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90 years of Sound: Veteran Hitendra Ghosh on the journey from silence to the smart use of silence

Ghosh, sound recordist, mixer and designer in Hindi cinema since the 1970s, talks about how the process of adding sound to a movie has changed and why he now sometimes finds the emotion and thrill missing.

Sound designer Hitendra Ghosh in his studio

Keyur Seta

We have heard of legendary film stars and filmmakers, but legendary is not a term normally employed to describe someone who works in the background. That is probably because the public, even today, after so many making-of videos, remains mostly unaware of the hard work that goes into the making of a film off-camera, in the phases known in the industry as pre- and post-production.

As far as post-production is concerned, one name that has become legendary in the Hindi film industry is that of National award-winning sound recordist Hitendra Ghosh who, it is estimated, has 'done' the sound for as many as 3,500 films since the 1970s. As he himself told Cinestaan.com, “In the 1970s and 1980s, there wasn’t a single [Hindi] film that wasn’t done by me.”

Given the importance of a background score and dialogues today in creating the desired effect in a feature film, it is near impossible for a cine-goer to imagine that there was a time when films had no sound, when cinema was simply a visual medium. It was with the release of Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara in March 1931 that Indian cinema finally became an audio-visual medium.

On the completion of 90 years of the introduction of sound in Indian cinema, Ghosh spoke to Cinestaan.com about the art of sound designing and how it has evolved over the decades, changing the content and context of cinema. Excerpts:

How important is sound designing in a film?

It can’t be very, very important. The audience is actually watching the visual. Hearing is a part of the knowledge you are giving the audience. Generally when I see this TV [kept in front of him], light and other things, the visual, is giving me 80% of the information. Sound is only 18 to 20%. The brain is active 80% through the visuals, 18% through sound, and maybe 2% through the other senses.

Master Vithal and Zubeida in a still from Alam Ara (1931)

In cinema, this is a natural ratio that should be maintained. My sound can’t overlap and be so important that I am not able to 'see' the film. There are times when the sound is very loud and you are unnecessarily distracting the audience. People will like what’s happening in the film if you maintain that ratio. If you don’t, people will come out and say kya bakwaas film hai [what a terrible movie].

If a person comes and tells me your sound mixing was very good, it is not a compliment. It means I have failed. He has noticed my work, which he should not. Satyajit Ray was the first person to tell me, “I want to hear the music but not hear the music.” It means I should get involved in the film without realizing there was music in it. The music should come and go in such a way that you don’t even notice it. The background music should emphasize the film and scene without the viewer realizing there was music.

How has sound design changed over the years?

Sound came into films [in India] through Alam Ara. Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, they wanted to add music to it. I once saw an old photograph of a song being shot near a river or pond. It was from a film shot just after Alam Ara. They had just one mic. The mic was closer to the heroine who was also a singer. The violinists are on a tree and the same mic was used for them. There was no place for the tabla players. So they were standing in the pond and playing the tablas tied to their bodies.

At that time, the filmmakers said it was okay to shoot this way outside, but for indoor shoots they [the musicians] would be seen. Then they started recording with multiple tracks. For that, they needed a sound mixer, so they bought one. That mixer could mix the sounds of six microphones. But after recording the songs, they wondered how to picturize them.

Hitendra Ghosh receiving the National award for the film Game (2011) from vice-president Hamid Ansari

So they came up with the idea to 'play back' the songs and have the actors lip-synch to them. All actors weren’t singers. There were very few heroes and heroines who were actually singers. That’s how the concept of playback arrived.

Similarly, there have been so many stages [of sound designing]. From the 1980s to 2000, there were a lot of changes as people started concentrating on the quality of sound. Dolby sound was introduced outside [the country] in 1986 or 1987. In India I was the first to bring that.

There is an exhibition of equipment by the NAB [National Association of Braodcasters], which happens in Las Vegas [in Nevada, United States]. I went there in 1996 and spoke to the famous sound designer Rupert Neve [who died on 12 February 2021]. He made the world-famous Neve mixers.

In the silent era, filmmakers used to make films without sound. But after sound came, first through Alam Ara, how challenging was it for them to suddenly start making films with dialogues and other sounds?

For the first few years, there was no problem. They started realizing that now they can make out what the actors are saying instead of merely imagining. Earlier, I could think something [about a scene] and you could think something else. The shooting style and everything remained the same.

They felt the change when they started putting in songs. Even the storytelling used to be done through songs. Then, [until] the 1960s and 1970s, there was not much change. 

