Hollywood's Danny Elfman Is a Big Fan of Bollywood

By Lisa Tsering
India-West Staff Reporter
Issue dated Dec. 29, 2000
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SAN FRANCISCO -- It was around the time that Danny Elfman was composing the soundtracks to Men in Black and Good Will Hunting that he was first exposed to the glorious rhythms of Bollywood music.

"I was at a birthday party for (director) Tim Burton," he recalled to India-West last week by phone from his studio in Malibu, Calif. "Tim had been to India that year, and did an Indian theme for his party ... and a song came on that blew me away."

That the song that touched him so deeply was "Choli ke peechhe" ("What's behind your blouse?") from Khal Nayak, might shock music purists raised on Allarakha and Ravi Shankar.

But Elfman comes from a place far to the left of mainstream. As a cofounder of the energetically loopy art-rock band Oingo Boingo, which burst onto the scene in 1980 (and whose early hits "Only a Lad" and "Violent Love" are considered classics today), Elfman - a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist - always keeps his ears pricked for intriguing, new sounds.

He was so impressed with the music of Khal Nayak that he decided to fly to Mumbai (Bombay) to learn more about how "filmi" music was put together.

Neena and Veena Bidasha, a locally renowned twin sister dance duo known for their boa-constrictor belly dancing, were performing at Burton's party that night, and mentioned that they were going to India. Elfman and his girlfriend decided to tag along. "It was a great experience," he said.

His dream project, Elfman told India-West, is to work with Burton, his longtime collaborator, on what you might call a Hollywood "masala" film that would incorporate the best elements of Bollywood: love, action, and melodrama, with lots and lots of music.

Danny Elfman, 47, is one of Hollywood's top composers. He has a mind-boggling list of credits that numbers more than 50 films, many of them blockbusters, and over a dozen TV series, including the theme to "The Simpsons."

In 1997, Elfman was nominated for two Academy Awards, for the Best Music (Original Dramatic Score) for Good Will Hunting and Best Music (Original Musical or Comedy Score) for Men in Black (he lost to James Horner's Titanic and Anne Dudley's The Full Monty, however). He's been nominated for the Golden Satellite, the Golden Globe, the Grammy and the Emmy, and has won, among other honors, three Saturn Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Films.

He composed the soundtracks to two films currently in theaters - the Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan thriller Proof of Life and Nicolas Cage's new The Family Man - as well as the films Mission: Impossible, Anywhere But Here, A Civil Action, Flubber, A Simple Plan, My Favorite Martian, To Die For, Dick Tracy, Midnight Run, Scrooged, Black Beauty, Dolores Claiborne, Sommersby, Darkman and its two sequels, last year's Instinct and many others.

Working with Tim Burton, Elfman has added his trademark retro-spooky touch to his scores for The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow. It was Burton who commissioned Elfman's very first score, PeeWee's Big Adventure, in 1985. Burton is also a "big Bollywood fan," said Elfman.

Elfman's upcoming projects include Spy Kids, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Burton's Planet of the Apes. So he wonders how he will fit in the time to pursue his Bollywood dream: "It's one of those things I very much wish to do, should I ever get a grasp of being ahead of myself, instead of behind myself," he told India-West. "It seems I'm always two or three steps behind ... I'm one of those people who are chaotically disorganized with time.

"When I'm composing for a film, I go into suspended animation. This last year, I went underground for five months, with Proof of Life and The Family Man. Once I get into composition, everything stops."

On that trip to India three years ago, Elfman met a wide variety of Indian music directors and musicians (though regrettably, not Laxmikant or Pyarelal, the composers of Khal Nayak) and sat in with Taufiq Qureshi, the brother of Zakir Hussain, on Qureshi's recording sessions for the score to the Femina Miss India pageant. "It's a funny thing to sit in on, because like all pageant music it was very corny, like it would be in the States," he recalled. "But suddenly, there would be a break with all this wonderful, wild music, with drums and percussion, and then it would kind of settle back in with the saxophone, bass and drums.

"I am very much into percussion," he continued. "Percussion is my love.

"I remember talking to somebody about how the percussion parts were done, and how it had been expressed in 'Choli ke peechhe,' and I was told that it wasn't really written, but it was expressed in a verbal language - but there were many players and a big section, which is what it sounds like, which is why I was so fascinated.

"It made perfect sense to me, because that's how I learned music."

India-West asked if he has any words of advice for the Anu Maliks and others who want to bring their music to the West. "I don't know if I'd give them any different advice than I'd give anybody who asks me out here," he said, "which is 'good luck.' It's incredibly competitive; you need a lot of luck and timing, aside from talent. It's brutal! But anybody from out there who has had any success already knows that. It can't be any less brutal in Bombay than it is in Los Angeles."

In Los Angeles, Elfman sometimes finds himself in the position of trying to explain just what a Bollywood movie is. "The way I describe it to people here is that a Bollywood movie has everything," he told India-West. "It has comedy, it has action, it has romance, and at least five songs."

"Man, I would love to do a film like that. It would be so great. I keep telling Tim (Burton), whenever it's time, I'm ready to do a Bollywood-inspired film in English!"

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