The team behind Khamoshi recalls how Sanjay Bhansali's first film got made

Twenty years ago, a young team came together to make an unusual film about a middle-class family in Goa. At the helm was a first-time director called Sanjay Leela Bhansali whose work inspired the cast and crew to create a feature that may not have been successful when it was released, but resonates even today with the audiences that first saw it and those that are still discovering it. We spoke to several key people involved with Khamoshi, who talked about their experiences during the making of the film, working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and why the film is so dear to their hearts.

Sonal Pandya

The journey of Khamoshi: The Musical (1996) was initiated when Sanjay Leela Bhansali reached out to his sister, Bella Bhansali Segal.

Segal remembered how excited and happy she felt when he talked to her about it. "When Sanjay read the script out to me for the first time, I howled and howled. I really enjoyed myself because it was something so different to edit."

Khamoshi: The Musical gave Segal the chance to work with her brother, but putting together the story of a deaf-mute couple with a musically inclined daughter was challenging for her first feature film. "The scenes in which they are talking in sign language [with] fast motion, the way they talk, their emotions and all that, to keep all that intact was quite tough. It was the first feature film which I edited. I had edited a telefilm before that," said Segal.

She emphasized that the film was ahead of its time. If released today, it would have found a place with the other realistic films currently available to audiences. Segal agreed there were a few problems with the film's pacing, but Bhansali had excelled in his first filmmaking endeavour. "He came from nowhere, so young, and as his first film it was a masterpiece. A bit slow-paced which became inherent and everybody wanted Nana Patekar to talk in the end, which was something so impossible," said Segal.

After Khamoshi: The Musical, Bhansali went on to make many films, some huge successes. But Segal believes one cannot compare them as each film of his is different. She does, however, recall the many memorable 'hilarious fights' the two had during the making of Khamoshi.

"We were editing in Bandra at Mansoor Ali’s house, we had a little fight and I walked off from the editing room. Every time he gets angry, he walks off, so I thought, okay, I’ll give you a taste of your own medicine (laughs). I walked off and when I came back from my walk, he was asking Jabeen [her assistant], 'where the hell is she? Call her.' They were waiting outside the bungalow, inside the compound. The minute he saw me coming out, I said, 'Sanjay, wait', and he quickly hired a rickshaw and ran away home. I guess that was the fun part of making the movie also."

Segal's daughter was born during the making of the film and when the film released, she turned a year old. She juggled the care of her young daughter with the editing of the film. Unlike other directors who watched her make every cut on a film, Bhansali gave Segal a lot of freedom to edit the film as her own. The whole process was very emotional for her as she believed it was a very personal and dear film for all those involved with it. "Khamoshi is a film from where we all grew up and we all became something," she said.

A big reason why Khamoshi: The Musical is still remembered today is because of its enduring music composed by Jatin-Lalit and Remo Fernandes with songs like 'Aaj Main Upar', 'Bahon Ke Darmiyan' and 'Huiya Ho'. Jatin Pandit said the project came to them as Bhansali knew their arranger Babloo Chakraborty very well. "When Sanjay came we knew in an instant that we liked him," he said. "He was very non-filmi and he had a great script and song situations, everything he narrated to us, and we were very comfortable with him."

The music composer was drawn to the fact that Bhansali wasn't a conventional director and gave them a brief to do whatever was the need for the situation.

The Pandits were approached for Khamoshi right after the success of the blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). Another attraction for them was the lyricist on the film, Majrooh Sultanpuri, who paid careful attention to the characters and the language they were speaking. Jatin explained, "They are from Goa; for the song ‘Tell Me O Khuda’, they speak in English and also in Urdu. ‘Tell me’ is English and ‘khuda’ is Urdu. This was his thought process." He also felt they were all bubbling with ideas and everything just clicked. "The rhythm, the quality of recording and even the singers were doing so well. Kavitaji, Alka Yagnik, Kumar Sanu, everybody was good, at the right age, they were at the peak of their careers." 

His brother, Lalit Pandit, knew that though they were working with a debutant filmmaker, there was more to Bhansali. "The very fact that he opted for a person as great as Majrooh, and Jatin-Lalit right after DDLJ, showed that he was very keen to have the best music in the film. That’s a very great achievement for a director to take music up to that level," he said.

Bhansali constantly pushed the composers to come up with something different. Lalit remembered, "For a song like ‘Jaana sunno hum tum par marte hain’, he told me to make a mukhda which was never thought of before. Just have a long mukhda, he said. And if you hear the song, the mukhda has got 14 lines. The song would start right from the lower note. Slowly the orchestra grows, then it goes very high with the full orchestra, brass and everything. I had never done anything like that before and I’ve never done anything like that since."

Initially, Lalit thought singer Udit Narayan would not be able to pull off singing that softly in the beginning. But listen to the song today, and it appears that Narayan is singing almost effortlessly.

Lalit Pandit lauded Bhansali for his passion for music and keeping them to their task of just creating music. "Sanjay managed everything for us," he said. "He talked to the producers that he needed a bigger budget and that Jatin-Lalit shouldn’t be disturbed about the budget at all and I require this." 

