Sholay Redux 04 – Mangesh Desai aka Sound Wizard
At a time when 6 or 8 audio tracks were the norm, Sholay was the first Indian film with 22 recorded soundtracks remixed in complete stereophonic sound. Director Ramesh Sippy said of the man who made it possible, “Sholay would not have been the same without him”. Satyajit Ray, famous for extremely measured ovation, was his fan, ““I can think of very few people I have worked with whom I could describe as ‘indispensable’. If anyone fully deserves that epithet, it is he, a perfectionist and a practical one. And he is as much an artiste as he is a craftsman. It is a pity that l came into contact with him so late in my career with Pratidwandi (’70).”
The man in spotlight, who for 30 years dominated the final frontier of the finished soundtrack the audience hears in a movie, was Mangesh Desai.
For the technically challenged, sound re-recording is the last stage in the completion of a film. The four components of cinematic sound; dialogues, effects, music and silence are all put into one track or ‘mixed’. It involves a lot of reviewing and adjustment of the sounds already recorded and requires a sharp ear as well as creative imagination to visualize the impact of any particular sound in the context of the film and Mangesh Desai, the ‘incomparable sound wizard’ was the master of his domain.
Born in Kolhapur, Mangesh was a nephew of music director Vasant Desai. A science graduate of Rajaram College in Kolhapur, with his imprisonment during the Quit India movement, he was unable to secure his degree. His uncle Vasant, permanent staff on Rajkamal Studio payroll was owner V Shantaram’s favoured music director. Helping his nephew, he got him apprenticed under chief recordist Parmar in the technical department headed by Mr. B M Tata. The year was 1947.
Getting involved in all the departments of film-making, the zealous lad owing to his keen interest in electronics and its allied sphere of sound engineering soon became a full-fledged sound recordist. Came a day when Parmar wasn’t well and J B H Wadia wanted work done on his film Madhosh. Relying on his protégé, Parmar encouraged Desai to mount the challenge. Desai replied, “I’ve never done it on my own but I think can.” Pleased with the results, Parmar gave him on site charge while he retreated to a supervisory role.
The year was 1951. He now became the chief recordist at Rajkamal studio, always on the cutting edge of film sound innovation. Desai, who had learnt music under the late vocalist Wamanrao Padhye in Kolhapur was the first to be associated with the earliest indigenous stereophonic experiments with Shantaram’s ‘Jal Bin Machchli Nritya Bin Bijli (1971). These test recordings were only restricted to songs for gramophone records. The trial by fire, of course, was Sholay. Besides recording all the songs and the background score, he also dubbed the entire dialogue track to orientate it for authentic stereophonic reproduction. Then he also did the general dubbing and re-recording.
The success of Sholay and the novelty it introduced was Desai‘s career summit. I remember seeing it in Laxmi theater, Dehra Dun on its original release. And the coin chuck by Veeru after Jai’s death landing off-screen as all of us turned ninety degrees after three seconds when the metallic sound of the coin landing on a rock was heard behind us. And then, an embarrassing collective giggle at being fooled by cinema’s magic.
In a career lasting more than three decades, he worked on some 500 films. Gifted with a flawless ear for sound, he believed, “If a film scene has to come alive to a spectator, every sound that he hears from the screen or every sound that he has to hear in relation to the visuals is important.”
Futile to name them all but he was the last stop for every top director in Bombay. Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar came from Calcutta and B Nagi Reddy, who owned Chennai’s Vijaya Vauhani Studios, the largest studio complex in Asia sent his directors for re-recording to Desai.
Even with his absolute supremacy and gargantuan workload, Desai never compromised on quality. Conscientious to the core, he would never allow a bad sound to pass and if the film maker insisted on urgency, his standard reply was, “Get it done elsewhere if you wish, but if you come to me, I’ll do my best.”
Desai’s apprentice, the contemporary premier re-recordist Hitendra Ghosh who took over the mantle at Rajkamal after his death recalled his qualities, “To do sound re-recording properly, an aesthetic sense is basic. The decision whether to retain or drop a sound, at what level, and in what manner is entirely yours though the director be present. And Desai knew exactly what the scene required. People used to wait for months for his dates. I will continue his techniques, his traditions.”
He reached his peak during the seventies, handling about 60 films a year, an average of about one per week and seldom did a film maker differ with him with regard to sound aspect of the film. Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili was his last assignment. With his heart valves damaged, he underwent a bypass surgery. “The operation was on a Monday and he was working till Saturday.” recalled Ghosh. Post operative complications sent him into a coma and Desai succumbed on 15 October 1985.
Largely, Mangesh Desai is still regarded as the best re-recordist the country has ever had. Here is his partial filmography at IMDb.
Years later, ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakar illustrated the terrifying proposition on facing Mangesh Desai with an invalid point with this anecdote.
“In battle, generals wore red jackets so even if mortally wounded, the red color camouflaged the blood thus keeping the morale of the troops high. When producers went to see Mangesh Desai, they wore brown pants. You figure it out.”