Saturday, April 25, 2015


(delayed instalment, kindly read in conjunction with Seeing Voices of 23.01.2015)

Alam Ara was shot in 1931 with a composite Tanar camera system set up by Wilford Deming Jr of Hollywood , which simultaneously with the shoot, recorded the sound. Shooting had to be done at night, ‘using microphones hidden in incredible places to keep them out of the camera range’ in the absence of booms  ( The first Hollywood talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) was shot using the Vitaphone system: in this case, there were two separate celluloid films prepared for one cinema: the whole one shot in silence as in the past, and talkie sections shot with Vitaphone which recorded sound orthochromatically like Tanar, to be interpolated into the whole film in the editing. The Vitaphone system could not be used uniformly throughout the movie as it led to compromise on picture quality.

As one can imagine, the time for the idea called dubbing had arrived, and nothing, as our friend,  সেই বন্ধু -remarked, is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

There is a small distinction between dubbing and playback. Dubbing is superimposition of dialogue or song on a visual, where as playback involves a visual being displayed with a sound-track in the background (vive la difference ha ha ha…?!). ‘Playback’ took on an altogether different hue in India, becoming reserved for song rather than dialogue. Upto the point of the talkie, Hollywood and Indian Cinema were on the same page, but with the musical playback, the two parted ways.

Dubbing was always a dirty word in the West. First used perhaps in Jazz Singer, to critics and producers, it appeared to be a tissue of deception, marring the sanctity and credibility of the narrative. A contemporary ad in Variety magazine sees Warner Brother declare “ In response to public outcry, Warner Brothers are prohibiting any other voice doubling or substitution…”- ‘just kidding’, they should have added, given the shape of things to come! The practice carried on in Hollywood, with the rider that now the voice-lender had to execute a secret contract that he or she would never bring out the fact to light-for  that would compromise the credibility of the experience. Never were their names to be mentioned in the Credits. One lie was camouflaged with another- and this conspiracy of silence continues to haunt Hollywood to this day. A tragic outcome, lamented about by us on an earlier occasion, was the denial of the Best Actress Oscar to Audrey Hepburn for My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews, being an accomplished singer performed the part of Eliza on the Broadway. However the producer Jack Warner had chosen Hepburn over Andrews for the movie, rightly so, because the she could do justice to Eliza’s elfin personality better. But alas, Audrey in a moment of truthfulness gave the entire credit for the singing to dubbing artiste Marni Nixon (Mother Superior in Sound of Music) and Hollywood felt as if the cat was tactlessly let out of the bag, compromising the holy cow of credibility…Hepburn had merely done what Indian heroines do day-in and day-out with gusto, and Julie Andrews got the Oscar for Mary Poppins brushing aside the unquestionable claim of Hepburn…

On the contrary, Indian Cinema was less mealy-mouthed about the fact of playback. Music in the Indian cine-goer’s mind dominates the story-telling part of Cinema to such an extent, that the narrative in the golden days of musical greats, was thought of as a mere adjunct to the music part- an intrusion, to be indulgently put up with. So strong is the presence of Music in our culture, it looms large over any other art. Talking about the movie vs songs dichotomy, a film is like the almond plum: some communities, like tribals in Chhatisgarh  savour the plum and discard the nut, while some junk the plum, consuming only the nut. The explanation the Chhatisgarhis give for this preference is that the nut is often poisonous, but the plum is always above board. In our analogy this assertion amounts to saying that while the movie is bound to hold some interest, the songs may or may not be good, ha, ha, ha…

