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The right note

September 25, 2012


Ever tried watching your favorite film with its audio muted? You’d be surprised how revelatory the whole experience really is. The first thing that strikes you is the haste with which the images bombard the eye. One of the curses of the post-MTV age, filmmakers now rarely apply any thought to the basic essence of an image and what it needs to convey. Many filmmakers believe that the background score along with the dialogue would fill the necessary blanks, which otherwise shouldn’t be there if the image was given its due importance.

The background score has been one of the tools employed by filmmakers right from the onset of cinema to convey emotions. In the era of the silent film, a title-card along with a specific musical note would tell the audience things that an actor’s twirled eyebrow couldn’t. In fact it would not be totally incorrect to say that the background score added to the actor’s efforts. This could be one of the reasons for the popular notion that actors had it easy in the era of black and white films. No one really fretted about the hue of an actor’s eyes, and distractions such as vibrant locales hardly distracted the viewer from the performance. Similarly the advent of talkies, perhaps, killed the true power of the background score. Once the actor started talking everything else became secondary and for some years background score ended up looking lost. If you look at the iconic films of the 1950s like Citizen Kane (1941), Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), and Mother India (1957) you’d notice how the background score is setting up the standards for future films by almost defining the note to accompany particular emotions. It’s almost as if the composers decided to make their work so perfunctory that their absence would be extremely conspicuous and they couldn’t be done away with. What followed was a quiver full of basic notes attached to situations, something that plagues films even today.

One would think that monochrome or outmoded attire age films ungracefully but the one thing that really makes any film truly dated is its background score. The biggest thing that hampered the growth of background music was the fact that much of it was predicated by the genre. Its recent revival notwithstanding, nothing defines a Hollywood musical like the vivid Technicolor hues of the 1950s and so, it isn’t surprising that a Moulin Rouge (2001) or a Chicago (2002) would be set in a time long forgotten. It was only in exceptional cases that filmmakers like Guru Dutt and Akira Kurosawa or Alfred Hitchcock and his association with Bernard Herrmann were able to break this mold. When Kurosawa assigned Fumio Hayasaka to compose the score for Seven Samurai (1954), the only brief he was given was that the music shouldn’t be typical samurai fare and what we get is a motif of sounds that could very well be characters. One of the most influential filmmakers ever, Dutt never relied on the regular tools to tell his story. His films had everything ordinary but simple things like not wasting time on interludes in songs or using silences along with minimalist background score made them exceptional. One doesn’t need to listen to the words of Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Pe from Pyaasa (1957), in order to understand the pain of the protagonist but the sounds only add to the imagery.

In the context of Hindi films, the use of background score has been clearly demarcated much like the great divide between commercial and art films. The doyens of Parallel Cinema like Shyam Benegal and Saeed Mirza created riveting works of cinema, especially in the formative years with films like Ankur (1974) and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1981), with a near absent background score. Some of India’s greatest films Pyasaa, Guide (1965), and Garam Hawa (1973) have very little background score and films like Sholay (1975), where the trend was broken proves that background score has to operate in an almost tangential sphere in order to stand out.

In the contemporary Bollywood context, Sandeep Chowta’s score for Satya (1998) is one of the best examples of how the typical sounds associated with some genres are best done away with. Nothing hampers the film-viewing experience as much as a bad background score and one of the reasons for Bollywood’s almost contemptuous attitude towards the background score could be the manner in which composers worked.

In the early 2000s, background composer ended up creating one large piece that covered the entire film and just dumped it into the director’s hand, who sadly used the most of this to keep things moving. As a result such typical arrangements ensured that films falling in the same bracket sounded the same. But for almost a decade now, Bollywood has been avoiding templatesation as far as subjects are concerned and this has managed to rub off on the background score as well. This is just half of the good news and the biggest thing to come about from this change would be the revival of silences in modern Bollywood films.

While making Wall-E (2008) director Andrew Stanton repeatedly screened Charlie Chaplin classics for his team to understand how images could speak without dialogues or even background score. Background score is an embellishment that often runs the risk of taking away more than adding, and to get that right would be striking a perfect note.


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Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.