When I met him in Dubai in February, he was excited that he had taken his first PCR test to travel overseas. The soft-spoken Grammy awardee and audio engineer (for Slumdog Millionaire) PA Deepak who is part of AR Rahman’s technical team is a self-effacing man. But watch between his words and you meet a brilliant mind with a sense of humour that lives and breathes music. Deepak is currently working on an album with a Dubai based producer and his work on the album by Ricky Kej, has won yet another Grammy. Benglauru based Ricky Kej picked up his second Grammy Award on Sunday for Divine Tides, an album he collaborated on with Stewart Copeland, founder and drummer of the iconic rock band The Police. in the Best New Age Album category. Manju Ramanan chats up with PA Deepak on his musical journey.
When did you start learning music?
I started learning the guitar when I was 6-7 years old. I grew up in Vishakapatnam (Vizag) and was soon part of orchestras and bands. When I met with a small accident, I couldn’t play the guitar since the waiting period during the healing was long. So, I checked on other things I could do and there was this music studio without any sound engineer at that time. I started exploring everything I could do around music and soon I was the only audio engineer in Vizag at one point in time. I also interned at a local studio St Lukes Studio at Vizag in 1998 where I worked in a Doordarshan serial Ruthugarulu in 1998 that ran for 450 episodes. Then Nagesh Kukunoor came by and Rockford happened. I also did another film with him called Bollywood Calling, that has Navin Nischal in it. Then some Telugu films happened too but I wasn’t satisfied. I felt like a frog in the well.
At Operal Studio Dubai
How did you move out of your comfort zone?
I have cousin who is a flutist with Navin Kumar, we fondly call Naveen Anna, who has played with AR Rahman. I asked him of the possibility in getting into his gang. Through him I met Ranjit Barot and then music composer duo Salim – Sulaiman too. Also, a flight ticket to Mumbai from Vizag, back in 2004, used to cost Rs 26,000 back then and I couldn’t always fly back and forth and both of them told me that they will let me know in some time. Within one month, I got a call from both people saying there is a film we have and you need to come to Mumbai to complete it. Both the engineers working with them had left. So, I told Salim Merchant that I had already promised Ranjit sir that I would work with him. I joined him and work was hectic and I would even sleep in a space in the mezzanine floor at the studio.
That was the time Farah Khan used to come pretty often to the studio during the making of Mai Hoon Na. There is a massive choir section in the film and that is when I saw the stalwarts such as Clinton, Vijay Prakash etc who were part of the singing chorus. I was like a kid in a candy shop. It was like wow! When Ranjit sir used to go for concerts, I would work with Salim Sulaiman – I worked on films such as Mujhse Shaadi Karoge etc.
You are a musician turned technician. How does that work to your advantage?
The advantage I have is that I have been a musician and then a technician. So, when I am giving instructions, I can point out a certain note to the musician during dubbing. For instance, telling the musician that there is an issue in the fourth line is easier for him to understand. Also technically speaking, my calculations are much quicker than my explanations. If you send me a questionnaire and ask me to answer things, I get a brain freeze (laughs) or you tell me I want a little course for my school, please send it to me, I will freeze again! Each brain works in its own way. I am closer to numbers than letters.
When did you meet AR Rahman?
I was working on Subash Ghai’s Kisna with Ismail Durbar sir and ARR sir one day came for the dubbing and sat next to me at Nirvana Studio (Ranjit Barot’s studio). That was a fan moment for me. Sir is very jovial and has a great sense of humour. Often when he sees me sleepy after work in the studio, he will bundle us all up in his car and take us for a long drive and he drives very fast!
Tell us about winning the Grammy?
So, work on. Slumdog Millionaire happened in between Yuvraj and Ghajini. ARR and Bharat Bala used to do a lot of international projects and I thought this was one of them. Then sir told me that this is a Danny Boyle film! I had just watched Sunshine and liked his work. ARR asked me to create a nice track and we started. We had little time and we worked really hard on the project and sir would come and see the changes. But each movie is the same for us – the Oscar or the Grammy comes later. Once I asked him how do you want the music to be and he said, “Inspire me.” That was my challenge.
How does music move you?
It is about the joy you derive in it. For instance, while creating Rehna Tu – Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra was waiting for what a big music section after the antara. Rahman sir said he wanted a little time with it and I got busy mixing Rehna Tu and Kaala Bandar. He then called me and said, come ! I didn’t hear any music section in the middle but in the end. A flute solo and it was so surprising, so new and so inspiring. You learn that from ARR sir to be creative and new but also risk the possibility of the piece being rejected or used for another song
How did the pandemic affect you?
We did a lot of work during the pandemic, about 6-7 albums. Live streams were happening all the time and we were doing everything on software. We finished our dubbings with artistes and Javed Ali and Jonita Gandhi sang from the comforts of their homes and studios. I worked on Ricky Kej’s album that won the Grammy.
How has life changed after the Grammy award?
The Grammy helps you reach out to a larger audience. A lot of avenues opened for me in terms of work after I received the honour. I could work with several international artistes and the world is my stage.
How is ARR as a mentor?
Sometimes he will challenge you saying, hey Grammy award winner, finish the song. I will reply back saying “Yes, double time Oscar winner”. He jokes around constantly. I don’t usually eat sweets and he will generally say, he will need more Grammy awards before he eats sweets.