In India the touchstone of authenticity operates at another level: chhodo cinematics-  the tune should be based on the lyrics, and not the other way round as was the wont of numerous talented duos like the OP Nayyar- SH Bihari combo-meal, or the despicable Laxmikant-Pyarelal-Anand Bakshi trio. It was sufficient that, if not  actually done, justice  seemed to be done to the movie’s musical score- and only Shailendra and Sahir could sustain that illusion…And tell us frankly: which wing of Cinema can boast of arch perfectionists like Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhosle or Mohd. Rafi- for the Hindi cine-goers, their excellence is utterly compelling, to be taken for granted…. We'd beg pardon comparing disparates: is there an Indian Movie Director about whom it can be said that he or she is the Lata Mangeshkar of Editing-a Cricketer or Footballer for that matter...? Or a painter who's the Pt. BSJ or Lata  or Asha of Indian Painting, or Literature? We'd exclaim Yo...!ahaa! to someone putting Spielberg in her class. So overwhelming and inundating were the artistic and political talents of Lata, that she is credited by many as being the personality who led to the so-called aberration in favour of Music, to the loss of cinematic excellence…something the house does not agree with..hamre liye to saari khudai ek taraf, Lata bai ek taraf..!

But it was not so always…Ayega Anewala, Lata’s first hit song, as also others, did not receive credit in the titles of Mahal - for the fact of dubbing was to be concealed following Hollywood’s philosophy of nursing the illusion. Myrna Layton writes in her book quoting several sources, that when the song debuted on AIR, the radio stations were inundated with hundreds of letters seeking the name of the singer who had rendered the song “so exquisitely’. The broadcaster sought the artiste’s name from the producers of the movie, and by that time the song had become such a craze that the studio had to reveal the name of Latabai… In late Piloo Mody’s words, AIR came to be the fiefdom of two ladies- Indira Gandhi and Lata Mangeshkar! By the way Lata had debuted on the waves in her own name in 1942 at the age of 13 on AIR Sangli, with a choice of natya songs…being heard on radio was no big deal to her…

Even in the West, the dubbing phenomenon had become an un-put-downable putsch or a super buoy that could not be pressed under the waters for long. Contemporaries will recall the Milli Vanilli scandal of 1990. The Grammy for the Best New Artist was withdrawn after Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus of MV were found to be lip-syncing right on stage!  We cannot express the feeling of betrayal Myrna personally encountered when she found that in the same song, (mile sur mera tumhara)  the same voice- Lata’s was regurgitated by many a charming face! There were three beautiful faces on the screen, Waheeda, Hema Malini and Sharmila, and the voice was only one: that of Lata. There is in fact a worse aberration in the annals of Hindi cinema which should leave Myrna disconsolate: one screen character singing in two voices on the screen: yesss that is the song raat bhi hai kuch bheegi-bheegi (Mujhe Jeene Do). The song was tailored for Asha Bhosle by Jaidev, but Lata Mangeshkar found the song so bewitching, that she barged into the studios, throwing her hat into the arena. Jaidev is said to have been a broken man that day, but as no one can say ‘no’ to Latadidi, the song became a joint venture, sung largely by Lata, Asha mouthing a few lines, both voices emanating from the shreemukh of Waheeda Rehman! The episode forms the basis of a poignant scene in Sai Paranjape’s iconic movie Saaz, where the part of a non-plussed Jaidev is enacted by our beloved Bhupen Hazarika! Asha only manages to sing the rum-jhum rum-jhum, though she executes that admirably. Devki Pandit sang for elder sister Mansi, and Kavita Krishnamurty for Bansi. Pt. Suresh Wadkar sang for their father, and now you know why, invariably, he has to preface his references to Latadidi with ‘Maajhi Maa Saraswati’ on the lines of PBOH!

BADAL CHANDI BARASAYE: Bansi is left aghast at sis intoning all lines meant for her. The Music Director is a helpless spectator, who blesses Mansi while Bansi leaves in a huff! 

Such a heavy-weight of a song: two top notch singers for one voice I sayyy...!

Listen to the song and you'll know it's stuff you'd kill for Maan...!
But all said and done, whatever the analysis of wise people, the two sisters have weathered all storms and are very much together, snatching pig-tails now and then, and as of now, have out-lasted any other music khandaan..!
(…concluding instalment, shortly..)

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