Narinder Singh has the fondest memories of the making of Sara Akash. “That kind of camaraderie, I have never experienced again on a film set,” the 77-year-old sound recordist said.
Based on a novella by Rajendra Yadav, the 1969 black and white film, which marked the directorial debut of Basu Chatterjee, was mostly shot at the writer’s ancestral haveli in Agra. The family was welcoming and Singh still cherishes the interactions he had with Yadav and his wife, Manu Bhandari, a formidable writer herself.
The whole unit stayed in a bungalow nearby. The female members of the cast had separate rooms. The men slept on beds laid out in the large hall. It was a bit like attending a relative’s shaadi.
Okay, not quite. Every afternoon, at around four, someone would go around collecting contribution money from the cast and crew members. By the time they reached the bungalow, the liquor would have arrived. And biscuits. Conversation flowed. Songs were sung. And in the midst of all that, the day’s shoot was reviewed and plans firmed up for the next day.
Like every film, Sara Akash posed a set of unique challenges for the sound recordist. Most of the dialogue was recorded on location, a fact that would surprise many today, Singh recalled. It didn’t help matters that people seemed to congregate when they saw a camera being set up. At Agra University, one of the locations, students angry at not being allowed to watch the filming resorted to throwing crackers. The crew ignored them.
Sara Akash, along with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (also released in 1969), inaugurated what has been described as the Indian New Wave. Singh was not a part of Bhuvan Shome, but he did work with Sen on two of the director’s lesser-known films, Icchapuran (1969) and Ek Adhuri Kahan (1971). Singh also oversaw the dubbing of Simi Garewal’s Bengali dialogue in Padatik (1973).
Initially, Singh recalled, it was decided that someone else would dub for the actor. After the dubbing had been done in a Bombay studio, he received a call from the director. Garewal was insistent, Sen reported, that she wanted to dub. The actor prevailed and the recordist had to re-do the whole thing with Garewal.
Singh was also associated with the two leading lights of the Indian New Wave, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. He worked on Shahani’s ambitious project Tarang (1984) and the unfinished A Memoir of the Future, an intriguing film on the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion featuring an international cast that included Nigel Hawthorne.
Singh recalled the latter film for another unsavoury reason – an accident that took place when they were driving towards Mathura. It was raining and the vehicle they were traveling in skidded and rolled over. Singh was lucky to only receive some superficial injuries, but Shahani broke his collar bone.
Earlier, Singh had done two films with the capricious Mani Kaul, Uski Roti (1970) and Ashad Ka Ek Din (1971), both memorable experiences, the latter particularly so. Kaul insisted he wanted to pre-record the dialogue of Ashad Ka Ek Din, as opposed to the usual practice of letting actors dub their lines after the film had been shot.
Depending upon the magnification of the shot, it was decided that they would use three different microphones. For Singh, this meant sitting down with the director and carefully marking out on the script which line had to be recorded on which mic. Once the dialogues were thus recorded – at the National Centre for Performing Arts studio, then located at Warden Road – Singh went to Kasauli where the film was being shot. There, Kaul asked him to edit portions of the dialogue. This involved marking the edit points on the tape, physically splicing it using a pair of scissors and then joining the bits using splicing tape.
It was cumbersome work, requiring precision and patience. “Meri toh haalat kharab ho gayi,” I was knackered by the end, Singh said, able to afford a laugh about the whole thing now.
Help came from an unlikely source. Pinchoo Kapoor, the hulking character actor known for playing negative roles in Bollywood films, had apparently worked with All India Radio. This experience came to the aid of the harried young sound recordist.
There is an unexpected and pretty hilarious coda to this story. Not long after the making of Ashad Ka Ek Din, Singh was at the mahurat of a proper Hindi film. As the camera rolled, Singh realised that the male lead had forgotten his lines. There is, of course, no scope for a retake in a mahurat shot. The star, who shall remain unnamed, turned his back to the camera and mumbled his lines.
Following that episode, depending on the personnel involved, Singh would sometimes pre-record the dialogue for a mahurat shot and play them back on an amplifier. This was a win-win for all concerned. The actors had their cue and the producer’s family and friends attending the event got to see the star’s face and not his backside. Among the films Singh tried this out was one titled Yogeshwar Krishna, a Ramanand Sagar project that did not see light of day. This film, where Shashi Kapoor was playing Krishna, was written by a certain Lal Krishna Advani.
Singh had started his professional career in Mumbai with Ramanand Sagar’s Aankhen (1968), a spy thriller of sorts starring Dharmendra and Mala Sinha. Aankhen was followed by BR Ishara’s controversial Chetna (1970) and Merchant-Ivory’s Bombay Talkie (1970), a film he says he did not quite enjoy working on.
It was during the making of Bombay Talkie that Singh met Awtar Kaul, one of Ivory’s assistants. The two hit it off and Singh introduced the New York-based Kaul to his growing circle of friends and later went on to work on the highly-regarded 27 Down (1974), the only film that Kaul made before his accidental death.
