When Melody was Queen
Part 1 – ‘From the original soundtrack’, the production process
As you grow older and the world changes, you slip into periods of nostalgia now and then, looking back at the road you have traveled. It is in those moments that you often remember music you loved, food you enjoyed and great reads, just to name a few. For me, music has always been an integral part and Hindi film music has been at the fore, starting from my high school days.
I still remember the old record player we had at Calicut where we could play ancient 78 rpm Hindi records and a few of MS Subalakshmi’s early hits like suprabatham, and that it was nothing fancy. The next was the Grundig (or was it Telefunken) spool players in some affluent houses. It looked so sophisticated, when the guy put on the spool tape, reeled it around and went on to play a number of songs, I also saw other spool tape players and recorders at the Calicut AIR where I used to be sent for some children’s program recordings. As I grew up, we started to use the first versions of Phillips cassette tape players which my shippie uncle once brought. Tapes were not readily available, and what he brought, the earliest BASF cassettes used to get affected by the humidity and get stuck at times. Then the laborious process of extricating it from the rollers started, rolling it back with a hexagonal pencil (also not easy to obtain in India those days, but I had a Steadtler, as an engineering student) and finally the great tube of ‘quick fix’ adhesive came to the rescue when it did snap, which was often with the repeated playing of a handful of cassettes. I remember also that the quickfix smelt good. As years went by the Walkman arrived, then the CD player made its grand entrance, and finally all that moving stuff got replaced by the 0’s and 1’s of the mp3 file. But I still think none of that would beat the richer sound coming from a good record player or turntable coupled with a good amplifier and a pair of great speakers. I had written about HMV and the record player some years ago, so those interested can take a detour there, to get into the mood.
I loved Hindi film music, rudely titled Bollywood music these days, but since it is a usage which has gained much traction, I will use it as well. I am sure Mumbaikars will for once not object and try to change the Bombay in the synecdoche to Mumbai (in reverence to ‘that man’ Thackeray), for then, Bollywood would have to change to Mollywood and that as we know is Kerala’s film industry!! In this and two following articles, I will cover the birth and growth of the song and its making, its recording and finally a legendary music man, whom I revere a lot….
Life has come a long away, just the other day I saw AR Rahman and Sivamani playing music in thin air, just gesturing with his hands, using Intel Curie based contraptions. It was an early version, and only good to show the route the technology is taking towards making what they call ‘gesture music’.Going back to the music of yore, I was always intrigued by the comment on tapes and records ‘from the original soundtrack’ and so after I had obtained my research material, a voluminous amount of it, I started to study…
Now I am going to take you to a time when it all started, some 86 years ago in Bombay, a city which was just getting to be real busy. Not many cars, but lots of people, mostly dhoti clad, a few Europeans and Parsis well suited, cattle on the street, even in Churchgate, steam engines rolling out of the stations, to an era when sepia toned photos were popular. It was soon to become the home to Bollywood, taking over from Calcutta, to become the place where dreams were made, where heroes and icons were created, where the industry of making films thrived, with another industry hiding behind, the music industry another core of the Hindi film.
In the 30’s film making comprised of a large studio set where things were pretty static. The large mic was hidden behind something, such as a bush in the middle rear just like in a drama stage and the actors tried not to move too much. The first film to feature a song was Alam Ara in 1931. Their eyes and emoting did the trick of conveying a story. Well, the actor also had to sing while the orchestra which took an early cue performed the music out of view of the camera, still depending on the very same mic and connected to the single camera. As the talking actor burst into song, the orchestra picked up and everything was good. The resulting sounds were primitive, but this was what is called the synchronized sound process. The system itself never changed for many decades thereafter, the technique being recording the sound on optic film system on a monaural track. People did want to buy records, though not a lot of it and so a second print was made at the HMV studio in Fort, the following day while the session remained fresh in the minds of the singing actors. Many of the early films were adaptations of stage dramas and the songs followed from stage to cinema.
The biggest problems in this very natural looking process were the camera noise and the ambient manmade such as a train passing by or natural sounds. Unfortunately the scene could not be shot over and over again, because the cost of raw film was very high, as much as a tenth of the film making cost. For a while special blankets and mufflers were used to reduce the camera sound, but a solution had to be found. The process was so traumatic for the filmmakers and soon enough, the art of playback singing started, with the film Dhoop Chhahon in the mid 1930’s. Put simply, it meant that music was recorded separately, sometimes also the speakers voice over for the enacted lines by the actor or by a better sounding dubbing artist.
