Monday, August 31, 2009

Open Magazine feature: Foleys

There are men who enjoy recreating the sounds of everyday life. The best ones are good listeners. They know that a walk is never just a walk, that a splash is hardly just a splash. These men have been around for two decades now, applying their observations to film, adding realism to absolute turkeys. They are sonic anthropologists. The film industry calls them Foley artists.

“Watch this,” Sajjan Chouwdhry, a Foley artist at Aradhana Studio said, picking up a pair of tattered shoes from a messy pile of worn-out footwear that carpeted the studio floor. Scattered around him were props to create sounds that end up on film: a cage fan, a creaky leather sofa, a rusty car bonnet, glass bottles, a fake door with a knob and latches, wicker baskets, a cupboard of jewellery and bangles. Putting them on, he stood still beside a microphone wrapped in cloth on a surface of ageing wooden planks. “Ready,” he said. A moment later, a large screen came alive with Gulshan Grover, dressed formally, strolling down a boardwalk. Chouwdhry walked in place, in step with Grover, tapping his feet hard to create the cold, formal beat of a corporate man’s shoes. As Grover slowed down, so did Chouwdhry, finally turning with his soles scraping the floor as Grover turned to sit down. “The extra sound”— a regular swish—“is because I’m wearing pants,” Chouwdhry said, implying that he walks for movies without his pants. Which is just as well, for Foleys can be found in the farthest reaches of recording studios, where they are left alone to pursue an ambition considered unsexy. They are happiest there, among musty props and familiar recording equipment, grounding characters; away from unwanted attention.

Karnail Singh, a large and genial man who works with Chouwdhry, has done this since 1986. He is now considered a master. “If I tell you to put down a phone, you’ll put it right down. But we look at the character. Is he pensive about the call? If he is, his hand will search for the cradle. The phone cord will pull and jar on the desk’s edge. That’s the difference between a good Foley artist and someone who’s in it for the money.”

Until recently Singh was called a sound effects specialist, but then, somehow, people started calling him a Foley. “Even I didn’t know what it meant,” he says. The word is a tribute to Jack Foley, who spent a lifetime squeezing sounds out of props for movies. An uncredited article about Foley has his technique described by George Pal, an Oscar nominee seven times over for his cartoons: ‘Jack’s technique was to record all the effects for a reel at one time… Jack added the footsteps, the movement, the sound of various props, all in one track. He used a cane as an adjunct to his own footsteps. With that cane, he could make the footsteps of two to three people. He kept a large cloth in his pocket which could be used to simulate movement.’ (The sound created by rubbing two bits of cloth mimics the sound of human motion, of arms and legs flexing or relaxing.)

Foley art arrived in India in 1971 at Prasad Labs in Chennai, when a mandolin player and a studio assistant were assigned by the sound engineer of Sigappu Rojakkal to recreate the sound of birds (using bamboo strips) and sea waves (with mustard seeds on thick paper). They were paid Rs 250 for their efforts. But this was at Prasad Labs. In the Hindi film industry, sound effects were the work of amateurs and the disinterested. “All attention was paid to music, background music and photography, which is not surprising. The sound recorder’s work we heard at mixing time,” says Raj Sippy, who began directing in 1977. This meant anybody could pass off anything as sound effects. Dishoom, for example, is believed to be the work of a fight master who used the sound informally to guide actors. “I cannot believe how people took to the sound back then,” Sippy says. He once snuck a recording device into Excelsior to record the punches in a Charles Bronson movie. He then gave the tape to his filmmaker friends.

“I was not very happy with how my seniors did things,” says Singh, “but they were my seniors, so I had to keep quiet. They did things the wrong way. The director was focused on the hero and the dialogue. Between dialogues there was nothing, just empty space.”

After landing a permanent gig at Aradhana, they worked on Discovery of India. They were then roped in for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Arun Patil, a sound effects man who specialised in explosions, came to them with a problem: create sounds for a South Indian swing that creaked and had bells attached. “That was the toughest thing we ever did,” Singh says. Chouwdhry nods. Now, they say, nothing puzzles them. One scene in Vikram Bhatt’s horror flick 1920, showed a cat being eaten. To get the right amount of crunchiness, Chouwdhry ordered a roast chicken for the sound session. Chouwdhry, the brawnier of the two, says he’s more suited for “macho sounds”, such as a man’s walk, a thump, a punch, a fall. Singh, he says, is fine with “lady sounds”: the tinkle of an earring, bangles, sandals. Singh smiles and says nothing.

