Salman Khan likes Underground Authority!
The first thing that strikes you about the five boys sitting in a messy Mumbai hotel room is well they are just boys!
All of them are in their early 20s and have dreams in their eyes, the kind that would make superstars reminisce about their early, struggling, days.
That's probably why Bollywood phenom Salman Khan likes Kolkata band Underground Authority.
This boy band had audiences on their feet all through their two-and-a-half-month long run at India's Got Talent (IGT), the reality show on the Colors television channel.
The band, better known by their initials UA, never made it to the top three of the competition, which came to a close recently when the Shillong Chamber Choir won the show.
But between themselves they rocked the show, bringing to mainstream India the sounds of hip-hop, rock and rap.
Their acts were rap-rock remixed versions of A R Rahman's songs -- from Urvashi to Rukmani and, of course, Vande Mataram.
Viacom18, which co-owns Colors, has signed them to a two-year contract as has Sony BMG.
UA will also be featured on Bigg Boss 4 (on Colors) on weekend episodes.
Underground Authority features Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer (aka: EPR): The Poet; Adil Rashid (aka: Iago -- The Invincible): Guitars and Backing; Kuntal De (aka: Storm): Guitars, Effects and Backing; Soumyadeep Bhattacharya (aka: Bubbla): Bass and Backing; Sourish Kumar (aka: the Sheikh): Drums and Backing.
Image: Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer, Sourish Kumar, Soumyadeep Bhattacharya, Adil Rashid and Kuntal De
Photographs: Abhishek Mande
'This is family to me'
Unlike the other four he sets out each morning to attend to his clients, predicts their future and when he's done, switches off his mobile phone and turns into something of a guitar god!
Sourish Kumar calls him Guitar Jockey Kuntal. "He doesn't play the guitar, he creates mind-blowing effects from those strings," Sourish says pointing to his bandmate's electric guitar.
Kuntal is a man of few words. He lost his parents to cancer and one of his bandmates tells me they don't talk about it a lot. "This is family to me," Kuntal says looking at the other four.
Coming from anyone else it would've sounded fake but there is something genuine about these boys, something you hope doesn't change with time and being exposed to the glitzy showbiz world.
Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer/EPR seems like one of those boys yet to get over his gawky teenager days.
He wears a pair of simple glasses, dresses in those loose t-shirts and pants -- the kind that we used to wear in school and talks like an excited schoolboy.
Once he's on stage, EPR mesmerises audiences.
Soumyadeep Bhattacharya (Bubbla) says none of the band members come close to EPR's energy levels.
EPR's crotch-holding moves got Salman Khan intrigued and made the star get off his judge's seat on the reality show and try to imitate him.
You ask EPR if that was a rehearsed move and he takes you by surprise, saying, "My pants were coming off and that was the only way I could hold them together without looking like an idiot."
Image: Kuntal De, right, performs at a club
'Dad says he doesn't understand what I play'
What's with the name, I ask somewhat intrigued and EPR blushes.
"That's short for Eminiem, Preity (Zinta) and Rupa -- my English teacher!"
There is a collective laugh in the room that's followed by EPR's prompt defence, "I was in school, you know!"
And, of course, the name stuck.
EPR's father is in the chemicals business and also an accomplished ghatam player.
"Dad says he doesn't understand what I play, but that's okay with him. He's just amazed by the new sounds of my music. So that's just fine!"
EPR is a journalism student at the Ashutosh College in Kolkata. His logic behind joining the course was that "being in the media would help me keep my music career alive."
"It also gives me more time to play music than I would have got had I been studying medicine or engineering."
At this precise point, a hand goes up. It's Adil Rashid (Iago -- The Invincible). "I'm an engineering student, you know!"
Adil, unlike Bubbla and EPR, is called by his real name. He tells you that it was difficult at first to convince his parents of his career choice.
"I don't come from a musical family. My father works in the West Bengal Electricity Board. They didn't like my coming home late and all the things associated with music," his voice trails off.
And then there was that thing about performing in pubs. "They thought it was the worst thing to happen to me!"
Image: On Rediff IShare: Underground Authority in action!
'Underground Authority will go places!'
Adil's brother had foreseen all this. "He bought me my first guitar," he recalls.
Adil used to play with Bubbla and EPR in a band that eventually broke off.
Each of the five take turns to explain to me how they came together.
To cut a long story short -- between the five of them they have played for a handful of bands before they all realised that they were meant to be together and do great things as Underground Authority about five months ago.
I ask Kuntal, the astrologer, what he thinks of the band's future.
He isn't someone who speaks a lot. So it takes some probing before he responds.
