Seconds after Amitabh Bachchan takes a punch to the gut from co-star Puneet Issar in Manmohan Desai’s Coolie (1983), the frame freezes and a title card in Urdu Devnagiri and English appears. It reads: This is the shot in which Amitabh Bachchan was seriously injured. What follows, but is not in the film, is Bachchan mistiming his jump, hitting his side on the edge of a table and sustaining near-fatal internal bleeding. The idea behind the title card was that audiences, who did not have access to VCRs at the time, would return to theatres solely to see the gruesome moment replayed.
Immortalizing Bachchan’s real-life accident onscreen was not the director’s idea, but that of his sound recordist, Mangesh Desai, reveals a documentary by Subash Sahoo.
To be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival as part of its India Story line-up, The Sound Man Mangesh Desai is a deep dive into the professional and personal life of one of India’s most prolific recordists. Anecdotes show that Coolie was not the only film bettered by Desai’s deft touch – he advised Yash Chopra to reshoot portions of Kabhi Kabhi (1976), used heightened music to maximize the impact of pauses between dialogues in Deewar (1975) and advised Vidhu Vinod Chopra to add an overhead shot of a shower in Khamosh (1986) to give the sound of flowing water a better perspective.
The documentary begins with a sketch by animator Ram Mohan, depicting a scene outside a Mumbai recording studio in the ’60s. Desai, at the centre, is diminutive, yet commands the most attention. Surrounding him are prominent producers and directors, their hands folded, knees bent. It’s clear Desai wielded power, and over the course of the 112-minute-long documentary, Sahoo illustrates just how much.
“People were damn scared of him. Not only his own staff…but everybody, no matter how big they were,” recalls ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar. “In my 20 years in the film business, there are very few people I can think of who are indispensable. If anyone fully deserves that epithet, it is Mangesh Desai,” reads a letter by Satyajt Ray, who worked with Desai between 1970 and 1984.
A newspaper clipping reveals that Ramesh Sippy took Desai to London for Sholay’s sound mixing, while Manoj Kumar took him to Japan for Kranti’s. What made Desai so indispensable? Anecdotes by Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Kiran Shantaram (whose father V. Shantaram worked with him), PT Shivkumar Sharma, Sandip Ray, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Randhir Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Subhash Ghai, Resul Pookutty, Vanraj Bhatia and Yash Chopra are pieced together to paint a portrait of a perfectionist who shaped the Hindi film sonicscape from the 1950s till his death in 1985. He is credited on 300 films, including Amar Bhoopali (1951), Guide (1965), Heer Ranjha (1970), Do Ankhen Bara Haath (1957), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Guddi (1971) and Don (1978), though Kiran Shantaram estimates that his body of work is closer to 3,700 films. Desai joined V Shantaram’s Rajkamal Studio in 1947, becoming the head of its recording department 15 years later.
The iconic train whistle in Pakeezah’s “Chalte Chalte” song? His idea. He was also behind the woodpecker’s call in Shyam Benegal’s Ankoor (1974) – a sound so distinct that the audience recognises it immediately the second time it is heard – and the splashing of lake water in V. Shantaram’s Chaani (1977), which he recreated by putting a microphone in a bathtub.
“He was an outstandingly good technician. He knew how the edited sound could be married together to create a much better impact,” says Sahoo, a two-time National Award winner for Best Audiography (Omkara, Kaminey). The director had never met Desai but was introduced to his work as a student at the Film and Television Institute of India. “I had seen a lot of his films. Whether it is parallel cinema or commercial cinema – any film I saw, I would see his name there.” The idea for the documentary came to him in 2009, after he graduated, moved to Mumbai and became the general secretary of the Western Indian Motion Picture & TV Sound Engineers Association. “I realised the people who work behind the camera are not noticed by the viewers or even producers. So I thought that we should first recognise ourselves,” he says. He hit upon the idea of instituting a lifetime achievement award for “someone who had done a remarkable job in the industry”. Desai’s name cropped up during discussions on whom the award could be named after.
By 2011, Sahoo had an 18-minute short film on Desai’s life. It included interviews with “two to three” people and focussed on Desai’s role as a freedom fighter, a revelation that is elaborated upon in the documentary. “There were so many people who not only didn’t know that he was a freedom fighter but also that he was in jail for four years. He used to make bombs because he was a chemistry student. Imagine going to a lab and working with the chemicals to make a bomb. That shows the creativity of the person. You can’t show all that in 18 minutes,” said Sahoo. On realising that there was a lot more ground to be covered, he decided to make a feature-length film next. The documentary took four years to make, the bulk of which was spent procuring footage of old films. Sahoo says the exercise was worth it. “Since Mangesh Desai isn’t here to talk about his work, I had to show his style of working, how he approached each film.” The Sound Association’s 1,500 members, who Sahoo hoped to inspire with the documentary, helped with its funding.
The result is not only an informative account of Desai’s technical expertise – he was able to correct the out-of-sync “Dekha Ek Khwab” song from Silsila (1981), astounding even technicians at the Abbey Road studio with his knowledge – but a moving portrait of the family man through the eyes of his brothers, younger daughter and son. Sahoo credits the family with providing him with rare footage of Desai’s wedding and home life. Excerpts of conversations between him and his daughter Sucheta Lad come from her book The Genius of Mangesh Desai: A Legend In Sound.
The documentary also details Desai’s infamous temper. “Bakwaas hai, phir se karke lao,” is what Ramesh Sippy remembers him saying after storming out of the studio one day. “Lekin…unki baat bilkul sahi thi,” he concludes. “He was a tyrant to his technicians. Galat sound upar se bheja toh maar gaya,” is an anecdote Vanraj Bhatia supplies. But they unanimously agree that Desai’s uncompromising work ethic made their productions better.
“Sholay (1975) is considered to be one of the most technically perfect films. Mangeshji played a huge role in it,” says Ramesh Sippy in the documentary. Three months after the film’s sound mixing was completed by London technicians, Desai was still hard at work on it. On realising that the Indian ears were not attuned to the realistic sound of pistols and rifles used in the films, he replaced them with the more familiar takauuuuu noise. By switching speakers during the film’s coin toss scenes, he created a stereophonic effect, enabling the sound to travel across the screen and mimicking the effect of an echo.
Perhaps the most simple and yet most evocative explanation of what Desai did comes from Gulzar towards the end of the documentary. “This man poured sound into dumb machines to make the silence sing,” reads a letter by him.