Since the community of Foley artists in India is small—between 10 and 15 in Mumbai—there’s no shortage of assignments. But Nitin Chandy, the sound engineer at Blue Frog’s recording studios, says they will have to evolve. He believes that the advent of digital sound, which included digital libraries, transformed the landscape for sound designers. To pull out a sound earlier meant destructive editing—cutting from tape. “Foleys were in trouble when it became non-destructive.” Now every designer has access to libraries. “Now it’s a dying art.”

Foleys disagree, of course. A freelance Foley who worked for Ram Gopal Varma says digital libraries aren’t everything. Singh and Chouwdhry think about it for a moment before declaring that there’s more than enough work. They turn to a silent screen playing Varma’s next film. The protagonists run through the jungle, and all you hear is the crunch of leaves and the splash of water. Then it ends, promising a sequel. Varma alone could keep Foleys in business.

Open Magazine feature: The superstar problem

The modern filmmaker who strives to walk on a path of his own making asks for too much. He requires money, a commodity that is at once everywhere and nowhere in Bollywood. He discovers that the future of his tightly bound baby depends not on the firmness of the script nor on the probable cost of production. If his film is ever made while he stays true to himself, he will attribute it to hard work and luck. Mostly to luck. And to praying, with all his might, that no one asks who the star is.

The star is at the heart of everything. This we know now, again. In the middle of this decade a theory found favour in Mumbai. Like so many others, this too sprung from naivete. Cinema, it seemed, would finally be true to itself, and be free from the tyranny of stars. Finally good stories would be told, finally intelligence would be rewarded. Movies such as Black Friday, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Socha Na Tha, My Brother Nikhil, Manorama Six Feet Under and Johnny Gaddar revealed themselves at multiplexes. The last of these movies came two years ago but it seems an age. All were starless. We now know that stars are a necessity because stars are a condition; too many people can’t quite do without them. We know that with stars comes notice, and baggage too—more than a director needs.

And what happens, when that first starless movie by an idealistic filmmaker is done and dusted, and acclaim has come his way? Why, doors open. He telephones to say, “Hey, this is Navdeep Singh, the director of Manorama Six Feet Under”, and the big men invite him in. They know a finely directed movie when they see one, but pity about the box office. They tell him about their romantic comedy and ask him to direct it the way he did his own murder mystery. He emerges from meetings wondering what just happened. They tell Raj Kumar Gupta, the man behind Aamir, that they have a movie just like Aamir for him to direct (Who says man writes his own destiny?). It’s enough to make a director interrogate himself unreasonably. Is there something wrong in his approach, is he a misfit, or worse? He considers a life not in Indian cinema, but in Bollywood. He considers taking refuge in compromise.

Compromise. The word whose meaning every filmmaker wrestles with at least once. Two years after Manorama, Singh lights up one stick of Classic Mild after another outside a Juhu coffee shop and talks about how this consideration manifests itself. “There’s a strong temptation… I mean, that’s where the money lies, that’s where the success lies. I’ll admit I feel a little jealous of the people I know. They drive BMWs, have a 7 crore flat. It’s actually less work to make those kind of films. It’s a different kind of work, I suppose, but I think it’s less work because the costume person is handling costumes, not the director.” He chuckles in wonder of it all. “Same goes for the music. It works pretty independently. You’ve got to be able to enjoy that way of working. Unfortunately the kind of films I make would not necessarily attract the kind of money my children would appreciate.”

Some encounters leave small filmmakers wondering. When a popular mainstream actress heard how many songs a director’s new movie had, she called it an art film. “Not one more,” the director recalled her saying. “I’ve just done three.” One of the three—as mainstream as it gets—was arty to her because the lead had changed his facial appearance. “The definition of mainstream in India is still very narrow,” he says. “Anything outside it is not even considered hatke. It’s considered arty.”