The intent was to create the audio track on film separately (see this video to understand the
The song by now started getting a standard format with an antra, mukhdas, instrumental interludes and perhaps even an alaap. Soon enough listeners started getting picky, especially as was mentioned in the case of singer actor Ashok Kumar, and the actor’s singing was replaced with the voice of a professional singer. The resulting song, something that remained in the Indian mind for decades, and crossing over into all sections of society, be it a beggar or a hard core Carnatic singer of the south, became the ever famous Bollywood melody.
The level of sophistication increased and the music production team started to become bigger. More people had to get involved and the producer, the director, the music director and the lyricist had to meet and thrash out the details of the so called situation or scene. The MD created a tune which was synced with the lyrics, sometimes, words changed here and there to sit in the tune. The mood, the gender of the song, the singer, the actor, the landscape or landscapes, and the number of songs had to be discussed in advance and the song recording was done well in advance of the film shooting. Why was that required? So that the song was available for playback which the actor mimed as he or she acted out the song, running around trees or cavorting in the rain. As the songs were made ahead of the movie itself, they were sometimes released ahead of the movie with a music release function, and became somewhat of an advance advertisement of the movie itself.
It was in those days that many a great song was recorded. Even with a dull sound, you enjoy it even today and testament to that is the song ‘piya milan ko jana’ by early pioneer singer music director Pankaj Mullick. Or try out ‘Babul Mora’ (see my earlier article on this) by Saigal, not to forget ‘Awaz de kahan he’ (which I wrote about earlier) where Noorjahan and Surendra who sang the song were the actors or ‘So ja raajkumari’ by Saigal. Mullick was one of the first music directors who used western instruments for the Hindi song, though his work was mostly at the Calcutta studios. One of the first Bombay MD’s was a woman named Saraswati Devi working for Bombay Talkies!
I must also tell you that there was music even in the days of silent movies. In those times, while the film ran, music was played in the film theatre live by orchestras, Pankaj Mullick gained public popularity conducting such orchestras and his AIR programs. Raichand Boral and Timir Baran were other popular composer - conductors as New theatres became famous in Calcutta. And it was Mullick who brought in the first of the great singers to the scene, Kundan Lal Saigal from Punjab. Thus Saigal who started with New theatres in Calcutta, and recording in 1933, left his mark to set such a high standard with his mellifluous songs (he even sang two Tamil songs in 1936 for Devadaasa), such as Baabul Mora, Do naina matware, Diya jalaao, Ek bangla bane, So ja rajakumari and so many more. In fact it was the popularity of his songs which created the concept of a film music industry.
As the early 40’s firmly established Saigal as a great singer actor, the music recording scene did not develop very much, but by 1945, the singing scene was seeing changes with the entry of Mukesh and Rafi while the still young actor/singer Saigal was on a downward spiral under the spell of alcohol. As India became independent, Noorjehan left for Pakistan and by then, even greater music creators such as C Ramachandra and SD Burman arrived from Calcutta. Many more singers came to the fore, the Mangeshkars came while Geeta Dutt entrenched herself as a great. The singer was recognized, so also the music director who all became starts independent of the actor, became an independent star, so also the music director, while the poet lyricist got only a mention. The 200 or so people of the orchestra who were playing in the various recordings were largely just staff on daily wages, and were never listed or mentioned, sadly. But there was also an intermediate stage when the movie had the actor’s voices for the song whereas the HMV records carried a professional singer’s voice but as playback and miming became more professional, the actor as singer became a rarity, one which we hardly see, even today.
The average Indian viewer still has to get his money’s worth, he needs the six good songs, the song and dance routines showing off the rain drenched scantily clad, well-endowed heroine or the in the dumps actor singing a sad song and so the singers and the song flourished and continue to do just that.
Let us now get back to sound recording, for we saw that the process of recording separated from filming by the mid 1930’s. The 35 mm film made with the sound had to be synchronizable to the 35 mm film using the right sprocket holes and run through a mechanical mixer or a double projector to make a married release print with sound and film on the same film. The music director of course had to make difficult choices of matching the singer to the song as well as the actor. You could not use the thinner voice of Rafi on a burly deep voiced actor, but at the same it was not possible to get Mukesh to sing a chirpy song for the burly actor. Some singers were adept at miming their voice close to the actor and the mangeshlkar’s were pretty good at that. That was how Mukesh became Raj Kapoor’s and Manoj Kumar’s voice, while Rafi became Shammi Kapoor’s voice.