How did you adapt to the various technological changes in sound over the decades?

I have learnt everything from my assistants. I started with my own knowledge, which was from the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India, Pune]. They had the latest equipment. When I passed out from there, I didn’t have problems because the industry was also using the same equipment. We worked with optical [media]. But after five years magnetic [media] came and I didn’t know anything [about it].

Hitendra Ghosh receiving a Lifetime Achievement award from Sonu Nigam at the Indian Recording Arts Academy (IRAA) Awards in 2019

But people who passed out from [FTII] then were aware of it. So I took them as my assistants and learnt from them. At every step my knowledge has come from my assistants. Then I would use my creativity.

First it was optical recording. Later, they started mixing with many mics and recording on magnetic tape. Then they also started doing the mixing on magnetic tape.

Right now, I am doing the sound for a web-series, which is totally different. I am going to mix it, but when it comes to the technical know-how, I will learn from my assistants. That’s how I have to update myself. I learn from them and then I will tell them to do this or that (laughs).

I was doing [the mixing of] Preity Zinta’s Dil Hai Tumhara (2002). She had visited the studio and was sitting at the front. After the first reel, she turned her chair towards me. I said, “Ma'am, the screen is that way.” She said, “No, I want to see what kind of fingers you have.”

But that excitement is not there now. If I make a mistake, I just go back [and rectify it]. The work might be 100% better, but there is a lack of my emotions, which I am now realizing, the kind of emotions I went through while doing it at one go, I don’t get that now. Now we go back and forth 100 or 200 times after the director or editor asks us to change some sound. We have become like operators. But in the 1980s and 1990s, they had to totally depend on me.

What are your thoughts on the changes in the use of background score over the decades?

Earlier they used to get uneasy thinking whether a scene will grip the audience. They thought music can help. For example, in horror films you need background music. If you have silence, it may not work. Suppose there is a scene that doesn’t have much hold. The director feels uneasy thinking it’s not holding. So they put in music. Also it helps the scene move faster.

Now the concept of background score is different. Our attitudes are changing. The background music is becoming lesser. That is how our sound designers are working. Suppose two people are talking and the scene is boring. They will put some noise from outside. Or the sound of the TV. But you have to use TV in such a way that it does not distract [the audience]. Suppose you show news on TV, the audience will automatically be drawn to the news.

A still from Agneepath

There was a period when there were hardly any changes [in the way a background score was created and used] — in the 1980s and 1990s. Changes started coming in from 2005 onwards. During this period, they also thought about the importance of silence, which wasn’t there earlier at all. Nobody thought there could be a scene without any sound.

Then Dolby came along with surround sound. The producer is paying for it. So they will ask us to add surround sound even in scenes where it is not needed. 

There are times when I lower the background score when there is a dialogue. But so many times the director says let the sound volume be high. He will say this dialogue isn’t important. The character may be saying let’s meet at 6 pm, which is important for the audience to know. But he will say that’s understood. The director has seen the film 100 times, so he knows what the character said. But the audience will be seeing it for the first time!

After working with so many filmmakers, who in your opinion understands sound designing a lot?

Two Bengali filmmakers, Tarun Majumder and Ritwik Ghatak, were very knowledgeable about sound. Ghatak used to think like a sound designer. In his film Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the wife gets the shock of her life. She is going down the steps and thinking what all had happened. But instead of putting dialogues from the earlier scene that are haunting her, he put the hunter [whiplash] sound! Like somebody is hitting her with a whip. Such ideas are very rare from a director.

Among Hindi directors, I found Mukul Anand very interested in sound. When I was doing the sound of his Agneepath (1990), there were so many suggestions from him.

If you ask me whom I liked to work with the most, I would say Subhash Ghai. He decides at the last minute what he wants. So that becomes more interesting and challenging for me.

At that time, we didn’t have such machines with automation. I had to do the whole reel in one go. I couldn't make a mistake and stop anywhere. I was doing his film Meri Jung (1985) in which Amrish Puri gets down from a car. Only his foot can be seen. There was a bang sound in the background.

But while Amrish Puri’s car was approaching, Subhashji told me, “Woh jab utarta hai na, tab kauwa daal de [When he alights, add the cawing of a crow]." I was like, “From where do I get a crow sound now, the scene is about to come!” So all that was very challenging. And you have to do it without mistakes because the whole reel cannot be done again. So I used to behave like a ringmaster in a circus."