INTERVIEW

Raghu Dixit on ‘Chef’, his early struggles, performing at Glastonbury and meeting Robert Plant

The 42-year-old singer-songwriter has composed for Raja Menon’s ‘Chef’, which will be out on October 6.

Raghu Dixit doesn’t like to be told that he cannot do something. So when director Raja Menon said that he wanted only one composition from Dixit for his upcoming Saif Ali Khan starrer Chef, Dixit said that he would do the entire soundtrack or nothing. He did not want to get caught in the now-ubiquitous trend of multiple composers doing their bits for a soundtrack. “I asked him to give me the script and told him that I would do all the songs,” Dixit said. “If he liked them, he could keep them.” Dixit sent scratch recordings of all the songs to Menon and they were approved as a bunch.

Chef, an official remake of the 2014 Hollywood movie, is Dixit’s third complete soundtrack in Hindi. Best known for his vibrant folk rock songs that he performs with his band The Raghu Dixit Project, the musician has also been composing chart-busting music in Kannada films. Dixit’s first soundtrack was for the Kannada film Psycho (2008). But he doesn’t expect Mumbai to take note of the album’s success.

“I don’t blame people for thinking that I am only good in folk rock because they heard my music through my band and its songs, which I have been playing for 15 years,” Dixit said. “So the onus lies on me to show people that I am more than the folk music I do with my band. I can do pop, rock, EDM, heavy metal. I can do everything.”

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Shugal Laga Le, Chef (2017).

Dixit once had a plush job as a microbiologist in Belgium. He quit his job in 2000 and came back to India to try his luck as a musician. “I love it when I am pushed to the wall and am told I cannot do this,” he said. “That’s how I began making music too.”

But success and popularity eluded Dixit for a long time. “I approached different record labels, kept getting rejected for not being commercial enough, every few months, a new demo would be thrown out,” he said. In 2006, an executive at a major record label in Mumbai told him that he wasn’t good looking enough to be in a music video. After he walked out of the interview, he broke down.

“I thought I should quit music,” Dixit recalled. “Maybe, it was a stupid dream I was carrying in my head from listening to my friends and relatives telling me that I sing really well.”

Dixit was planning a return to his hometown Mysore when he got a call from his friend, filmmaker Shashanka Ghosh. Ghosh had got Dixit booked for a solo gig at the trendy Zenzi Bar in Bandra in Mumbai. This was planned by Dixit as his last performance in Mumbai. Then, something strange happened, which led to the title title track for Ghosh’s Quick Gun Murugun (2009).

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Murugan Superstar, Quick Gun Murugun (2009).

“At the venue, in the beginning, there were just four people and they were all my friends,” Dixit said. “By the end, there were 200. I had played every song I knew that night. As I was packing my guitar and proceeding to leave, someone tapped on my shoulder from behind. It was Vishal [Dadlani]. He told me very kind words about my music and asked me to come down to his studio the next day. He said, ‘Shekhar needs to hear this.’”

Keeping his Mysore plans on hold, Dixit went to Dadlani and his composing partner Shekhar Ravijani’s studio and began playing his songs. Both the composers were talking amongst themselves. “I wondered why they kept talking and not listening,” Dixit said. “Then in the middle of the third song, Vishal stopped me and said that they would like to sign me for an album for the record label they are launching.”

Antaragni – The Fire Within and its lead single, Hey Bhagwan, catapulted Dixit and his band to fame overnight. The lively music video for Hey Bhagwan introduced Dixit to pan-Indian viewers and listeners and his colourful and boisterous lungi-wearing rockstar image.

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Coke Studio version of Hey Bhagwan.

“People may not known me by my name, but they know that I am the guy who wears the lungi,” Dixit said. The lungi became part of his identity around 2004, much before The Raghu Dixit Project happened.

“I was thinking what I could wear on stage but everything had already been tried out,” he said. “At first, I wore long kurtas and pyjamas and sat like a Hindustani classical musician trying to make fusion. Then, I tried a short kurta and jeans, but Euphoria had already done that.”

Sitting at his home wearing a white lungi, it dawned upon him that he should try his domestic attire on stage as that represents him the best. “The white wrap-around dhoti represents me and where I come from – South India. You call it veshti in Tamil, pancha in Kannada and mundu in Malayalam. I made it colourful and bright as our music is happy folk music and it clicked,” he said.

