One trio demonstrates the tireless work of Bollywood composers

Ahead of their performance in Abu Dhabi, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy talk about their love of their work and keeping up with demand.

The Indian music trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, or SEL, have recorded more than 50 soundtracks across four languages over the past 15 years. Courtesy Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company
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The Bollywood film industry is renowned for its legendary output.

But the strenuous workload is not only shared by actors and filmmakers; the industry's film composers are perhaps the hardest workers of the lot.

While actors, writers and directors have the luxury of time to develop and refine their artistic approach, Bollywood film composers not only have to create a unique score capturing the film's essence, they have to do it at break-neck speed to keep up with the demand.

For the formidable Indian music trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, widely known as SEL, this has meant recording more than 50 soundtracks across four languages over the past 15 years.

The group also managed to somehow squeeze a few regional and world tours in between; part of which will see the group return to the UAE to play their Bollywood hits at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre on Friday.

That is if they make it out of their Mumbai studio first.

"Sorry about this," says the group's distracted guitarist Ehsaan Noorani on the phone. "We are just here working on a score to a film, so it is pretty hectic at the moment."

Indeed, in the background there is a combination of noisy instruments and other group members and studio hands engaging in spirited debate.

The film score at the centre of discussion is Bhag Milkha Bhag - translated to Run Milkha Run - a forthcoming biopic on the famed Indian athlete Milkha Singh.

And the way the trio work, to hear Noorani tell it, can be somewhat similar to a sprint.

"The composition process could change depending on what the film is," he explains. "Sometimes, we can write a song in 10 minutes or two days depending on what the feeling is like."

What Noorani alludes to is the chemistry he shares with the singer Shankar Mahadevan and the keyboardist Loy Mendosa.

The group's endless creative stream stems from each member's differing musical background, which includes playing in clubs as well as for films and television.

Mahadevan, a former software engineer, was the frontman of the jazz-fusion band SILK and is known for his vocal contributions to the quintet Remember Shakti, which toured globally, playing traditional Indian music using indigenous instruments.

Noorani and Loy's muses were more western-oriented with the former receiving formal music education in the US while Loy composed television jingles as well as scoring local theatre productions including Godspell and West Side Story.

After meeting each other in concerts and theatre performances, the trio began composing jingles for TV together (their most high-profile being an advertisement for Pepsi) before branching out into film in 1997.

Noorani explains that like advertising, composing a film score is a conceptual exercise.

"You have to really get into the script and that is where the creativity comes from," he says. "With each script you get a chance to create something totally unique. We first must read the script before we get into the studio and start jamming. Our aim is for the music to fit beautifully within the film."

The trio's dedication to musically complement the film's tone as well as the script resulted in an eclectic body of work spanning genres and indigenous musical styles.

Their soundtracks have touched upon local musical traditions ranging from Hindustani (north Indian), Carnatic (south Indian) as well as western classical music. Their popular soundtracks, including the films Dil Chahta, Salaam-e-Ishq and the Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster My Name Is Khan, were lauded to the point that some were more popular than the actual films.

Last year the group made their first international foray by composing the soundtrack to the British multicultural comedy West Is West, a sequel to the 1999 cult hit East Is East, about a mixed-race Pakistani family living in London.

With the Oscar and box-office success of Slumdog Millionaire and its heralded soundtrack by AR Rahman, Noorani believes the world is finally acknowledging India's great songwriting history.

"The international recognition, I think it's more to do with Indian songwriters than just Bollywood," he says. "This is superb because it makes us feel like we are also part of this whole global thing."

But Rahman's success also highlights the topsy-turvy nature of the film-soundtrack business, in that unlike solo or group artists, a film composer's fortunes are often frustratingly tied up with the film's success.

"Everything is done in synch with your film, so when the film does well it is really a great feeling," Noorani says. "But sometimes you do good work and the film just goes down the drain. There is nothing much we can do when that happens. You just move on and work on the next one."

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are playing at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre on Friday. Doors open at 6.30. Tickets are Dh95 and available from