Behind the Curtain:
Making music in Mumbai’s film studios
by Gregory D Booth
Oxford University Press, 2009
If the high technology that governed the making of A R Rahman’s Oscar-winning “Jai-Ho” in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is taken to be the tipping point of Indian music, the “Mozart of Madras” (as Time magazine referred to him) has put an end to what can be thought of as the arcadia of Indian music. Rahman has been ushering in a radical change in the sound and production process of film music right from his first film, Roja, in 1993. By utilising digital files, Rahman freed himself from the need to write out parts for oboes and other musical instruments; from having to schedule rehearsals and recordings; and from the expense of hiring orchestral musicians. In so doing, he might also have put a final end to the traditional studio system. Though digital musicians were already used in Bollywood before the advent of the ‘magical technician’, Rahman was the first to garner widespread critical and commercial acclaim for doing so. In this sense, as Gregory Booth puts it in this new work, Rahman’s “use of that technology no doubt added momentum to the impetus for innovation, as those who saw him as either competition or a role model sought to imitate his success.”
A telling story is that of Shankar Indorkar, an oboe player belonging to the old-world music school of R D Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal (the legendary duo of Laxmikant Shantaram Kudalkar and Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma). At one point, Indorkar came to Rahman to get his playing sampled; Rahman asked him to play for about a half-hour, and kept the recorder on the entire time. At the end of the session, Indorkar was asked to pack up, never to be called again – Rahman now had him on his sampler, forever. Furthermore, a sampled oboe sound can play in ranges and at speeds that human players cannot. Booth, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland, considers Rahman’s use of technology to be a crucial point in the evolution of Bollywood film music. In this case, new technology means less employment; but in a larger sense, Booth suggests that it has also helped Bollywood film music to ‘arrive’. This is to say that, with greater access to Western musical instruments and technology – also keeping in mind the globalisation of Bollywood and the existence of a significant Indian diaspora – there is a larger audience for its music.
Heavily researched and much of it an oral history, Behind the Curtain offers a comprehensive account of the Bollywood film music industry from the late 1940s to the mid-1990s, the period before the advent of digital recording technologies. The central merit of the book is epitomised by the story of Anthony Gonsalves, one of the three fictional brothers in the 1977 film Amar Akbar Anthony, directed by Manmohan Desai. Anthony was played by Amitabh Bachchan, who bursts forth from a huge Easter egg at a Goan celebration, dressed in a caricature of Goan formal dress and sporting an absurdly large top hat and tails. In one of the comic scenes, Anthony sings “My name is Anthony Gonsalves”, a song composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with lyrics by Anand Bakshi.
Contrary to the onscreen situation, Booth laments, nobody outside the Bombay film-music industry today knows the real Anthony Gonsalves. The flesh-and-blood man was trained in European classical music and worked in the film-music industry from 1943 until 1965 as an arranger, in addition to doing composition work for Shyam Sunder, S D Burman and Madan Mohan. The real-life Gonsalves taught many musicians to play the violin, to read European staff notation, and to understand the intricacies of European music theory and harmony. But he nonetheless remained invisible outside the film-music business, just one example of the many foot-soldiers of the Bollywood film-music industry who remained outside the strobe lights of recognition. Gonsalves thus provides the pivot for Booth’s work, in that the author painstakingly uses, as the title suggests, the narratives of these formerly unheard voices to trace the history of the industry.
To write this oral history, Booth spoke with composers, playback singers, arrangers, assistants, sound recordists, messengers, recording engineers, producers and music directors – almost everybody who matters in Bombay’s film-music industry. The stories he has managed to record are endlessly engaging. The manner in which Bombay evolved as a major musical hub – bypassing Calcutta, for one – is riveting. At the turn of the century, Calcutta was the only city in competition with Bombay to become the dominant producer of Hindi films. The shift to Bombay happened after 1931, when the capital of British India moved to New Delhi from Calcutta. By 1936, when playback became the dominant song-production model, of the 120 films produced in Bombay and Calcutta, 72 percent were made in the former. Just ten years later, however, Bombay was producing 98 percent of all Hindi films. The city’s grip over Hindi films has continued through the decades.
The book categorises the history of Bollywood film music into three basic segments: There is the Studio period (1935-50), Old Bollywood (1950-98) and New Bollywood (1998 onwards). The evolution of the film-music industry from Booth’s first era to his second is an interesting one. During the former, larger studios employed musicians and composers as salaried staff. By the 1940s, however, the Hindi film industry had been racked by the after-effects of the Great Depression, the Bengal Famine, World War II and, finally, Partition. As the industry recovered and the Old Bollywood period began, clear shifts in thinking were evident: there was the rise of the independent producer as well as freelance musicians and composers. At its core, it was the new funding model that distinguished the styles of Old Bollywood – in effect, a transition from salaried security to freelance entrepreneurship. But that was not all. In essence, Booth writes, Old Bollywood is characterised by “an independent-producer industrial system and by a series of technical processes that ultimately required the synchronised recording of sounds and images onto a single strip of celluloid film.” These two processes dominated film production from the late 1940s until the late 1990s.