While his debut album made him popular in Mumbai and beyond, Dixit kept scoring for Kannada films. The video for Ninga Poojege Bande Mahadeshwara from Psycho features Dixit in his trademark costume singing aloud amidst a crowd.

After Quick Gun Murugun, Dixit turned his attention to Nupur Asthana’s romantic comedy Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (2011) and Bewakoofiyan (2014). Chef happened when Menon heard his music thanks to his assistant director who was playing Dixit’s songs in his car.

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Ninga Poojege Bande Mahadeshwara, Psycho (2008).

Dixit has composed and sung songs in Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, English, Tamil and Malayalam. He credits his upbringing to his versatility. “I am only good in Kannada which I speak every day,” he said. “I studied in an English medium school so that sorted my English. And since my parents wanted to ensure that I did not waste any time as a kid, they took me to Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha where I learned Hindi as a hobby. Doordarshan took care of the rest.”

His mother tongue is Tamil, which he regrets not having learnt, but he is making amends. “When I land in Chennai now, I fight with the auto drivers in Tamil, so I guess my Tamil is working,” he said. As for Malayalam and Telugu songs, he rewrites the lyrics in English or Kannada.

It has taken its time, but the decision to quit a steady job and jump into music full-time has really paid off. Raghu Dixit and his band have performed in several countries, including the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Russia. The Raghu Dixit Project performed for the Queen of England in 2012.

His band has also performed twice at the Glastonbury Festival, in 2011 and 2015. “Glastonbury is a dream for any musician,” Dixit said. “It’s the world’s biggest music festival with 300 different artists and bands performing on 20 different stages. The first time, we played on the John Peel Stage where all the next-big-thing artists and bands perform. The second time, we performed on the West Holts Stage, the second biggest stage in Glastonbury. Someday, we hope to perform on Glastonbury’s biggest stage, the Pyramid Stage.”

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Mysore Se Aayi by The Raghu Dixit Project at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival.

Dixit’s musical journey has often thrown up surprises along the way, but none so bizarre as the time he ran into Robert Plant, the legendary singer and songwriter of Led Zeppelin.

“My management booked me for this show called Later... With Jools Holland,” Dixit said. “They called me and asked me to come to London quickly where my band would have to perform for four minutes exactly. They also gave me the song to play: No Man Will Ever Love You Like I Do.” Dixit was initially reluctant, but gave in and flew with his band to London.

“When I reached the centre where the sound check was happening, I saw this man with long locks of hair and went, ‘Shit, oh my god, it’s Robert Plant,’” Dixit recalled. “Later, when I walked out of the green room, I bumped into him and I told him that he had no idea what a great moment it was for me to share the stage with him.”

Plant’s response stupefied Dixit. “He said that I have no idea what a big opportunity it is for him to be playing with me,” he said. “I asked why and he said that if he performs with me, my fans who had never heard of Robert Plant would know him too.”

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No Man Will Ever Love You Like I Do by The Raghu Dixit Project on Later... With Jools Holland.

The 42-year-old star’s music and gigs are known for their high-spirited nature, and that is not going to change any time soon. “I make sad music but that is for my consumption,” Dixit said. His rationale to keep himself and his band away from mellow songs is that people who deal with negativity and sadness all day should come to a Raghu Dixit concert to forget about their lives.

“People wake up, read newspapers, switch on to news channels, go to office, slog all day, come back, have domestic troubles with the spouse or family and then they come to my concert,” he said. “I want them to go back home with a positive frame of mind. Because problems will not disappear, but you should be able to face them with positivity.”

Dixit is working on multiple projects at present: five films in Kannada, a Telugu web series, a Telugu thriller, plans to release a new single with his band every two months, and two possible Hindi films. “Independent music will always stay in the shadow of film music as films are the source of music for 99.9% of Indians,” Dixit said. However, he pointed out, filmmakers are on the prowl for new sounds. “The freedom that I feel with my band is unparalleled,” he said. “But film music has that reach. Let’s see if I am smart enough to use Bollywood to get my indie music across.”

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Banjara, Chef (2017).
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