18 January 2015

Sound Tripping

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A conference in Delhi brings fresh insights to bear on technology and music in Mumbai's cinema.

The most exciting thing I've done last week is to spend two successive working days in the School of Arts and Aesthetics Auditorium at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where an academic conference on the subject of technology and music in India has been unfolding. 

Titled 'The Music Box and its Reverberations', the four-day event represented a marvellously eclectic mix of music. There was a morning devoted to Hindustani classical and (in nicely egalitarian fashion) an afternoon to Carnatic, there were lively papers on everything from Garhwali folk VCD culture to how the singer LR Eswari created (and was created by) the husky female voice in Tamil music. 

There were also many great discussions of film music and the Hindi film song, ranging from early Bombay cinema, through the cliched 'golden age' of the fifties and sixties, and into the present. Poet, editor, music and cinema aficionado Yatindra Mishra, who is working on a book on the life and music of Lata Mangeshkar, offered up a talk on innovation and fixity in the Hindi film song. 

It contained several great anecdotes: my favourite was about Raj Kapoor, whose musical sense I would have thought was fairly good, given the stunning songs his films always had. But Kapoor was apparently so obsessed with Raag Bhairavi that when Shankar-Jaikishan, his music directors, offered him a song based on any other raag, he was certain to dismiss it as "popatiya". 

Neepa Majumdar, who teaches Film Studies at Pittsburgh and is the author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s to 1950s (2009), presented a fascinating paper arguing that early Bombay cinema displayed a "near-pathological" reluctance to depict itself. Until as late as the 1970s, she suggested, the technology of cinema -- the screen, or even the film camera -- almost never appeared within our films, even if a film star featured as a character. 

Instead, what early Hindi films often contained, especially as part of song sequences, were 'stage shows'. Majumdar suggests that this incorporation of the stage might represent the cinema's desire to ally itself with older, more legitimate art forms like music and drama, to gain some of the respectability it was seen as lacking. 

Majumdar had many more interesting thoughts on the way cinema dealt with theatre. She pointed out, using the classic 'Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon' song from Patanga (1949) as an example, that the stage sequence in films often took recourse to the split screen: a visual device that was most definitely cinematic. 

Also, the sense of 'liveness' in these stage scenes within films was often produced by cinematic techniques. For instance, showing the interaction between on-stage performers and members of the on-screen audience through continuity editing and eyeline matches. 

But, while the cinema rarely made an appearance, the radio was a popular feature. Majumdar argued that the way the radio programme was depicted on screen often turned on the idea that the radio was actually broadcasting live. Temporal coincidence -- the fact that the singer and the listener occupied the same time -- was what created a relationship between the performer (often shown in the recording studio at the radio station, or elsewhere) and the listener (in their home or in some public place where the radio was playing). Even if the protagonists were clearly distant in space, sound was the bridge between them. 

Later the same day, in a round-table session called 'Film Music and Sound Practices', the Carnatic classical singer Bombay Jayashri Ramnath spoke of a new kind of sound bridge: Skype. Jayashri described the laborious process by which she and director Ang Lee came up with the final version of her Oscar-nominated lullaby for the film The Life of Pi: connecting across computer screens each evening for ten days, at two ends of the world. 

Skype came up again in the same session, when the musician Arijit Dutta described the goose bump-inducing process by which he managed to work with the legendary Pakistani singer Shafaqat Amanat Ali to produce the marvellous 'Bol'. 

Dutta was making his debut as a music director with one of 2014's most successful small-budget films, Nitin Kakkar's large-hearted, funny Indo-Pak bromance Filmistaan, and though Ali was happy to work on the song, he couldn't come to India for visa reasons. That was when the two decided they could just do this on Skype. The technology allowed them to bypass the barriers set up by their nation states -- in a strange and lovely echo of the plot of Filmistaan -- where it is the cinema itself that performs that unifying job. 

The sparky Sneha Khanwalkar, famed for the music of Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Gangs of Wasseypur and her superb music-scouting TV show, Sound Tripping, was also present at that session, and made it clear that the move away from the studio and to location shooting is what she sees as revolutionising film music. 

And that move is enabled by new sound-recording technology, which allows anyone, anywhere to record something that can then be incorporated into a film. More than ever before, she argues, the process is opening up the field of music -- and music direction -- to newcomers. And if the old man in the UP village can't come to the studio to record, it no longer means we can't record him, she said. "Technology: Baap," said Khanwalkar, raising her hands above her head in a gesture of obeisance.

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