Technology is also important in understanding the evolution of the Bombay film music. For instance, during the 1940s and early 1950s, single-track optical film ruled; in the mid-1950s, studios became able to accommodate greater number of microphones, with the advent of the magnetic tape and multi-track tapes. But when young, increasingly sophisticated filmmakers and technicians finally introduced digital sound and filmmaking techniques (and computers became widely available), the old musical life of Bollywood effectively collapsed. This New Bollywood was marked by various features of digital technology such as multi-screen theatres, computer-based composing, the increasing economic power of the Indian diaspora, and the globalising of music television.
Ignoring the present, Booth dwells on the long period of film-music history that was “quite small, tightly knit, and remarkably collegial”, but has now passed away. Tales of how the musicians tried to overcome technological lag through constant improvising gives one a sense of their struggle and perseverance. For instance, problems cropped up when, during the mid-1970s, attempts were made to record in six-track stereo (then a cutting-edge technology) for the film Sholay. This was to be the path-breaking, iconic Bollywood movie to be filmed on 70 mm (instead of the usual 35 mm) film. As there were no editing facilities in India that could accommodate 70 mm film at the time, all the background music was recorded separately and compiled in a London studio.
Another chapter draws on the perspectives of musicians towards the film studios, offering interesting insights into the manner in which foreign musical styles became a staple of Hindi film music. For instance, during the 1930s, Calcutta had a vibrant Western-influenced music culture, with a functioning symphony orchestra and many amateur and professional foreign musicians living there – though the use of Western-style orchestras in Hindi films began only after World War II. Interestingly, at that time, the music industry was heavily dependent on Goan musicians, many of whom were trained in European classical music “as a result of family and class”.
The use of Western instruments became so popular that, according to Anthony Gonsalves, many music directors “wanted our Hindustani music, but sounding like symphonies”. Gonsalves also suggests that the use of modern brass (trumpets and trombones) had come to mean both Western-ness and villainy in Bombay. Orchestral music did not, however, cause a decline in traditional Indian music. Instead, the Hindi film-music industry fused these strands to create an eclectic, unique sound. In the end, the West was not the only influence on Hindi film music, with Egyptian and Lebanese composers such as Mohamed Abdel al-Wahab and the Rabbani brothers also greatly influencing the genre. Today’s composers, meanwhile, are open to everything, from Western symphonies to Arabic and Turkish melodies to rap.
The comprehensive coverage of Bollywood offered in Behind the Curtain makes it a useful volume, and the achievement is especially impressive given how notoriously difficult it is to research the field. This is due to India’s officially ‘negative’ mid-century position on film music, evidenced, for example, in the 1952 ban on the broadcast of film songs by the all-powerful state-owned All India Radio. The export of films was itself a government-controlled activity until 1992. Despite the “sheer gigantomania of India’s film factories” – close to 70,000 commercial Hindi films and roughly half a million songs produced in the more than half-century the industry has existed – there has been little documentation of the industry and still less its music.
Yet songs have always constituted a major part of Hindi films. India’s enduring love affair with the film song started right with the industry’s inception. The first recordings of songs for a film (Madhuri), sung by actor/singer Vinayakrao Parbardhan, was released in 1933, and “the popular music recordings was the cinema” thereafter. While in Hollywood films recorded popular songs had largely disappeared by the early 1930s, music nonetheless became integrated into the film’s overall formal design via a symphonic score. Meanwhile, though the Hindi film adopted stylistic features and content from Western symphonic soundtracks, it was song – not the symphonic score – that was integrated into the formal design of Bombay productions.
Today, few can imagine a Hindi film without songs, and the first Hindi film ever made without songs or dances – K A Abbas’s Munna (1954) – failed at the domestic box office, despite experiencing international success. Another notable songless film was B R Chopra’s Kanoon (1960), with brilliant background music by Salil Chaudhuri. But as writer Anna Morcom has written elsewhere, this film was not “commercially successful”; while the similar Ittefaq (1969), by Yash Chopra, was “limited in appeal”. “Apart from the so-called ‘art’ films,” Morcom has written, “there have been no more than a handful of song-less films in India.”
In terms of Booth’s massive access to those working in the Hindi film industry, Behind the Curtain is truly an insider’s work on film music, valuable for students and researchers of cultural and film studies, sociology and history as well as the eclectic world of Bollywood. This reviewer’s only grouse is the book’s heavy academic tone. This has to do with Booth’s intellectual temperament, of course, as he excoriates Hindi film music for being “intensely hegemonic, obvious and blatantly commercial”, a field which was initially “fascinated by the exotic, the endangered, and the authentic”. In many ways, the work is what the author claims it to be: a response to the reception of Hindi film music in the West, which has failed to understand the role of Hindi film songs in the popular culture paradigm of India, refusing to go beyond the concept of a Hindi film beyond “six songs and three dances”.
If one compares Booth’s book with, say, Manek Premchand’s Yesterday’s Melodies, Today’s Memories, the difference in treatment is clear. Compared to Premchand’s straightforward approach, helping his readers to treat each musician both historically and thematically, Booth’s book is intermeshed in terms of his offering of a range of commentaries on films, songs, technology, etc. Still, the Bombay film music industry, which takes rightful relish in A R Rahman, was not built in a day, and Behind the Curtain is a thorough odyssey into the history of its tortuous making.