Lalit also praised Majrooh, the lyricist who gave such young lyrics to the film at 77. He recalled that both Anand Bakshi and Yash Chopra were singing the praises of the lyrics long after the film released, especially for the line, 'Aaj main upar aasmaan niche, aaj main aage zamaana hai piche'. 

"When we compose music, the director has already worked on his subject for one and a half, two years and has a pre-conceived notion what he is looking for in the music. So it’s the director who is asking for the music and we have to deliver according to what he has visualised. The music of Khamoshi is a lot like what Sanjay Bhansali had conceived."

Salman Khan and Manisha Koirala in Khamoshi: The Musical

Segal's assistant on the film, Jabeen Merchant, went on to edit films like Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), The President Is Coming (2009), and NH10 (2015). She knew both Segal and Bhansali from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where they were her seniors. Her friends were already direction assistants on the film and told her of the opening for assistant editor under Segal.

She recalled how excited they all were at the beginning of the film. "For all of us, it was special because we didn’t know what would happen to the film eventually, whether it would be a success or whatever. This was the beginning of something. We were on something that meant a lot."

Despite all the excitement, everyone was conscious that the film wasn’t being made on a very big budget. Merchant said, "You had to make do with whatever resources production was offering. But Sanjay, right from then, has been this guy who felt that if something was needed for his film, he wanted to do everything in his power to make that happen. He has always been that way, a stickler for getting what he thinks the film needs on screen."

Eventually, for one ten-day schedule in Goa, Merchant was promoted from assistant editor to a direction assistant when there was a shortage of assistants. There she found out just how much of a stickler for perfection Bhansali was.

"It was a lighthouse set and there is this lovely song where you see the entire exterior, and I remember Sanjay asked the production for 20 metres of red satin because he wanted to make this waving flag on top of the lighthouse, you know, to blow in the breeze... in the wind, and these people only brought 10 metres (laughs) because they said it was too expensive." 

Merchant's experiences on set were positive as both Bhansali and Anil Mehta, the cinematographer, involved everyone during production. "It was my first experience on a big feature film and they allowed me to make mistakes," she recalled. "They taught me so much. It was just so lovely to participate in that whole thing and I really got that feeling, ke yeh hamari film hai, we’re all in it together."

Unfortunately, the film did not do very well when it was released. Merchant described the scenario at the time, "It didn’t do well commercially and this was a time before social media, before the internet, before smartphones, before anything. You just had promos that came on TV. That is all you had. Even TV channels were limited. It was a very different time, 20 years ago, the whole world was different. So the means of doing publicity and all was very different."

Despite its A-list cast and look, the subject failed to attract audiences initially. But, as Merchant says, "sometimes you know when there’s a good film, at that time, even if it’s not a big hit, it has a very long life afterwards. So I would look at Khamoshi like that."

The film's cinematographer, Anil Mehta, was also an FTII graduate who was a couple of years senior to both Segal and Bhansali. After working with Ketan Mehta on Holi (1984) as a student and Mirch Masala (1987) afterwards, Mehta was assisting Barun Mukherjee in advertising. Suddenly, one day, his neighbour from the same apartment complex, SLB, gave him the script of Khamoshi under a tree saying, “Read it. I have a producer.” 

Mehta recalled, "He came with this mad idea of making a feature film. I don’t know what went on in my head, but in those early years, it was also about being able to pay your bills and just being on this side of the edge. So at that point in time, it didn’t take me very long. I read the script in the evening and next morning, I said, 'Let’s do it!'. Whatever it entails." 

Seema Biswas and Nana Patekar in Khamoshi: The Musical

Khamoshi was Mehta's first feature film as cinematographer. Before Mehta came on board, Bhansali did the hard work of finding a producer to fund the film. "I know he has stood outside vanity vans for hours trying to get an actor to meet him. A guy like Salman Khan is not approachable like that and in Khamoshi, who does he have, he has Nana Patekar, Manisha Koirala, Salman Khan, Seema Biswas. I’m taking these names of people who are not easy to approach with just a script at that point in time. He got the cast together, got them to agree, then found a producer and persuaded them to make a film with a first-time director. It was a huge thing in that time." 

Finding the house that would become the Braganza home in Goa also took great effort. The team, along with production designer Nitin Desai, travelled from Palolem to Colva all the way to Terekhol, looking at houses all along the coast. Eventually, the perfect house was located at Morjim beach. But as the scenes were mostly indoors, the difficult decision was taken to build a whole new house on location.

Mehta explained why that was important, "In a first film, to push for all these things and to fight these battles, and set up and literally build a house which is a set, on a location, and do 30 days of work, inside a house (laughs). Just by physically being there, the inside, outside, talking to each other, the landscape, informing the blocking of the scenes. All that then makes the difference."

After the release of the film, Mehta said, Bhansali faced a backlash. "There is a tendency within the industry to write you off very early. I was told you’ve shot the film in black and white and I think Sanjay was told you have made a documentary."

But Bhansali came back stronger with his next film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), which, Mehta believes, was his film "on the rebound". Still, Mehta said, Khamoshi has a way of staying in people's minds. "Even today, when people ask me, name your favourite film and all, chances are I’ll go back to Khamoshi. Because that first film is special, the struggle to make it is much deeper, and it stays with you for the longest time ever. The fact is, Khamoshi was a very sensitively made film. And we were lucky that we got away with it."