When Ashish R. Shukla’s Prague (2013) came out, it was like summer showers in winter, refreshing but unexpected. The psychological thriller – about the inner conflict of a man (played by Chandan Roy Sanyal) whose mind goes rogue – was quite different from the masala pots being produced by Bollywood at the time. Reviews were mixed. Indian audiences had yet to develop a palate for narratives that deviated too far from the norm. But the film still gained a cult following. And much of the credit goes to the music of Atif Afzal, aka A-Zal, who completed the experimental nature of the film.
Tracks like “Dirt & Game” which mixed pulsating electro and techno beats with energy. You felt like you were driving down a highway at breakneck speed, and life all around had become a blur. The song “Din Kabhi”, with its heavy rock base, bracketed the philosophical underpinnings of the lyrics. The song is down to earth, grounded, almost angry.
Nine years later, A-Zal, 37, has changed gears. Her songs in Ms Marvel—’Aye Khuda’ and ‘Dheemi Dheemi’—are sweet and dreamy, with a hint of Sufi. For a few brief minutes you feel that you are on the threshold of something important, something worth fighting for. After all, the songs are the soundtrack to the life of an innocent, rather geeky teenager who is barely discovering the curve that comes her way. “Aye Khuda,” for example, is played as the romance between protagonist Kamala (Iman Vellani) and Kamran (Rish Shah) is just beginning. “My brief for ‘Aye Khuda’ was that it had to be very pure,” says A-Zal. “Our first love is always the purest. It has no hidden motives. With the Marvel movies, the brief is very precise. There are no gray areas open to interpretation. They were clear on the fact that although Kamala was very young, they didn’t want a song that a girl her age would listen to. No EDM or a single singer singing with a guitar. They wanted something deep and meaningful, everything being very innocent.”
From Prague to Ms Marvel, A-Zal has evolved as much as his music. He caught the music virus as a child. One of his earliest musical memories is of him, at the age of 11, playing the harmonica in the back of the school bus with a friend. He grew up listening to grunge, rock, pop and metal. He was part of many groups, but did not consider music as a career. A brilliant student, he studied electronic engineering, came second in his university and was one of 150 people selected for the multinational accounting firm KPMG. But after three years, he knew he wanted to do something else. “The love of music has always been there, but the love of life started when I was 25,” he says. “It was then that I made the decision to leave KPMG. If I needed to live my life, I knew I had to do something I loved.
The hardest part was convincing his parents. They gave him two years to break into the music industry. Otherwise, he promised to resume his corporate career. “So I left the company on August 6, 2010,” he says. “I tried a lot, but nothing worked. As the two years came to an end, I knew I had to honor the promise I had made to my parents. And then, just when I approaching the deadline, Prague arrived in 2012.”
Prague was followed by films like Pune 52 (2013), Baji (2015) and Monsoon Shootout (2013). After Monsoon Shootout went to Cannes, he received many offers in Bollywood, but by then he had started dreaming bigger. If he could succeed in Bollywood, then why not in Hollywood? He first came to Los Angeles in 2014 hoping to assist Hans Zimmer, the legendary composer of films like The Lion King, Gladiator and Interstellar. “Believe it or not, I booked an Airbnb two blocks from Zimmer’s studio in Santa Monica,” A-Zal says. “I didn’t have an appointment, but I just knocked on the door. He was kind enough to give me his card. He told me to email him and get an appointment. I did it. I can’t imagine something like this happening in India. You definitely need connections to get to someone like Karan Johar.
Despite a successful interview with Zimmer, A-Zal could not move to the United States at the time because he did not have a work permit. It was a real disappointment, but that didn’t stop his dreams. Eventually he moved to America, then he returned to routine. After months without hearing from the filmmakers, he was about to give up. If it hadn’t been for an uncle in Canada who believed in him and urged him to continue, he would have returned to India, he says. Eventually, he got his break with CBS’s NCIS Los Angeles, followed by The Twilight Zone. Then Marvel came calling with Tom Hiddleston starring Loki and then Ms. Marvel.
Whether it’s the captivating, new-age music of Monsoon Shootout (for which he recorded live cello with Russian performers on Skype) or Loki’s soulful, surreal number, inspired by hymns recited in Arab mosques, perhaps A-Zal’s greatest strength is its ability to adapt its music to the needs of filmmakers. For this, he learned instruments like the oud and the djembe. “I learned to orchestrate a string quartet,” he says. “I learned everything from the flute to the violin to the piano, not to become a pianist, but to understand the instrument and how it works.”
And now he’s working on his dream project – a new album called Seventeen and Eleven Nights – with a production team that worked with Justin Bieber and David Guetta. He calls it the best work of his career. “I didn’t have a brief to follow or a character to study. I am the character, the face, the voice,” he says. “It’s about me and my journey. When you score for a Ms. Marvel, people will like your music for something, but it’s music for yourself. You’re just putting yourself out there and talking to the public. And that’s really important to me.”