Bombay in those early 40’s took over the music scene, and was replete also with a lot of foreigners
And thus music got made away from the shooting locales, and recording studio developed. We will soon see that it remained in about five Bombay locations and over years concentrated to just one, in Andheri all due to the busy schedules and the need to have all the professional musicians and technicians available in locations geographically close to each other.
Interestingly the technology that produced some of the greatest Hindi songs was not very sophisticated, due to the decisions the Indian government took. Technicians innovated out of need and did not have computers or advanced instruments and devices which are common place today. But then again, I will only say that the number of good songs coming out these days, even with all that at hand is only a handful. The artiste perhaps does not really strive to stand out, depending instead to take refuge in technology, to punching in difficult bits rather than spend hours perfecting it. You can see it easily when the same artiste tries to sing it on stage and failing. It was a period when the recording was still in mono, not stereo. Though multiple mics were used and multi-channel mixers were available, the mixed track was in monaural sound. Musicians and conductors had to play it by the ear and could never listen to the recording (to decide if a retake) as the recording was on film and the film had to be sent out for developing and return before it could be played back. All this required deep concentration, focus by the full team and detail to attention during and before recording. And as I said before film was very expensive, so was never available for multiple song recordings though MD’s made a couple of insurance copies. Optical film also had the problem of not being able to cover a big dynamic range (could cover only 6000Hz – So I wonder how Saigal really sounded!!) which magnetic tape technology boasted of. Then again editing was difficult with snipping and splicing of film which did not give a wonderful result.
And that was how magnetic tape technology arrived, but here again we saw an issue, for the inch wide tapes were difficult to synchronize to the 35 mm film. But the Indian government which had limited foreign exchange would not easily permit the import, and the permit raj was in place. It was to remain so until Rajiv Gandhi took the reins. Until then electric guitars were hand made in India, mixers and amplifiers were built by radio enthusiasts (we all have done these in school and college!). By the 50’s synchronizable 35mm audio tape with sprocket holes was developed and this became the norm for audio recordings. By 1958, HMV had acquired a transfer machine which could transfer music directly to a record instead of rerecording the song and it was thus the usage ‘from the original soundtrack’ originated. In any case the issues with synchronizing multi-channel magnetic tape to film and back to a record plagued the music industry for a long time, until the 80’s. This was the time when all the music was composed in just four studios namely Film center, Bombay sound, Famous and Mehaboob studios.
They were the first and big recording studios, the ones which made the greatest hits of the 60’s through 80’s. Each had specialists and unique features depending on the technology and skills they possessed, and the end result sometimes showed the studio’s signature.
But the recording was all the same, the musicians and the singer gathered in a room with the many mics and they recorded a few takes live, on multi track magnetic tape. The Nagra machine made much of this possible and replaced sound vans. Slowly it changed as music writing became standardized and track recordings were made separately for voice, rhythm and music. From just one track, sound recording went all the way to as much as 16 tracks by the 70’s. Eventually they were all reduced to one track for the film, though and this created a really bad master as musicians dubbed and overdubbed multiple adders and changes to the master. For example they made a two track audio, then added more sound tracks to it, again reducing to one, again adding more and so on. If you amplify those recordings with today’s digital technology, it would show much of the problems, but so long as it was analog, it was so to say, alright. Some music directors such as RD Burman embraced technology and employed specialists for recording while others left it to the studios.
