pitch_perfect_2_premiere
Credit: Courtesy of Penn Masala

Few Penn students can say that they have appeared in a film that had the biggest-ever opening for a musical movie. But when “Pitch Perfect 2” debuted on May 15 and earned almost $70 million over its first weekend, the members of Penn’s South Asian all-male a cappella group, Penn Masala, earned that distinction.

Almost a dozen Penn Masala members appear in the movie, which is a sequel to the 2012 film about competitive collegiate a cappella singing, as the Indian national team at the world a cappella championship. They, along with several other ensembles from around the world, performed Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.” Each group in the sequence sang their portions of the song in a language of the country they represented.

The film’s director and 1996 College graduate Elizabeth Banks chose them to appear in the movie. According to Deke Sharon, a vocal producer and arranger for the film, Banks wanted a South Asian group to appear in the scene to establish the high stakes of the international event. Sharon immediately recommended Penn Masala because he thought that they were “the biggest, best American South Asian a cappella group” and knew of their renown in the U.S. and India.

Penn Masala’s members recorded the song in Hindi in May 2014 and filmed the scene over a week during the following month in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, becoming the only real-life college a cappella group to appear in the film.

“We took the experience one step at a time and tried to make the most out of it. We didn’t really know what to expect, and we just tried to enjoy everything,” rising College senior and Penn Masala president Chetan Khanna said. “It was an absolutely phenomenal experience and something that I never imagined being able to experience as a college student.”

Sharon said that although the tempo, key and form of the song were predetermined, Penn Masala’s members were given freedom to make their rendition of the piece their own.

“We wanted them to be as authentic and creative as possible, so when you juxtapose it against [the other groups’ performances], you hear these different styles and sounds popping out,” Sharon said.

In fact, he said, the song for the scene was chosen to represent the idea that “you can have a cappella ‘any way you want it,’ in any of these different styles from all around the world,” which is why he worked with Penn Masala to give their performance more of a distinct South Asian flavor.

“The nature of the human voice is a great equalizer, so we really wanted them to go toward the tambura and tabla and [other] Indian classical instruments — these iconic sounds that are in the collective unconscious at this point,” Sharon said. “Everybody knows the sound of great Indian music, so we wanted to make sure that their blend of South Asian pop music and American pop music that they do really well leans toward the South Asian side.”

Members of the group attended the premiere of “Pitch Perfect 2” at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on May 8, when they saw their scene in the film for the first time and later got to interact with some of the stars of the movie, including the Grammy Award-winning group Pentatonix and members of the Green Bay Packers.

“Obviously, having had a chance to film was enough for us — we were super excited to be in the movie, and we were not even expecting at all to be invited to the premiere,” Khanna said. “For each of us individually as college students, to attend a movie premiere is a really cool experience, and getting to soak up the entire experience was absolutely unbelievable.”

Penn Masala’s business manager and rising Wharton junior Pranay Sharma said that the entire experience was surreal.

“At the end of the day, we’re just brothers and sons. We all [heard] our families going to see the movie and people sent us Snapchats, pictures, Facebook messages and whatnot from it,” Sharma said. “It’s weird for us to think that people all around us are seeing this movie when we just flew in for one week and lip synced on stage, so it’s pretty cool.”

Sharma said that he hopes that Penn Masala’s appearance in “Pitch Perfect 2” opens up new doors for the group in the future.

“It’s a totally different direction for us in terms of what we normally do — it’s the first time that we’re taking an English song and straight up covering it in Hindi,” Sharma said. “It’s a refreshing change of pace, and hopefully people will like it and appreciate it.”

“It’s a very interesting spot where we’ve never been before, so I’m curious to see how we can push the limits on what new projects we come out with, and I think it will be interesting for folks to see what direction we take our music after this,” he added.

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