Shankar Ehsaan & Loy: The Musical Musketeers

From completing each other’s sentences, to continuing with the same thought process, Shankar-Ehasaan-Loy’s camaraderie is something that you just cannot miss. Even after 25 years of making music together, the trio is not done belting out hits.

Interview by: Abhishek Kulkarni
Words by: Samreen Khoja

Passion can make people do unexpected things, and when that passion is music, we can’t have a more iconic trio than Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy or SEL as they are called. Bollywood has had amazing musical duos, be it Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Jatin-Lalit, Kalyanji-Anandji, Salim-Sulaiman among others, but in a sea of jodis, this trio has stood out. “We all came together as an experiment for a movie called Dus in 1997 by Mukul Anand and we did not know what the future would hold. We almost didn’t become a part of the industry because the movie never got made as Mukul Anand passed away. After his demise we gave up and thought that this is not meant to happen, but work started coming in. We worked on Mission Kashmir and then Shankar released Breathless, we also released a couple of albums, which worked in our favour and before we could know, it was a career. It was never intentional for us to be a trio, it just happened. Even today, we perform like a band,” says Ehsaan Noorani. 


Despite having hits like Mission Kashmir or ‘UP Bihar Lootne’ from Shool (Yes, the same one where people threw money at screens every time the song appeared) it wasn’t an easy ride for SEL in the industry. “The major turning point for us was 20 years ago when Dil Chahta Hain came out and the music topped the charts. But even after that the music industry did not trust us. This was because we are people who are a part of the industry, but not hardcore there, we don’t attend every single event, party, award function and you will seldom see us on page 3, so everyone wondered who these three are, and they probably had beginner’s luck. When the music of Dil Chahta Hain came out, prominent personalities and record labels said that it sounded like jingles. Our job was to come out with songs that were unheard of and that is what we did. They expected us to do something monotonous, so, to get acceptance took a long while,” explains Shankar Mahadevan. “We did not get work for almost a year after Dil Chahta Hain. We did a film called Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hain, directed by Hansal Mehta, which tanked at the box office. But then came Kal Ho Na Ho and we were flooded with projects. We even won a National Award,” says Ehsaan. In a world where creative partnerships are mostly fraught with egos, these three composers have been going strong for more than 25 years. And by their own admission, they do not even have a contract between them. “I think this was something that came for our parent’s generation where everything was done just on the basis of a handshake. When we started our career, it was the peak of change, the whole industry was on a revamp, but prior to that, a handshake meant that you’re good to go,” exclaims Loy Mendonsa. 


While Shankar taps into his traditional, classical-Carnatic music; Ehsaan shakes out rock and Loy plays the most amazing and beautiful jazz riffs, a change that Bollywood needed in the 90s era. For Ehsaan its all about keeping music alive by introducing something new with every composition. “Coming from different genres was a big advantage for us at the time when we started out, and it stands the same to this date.  We can understand, appreciate, and execute good music, whether it is rock, funk, blues or hip-hop I think we organically grew as a trio despite having different genres and let our work speak for itself.”
However, Loy believes that this has something to do with your influences of music at an early stage. “I remember my dad came home one day and he these three-four smaller RPMs and there was Italian and African music. After coming back from school I’d always put on some new music and listen to it for a couple of days, so the spectrum of music was enormous. Apart from that we had All India Radio playing Indian classical and other popular songs. That’s the advice we give to a lot of younger musicians as well, listen to a whole spectrum of music.” “The way Ehsaan looks at Indian classical music, or I look at jazz music and Loy looks at folk music, makes it very interesting. For instance, with Loy observing Indian classical over the years, and combining with jazz, and then him composing classical will be completely out of the box. This brings the wow factor,” says Shankar. 


SEL made their digital debut in 2020 with Bandish Bandits. Not only is the trio’s music one of the most distinguished discographies of this era, it might also be one of their most versatile pieces of work. The composition is a confluence of Shankar’s bend towards Hindustani classical, Loy’s gift of doing something unimaginable with the synth and Ehsaan’s flair of rock. “When you are on a digital platform, you are catering to the entire world, and it changes your entire audience. It gives you the creative space, which makes it a great place for musicians like us,” says Loy. According to Ehsaan, the best part about OTT platforms is that anyone with an internet connection can watch and relate to your music.


