Standing By: Documenting India’s tryst with rock ’n’ roll

Standing By: Documenting India’s tryst with rock ’n’ roll

By AKHIL SOOD | | 17 October, 2015
Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean, who features in the six-part documentary.
Arjun S. Ravi, editor of, talks to Akhil Sood about the history of Indian rock ’n’ roll & Standing By, his new documentary charting Western music in India from the ’50s to today.

What pushed you to make Standing By?
A. I feel like I’ve been planning this all my life, to some extent. Ever since I’ve been writing about music, I suppose all these stories have interested me more than just the “story” aspect of it. It’s not just: “We went on tour, got f**ked up, cops showed up, gig got canned.” The fact that we have bands over here who write, play and perform their own music was just so revelatory to me. Earlier, I used to be a bit of a douchebag. I had these double standards where I’d say, “They’re really good… for an Indian band. Participation Certificate level effort. Then I saw [Mumbai’s alt-rock band] Zero; that blew my mind. Every person has that one moment that changes their perspective on something. Ever since, I’ve wanted to know what’s been behind all this. The music itself has so many different journeys... how it’s come to India and how we’ve appropriated it over a period of nearly a century, giving it our own spin.

Q. Was presenting it in video the obvious choice?
A. We went through four or five different iterations of the project. I was going through early concept notes and I’d written down such weird concepts: Five musicians from an era coming together, having a round table discussion and then collaborating. About a couple of years ago, we had this opportunity with Red Bull Media House [who have co-produced the film along with Only Much Louder], to create a video story about the music scene here. That’s when I thought, “Yeah, men, yeh to karne ka hai.” It’s just one of those things that’s always been an idea; we knew we wanted to do it in some way.
We started discussions with Red Bull; and the eventual shape it took, that crystallised only about a year ago, which is when we started to shoot in earnest. We decided to speak to people who weren’t just musicians… there are hajaar musicians in the country. Our first shortlist included nearly 500 people that we wanted to interview — musicians, journalists, band managers, promoters, the whole shebang. The exact number of interviews I finally conducted is 120 in all… people from different eras, individuals not just involved in one form of music. It’s a wide spectrum of people shot across five cities: Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Shillong.

Q. Shooting and obtaining rare archival footage must have been a nightmare...?
A. Before the shoot, I had already written out a structure based on very academic secondary research, speaking to lots of sources. I’d created a framework for it to figure out the blanks we needed to fill, after which we identified the people we wanted to speak to. For nine months I’ve had a five-person team working only on this.
Even before the interviews, we’d tapped into significant archival resources. For example, we acquired every issue of a magazine called the Junior Statesmen published between 1967 and 1977. We got Dateline Delhi archives… Times of India archives. The challenge, really, was not in securing the archives, but getting the rights and permissions to use them. We got music from a wide variety of sources: from labels that don’t even exist anymore, or cases where the rights were split across multiple entities — say, the lyricist, songwriter and the composer.  So you have to get permission from three different agencies. We had a limited budget but we had to straight up purchase the material or footage; it’s the underbelly of documentary filmmaking, as I realised.

Q. At what point did you think the film would work better as a six-part feature?
A. We had very ambitious numbers… six parts is what makes sense with the content we have. Earlier it was supposed to be a 10-part series, then a four-part one… we were just shooting these numbers out of our asses. Once the interviews were done and collated… as great as the shoot was, the documentary has been made on the edit table. We had over 400 hours of footage.
The episodes exist as a digestible video format available on the web. We’ve also developed this timeline on, where every episode is presented with 30-35 additional stories that populate the timeline, presented as videos, text, photos, archives… lots of different stuff. There were a lot of these stories I wanted to tell. For instance, Amyt Datta features in many episodes — he talks about Kolkata in the 1970s, Skinny Alley, all the bands he’s been in. But he also started a band called New Blues Connection in the ’80s with his brother, Monojit Datta; one of his first bands. He met Gyan and Jayashree Singh only after that, forming Sugarfoot, then Pop Secret, evolving into Skinny Alley and Pinknoise. We didn’t have space to put some of those stories in the episode narrative, but they’re
still important.
We want people to know all these stories… it paints a picture of the time. There are a f**kload of people to interview and more stories to tell. The timeline is meant as this open resource… the lifespan of Indian music is not just these six episodes.

There were all kinds of kids involved. So many people told us about how they would have homemade instruments or amplifiers. PA systems didn’t exist so they’d carry their own PA systems — they would stick as many speakers into a carboard box and there’s your PA… plug in and let’s go!

Q. What are some of the problems that have plagued the Indian indie community through the decades? Is the current wave of optimism around non-film western music in India justified?
A. One thing that was really revelatory for me was that in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, all of this was so alien. There was no immediate reference at all. Even in films or in mainstream music, whenever western music was featured, it was often in a way where it was a parody, it always reflected an exaggerated version of a global trend in music. Right now, you’re at a time where, for any given form of music or event, there’s a ready reference in your hand. Earlier, a lot of people would obviously be like… What is this? Now it’s everywhere — on TV, online, in Bollywood.  
While the Jazz Era still existed in a bubble of Gymkhana clubs and hotels, once the Beat generation started… if you look beyond the overtly nostalgic tint of retrospect, you’ll see it wasn’t just an upper-middle class phenomenon. There were all kinds of kids involved. So many people told us about how they would have homemade instruments or amplifiers. PA systems didn’t exist so they’d carry their own PA systems — they would stick as many speakers into a carboard box and there’s your PA… plug in and let’s go!
If you’re willing to look beyond one particular genre of music, or one particular interpretation, there are a lot of positives. Take Bangla Rock for instance. You have legit rockstars. When Rupam Islam [Fossils] walks into a mall in Kolkata, that’s it… security needs to be called. Looking past the homogenous structure of rock music and how metal is dying, you have the electronica scene, even if you don’t like the music. Look at how popular it is and the number of artists and events it’s sustaining.

Q. Have musicians here ever have been able to step out of a classist bubble and engage with mass society and the politics of their time?
A. It all depends on where you look. During the time of the Beats, musicians in India interpreted the music in their own way. Even though they were playing other people’s songs, inspired by the Vietnam War and other events, they saw meaning in it and tried to convey that emotion. Sure, they may not have been charged enough to start a revolution, but we’ve not been able to do that even today.
But if you look at smaller communities, you can see the engagement. Take Lou Majaw from Shillong.  He’s a f**king legend who’s played in all these legendary bands. That guy has got his message: Be free. People over there respect him, they all believe he’s brought a community together. Beyond the microcosm of the upper-middle class in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, there are many such instances.
Today, that engagement with social issues is being helmed by stand-up comedians. They’ll poke and prod and bring it out. Perhaps that is a more appropriate expression of this. Maybe the “Let’s start a revolution” aspect has been lacking with music, but the other, more upbeat, more melodious elements of music are very much there. It makes you feel love, hate, any of those things. And music is supposed to do that.

Standing By is available for streaming in an episodic format on

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