among the best when it comes to picturising songs. So I was under pressure to give my best work. He understood that predicament and told me to do the songs the way I liked it,” says Justin.
Justin came on board the project after Lal Jose had listened to his work in Visudha Mejo, which is under production. “Those songs were done much before lockdown and he heard them from Vinod Shornur, one of its producers,” says Justin. Meow has four songs, one of which is sung by Justin himself. “That is a first for me. Lal sir insisted on it,” he says. As the story is set in the Middle East, a lot of Arabic instruments have been used in the music and background score.
Folk and electronic mix
Ajagajantharam has an entirely different sound palette. The song that has gone viral is an “electronic-cum-psy trance” version of ‘Ollulleru’, a traditional song of the Mavila community. The number is crooned by Praseetha Chalakkudy and team. “Multiple versions of the song have gone viral… so, I was not keen to do it initially. However, I later worked out on an arrangement that blends folk with electronic music,” he says. Lyricist Santhosh Varma has played all the percussion instruments in this song. Justin has also arranged another folk number ‘Dannana’, written and composed by folk artist Sudheesh Maruthalam.
2021 has been special for him thanks to the positive reviews for the title track and background score of Dileesh Pothen’s Fahadh Faasil-starrer Joji. “Even though I was initially disappointed that the film had no songs and it was an OTT release, I had no complaints once it was released. I was stumped by the kind of appreciation the work received,” says Justin, who worked with a team of musicians in Bulgaria to create the three-minute piece.
A production house has already approached him for an independent project in Hindi. “Also, after watching the movie, Nirupama Rao [former Foreign Secretary and Indian Ambassador to China] called me up and invited me to Mumbai to work on a project. I couldn’t follow it up unfortunately,” he says.
Justin’s upcoming releases include Oru Thekkan Thallu Case (Biju Menon-Nimisha Sajayan), Voice of Sathyanathan (Dileep), Oru Policekarante Maranam (Soubin Shahir-Urvashi) and Dear Friend (Tovino Thomas-Darshana Rajendran). Two superstar projects are also in the pipeline.
“It took some time for me to find my calling in music. I used to sing and my family was very supportive of that. But I stopped it after a point and took to playing keyboard in our church choir. Gradually, music became a passion,” he says. He learnt sound engineering, programming and music production before working with some of the leading composers in Malayalam. His longest association has been with composer Bijibal.
When cinema happened
Justin says that his debut [Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela, 2017] happened by chance. “I used to meet Althaf [Althaf Salim, director of the movie] at my friend’s recording studio. He was looking for opportunities to get into direction and we used to discuss about it. When Njandukalude Naattil…, his debut, got rolling, he had decided upon another composer. Unfortunately that person couldn’t take it up due to clash of dates. I was the next option before him; that’s how I got in.”
His second project, Thanneer Mathan Dinangal (2019) too has an “interesting coincidence” to it. “Gireesh [Gireesh AD, director of the movie] had made a short film, Mookkuthi, which starred one of my neighbours. So I shared it on my Facebook page. Gireesh got back to me and that exchange of messages eventually led to a fruitful association. Now I am working in his next project, Super Sharanya,” he adds.
The 38-year-old admits that he loves to make ‘mass’ soundtracks. “I am a huge fan of commercial entertainers, with thumping background scores and songs, which happen rarely in Malayalam. I could try it in Ajagajantharam to some extent. However, I want to do more such projects. I also love to compose romantic tracks.”
A huge fan of Santhosh Narayanan and Amit Trivedi, Justin says he is always apprehensive about people’s reaction to his work. “I am a very insecure composer. Each time a song releases, I have butterflies in my stomach. With so many songs releasing every other day, that too in different languages, it is difficult for your work has to get noticed. And when that happens, I am the happiest soul.”