“It’s not that we won’t work with stars,” says Raj Kumar Gupta, “In Hollywood, big stars care about the script. They don’t care if you’re a first-time filmmaker or a second timer. Over here not many stars will be interested, unless you have the backing of a big filmmaker/producer.” Gupta recalls producers being excited by a script he had written. “One producer said he would fund it if I had a star. But the story was about eight losers. The first thing a star would have asked me is, ‘Am I a loser? Why the fuck have you come to me if I’m a loser?’”

Stars are part of the overarching, all-consuming belief that every element in a movie has a value attached. And that the sum of those values must result in a profit. “A producer will say ‘Okay, I can get Abhay Deol’. He will get out a calculator. Thak-thak-thak. ‘Achcha, second lead mein Irfan dal sakte hain. Sab mila ke budget itna hai.’” For an idealist filmmaker, the ones with reputations for being difficult, the belief is understandable but alien. “For me it’s got to be about something more than money,” Singh says.
It should be, but rarely is in this city.

Mazhar Kamran, a director of photography for Satya and Kaun, is nervous about his first directional venture. Mohan Das, about an over achiever who slips into ruin after losing his identity, has no stars. It features Nakul Vaid and Sonali Kulkarni. Kamran found a financier willing to bear the low cost of production.

With that he imagined that his struggles were over. But Kamran found distribution a challenge instead. Distributors refused to buy the film—on the basis that there were no stars. “That’s what the whole thing comes down to. You will find people who back you, who fund you, but you will find it difficult to get into theatres. That’s the barrier. But the market works like this. How do you break that?” Kamran’s next movie will be produced by Venus. “They will want a star,” he says like a child who knows his summer vacation will soon be over.

The answer to this impasse, with the wannabe and the producer/exhibitor staring at each other across a table, is slight deception. “The only way you can sell something in this town,” says Singh, “is by giving your movie a genre. Call it an action thriller. You cheat a bit. You stress the more commercial aspects of it. You call it a rom-com and then sneak in the things you want.”

Producers can’t be blamed though, according to Singh. Not for their demanding stars, and not for their “lip service to better scripts”. They, and everybody else, are hostage to audience tastes. “ Viewers want new stories, but at the same time are looking for stars. Look at Chak De. You need a Shah Rukh Khan driving it. You could replicate it frame by frame, but can’t put in a Kay Kay Menon.”

In this, entertainment is a cog in life, with our expectations of local life translating to cinema. “I don’t see [the star system] changing soon. That’s how our politics is. Everything is about individuals and stars. That’s exactly how entertainment works. That’s how we expect everything to function. Look at the police. There’s one superstar cop. Everyone expects him to deliver. It’s like no other system exists.”

So the small filmmaker’s struggle isn’t against an industry but a culture, a way of being. Money isn’t the driving motivation, and it isn’t fame either. “That’s where the awards go, the money goes, the public adulation goes,” Singh says of the commercial cinema scene. “So the only person you’re doing different stuff for is yourself. My wife says I’m the most selfish bastard she knows.”

Open Magazine feature: Bob Christo has a brownie

When Bob Christo visited Brio for coffee and a brownie one morning, he triggered a reaction reserved for a certain kind of fame. This celebrity is neither a superstar nor entirely forgotten. He hovers on the edge of memory, forever linked to a particular time, like a yellowing love letter rediscovered. So, when Christo strolled in, a young man put down his screenplay, and squinted as if to trace a distant thought, and customers turned to look and slowly smile. At the height of Christo’s powers, film-makers asked mostly two things of him—being evil, and laughing evilly. This he did in nearly a hundred movies.

Christo began life in India as Sanjay Khan’s bodyguard, and soon entered Bollywood with Abdullah. Raj N Sippy, who directed him in Mr Bond, says he was struck by Christo’s size. “He looked scary. He was also the only guy around who could pop open a bottle with his thumb.”

Now seventy, Christo gently pressed a fork sideways into what he hoped was a veg brownie—the result of a minor miscommunication with a bewildered waiter—but was, in fact, a fudge brownie. He had kept the beard but was no longer barrel-chested; his legs were thin and ended in white sneakers. Spinal stenosis took hold in 2006, and he could no longer teach yoga in Bangalore. Eventually he concluded that his vastly colourful life needed recounting. “This is my book,” he said, pulling out a flat brown envelope folded into a square. “Every word is on this CD.”

