Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Backstage Lords – a documentary about Hindi cinema’s neglected musicians

In the Introduction to his book Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios, Gregory D Booth evokes two men named Anthony Gonsalves: the hugely popular fictional character played by Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony, and the real-life Gonsalves, an arranger and composer who worked prolifically in Bombay’s film-music industry between the 1940s and the 1960s but was little known outside those circles.

“This dual identity of Anthony Gonsalves is at the heart of this book,” Booth writes. “As a film persona [jumping out of a large Easter egg and launching into song] he embodies the enormous cultural presence of both the Hindi cinema and its music. As a real but almost unknown music performer, composer, and arranger, he embodies the anonymity of his profession and his many colleagues.” He quotes the real Anthony Golsalves as saying, “We were always hidden, always playing behind the curtain. No one knew.” Hence the book’s title (which, in a little coincidence - and coincidences are integral to the Manmohan Desai universe - translates to “Parde ke Peecche”, part of a lyric from another Amar Akbar Anthony song).

Behind the Curtain emphasises the role of the neglected foot-soldiers of Hindi-film music: the people who played the instruments, arranged scores and in many cases made as vital a contribution to the final product as the music directors did, without getting a fraction of the recognition. Booth covers the transition from the studio system of the 1930s to the independent-producer system, and the concurrent shift from salaried orchestras to freelance orchestras, so often made up of musicians who had enjoyed prior careers in jazz bands (among them Cawas Lord, who played a big role in introducing Latin beats to Hindi film songs such as “Gore gore o banke chhore” and “Shola jo bhadke”). He also casts a sympathetic but practical look at the changes wrought by new technology – synthesizers, computer-based recording – in the 1990s, which made recording and arranging a much more impersonal process and led to a generation of old-school musicians being swept away by the winds of change.

Now we have Rudradeep Bhattacharjee’s moving documentary The Human Factor, which was inspired by Booth’s book (and features him as a talking head), but narrows its focus to the Lord family – the late Cawas, referred to here as the “Bheeshma Pitamah of film music”, and his two sons Kersi Lord and Buji Lord – with only a few brief sound-bytes from other musicians such as Enoch Daniels and Homi Mullan. This approach could have made the film a limited-scope project, but it works – first, because the Lords were important figures in the music industry for over four decades, and second, because this particular family is used to shine light on a larger universe. Scenes like the one where Kersi’s daughters crack up while recalling his sudden decision to get a Mr T hair-cut - a mid-life crisis if there ever was one - might seem self-indulgent if you view this film as a straight chronicle of the music industry. But what it is doing is presenting real people with their families, personal histories, whimsies, disappointments - and by extension letting us see that there were hundreds of others like them, working in those studios in difficult conditions in the pre-synthesiser world. (When singers and musicians recorded a song in unison in the same space, a small mistake made by a single member of the orchestra would be mortifying; the whole recording had to be started again, doubling the work for dozens of artistes, apart from adding to the producers’ costs. The flip side was the enormous job satisfaction that came with getting things right. “That period of five or six minutes where no one makes a mistake,” says Enoch Daniels with visible pride, “the unity achieved in that period is what creates the soul of a song.”)

There are different personality types within the Lord family. Here is Kersi, almost consistently jovial, ending his sentences with a distinct, musical little “na”, chattering away openly, yet also showing how seriously he took his work: at one point he wonders if it would be acceptable for a retired surgeon to be asked – during a party – to perform an impromptu operation just to show off his skills. Buji, on the other hand, is a man whose professional experiences left him somewhat embittered. Old photos and video footage show a dashing youngster on drums, touring the Caribbean with Mohammed Rafi and getting newspaper headlines to himself (“Buji Lord Steals Limelight”), but in the present day one sees an old man who has put his past behind him, to the extent that even his little granddaughter (nicely used as a refrain in the film) doesn’t know that her granddad once used to play for movies. 
Despite Kersi’s charm, Buji is the most interesting figure in this documentary, the necessary counterpoint to romantic notions about how beloved films and songs come into existence. Though polite throughout while answering questions or talking about his work, there is a clear reserve: he is sad about the lack of recognition given to the behind-the-curtain musicians (no mention in the film’s credit titles: “producers would tell us, what is the problem, you are getting ready cash – as if the others who worked on the film didn’t get cash”) and about the underhandedness in industry dealings. And he makes it a point to say – in a defensive tone – that he didn’t derive joy from his work; it was nothing more than bread and butter (“and maybe jam”) for him.

The most obviously poignant scenes involve their father Cawas: fragments of interviews from 2004, when the grand old man was nearly 90, looking confused and vulnerable, and unsure about why these people want to ask him so many things. Did he participate in the scoring for India’s first sound film Alam Ara? He can’t be sure – he worked on the second sound film, he knows that. Did he enjoy his work? We enjoyed it while we were playing, he says, but he appears to know or care little about the final product – he wasn’t the sort who went to movie halls to see the songs. In fact, as Naresh Fernandes – author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot – points out in the documentary, many of these musicians didn’t even know which song would be appearing in which film. Their experience as creators and performers was at a vast remove from the experience of millions of Indian movie-lovers who have been enthralled by this music for decades; viewers who, when they hear “Maang ke saath tumhara”, think reflexively of Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala on the horse-cart instead of wondering who played the instrument that simulated the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves.

Those who love Hindi film songs usually think of their favourite numbers in terms of the contributions of the music director, the playback singer and the lyricist. But watching The Human Factor, I was reminded that hierarchies exist even in the ranks of the overlooked. A talking point during my recent conversation with Akshay Manwani about his book Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet was that lyricists have tended to get short shrift compared to composers, singers, or the actor performing the sequence on the screen. For instance, most viewers associate the classic “Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya” with Dev Anand’s upbeat, twinkling star persona (which is fair enough: the song and the sequence were designed with that persona in mind) – relatively few would think of it predominantly as “a Sahir Ludhianvi song”. And yet, Sahir was a celebrated, high-profile name compared to the musicians who brought that song to life on their instruments. 

Try to imagine its effect without the mood-setting opening bars that were played by Kersi Lord on a Glockenspiel freshly imported to India. And then watch Kersi in this film – an extroverted, unruffled man at most times– saying he felt flustered when he had to go up on a stage recently to collect an award, because he had never experienced live applause during his working days.

P.S. via The Human Factor’s Facebook page, here is a short video from a 1976 concert where R D Burman and his orchestra play the magnificent opening-title track of Sholay. You can see Kersi Lord in the background around the 1.30 to 1.50 mark, and Buji Lord on drums around 2.20-2.25.

On this page, you can see some of the videos referenced in Booth's book, including interviews with musicians.

And my piece on the use of the song in Hindi cinema, done for Himal.


  1. Jai, nice post. Having interacted with the musicians during our book, and also having followed thier work form my college days (I used to know the names of musicians even then, so for me they were no strangers, in fact, the composers and the musicians were my heroes), I feel happy that they musicians are finally getting recongnition. Better late than never :)

  2. Anirudha: very good to hear from you, and thanks! The comments are on moderation, that's why this one didn't show on the page.

  3. What a lovely post! And loved the insight into "hierarchies exist even in the ranks of the overlooked."


  4. Is the documentary available for sale ? Can you let us know where can we get it ?

    1. Arun: you can try emailing Rudradeep, the director, at He will be able to provide information about DVD availability, forthcoming screenings, etc.