A still from Mani Kaul’s ‘Dhrupad’
A still from Mani Kaul’s ‘Dhrupad’

The sounds of Parallel Cinema

  • Music and sound design played a huge part in the alternative Hindi cinema of the 1970s
  • Directors turned to composers like Vijay Raghav Rao, Vanraj Bhatia and Rajat Dholakia for innovative soundscapes

Indian cinema reached modernity in the train scene in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), when two children, Apu and Durga, lost in a field, hear distant rumbling and see, for the first time, a train race through the landscape. It bridged the distance between a village and the big city, between where India cinema was and where it could go.

The New Wave too began with a train sequence. In 1969, Mrinal Sen’s first Hindi film, Bhuvan Shome, began with the camera pointed towards the railtracks as the train moves fast. Keeping pace with the engine’s rhythm is a glorious taan (flurry of notes), accompanied by the tabla, dholak, bongo and other Western percussion instruments, keeping to the train’s beat, as a female voice, singing the basic seven notes at a slower pitch, yet maintaining the tempo, presages what is to follow: railway officer Utpal Dutt’s obduracy meeting the simple village girl Suhasini Mulay’s innocence.

In commercial cinema at that time, songs became what film-maker Sangeeta Datta calls a “decorative extension of the star persona". Background score was often used to heighten emotion. The title music was usually loud, reaching a crescendo when the film’s title—in English, Hindi and Urdu—would appear, and later, loud drums and instrumental music would emphasize plot twists and turns. Documentary-maker and author Nasreen Munni Kabir says: “In the 1970s’ commercial films, even if you did not understand the Hindi or the dialogue, the music itself indicated a comic or tragic situation that was being played out. Loud crying accompanied by the shehnai is one example."

Shyam Benegal, whose Ankur (1974) was one of the harbingers of the New Wave, says: “Although sound came to the cinema more than three decades after its invention, its role was initially seen in the illustrative musical scores that accompanied the visual action—the sound of footsteps, doors opening or closing, and so on. Sound was meant to complement and be equal to the visual in its narrative ability. (Alfred) Hitchcock understood it well, and today most directors take that for granted." He finds the best examples from India in Ray’s work, and, among all Indian composers, Vanraj Bhatia (who composed music for most of Benegal’s more than two dozen films) understands it best, he says.

Bhatia’s contribution to the sounds of the New Wave is critical. Kabir says: “Bhatia brought a different musical mood to the films. His scores were restrained and atmospheric—far more held back than the obviously emotive and melodramatic background scores of popular films."

Bhatia trained in Western classical music at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and later at the Conservatoire de Paris, and understood Indian folk forms. In Benegal’s films, he shows his astonishing repertoire—Gujarati folk in Manthan (1976), Marathi tamasha in Bhumika (1977), and folk music from Uttar Pradesh in Junoon (1978). Film-maker Sudhir Mishra, who co-wrote Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) and Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984), says Bhatia was a de facto co-writer of those films. “His music changes the tone of the film," Mishra says. “He works in conjunction with sound design, adding something, not only emphasizing or underlining, adding another layer to the scene. The music of Mohan Joshi is essentially the sounds of the city. Vanraj began the idea of writing a story through his compositions, which was absent before him."

Mishra’s Dharavi (1992) is among the first films to recognize the role of a sound designer—where the score becomes essential to the architecture of the film. Mishra says: “The film is filled with the ambience of Bollywood film music, (but) there is a clear arc from a man playing ektara, to different Bollywood songs used in ambience, and ending with ektara."

Rajat Dholakia composed the music for Dharavi. His other noteworthy credits include Ketan Mehta’s Holi (1984) and Mirch Masala (1987). For Mumbai-based film-maker and writer Paromita Vohra, Dholakia’s score for Sanjeev Shah’s Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) is outstanding. In that film, she says, songs are “playful and conversational, experimental while retaining the pleasures of popular music". In Dharavi, music becomes a character in the plot. “The soundtrack is integral to the film and it is one of the only instances where the National Award for best music was given to a film which had no songs," Mishra says.