For three hours the story came in disjointed chapters. It was spread over five continents and ten countries, and contained many children.

“I’m an adventurer,” Christo began. After a successful career as a civil engineer in Australia, Christo’s first wife died, and he fell apart. He moved to Vietnam as an engineer.

“All three kids were taken by my friends. But I was in Vietnam, and I wanted to get out before we were shot. When we were evacuated by plane, people clung on to the fuselage, hoping to escape. I had had enough. I moved to Hong Kong.” He visited government auctions and refurbished Jaguars. Here he met a “lovely girl who kept telling me to live in Samoa because her brothers would love me, and I asked her to move in with me”. Christo could not, because of a complicated love at whose center lay Marie.

Marie Antoinette Francesco. Three decades on, Christo says, he pines for what they shared in the Philippines.

“She calls me one day, saying she is pregnant by me. But I knew marriage would not be possible because I was leaving to locate a top-secret CIA spy ship that had sunk in the Mediterranean.” Suspecting Libya’s hand, Christo and a friend decided they needed money and weapons. So he arranged a meeting with Marie and her childhood sweetheart, and got them married.

He took a breather. Sipped water. Ordered another cappuccino.

In 1987, Christo appeared in the movie of the year, Mr India. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, Christo caricatured himself. Kapur says, “He was strange in the way that he was always drifting. It was a very Australian thing—to travel everywhere and then find a reason to settle down in one place.”

Christo now struggles to recall his travels. After Vietnam, a search for his karate teacher, whom he called Oshiro, led him to the Philippines and then Taiwan. “He was on drugs. The triads wanted to kill him off because he knew that their people had killed Bruce Lee,” says Christo. “I would sit on his shoulders and he would do 1,000 squats a day,” Christo continued. Christo demonstrated squats in the restaurant. “‘Remember how we used to do things?’ I asked him, and he would say ‘Yes Bob!’ Eventually he was okay.”

Then came Rhodesia. The search for guns and money led him to work for Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, and his work involved sinking Russian ships and ferreting out terrorists.

Sippy doesn’t know about his past, but swears by Christo anyway: “He’s not a bullshitter. He doesn’t add on garbage. He’s a good bloke, an honest guy.” Kapur says he vaguely remembers Christo being with “some kind of armed force”, but can’t recall details.

Christo left Rhodesia after he was paid in Zimbabwean dollars; it was nowhere near enough. He traveled to Muscat for restoration work, and soon arrived in Bombay for a vacation. Here he met Parveen Babi, and worked in films with a dedication his directors found wonderful. He stopped just as suddenly. “After 25 years in the business, I had enough. It was time for a change.”

And so Christo seeks a publisher. He digs deep for memories of his enjoyable life. “Sometimes I forget things,” he says, “But when I’m writing, it all comes back.”

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Headache hadippa!

I'm going nuts. A relative keeps singing the lyrics of every damn song in Dil Bole Hadippa! She's doing this to irritate me. I reckon this is as low as life will ever get. But no, she pulls out the cd sleeve to show me the giant turban hung over the stage for some insipid song. I swear, just thinking of YashRaj these days gives me a migraine.

But wait, don't go just yet. Here are some lyrics:
1) Duniya firangi syappa hai, fikar hi gum ka papa hai.
2) Nach karenge, touch karenge, bach le ve yaara, ajj toh hum too much karenge, bach le ve yaara.
3) ...what you doing I liking...

This entire company has a serious midlife crisis.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Open Magazine feature: The Curious Case of Shobhalal vs Shobhalal

The first time police knocked on Shobhalal’s door to arrest him for getting drunk and being a nuisance, he was taken aback. It couldn’t have been him, he said.

Was he Shobhalal, baap ka naam (father's name) Rampratap, they asked. Yes, he said, but he wasn’t the man they wanted. They beat him anyway on principle and threw him in jail for a bit.

They came again, for drunken brawling. Then again, for some other offense. He didn’t argue when they returned. Nor did he resist. Not because it was futile to protest, to resist the police, but because he was by then aware there was some truth to the allegations. Shobhalal had been drunk; Shobhalal had fought; Shobhalal had misbehaved - only it wasn’t him.

