Dhishoom! Meet Bollywood’s masters of sound
Guess who made Sachin’s footsteps in the film Sachin: A Billion Dreams? Two men in a Mumbai studio. A look at the sound specialists of Bollywood.long reads Updated: Apr 16, 2017 09:54 IST
In a small room separated from the recording studio by a glass window, two men stand before a mike. One of them is stomping the ground. He lifts his legs in pace with the actor playing India’s best-known cricketer in the upcoming Sachin: ABillion Dreams, running across a TV screen. But there’s a hitch. “Too many footsteps. ‘Sachin’ hasn’t taken that many,” says Karnail Singh, one of Bollywood’s best foley artistes, to his partner Sajjan Chowdhary doing the foot-work. The screen is re-wound. This time, the running is in sync. Sound recordist Varun Visoi sitting nearby gets it on tape. Singh and Chowdhary take a break. All lights go up in the dimly lit studio.
In any line of work, however adventurous, unconventional or creative, the workplace is sacred. But did someone forget to pick up the garbage here? “If we brought in racks and shelves, and organised it,” says Singh, “there wouldn’t be space for two of us to stand and do our work.” All around is detritus of older films only of use to foley artistes - the chain that bound Amitabh in Khuda Gawah (1992) binds Salman in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015); the metal bed used in Udta Punjab to creak out the noise of a bed re-purposed for Phillauri. Under the closets spilling with odds and ends, I almost expect a dead rat.
At least 20 pair of shoes, pots and pans stare back from the studio floor. Atop an almirah is a violin. Its use? “Oh we’ll break it,” says Chowdhary cheerfully. After a while, I stop seeing dirt.The shoes, one is told, can tease out the perfect sound to match a hero’s tread that will add nuances to a scene.
What is foley?
All sounds barring dialogue, songs or special effects, such as the blowing up of a bank, or the clap of thunder, or a child bawling, which you can now get through a sound library, are done by foley artistes. Theirs is a category of work that derives its name from the Hollywood post-production veteran Jack Foley (1891–1967). On location, the mike can’t pick up all sounds. The incidental sounds are recreated by foley artistes in the studio to add texture to a scene to which sound designers add additional tracks for layering and density.
In Sholay (1975), for instance, before the start of the song Jab tak hai Jaan, Hema Malini is shown to dance on shards of glass. Actually it was plastic. When the film was re-released in 3D in 2014, Singh and Chaudhury smashed glass bottles on the studio floor on which Chaudhury moved his hands, encased in leather gloves, in rhythm with the actor’s dance. “Pairon ko kaam haath se kiya. (Hands did the work of legs).” Action scenes, of well, various levels, are his forte. Each time Arjun Kapoor kissed Kareena in Ki and Ka, Sajjan smooched his own wrist. So it’s his kiss that was recorded and which you hear in the film. In 1920, a Vikram Bhatt horror film, “before the billi ka murder (cat’s murder), the cat nibbles a corpse. To enact that, I got myself a plate of mutton to produce the slurping sound,” reveals Chowdhary.
His perfect foil is Singh. He is Mr Subtlety. He does the the lady-of-the-manor roles such as Priyanka’s who plays the Peshwa’s wife in Bajirao Mastani. Or the “happy-heroine walk” of Alia Bhatt when she takes Varun Dhawan around Singapore in Badrinath ki Dulhania. The two work in seamless understanding.
Walking the walk
“Aaj jootey kar rahe thhey (We were doing the shoe scenes today),” says Singh, referring to ‘Sachin’ playing in the park and the movement of various characters as they walk up his staircase, the day we visit them in the studio. “Baad mein aag lagayengey (Next, we will do the sounds of lighting a fire for another scene),” says Chowdhury with a grin and some pride, showing us some of their secret weapons – the wooden logs to break open doors or create crashes and thuds; a plastic bag that can be crumpled to emulate fire crackle; empty coconut shells worn as gloves to emulate a horse’s gallop; the cups and saucers placed or banged on table-tops to suggest a change of mood; and finally, the make-shift tub that these fifty-year-olds fill with water as they sit in their knickers and splash their hands to imitate a heroine’s deep dive in a swimming pool!
The art of foley is therefore not just technique. It is performance, done with physical labour, imagination and brio.
Bollywood has five foley artistes, says Ashim Samanta, owner of the studio, Aradhana Sound Service, where the duo work. (Samanta is the son of Shakti Samanta, director of the hit Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore-starrers such as Amar Prem and Aradhana of the ’60s). Karnail Singh got his first break at Natraj Studio (his father Dilip Singh was one of Samanta’s art directors), which the Samantas co-owned till it was sold in mid-2000s. Chowdhary was a sound recordist with Dev Anand’s studio. When the Samantas opened the Aradhana studio in the ’80s, he joined it. Both foley artistes are free to take up other projects with other studios.
Chowdhary and Singh with over three-decade-long experience are believed to be the best in their field. Parinda (1989) was their first big commercial project. From avant-garde filmmaking geniuses such as Mani Kaul to commercial success stories such as Rajkumar Hirani, Karan Johar, Ramgopal Varma and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, they have worked with them all. National Award-winning sound designers such as Biswadeep Chatterjee (Bajirao Mastani, 3 Idiots, Devdas) and Academy award-winning Resul ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Pookutty hired them for films such as Highway, Robot, Jazbaa, Shootout at Wadala and Black.
Do technological advancement and newer tools threaten to make them redundant? The combination of stock sounds from the library and foley make the film dramatic and impactful, says Chatterjee. “If I’ve to nail every footstep of every character, the film won’t get done in five years, foley artistes give real texture,” he adds. Rajkumar Hirani vouches for their “improvisations and their quick grasp of sound requirements”.
Singh and Chowdhary do around 150 films a year. The industry’s regard for them has a reason. Foley is a thinking man’s job translated into action. “We feel the film, and feel the character”, says Singh. “Amitabh and Naseersaab, for example, have distinct military walks, so we walk accordingly. They know where they are going. Young actors today – body kidhar, footstep udhar (the body is somewhere and footsteps are somewhere else). Mostly casual.”
For all their experience, foley artistes like Singh and Chowdhary suffer the same invisibility that was Jack Foley’s lot. Foley’s name never appeared on film credits. Ironically, he achieved cinematic immortality when his category of work began to be referred by his name.
In the case of Singh and Chowdhary, some production houses credit the studio to which they are attached when the screen credits roll. “The problem is the work of foley happens after the film is shot,” says Samanta. “Producers then quote budget. By the time the film ends, everyone has run out of money,” This attitude informs their place in the film credits hierarchy. Their names now appear but mostly with the sound effects team, almost as an afterthought, when the film is over.
For foley artistes to get their due, one has to first acknowledge the role of sound as performance and its unimaginable ability to change a visual. “In drama school, we were taught that if you don’t talk loudly enough , people will stop seeing,” says actress Meeta Vasisht, who worked with Singh and Chowdhury while making her own film. “If the stage is kept dim for long, people will stop hearing. You can see something that is not there or not see something because of sound.” Singh and Chowdhury, she adds, have created a world of sound and yet live in gentle silence. It’s time for them to be seen and heard.