Since then, Singh has worked on a number of notable and diverse movies that include Sai Paranjpye’s delightful Katha (1983), Chetan Anand’s reincarnation tale Kudrat (1981), Amol Palekar’s underrated Ankahee (1985), and Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Partition drama Pinjar (2003).
No account of Narinder Singh’s career, of course, would be complete without a reference to Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977). The film was offered to him by Suresh Jindal, who had previously produced Basu Chatterjee’s sleeper hit Rajnigandha (1974).
After an initial schedule in Calcutta, which involved shooting at the famous Indrapuri Studios – “it was located near a tram terminus and a railway station,” Singh said, with a shudder – the action shifted to Lucknow. When informed that Saeed Jaffrey was leaving early, Singh had to record the actor’s lines in a room of the five-star hotel in which they were staying.
Most of Jaffrey’s scenes in the film were with Sanjeev Kumar. The latter’s lines were recorded in a studio in Mumbai. Sanjeev Kumar had a dubbing style all his own, Singh recalled. Once he had figured out what he was supposed to do, the actor would keep his headphones down and then dub his lines.
Providing a recordist’s perspective on dubbing, Singh said that one not only has to understand the technicalities of sound but also need to have a thorough understanding of the script. “You have to live with the characters,” he said.
One character he lived with for a long time is Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan. A decade after recording Jaffrey in a Lucknow hotel room, Singh proceeded to do the entire dubbing of the landmark TV series Mirza Ghalib at Gulzar’s bungalow in Mumbai. In the process, Singh developed an excellent working relationship with Gulzar and went on to work with the writer-director-lyricist not only on some significant films – Ijaazat (1987), Lekin (1990), Maachis (1996), Hu Tu Tu (1999) – but also on the much-admired Doordarshan serial Kirdaar (1993), and a handful of documentaries.
There is a lot of mutual respect, Singh said of his equation with Gulzar, adding that working on Ijaazat, a film where one could “play on silence”, was something he relished.
It was during a break in the filming of Shatranj Ke Khilari that Singh got married. As a bachelor, he had been sharing an apartment with three other batchmates from the Film and Television Institute of India, the cinematographer KK Mahajan, the actor Sadhu Meher, and the editor Bhagwant Deshpande. Coincidentally, all four had been gold medallists at the institute in their respective disciplines.
The apartment, in Mumbai’s Juhu suburb, belonged to Chand Usmani, the 1960s actor who later played supporting parts. They got along famously with Usmani’s husband Mukul Dutt, a filmmaker known for the Rajesh Khanna-Asha Parekh starrer Aan Milo Sajna (1970).
Through Dutt, the four friends met his brother, Bimal Dutt, whom Singh refers to as “an intellectual”. Some years later, when Bimal Dutt – who had started his career under Bimal Roy and was a frequent collaborator with Hrishikesh Mukherjee – made Kasturi (1980), Singh was very much in the mix.
Featuring Nutan and Mithun Chakraborty, Kasturi was shot in and around the jungles of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh. This was familiar territory for the recordist as one of his initial assignments involved shooting with a European crew in central India. It was a small, mobile unit, he said of the earlier project made for Swedish TV. Without an assistant to help out, he had to carry the boom mic in one hand, cables in the other; tapes were stuffed into the pockets of a specially-made jacket. After a month of this when he returned to Mumbai, he said, “I thought some part of my body was missing.”
Not long after this excursion, Singh found himself in Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh working on Badnam Basti (1971), described as India’s first gay-themed film. Singh recalled going to Bhawani Mandi in Rajasthan to record a nautanki troupe with director Prem Kapoor and music director Vijay Raghav Rao. Later, the head of the troupe invited them to the evening’s show, an offer that was readily accepted. “Kaun sa show kiya jaaye aaj?” the leader then asked his troupe members. What should we perform? They finally settled on Mughal-e-Azam.
Those were interesting times indeed. New to Mumbai, Singh, who grew up in Delhi, KK Mahajan and the rest of the gang would go to screenings organised by Film Forum, a film club that had been started in 1965 by KA Abbas (later to be Singh’s neighbour for a time).
Film Forum, VK Cherian wrote in his history of India’s film society movement, “was a film society of the film technicians and trade union members, unlike other thriving societies that were either too elitist or too star struck”. They had an office (and also a library) in Dadar, while the screenings would take place at Tarabai Hall near the Marine Lines railway station. After the screening, the group would proceed to the Asiatic – an Irani restaurant opposite Churchgate station, now the site of a department store bearing the same name – where, over cups of tea, the film and plans would be discussed.
Later, when they had steady work, the adda moved to the classier Cafe Samovar. It was also at Film Forum where Singh and Mahajan first met Basu Chatterjee, then heavily involved in the running of the society. When Chatterjee decided to take the plunge and make Sara Akash, it was only natural that KK Mahajan and Narinder Singh – “Sight & Sound”, as BD Garga used to affectionately call the duo – were part of it.