In early 2001, 17-year-old Arjun S Ravi attended a ‘musical performance’ at the Kala Ghoda Festival in south Mumbai, largely because he’d managed to score a free pass for it through a friend’s father.
It was the second band playing that evening that caught his attention. A four-piece rock act, they were unlike any of the local bands Ravi, then a student at St Xavier’s College, was accustomed to seeing. For one, their choice of covers was atypical — instead of the usual “Guns N’ Roses and Metallica type” covers, they belted out a version of the relatively unknown ‘I Alone’ by American alt-rock act Live.
But more importantly, this band wrote original songs, one of which in particular had an extremely catchy hook that, to Ravi’s ears, sounded like “Bastard in, bastard in, bastard in”.
“It was unbelievable,” he says now, at the office of Only Much Louder, where he has worked since 2009 as the co-founder of culture website NH7.in. “If Shazam had been around at the time, I would have held it up in the air to find out who the hell these guys are.”
The band was called Zero. Ravi, already a fanboy for life, was to find out a few months later that the song was called ‘PSP 12’ and the hook actually went ‘Standing by, standing by, standing by’.
(From left) Arjun S Ravi, music journalist and co-founder of NH7.in, with Girish 'Bobby' Talwar, bass player for Zero and co-founder of Only Much Louder
This gig changed his life in an irreversible manner, which is why it makes sense that after more than a decade of writing prolifically about independent music in India, Ravi, now 31, chose Standing By as the name for his sprawling documentary that chronicles the story of ‘non-Bollywood’ music in India from the 1920s to present day. The docu, which is being released as a six-part web series by Red Bull over the next four weeks, has been a labour of love that has all but consumed his life over the past year-and-a-half. “Every day now ends at midnight or beyond,” he says, with a sigh.
Standing By, whose first episode went live late Wednesday evening, features 120 interviews conducted across five cities: Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Shillong. Shot over a tight 40-day schedule, Ravi and his crew (a total of 15 people) have been working hard to compress more than 400 hours of footage into six episodes of 20 to 30 minutes each.
Each episode chronicles a certain era in the story of independent music in India, ranging from the ‘jazz age’, when clubs in Mumbai played host to greats such as Dave Brubeck as well as Goan musicians, to the rise of electronic music in recent years. The story is told via the interviews — which feature musicians, venue owners, journalists, and promoters — and the gaps are filled in with some nifty animated visuals alongside rare pictures and footage of underground gigs, some of which are several decades old.
A still from the first episode of 'Standing By' featuring 'Sneha Yatra' — a Woodstock-like rock music festival that took place in Malavli, Maharashtra, in 1971
Some of the incidents narrated seem almost apocryphal. For instance, in the first episode, we’re told about a Shillong-based group called The Fentones (1967-97), who made up for the lack of a bass guitar by engineering a bass sound with the help of a modified tea-chest. In a country where the dominant musical genres have always been Bollywood and devotional music, Standing By comes across as a tale of a valiant-but-growing segment of Indian youth who rejected the prevalent mainstream culture of their times and found expression in the sounds of jazz, rock ‘n roll, metal, and electronic music.
The eldest son of an Indian Navy officer, Ravi spent most of his childhood in various cities across India, attending nine schools over 12 years. “I was a complete nerd — I’d spend most of my time studying,” he says. His father would travel to various international ports and bring back tapes of Western music, recorded off the radio stations there. There was very little exposure to Bollywood music for him — mostly, he’d be holed up at home listening to ‘70s groups such as The Carpenters and ABBA. “We lived in our own little bubble,” he says.
With an excellent academic record, he found himself at St Xavier’s doing a double major in economics and statistics. However, his enduring memories of college life largely comprise sneaking off to attend gigs and passionately blogging about them for a readership of “maybe three people”. Despite occasionally succumbing to fanboyism (as he now admits), he quickly developed a reputation for writing knowledgeable and sometimes brutally honest reviews (“Your band sucks” and “I do not support the scene” have been his oft-repeated mottos for years).
For Ravi, Standing By has simply been the next logical step in his eventual career as one of the country’s best-known music journalists. From blogging to writing for “pretty much any newspaper, magazine or website that would let me” to founding the indie music blog Indiecision in 2008, which morphed into NH7.in two years later, Ravi has been at the forefront of covering India’s indie scene, alongside revered niche publications such as the magazine Rock Street Journal. In 2012-13, he led a ‘dream team’ of writers, contributors, and photographers at NH7.in that would cover “any and every gig happening anywhere in India”. “If a band was playing a tiny gig at a café in Guwahati, we’d have a photographer there,” he says.
However, the website slowed down over the past two years as he realised that they had reached a point of saturation. “We had over 7000 articles about bands from every corner of the country,” he says, “and they were probably only being read by maybe 300 of their friends.” He started thinking more about the stories that they really wanted to tell, the kinds that would take more time to unearth and lend more heft to the space they were covering.
Standing By, he says, came as a response to this problem. The work ahead was daunting and they began in early 2014 by interviewing noted columnist Jug Suraiya in Delhi. Over time, with the help of OML's and Red Bull’s combined resources, Ravi got in touch with the people he wanted to interview. Slowly but surely, the jigsaw started resembling a picture.
However, there were several roadblocks along the way that would often deflate his spirit. “Getting things wasn’t a problem, getting the permissions and rights to use them was a huge hassle,” he says. Footage or pictures that were only going to be in the film for a few seconds would sometimes take weeks or months of wrangling and legal nightmares to procure; on other occasions, individuals and organisations would ask for exorbitant sums of money to give them no-objection certificates.
Now that this journey is nearly over, Ravi is eager to tell similar stories through NH7.in, which will see a revival in content over the next few months. “The last two years have been a learning experience like no other,” he says. “This is easily the most ‘journalistic’ I’ve ever been. There are so many more stories to be told and we can’t wait to start telling them.”
Watch the first episode of Standing By here.