Out there was a man with his name, his job, his money, and his life. A man whose wife had the same name as his own. He knew all this, but who would believe him?

Shobhalal’s story was ripe for fictional adaptation, and that is where it gained fame. He first turned up as Mohandas in the writer Uday Prakash’s book of the same name; a man floundering in a hellish limbo. Now, in an adaptation just as sunny, Mohandas will appear on film. There is no hope for him, no permanent respite. The appearance of happiness usually presages a cruel joke. In Shobhalal’s case the last twenty years have been one cosmic prank.

Shobhalal’s troubles really began when his father pulled him out of school. His ancestors had lived in Gunwaari peacefully for over 200 years, and he wasn’t the kind to rock that boat. No, he liked things steady. The familiarity of this village - on the eastern edge of Madhya Pradesh - was comforting. Not much happened here - good or bad. Things would remain as they had been. That was how Shobhalal saw it.

He still doesn’t know why his father, Rampratap, an educated man, sent him to the family fields. He wasn’t curious. Tilling land and waiting for rain gave him peace. When it rained the field grew dhaan, a grain that is at once rice and roti and dal to farmers. There was little else a son could do around Gunwaari. The public works department paid a pittance. The region’s open cast mines, rich in coal, hired men like it was a lottery. Of course, in the eighties a job at the local colliery paid handsomely, and most men would jump to it if they were offered an assignment there. So he borrowed a few hundred rupees and signed up as a candidate. But Shobhalal was also happy in his fields, and if there was no response he would not have bothered.

Gunwaari men aspired to work for open cast mines in the neighborhood at the time. A mining assignment made such a stark difference to their lives that it became a destination - few men looked beyond the region. Even today, connected by a web of roads, villagers refer to the nearby town of Anuppur, only 25 kilometers away, as ‘over there’ and ‘outside’. So in 1988, shortly before his life turned on its head, Shobhalal’s world was here, in the village he understood, on lanes that turned to gushing rivers of mud when God was generous.

Early on a Saturday morning in May 1988, Shobhalal, a slim and square-jawed man with large eyes and an attractive smile, took a bus to the Jamuna colliery. He was, by his own rough estimate, 28 years old. Dressed in a white shirt, he held an interview letter inviting him to the colliery. He found that the interview consisted of few words. After a picture taken against a cloth drape, Shobhalal was directed to the business end of the interview; namely, hoisting a 50-kilo load of coal on his shoulders and carrying it a certain distance. He readied himself. He bent forward and lifted the weight with one jerk. The momentum of the weight, coupled with his poor stance, sent him staggering backward wide-eyed, and he landed with a terrible crash. Concerned men rushed to him. “I’m fine,” he brushed them away. “That was heavy!” His interviewers gave him one more try, but he refused, saying it was impossible. Shobhalal returned to life in quiet Gunwaari, where things had always been the same.

The regional coal mine employment department threw him a second chance the following year. He was summoned for another interview for a laborer’s job to Dhanpuri. This time he managed to lift the weight and keep his balance. He went home happy. A joining letter arrived soon after. Shobhalal did not know what it said, but he knew the letter would change his life, and so he carried it gingerly into a dark inner room and kept it on a mud shelf. He planned to take it to the regional office to understand fully the letter’s contents in a few days. The celebration at home went on for long.


Shobhalal is 49 now, with a weathered face and small eyes that crinkle at the edges when he talks. His pencil mustache from the photograph has become a peppery beard. He never left Gunwaari because the joining letter disappeared. He doesn’t know how, or when. He last saw it on the shelf.

In 1990, a year after the letter disappeared, he decided to pay his nephew a social visit. Twelve years younger then Shobhalal, Loknath left school after his job letter came through. He was posted at Sanjay Nagar, a colliery 40 kilometers from Gunwaari. Shobhalal heard that Loknath had a large house and a salary of Rs 5678, and he wanted to see, first-hand, how his nephew was doing. So he rode out on his bicycle, dodging trucks and cows on his way past the court at Anuppur town, past the police station, and past the home of the lawyer who would soon come to mean so much to him.

