“If you’ve come to Bombay to become a hero, I can understand, but sound engineering? And that, too, in the 1940s?”
We are on the 39th floor of a suburban Mumbai high-rise and Sanjiv Sharma is trying to help me map the career of his father, Badri Nath Sharma, a noted sound recordist who worked for close to five decades in the film industry and was associated with some of Hindi cinema’s biggest musical hits.
Sanjiv Sharma himself has been trying to “join the dots” for some years now. His father, he said, kept his professional and personal life strictly separate: “If I wanted to go to the studio, Dad would shoo me away. I am an outsider in his professional life. That’s the way he wanted it.”
Over the years, Sanjiv Sharma, an advertising filmmaker himself, has bumped into various people who had worked with BN Sharma one time or the other and come away from the encounter with some new nugget of information about his late father. He shows me a recorded clip from a recent episode of The Kapil Sharma Show, where singer Amit Kumar, while speaking about his father, the legendary Kishore Kumar, divulged that the late singer shared a close bond with character actor Om Prakash, comedian Sundar, music director C Ramchandra and BN Sharma. The members of this “timepass group,” according to Kumar, bonded over gajak, the popular Indian confection. “I had no idea that Dad hung around with these people,” Sanjiv Sharma said. “He just never spoke about it.”
The son of a doctor, BN Sharma was born in Delhi in 1919. The reasons that prompted him to move to Bombay or the exact year he arrived in the city remain hazy. Sanjiv Sharma conjectures his father came to Bombay sometime in the early 1940s. “Here, at some point, he joined Xavier’s Institute, where he learnt sound engineering.”
What Sanjiv Sharma is referring to is the Abdulla Fazalbhoy Technical Institute, which was located in the St Xavier’s College campus in south Bombay. Started by well-known producer MA Fazalbhoy in 1937 in collaboration with St Xavier’s College, the institute initially served as a training ground for radio engineers and cinema projectionists. By 1941, it had expanded its scope and was offering seven different short-term courses, including one in Sound Recording.
A casual perusal of old issues of the magazine Filmindia from the ’40s helps us chart Sharma’s progress in the industry. He is credited as an audiographer in films such as Bari Baat (1944), Toote Tare (1948), Batohi (unreleased), Nisbat (1949), and Nai Reet (1949).
Yogesh Saxena, who assisted BN Sharma at Bombay Sound Services from 1973 to 1991, says his former boss would sometimes talk about the old days, when audio recording was in its infancy and the technology rudimentary. Recordings were done on the shooting set itself, with the recordist cooped up with the equipment inside a sound van stationed outside. Since control over acoustics was nominal, recordings would often take place in the quiet of the night.
In the January 1948 issue of Filmindia, we come across a small news item announcing the setting up of M&T Studios. The initials stood for Makhanlal and Tewari, bullion market traders and financiers. “Many an ambitious project is planned by this firm in the different fields of production, distribution and exhibition,” the magazine claimed. M&T’s investments included buying the Krishna and Capitol cinemas. The company also “acquired the Hind Studios at Andheri and thoroughly renovated it”.
Among the new firm’s hirings was BN Sharma, who is credited as “Director of Audiography” in M&T’s “maiden offering”, an early Dev Anand-starrer titled Namoona (1949). At M&T, BN Sharma would go on to work as the song recordist on the landmark Albela (1951).
Not long after, Sharma made the switch to the recording studio that would be his home for the next three decades and more. Bombay Sound Services was part of Bombay Film Laboratories, a film processing centre located in Dadar in south-central Bombay. Bombay Labs, as it was popularly known, had begun operations in the ’40s but was taken over by a new management in the next decade.
Hosi Wadia, now in his eighties, says that it was not a single owner but rather a small group of shareholders – which included his father RH Wadia and Darabshaw Adajania, the grandfather of Angrezi Medium director Homi Adajania – who took over the property and managed the affairs of both the processing lab and the sound studio.