"We will go places," he says. "This is just the beginning for Underground Authority " Then after a pause, he adds, "As long as we stay together."
Bubbla chips in: "The good thing is that our friendship matters to us more than the band. We hang out even when we aren't jamming."
"Of course, we fight and have our disagreements, but at the end of it all, everyone respects each other's space."
Although he isn't the lead singer -- it's EPR -- Bubbla speaks for the band on most occasions. He is an English honours student, studying in the same college as EPR.
Image: The Underground Authority logo
'We took to music to impress the girls'
"I think all of us took to music to impress girls -- you know the whole thing that goes with music the guitar, the drums and the style with which you do it."
"I guess all of us wanted to impress a girl with a guitar in hand! We were quite desperate you know, koi bhi chalti thi (anyone would do)!" he laughs.
Somewhere along the way though music became as important as the show associated with it.
"We played not because we wanted to impress someone but rather because we began enjoying it. So we started watching videos that would teach us to play certain cords or to play a particular song."
Underground Authority's artists are self-taught. "We did get some basic training, but otherwise we learnt it along the way," adds Bubbla.
That leaves Sourish Kumar/The Sheikh, who is studying commerce at South City College and doesn't talk much.
He misses his drums when I request for an impromptu jam session for the camera. But he pulls out the sticks, puts a Batman comic on the bed and creates music.
Batman is the one thing that bonds these guys. Apart from music, of course.
Says Bubbla, "Even the kind of music we listen to vastly differs. One listens to pop, another one to hip-hop, someone is into electronica and trash metal."
"So we don't listen to any music together. Whatever we listen to by ourselves and find interesting, we share. The good part is that it all comes together when we play."
Image: Underground Authority
'We thought India's Got Talent was about fire eaters'
"Right at the beginning we had decided that we won't do cover versions of songs. We either perform original songs or perform old numbers in our trademark style," EPR says.
So when they decided to create rock-rap versions of A R Rahman's songs, they were an instant hit in Kolkata.
"People would insist on listening to our version of Urvashi (from the movie Humse Hai Muqabala)."
This was also how they were spotted: Aniruddha Goswami, a friend and fellow musician from Kolkata, suggested their name to the IGT team who called them over for an audition in May.
"We didn't realise how big it (IGT) was. We thought it must be some show about fire-eaters."
"When we went on stage and saw Kirron Kher, Sajid Khan and Sonali Bendre, we realised that this was it," EPR recalls.
When I called him after the band's ouster from the show, Bubbla sounded more excited than ever.
Image: Underground Authority
'Thought someone was playing a prank'
Today people recognise them when they walk the streets of Kolkata.
Someone hugs them; someone else gives them a high five.
Sony BMG and Viacom18 have signed them up. They are part of the Bigg Boss gig.
During IGT they were Invited to create the rock versions of the songs from Salman Khan's megahit Dabangg, a project they are very excited about.
"We are cutting a rough CD with our versions of the songs and will give it to Salman Khan to listen to," Bubbla says animatedly, but confesses sheepishly that they were unable to give the superstar the songs the last time they met.
I ask them about the incident when they 'snubbed' Salman's kid bro Sohail over SMS.
"I get this message," says EPR, "asking me to call back. It is signed off Sohail Khan. I thought it was a prank someone played on us. After half a dozen text messages I didn't bother calling back. On the show, Salman Khan mentioned it was indeed his brother calling. That was for the Dabangg project."
Do they regret not making it to the top three on IGT? Certainly not, they say, but admit that they had hoped to get there.
All that is behind them now.
Image: With Salman Khan on the sets of India's Got Talent
'In India, graduation is everything'
"The idea is to perform at college festivals because that is our target audience. Performing there gives us an idea of what works and what doesn't."
The next couple of years, he adds, will be crucial for the band and its future. "We are testing waters and hope things work out well for us."
Even as they bask in their newfound glory, they are conscious that some of them have not completed their graduation yet.
Kuntal and EPR are the only two band members who are off the graduate hook. Bubbla, Sourish and Adil have a year to go still.
Of the three, Adil is what everyone considers "the smart one" ("No one knows how he manages to study and score but he does").
Bubbla's college has been cooperative and Sourish, he says, "should be able to manage."
By next March they are keen to "at least get by."
"In India, graduation is everything," says Bubbla. "It is simply safer that way."
Sourish and Bubbla carry their text books with them while travelling and catch up on studying whenever they can.
You hear strains of music in the background.
Underground Authority has got to go now.
There is that Dabbang demo CD to be made for Salman Khan, maybe a flight to catch, maybe a live gig at BITS, Pilani.
The band plays on.
Image: In action at a concert in Kolkata