Sanjay Nagar’s quarters were typical for colliery housing; rectangular and blockish. But the colony impressed Shobhalal. He began to feel the dull ache of a missed opportunity.

He asked around for Loknath, but no one had heard of him. Then he saw him, and happily called out his name. ‘Oh, him?’ a man said. ‘His name is Shobhalal.’

Loknath saw Shobhalal’s expression transform. He sensed trouble.


“I said nothing to him that day.” Shobhalal spoke softly, slowly, to keep himself from crying. We sat on a bed in a dark room, in a house he should have been far from. “I ate my dinner and left the next morning. He told me not to discuss it.” His thoughts were a jumble. All he knew was that a nephew he trusted stole his papers. “I let him into my house. I knew he stole corn and kheer, but this…

“I didn’t know about it for a year. Had I not gone there, I would not have known.” His voice began to waver. “I spoke to his father, my cousin. All he said was ‘a cow’s milk is not only for its calf, others also drink it’.”

The job is your right, Loknath’s father told Shobhalal, but you’re not in a position to exercise your right. You’re like that calf.

Shobhalal began to pull together evidence - a job number here, a school certificate there, a confirmation from the village sarpanch - that would prove his identity beyond doubt. He hauled steel lock boxes home to keep his papers secure. Then he visited the police, who told him that a minor payment, say, Rs 10,000, would ensure the job was his. He visited the tehsildar, and the district collector. All of them promised inquiries, none of them materialized. The years passed.

In 1996, a year after an upcoming young lawyer named Vijendra Soni took on his case for free, the Anuppur court admitted the curious case of Shobhalal versus Shobhalal.

Soni, a short, squat man given to sitting over standing, is a bit of a celebrity in Anuppur. He hosts parties at Hotel Govindam, and is recognized as a man of influence. That’s because, besides fighting cases, he’s also a member of the Communist Party of India. Soni joined the party in 1983 as a student looking for direction. Practicing law left him with enough time for politics, and it supported the family. “I had no real passion for it,” he said, slumped in his chair below a large sketch of Vladimir Lenin.

He brought instant steel to Shobhalal’s case. Immediately, colliery officials saw trouble on the horizon. “They instituted their own inquiry, and found that Shobhalal took Loknath to the mine,” Soni said. “Loknath got the job, and he started work as Shobhalal. They decided that Loknath had not stolen Shobhalal’s papers. The whole report was a hypothesis! The fact is, the mine’s management team never tallied the employment numbers.”

Pressed by Soni, the court began investigating the incident by 2000. Officials panicked. Shobhalal says Loknath offered him Rs 1.5 lakh to keep him quiet. “‘Why should I take that money?’ I asked him.”

That year officials dismissed Loknath from his job as a dump truck driver (the job pays Rs 25-30000 a month, Soni says). When he thinks about it, Shobhalal can barely contain his glee. He hasn’t won anything, but Loknath has lost. He thanks his gods profusely. “Now when Loknath passes by, he looks at me like he will kill me. I always told his father that one day God would see to him.” He counts the arrests as mere inconveniences.

Now he wants his job. But he has a long wait. The court will get around to it after the evidence hearings are over and a judgement has been passed on this case.


There’s a man named Shobhalal in Sanjay Nagar. His wife’s name is Sonia. His father’s name, Rampratap. Men in the colony referred to his ganja habit, and said he didn’t work much. From time to time they saw him drive a rickshaw. His wife made ‘good-luck-pots’ - spherical clay pots with slits for coins. She didn’t know where he was. “He left today morning, and I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

In the dark passageway were piles of pots she will soon sell for next to nothing. She blamed the uncle for all this. “He wanted this job,” she said, and mounted a defense of her husband. “His bosses said he was political at work. That he tried to unionize the workforce. They dismissed him saying he was trouble. But everyone should wait and see. We’ll show them once this case is over.”

Their savings frittered away in the years after his dismissal. Only nine years have passed but they seem a lifetime away. Their other house was bigger, she said. It had two floors, and was much nicer. Now she felt the loss sharply, almost bitterly. The neighbors had turned away. They couldn’t afford even mosquito repellent. “What can I do, babu?” she said with a smile that conveyed no joy. “You tell me. What can I do?”