After working together for over 25 years, the trio lets us in on the secret of their partnership. “I like both the guys that I work with. Each of them has their own character. They’ve got a whacked-out sense of humour. Workwise Shankar brings a lot to the table with his experience in Indian classical music and work with international artistes, Ehsaan has a great sense of aesthetics. There are times when I am not into the zone or something but they accommodate me which is fantastic. We are three bees cross pollinating each other with influences which is very beautiful,” says Loy. Ehsaan has learnt the biggest life lessons in this partnership, which is, patience, leave your ego at home and don’t let success go to your head. “There is a parallel life that we live as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Musically it is the one of the most refreshing experiences for us on a daily basis. Shankar is like the universe of music, to perform with legendary artistes like Zakir Hussain is no joke, in fact, Shankar is scary to play in front of. My blood pressure goes up every time I have to do a take in front of him. He is a superb cook and has a mad sense of humour. Like on stage when the manager comes and says something and I happen to over hear it, I immediately crack up. His positivity and the way he is rooted with his family is something to learn from. I have known Loy for far too long, we would make jingles together. Loy taught me to not work on weekends. We can talk about anything on the face of the earth. The entirety within the three of us has been one of the most enriching experience of my life,” he says. 

“The major purpose of my life has been Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and that has made me what I am. It is very difficult to get people who are truthful, genuine and talented. These are the things that have made us last for so long. Every day when I am at the studio, it still feels like those Dil Chahta Hain times, same nonsense, same things that we laugh about, same food experience. There is nothing pretentious about us. The beauty is that we all have our individual lives, that is what keeps us going as professionals. These two guys are incredibly talented. Ehsaan has written more guitar riffs than anyone I have known, and Loy, he puts his hand on the piano and it plays automatically, he is not even thinking and I have to capture it before he puts logic into it. It is because of them that my depth musicality increased. We have never thought of going separate ways, we are like three magnets,” says Shankar. Talking about creative differences, Ehsaan is quick to jump in, “The last creative difference we had was yesterday.” “We obviously have creative differences, we are three strong musicians, with different identities, choices. We think differently all the time, which is what gives our music a different outcome,” says Shankar. What excites Shankar apart from making music is smaller pleasures in life. It can be as simple as sipping tea with his wife Sangeeta on the terrace. “My wife is my pillar of strength. During these 18 months of lockdown, we have been with each other 24/7 and it is still like ‘Abhi Na Jao Chodkar’.” 

No interview is complete without discussing the iconic ‘Breathless’. Shankar says that he never thought the song would be iconic even today. For him it was all about creating good music without having to worry about its outcome. It was always about the experience. Talking about adding more classical influences in Bollywood, Shankar says, “We have always given little doses of classical in all our compositions. If people do get exposed to Indian classical music it would be great, because the fundamentals are so strong. It does add a little class to whatever you are doing. It need not be classical music per say, but a derivative of it.”
While the lockdown put us into the confines of our homes, literally whining about everything, Ehsaan was discovering new talent and interacting with musicians from all over the country. “I am first a guitar player then a composer. If I would have only been a film musician, I would have been thoroughly bored by now. When I did Instagram live, I assumed everyone would sing a Hindi song, but the amount of talent I saw is incredible, especially the north-east. They have been a big discovery for me during the lockdown. I also had people from south India joining my livestream and these are not recognised people, but they are amazing. It has been a very inspiring experience for me and this is what keeps you going. I think during the lockdown it were the musicians who kept things going on social media, and this is exactly where we live, among our audience.” Commenting on the Jazz scene here Loy says, “There are a lot of good players, but unfortunately Jazz is pretty much a live scene, and for that you need a lot of venues for musicians to play. The other side of it is that musicians get together at someone’s place and just jam. But we don’t have a lot of jazz scene happening in Mumbai. But Delhi has The Piano Bar, which is an incredible place for all musicians.”
Twenty-five years later, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are all past the dislikes, for them it is only about music, and a relationship that they have managed to nurture and grow over the years.