After the 80’s, as education overseas and import of technology was liberalized, the technology galloped and the whole scene changed, with the recording scene itself changing from a complete sitting of musicians and singer to the ever busy singer recording his or her track in isolation. Punching also became the norm where a bit was taken out and replaced with a better take of just that portion instead of a complete rerecord. By the 1990’s a new Bollywood was born, and lump sum package practices ensured. The music director had a budget but also had access to a lot of technology. The industry became a sound factory and everything started to get synthesized, with lesser and lesser maestros or musicians. The scene was to change, but as I said, we wills tick to the golden era…
There is one other bit of background which is very specific to the period. Did you know that the government (one infamous minister named BV Keskar M for I and B who according to Indira Gandhi retained his post only due to an acute shortage of ministerial talent) decided to curtail and later ban Hindi music (cheap and vulgar – he said, he also banned cricket commentaries and the Harmonium!) at one time, on the AIR due to its supposed negative influence on the population? That was the reason radio Ceylon and Amin Sayani’s Binacca Geet mala rose to fame. I still remember that my most treasured property during early college was the small transistor radio which was duly licensed (we had to pay license fees for owning the radio) and tuned to Radio Ceylon during Wednesdays at 8PM for the BGM which Aminsaab would start with his customary Bhayiyom aur behnom…nothing would take me away from the device close to my ear. Apparently Indian listeners after listening to the English pop Binacca hit parade asked for a Hindi one and thus was born the BGM. Advertising revenue poured in from India and Amin became a star hosting over 54000 radio shows! He explains that the ratings were made after inputs from music shops and a select panel of the film industry in order to arrive at the final listing. AIR had no choice but to counter it and thus came about the Vividbharathi in the late 50’s and their fascinating programs like the Bhule bisre geet and aap ki farmaish programs, thereby going on to popularize one place which we all heard often – Jhumritalaiya!! Curiously the biggest number of requests for any film song addressed to Vividbharati came from Jhumri Telaiya. Many thought it was a hoax, they doubted if such a place existed! But yes, there is such a place, and it is in Jharkhand. The cheap post card and the numerous requests for songs from the listeners there which actually popularized it. The listeners of that lone outpost marveled when their name was announced to the whole world, by none other than the AIR announcer or Amin Sayani. They too became a memory after the 80’s when TV took over from the shortwave radio.
|Today's recording studio|
The 50’s through 80’s introduced us to so many great music directors like Salilda, Hemant Kumar, Naushad, Madan Mohan, Shankar Jaikishan, Lakshmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji, Roshan, SD Burman, RD Burman, OP Nayyar, Khayyam and so on. The list will easily take up a whole page. It also heralded the arrival of the genius maestro Kishore Kumar. The careers of many peaked and waned, sparked and fizzled, depending not only on their music but also their relationships with studios and stars. That was the music which remained in the minds of the people of that South Asian generation, they are the tunes which went beyond the Indian borders, far and wide. That is why you hear a person in Siberia humming Awara Hoon just like the Arab in Yemen, the Burman in Rangoon, a Chinese youngster in Peking and the Turk in Istanbul.
Interestingly even though the first movie Alam Ara was shot with Sync sound, and used a Mitchell camera, the system as we saw soon changed to recording sound separately and remixing with the visual. Actors had to enact the scene again in their mind, within a dubbing studio while talking and in many a case, the real mood was lost. Sometimes, the dubbing artiste was a different person and this made the whole movie less realistic than what the director desired. It took many more decades and only recently has sync sound come back into Indian movies with many other contraptions such as waterproof mics, boom mikes and so on.
In following articles we will focus on music composing and recording, and finally get to the finest composer in my mind, and the most diverse and dynamic at that. In the course of this study I had access to many fine books as pictured. The list under references will provide those interested a detail of various printed resources for their own study. One of the finest books out there is Gregory Booth’s ‘behind the curtain’ and my humble thanks to him for taking me through those hallowed corridors with his fine writing.
Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema - Anna Morcom
Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai's Film Studios - Gregory D. Booth
Hindi Film Song Music beyond Boundaries – Ashok Da Ranade
Sun Mere bandhu re – Sathya Saran
Housefull – Ziya Us Salam (ed)
Global Hollywood – Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti
Bollywood melodies – Ganesh Anatharaman
Bollywood sounds – Jayson Beaster Jones
RD Burman – Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal
The Architecture of sound and music: Soundmarks of Bollywood, a Popular Form and its Emergent Texts - Madhuja Mukherjee
The role of a song in a Hindi film Rajiv Vijayakar
The cinematic soundscape: conceptualizing the use of sound in Indian films - Budhaditya Chattopadhyay
Hindi Filmi Git: On the history of commercial Indian popular music Arnold, Alison E., Ph.D.
The Many Passages of Sound: Indian Talkies in the 1930s Joppan George
Not Really Bollywood – Sanjana P Nayee
Madan mohans orchestra from the linked site