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Hindi cinema, and the sounds of progress

After liberalization in 1991, Hindi films have moved closer to Hollywood in technical aspects. But not all of the change has been for the better.

Keyur Seta

Liberalisation has had a big hand in what our films sound like today. Hitendra Ghosh, who has worked in sound design for 40 years, witnessed this change firsthand. “Dolby arrived in India in the 1990s,” Ghosh recalled. “This was followed by Surround Sound, which added another dimension. Now, the latest is Dolby Atmos, which enables us to add sound overhead. There are speakers all over the cinema hall.”

Explaining the changes, Ghosh said directors have a lot more choice now how they want their film to sound. “Sound has become an important aspect. Earlier it was all about visuals. Hardly anyone would comment on the sound,” he said.

How Indian cinema went global after liberalization

As a result, Hindi films today are closer to Hollywood films in the technical aspects. “Earlier, there was a particular speciality in our sound,” Ghosh said. “Now we are more inclined towards Hollywood.” Audiences are only too happy to get a richer experience, and it works for filmmakers as well.

Hitendra Ghosh
Hitendra Ghosh

As one who has worked in the sound department before and after 1991, Shekhar Sartandel, director of Ekk Albela (2016), said, “After liberalization, digital technology spread rapidly in India. In 1995, through Star Wars the world came to know that cinema of this level could be shot using a digital camera. Kamal Haasan and Manisha Koirala’s Mumbai Express and Boman Irani’s Let’s Talk were among the early films made using primitive digital technology.”

Technical advances usually affect the time taken to finish a particular task and sound design has been no different. Sartandel said newer technology has cut down the time required to complete a film. “It used to take up to three-and-a-half months to complete the sound process,” he said. “Today it takes a month-and-a-half at best. This is like a miracle.”

Miracles, however, can be expensive. Ghosh said the technical advances have failed to bring down production costs. “If anything, the cost of equipment has gone up,” he said. “You need more money today to set up a studio. On the other hand, producers are making budgets smaller. They have money for stars, but not for production.”

The story changes
While the impact of liberalization on the technical aspects of filmmaking is rather apparent, the climate fostered by it has also had an impact on content. “From the mid-1990s, our stories started to change,” Sartandel said. “People started experimenting. The number of small-budget filmmakers increased. As they didn’t have big budgets, they roped in new talent. And audiences accepted them.

“For example, Hyderabad Blues was made at a mere Rs18 lakh on a 16mm camera. It was a gareeb [poor] medium. People from Mumbai knew nobody from the cast. But the subject was accepted. At the same time, A-list films also got their due.”

When liberalization changed film production and distribution in India

While access to the latest technology helped produce better-trained talent, it made the possibility of talent drain a bigger reality as the need for capable talent is felt not just in India. Indian technicians began to get better opportunities abroad.

But not all leave. “I thought Resul [Pookutty, Oscar winner] would move to the West,” said Ghosh. “He was offered many films after winning the Oscar [for Best Sound Mixing for Slumdog Millionare]. But he prefers to work in India. I think he is more satisfied working in India than just earning more money there. He is aware of Indian films and knows how to design them. There are a few others who have got a chance to work abroad. But they also did one or two projects and returned.”

Another incidental benefit from the development of technology was the ease in research. Citing an anecdote relating to the legendary actor Dilip Kumar, Sartandel said, “To study a Hollywood film in his younger days, Dilip saheb saw it 21 times in Regal [theatre in Colaba]. He wanted to learn the style of reciting dialogues softly, an act neither practised nor familiar in our films. Today if I wish to study a film, I can easily watch it five times at a go if I have it on a pen drive.”

Song-and-dance sequences have been integral to Hindi cinema, and digital technology changed the method of composing and arranging music. Composer Madhav Ajgaonkar, who began his career in the pre-liberalization era, spoke of how the use of spools ended after 1991. “We had limited tracks on spools; either 8, 16 or maximum of 24,” he recalled. “With the advent of computers, which had unlimited tracks, we could add a track using just a right click!
“We had to keep the budget in mind earlier. Today, we can go to automation mode during mixing. Earlier, we used those white-coloured pencils to mark on the mixer. For example, we had to mark manually during first music, first stanza and so on. So, mixing and recording became much easier with technological advancement.”

The other side
With the surfeit of technical blessings, liberalization also brought in some drawbacks that were hard for seasoned professionals to accept, chief being diminishing respect. “Earlier, we had to complete a film in one go,” said veteran sound designer Ghosh. “So big directors used to depend on me. Now I can stop and start anywhere, and anybody can do the job. So, technicians aren’t respected much. When I used to work on Raj Kapoor’s films, he used to sit in attention for hours. Today people are relaxed as they know you can go back if you commit a mistake.”

Tech improvement after 1991 was no illusion

Ghosh also pointed out that filmmakers today insist on making every sound heard even if it is not necessary, simply because it can be done. “For example, if a person enters the frame, they want his footsteps to be heard even if it is not necessary. This doesn’t happen in foreign films. They add sound only if it’s necessary. But we are in the early days of such technology, so we want to use it fully.”

Ghosh recalled the time he was working on a romantic film when Surround Sound had just been introduced. “The director asked, ‘Where is the Surround Sound?’ I said there was no need for it. But he said, ‘I am paying you for the Surround Sound so you should put something.’ Unnecessarily I had to put sound at the back, left and right.”

One prevailing problem that has got exacerbated is piracy. Sartandel said, “In the last few months, the trend of a film getting leaked before its release has started. Films have become freely available to anyone. People are able to see a film by pausing it any number of times. So the impact of watching it in a theatre has reduced.”

Composer Ajgaonkar also blames computers for musicians losing their jobs. “We lost out on very good musicians because the computer took away their bread and butter,” he said. “One of the biggest negative aspects is that many incompetent people entered the field. Now we get ready-made loops on computers. So, arrangement basically involves making those loops. Earlier, how the instruments were to be played was planned. Now they are available ready-made. So, I don’t need to be a good arranger. I just have to pick and choose from the loops that are available and mix and match them.”

Madhav Ajgaonkar

The advent of latest technology has turned music arrangers into music programmers, Ajgaonkar said. “Arrangement was more about live instruments; more about talking with people and getting their inputs. Before 1991, everybody used to record together. There was a lot of creative give-and-take. Now, the flautist will play his part, but he won’t know whether it is a romantic or a tragic song. There is no feeling. That’s why we feel the old songs were special. It was because of collective thought. That’s why earlier we had huge studios but they have come down to just one computer and a table. Music arrangement has lost its credibility; it has become music programming.”

Needless to say, creativity has gone down. “Musicians have become lethargic. Earlier, if they had to play a piece fast, they used to literally play it fast,” Ajgaonkar said. “Today people ask me to record in slow tempo and make it fast on computer. Earlier, if a particular music appeared twice, it had to be played twice. Now we cut and paste.”

All this, he believes, has lowered the standard of music. “You hear electronic sounds,” he said. “The magic of live music has gone. Substandard musicians have come in. The same goes for singers. They come to me for tuning. Some are big singers whom I won’t name. They know there is something called auto-tune. With it, you can even make a donkey sing.”