Under BN Sharma’s stewardship, Bombay Sound Services became one of the leading sound studios, offering the whole range of audio post-production facilities for producers. Through the ’50s and ’60s, Sharma recorded landmark songs of films such as Madhumati (1958), Anuradha (1960), Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), and Shaheed (1965). He is also credited as the mixing engineer for films as diverse as Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Bhuvan Shome (1969).
Around 1970, said Hosi Wadia, colour processing was introduced at Bombay Labs, and the entire studio was revamped. The sound studio was shifted to the third floor, a larger area where 80-100 musicians could comfortably play together. A new RCA three-track recorder was also installed.
Yogesh Saxena and Satish Gupta, both Film and Television Institute of India graduates, joined Bombay Sound Services as assistant sound engineers after this revamp. Saxena, now retired and residing in Bengaluru, says he was initially intimidated by just being in the same room with the big singers, directors and producers, and marvelled at how Sharma casually and firmly dealt with them all.
Satish Gupta, who now divides his time between Mumbai and Agra, says it was Joe D’Souza, a veteran maintenance engineer well known in studio circles, who helped him get the job at Bombay Sound Services. Having started out as a maintenance engineer at Raj Kapoor’s RK Studios, Gupta was then working with a pharmaceutical company as an audio-visual engineer, a job that involved travelling to various towns and villages with a projector and showing “medical films”.
Gupta was shy and soft-spoken, and was warned about Sharma’s reputation as a fiery customer. He ended up working 17 years under Sharma, and insists that as long as “one worked diligently, did not make mistakes, there was nothing to fear”.
Yogesh Saxena concurs, adding that Sharma had “an aura of strictness” about him: “He was blunt and did not tolerate masti from the musicians.”
Both Saxena and Gupta are quick to point out that even a small mistake – from the musicians or singers, or the recordist – or a technical error meant the entire song had to be recorded again. So a recordist could not be too careful. The rehearsals enabled a recordist to be “mentally prepared about how to record”, Saxena added.
Sanjiv Sharma gave an inkling of his father’s take-no-prisoners approach when he mentioned the falling out between the recordist and Lata Mangeshkar. The reason behind the disagreement remains unclear. It was finally Asha Bhosle who brought out a thaw and get them to start working together again.
Given this piece of background information, it is interesting to note that in a rare television interview in 2009, recorded on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Mangeshkar, in response to a question by Aamir Khan, picked out Ae Dil-e-Nadaan from Razia Sultan (1983) as her most memorable song. The song was recorded by BN Sharma. In fact, the tunes and background score of Razia Sultan would mark as one of the high-points in his long career. Sharma ended the decade with yet another feather in his cap, the musical blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya (1989).
BN Sharma passed away after a cardiac arrest on February 1, 1991. He had been working till the very end. One of the last projects he was associated with was the Salman Khan-Karisma Kapoor-starrer Nishchaiy, a film that marked the comeback of veteran composer OP Nayyar.
After Sharma’s sudden demise, his assistant Satish Gupta, who was to join the Gulshan Kumar-owned T-Series, delayed his departure. Gupta eventually moved in October 1991.
The following year, Gupta accepted an offer to be the chief recordist at the newly-opened Golden Chariot studio in suburban Andheri. He did not know it then, but this was part of a decisive shift away from the established sound studios in south and south-central Bombay to newer, smaller studios in rapidly growing western suburbs.
Yogesh Saxena continued working at Bombay Sound Services. Despite the high of Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), business began to slow down. This is echoed by Hosi Wadia: “We pulled along for some years, but running the studio soon became untenable.”
Bombay Sound Services finally closed shop in 1997. Yogesh Saxena joined Sunny Super Sound in suburban Juhu. The studio was converted to a shooting space. In 2004, that, too, closed down and the property was sold to developers. Today, a multi-storied apartment complex stands there.
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