Indeed, the New Wave films challenged the paradigm that songs were essential. Kabir says that while popular cinema used songs to relieve the heaviness of the plot for the mass audience, new cinema avoided songs because the film-makers “believed songs broke a narrative that aimed to be close to reality," she says. The tradition goes back to Ray. Recall the scene in Pather Panchali when Harihar returns to the village with a sari for his daughter Durga, not knowing she has died. The plaintive wail of tar-shehnai, not dialogue, reveals the profound tragedy that has befallen the family. “The sound fills us with excruciating pain," Mishra says.

As writer Anil Dharker, who headed the National Film Development Corp. in its early years, says, songs in the New Wave films were in more credible and natural settings, such as on a radio or as plain background (think of the title song in Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha, 1974). “Background music was used more sparingly than in the usual Bollywood film, and far less dramatically. But that’s not surprising because many of these films were not replete with climaxes needing the clashing of cymbals," Dharker says.

It isn’t that the New Wave did away with the songs—film is a visual medium, and songs “tell", whereas the film-makers preferred to “show". In their films, songs had a utilitarian function, but many were outstanding. Take Preeti Sagar’s lilting Mero Gaam Kantha Pare in Benegal’s Manthan, with a unique vocabulary combining Gujarati and Hindi phrases, which became hauntingly popular. Sagar was exceptionally evocative in pitch-perfect and period-perfect songs Bhatia composed in other Benegal films, including Nishant (1975), Bhumika (1977), Kalyug (1981) and Mandi (1983).

LP cover of the soundtracks to ‘Bhumika’
LP cover of the soundtracks to ‘Bhumika’

Vohra mentions another Sagar masterpiece—Ghir Ayi Kali Ghata Matwali Saawan Ki Aayi Bahar Re in Junoon, the scene reminiscent of Ray’s Charulata (1964), with a woman singing joyfully on a swing without background score, the only other sound being the chirping of birds. Datta picks another song resonating with meaning—the qawwali in M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973). She recalls, “With the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri as the backdrop, the qawwals are singing in front of Salim Chishti’s dargah, and the two lovers are looking over the vast expanse of the city and its outskirts, which magically links history, civilization, devotion, and the desire of the two lovers."

Songs allowed for playful innovations. In filming the delightful song Paanch Lakh Ki Gadi, Saeed Mirza used an extended long shot in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980), as Naseeruddin Shah and other motor mechanics tinkered with an expensive jalopy. The song is filmed in a single shot, as if paying homage to Hitchcock, whose Rope (1948) was filmed to seem as if it was a single shot.

LP cover of The Apu Trilogy
LP cover of The Apu Trilogy


Classical music too gained prominence. Ray had used Ravi Shankar (in the Apu Trilogy) and Vilayat Khan (in Jalsaghar) in his early films, and then began composing himself. In the following generation, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul turned often to classical music. Shahani’s Khayal Gatha (1989) is an experimental documentary which highlights vocal improvisations. He explains, “Sangeet (music) and nritya (dance) are part of cinema, where nritya creates the architecture for the movement." An Ajanta fresco inspired the dance sequence in Maya Darpan (1972), with an ensemble of talent—Bhaskar Chandavarkar’s score, Chandralekha’s choreography, K.K. Mahajan’s camerawork, Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute. Kaul’s documentary Dhrupad (1983), showed how the Dagars ensured, through generations, that the purity of the style was not compromised. In Siddheshwari (1989), he made excellent use of thumri.

And there was experimentation. Vijay Raghav Rao, who composed for Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, disregarded grammar with the abandon of a jazz musician. His score for Pramod Pati’s wild, psychedelic short film Abid (1970), based on Abid Surti’s art, used pixilation, through which live objects moved like animated figures. It had the droning sound of the tanpura, cheerful jal tarang, vigorous tabla, and syncopated rhythms with screams of birds. Without that cunning cacophony, the visualization and animation would have collapsed.

Today, the technical wizardry of synthesizers and computers replace instruments, even creating sounds that neither human voice nor traditional instruments can produce. Sathyu says: “Today they have all gone for digital music, and everything is artificial. Even the tanpura is now electronic. Technology cannot reproduce the purity. There was a time when if Naushad wanted 50 violins, he used 50 violins. Today, the violin’s sound is multiplied digitally, and it is just not the same. Technology tries very hard to get the feeling but it is not the real thing."

The New Wave film-makers took the lens off the camera and let life roll in—and the music in their films captured the sounds that enhanced, and didn’t overwhelm, the viewing experience.

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