Why were messengers almost as important for Bollywood song recordings as composers? What did a song violinist do? Why were so many Hindi film session players from the Goan Catholic community?
These are just some of the questions answered in ‘Behind The Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios’, a new book by American musicologist Gregory Booth that charts the evolution of the Hindi film music industry from the 1930s and tells the stories of the folks who brought the scores alive.
“I wanted to know who was playing all this music, how the songs were being produced, how decisions were being made,” said Booth, who teaches ethnomusicology at the University of Auckland.
Technology—or the lack of it—forced Hindi film musicians to acquire high levels of proficiency, said Booth. Because Bollywood was quite slow to adopt the methods used in music studios in other parts of the world, dozens of musicians had to perform the entire tune together perfectly before each track could be canned. “All those songs was everybody sitting together—one take,” said Booth. “Long after single-take was gone in the West. It’s remarkably complex music.
The soloist would sit there, wait for the first few ‘antaras’ and just go in cold (and) nail it. If they didn’t, everybody went back and started again. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.”
Booth offers a detailed chronological description of the various sound technologies used in the Hindi film industry, but the heart and soul of ‘Behind the Curtain’ considers how these developments affected the lives of the musicians. Through interviews with nearly a hundred musicians, music directors, arrangers and sound engineers, Booth’s oral history of the industry marks out three distinct phases.
During the studio period from 1935 to 1950, session players were salaried employees of the studio and enjoyed stable incomes. The Old Bollywood period found musicians working as freelancers, but as they told Booth, till the 1980s, there was more than enough work for them to be busy all day and sometimes even all night, doing multiple shifts with different music directors. But the large film orchestras that characterized the sound of Old Bollywood, came to an end in 1998, after Laxmikant of the music director duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal died. Now, synthesizers are used to create the sound of any instrument—or a whole orchestra.
‘Behind the Curtain’ does more than cheer the vital contributions of the unsung heroes on the floors of the recording studios. It also unveils the cultural and industrial idiosyncrasies of the Hindi film music world. For instance, even though music directors decided which and how many musicians to hire for a recording, it was the film producers who paid them under the Old Bollywood system. Booth likens this to a factory where the customers paid the workers.
Wood flashback: A Hindi film music rehearsal in progress; (below) author Gregory Booth
He also offers insights into how scores were composed, and the rationale behind the use of various instruments. Music directors had devised a tried-and-tested formula, musicians told Booth—the poignant strains of the sitar for sad scenes, the vibrant sounds of the santoor for happy moments and boisterous brass instruments for images of Westernized debauchery and moral turpitude. As to why so many musicians were Goan or Parsi, they were the ones who typically knew how to read music and were, therefore, more adept at arranging or playing the parts for the orchestra’s various sections.
Messengers and song violinists were other unique features of the Old Bollywood system. The former performed the role of mobile phones: They informed musicians of rehearsals and recordings and so could crucially affect their careers. The latter never appeared on the final recording but were an integral bridge between the musicians and the singer. The song violinist would accompany the vocalist into the recording booth, helping him or her maintain the same tempo and pitch as the backing musicians.
The introduction of multi-tracking and music programming software and, of course, mobile phones removed the need for song violinists and messengers. Most significantly, they did away with the need for musicians to record together in the same room. Hundreds of musicians were thrown out of work.
Booth said he had little interest in the post-1998 situation. “Nowadays, a studio in Lokhandwala is just like a studio in New York,” he said. “There’s no difference in terms of the process or the technology. It’s not this particular thing that happened only in India and only in that particular period.”
‘Behind The Curtain’, Oxford University Press, $24.95 (Rs1,155).