Caught in a gunbattle with Gabbar Singh’s gang, Veeru has to decide: Should he leave Jai behind and ferry Basanti to safety? Jai flips the coin — as he has all through Sholay (1975) — to settle the matter. When Veeru finally returns to find Jai breathing his last, he realises the deception: the coin is the same on either side. He flings the coin in the dacoit’s rocky den in grief and anguish. Sholay’s sound re-recordist Mangesh Desai told director Ramesh Sippy that the sound of the coin being flung should reverberate in theatres. That effect was achieved by flipping a coin against a wall and letting it roll down steps during the sound mixing.
In the documentary, The Sound Man: Mangesh Desai, directed by sound designer Subash Sahoo, Sippy fondly recalls the process of mixing for Sholay and what he learnt from Desai, who brought a tonga into the Rajkamal Studios to create a range of sounds for Basanti’s vehicle. Maestro Shivkumar Sharma, who played the Iranian santoor for the movie’s Mehbooba mehbooba track, found the original sound changed, sounding more like that of the rubab. Desai was allowed such liberties. With Sholay, Desai pushed the envelope, creating stereophonic sound and never-before-experienced surround sound, which he mixed at a London studio. After returning to India, however, he replaced the sound of rifles firing with dhishkyaon and added some dhishooms, keeping the audience expectations in mind. The rest is history as Sholay became one of the first Indian movies to market its soundtrack.
Acknowledged as “the best sound recordist of the country” by Shyam Benegal, and a “magician” by actor-director Manoj Kumar, Desai had a rare gift of understanding what masses loved and the passion to create those sonic experiences. He was widely respected by filmmakers, including V Shantaram, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Gulzar and Satyajit Ray, who found it tough to ignore his suggestions that invariably lifted the scenes. “So much so that the release date of movies was decided according to the dates allotted by Desai for their mixing,” recalls Kiran Shantaram, who used to run Rajkamal Studios, which was founded by his father, the iconic filmmaker V Shantaram.
As a much in demand re-recordist, he was responsible for creatively putting together sound design, ambience, music and songs that offered the audience an emotional experience. However, the trained-on-the-job recordist often created his own grammar. In spite of that, as pointed out by filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, Desai remains “an unsung hero of Indian cinema”. “I know him through the work he has done and through lots of anecdotes shared by people who have worked with him. All that helped me form an opinion that he was a man of high artistic integrity,” says Oscar-award winning sound designer Resul Pookutty, who adds that “Indian cinema is as aural as it is visual”.
Benegal, who first worked with Desai in 1959 as an ad filmmaker, says that he worked on documentaries, ads and movies with equal ease. According to Sahoo, what makes a sound recordist’s work stand out is that it makes sound enhance the feel and quality of the content and not overpower it. Benegal says that Desai never tried to show off “his brilliance” and instead worked on making the movie better.
Born in 1923 in the coastal Sonawade village of Maharashtra, Desai shifted to Mumbai after a brief imprisonment during the Quit India movement in 1942 and after finishing his intermediate studies. In 1947, his uncle, music composer Vasant Desai brought him to Rajkamal Studios, where he was initially g iven the task of putting the reels into metal boxes.
Later on, while he was assisting on the sound mixing of JBH Wadia’s Madhosh (1951), he was asked to finish the task as the main recordist was unwell. He got the first assistant recording credit in the V Shantaram-directed Amar Bhoopali (1951) and, in 1950, he became an independent recordist. Fifteen years later, he became the head of recording at the studio, where he worked till he passed away in 1985, at the age of 62 due to a heart ailment. By then, he had achieved the record of working on nearly 3,700 movies. Many prominent filmmakers stuck to Desai as long as he lived; Ray was one of them. Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, reveals in the documentary that his father never worked with another recordist after Pratidwandi (1970) till Desai was around.
While he was regarded as one of the pioneers in sound, many prominent directors, including Chopra, consulted him on other matters of filmmaking as well.
Chopra says that following Desai’s advice, he kept Kabhi Kabhie (1976)’s story linear. The scene in Deewar (1975), in which Shashi Kapoor proclaims that “Mere paas ma hai”, pans out as Desai visualised. He asked Chopra to use close-ups of Amitabh Bachchan and Kapoor as well as insert a moment of silence between the former’s question “Tumhare paas kya hai?” and the now iconic punchline. Much to music composer Naushad’s disapproval, it was Desai’s idea to put the shrill train whistle at the end of Pakeezah (1972)’s song Chalte chalte. Naushad took back his words as the song became immensely popular.
The 8am-8pm schedule of the much-in demand recordist left him with very little time for the family barring Sundays, when he loved playing cards with friends. At home, he rarely discussed his job. His three children grew up without much idea about the respect he commanded and what his profession entailed. Since he passed away without meeting any of his grandchildren, his youngest daughter, Sucheta Lad, thought of writing a book on him to acquaint them with their grandfather. “During that process, I rediscovered my father. Anyone from the industry I called for information on him, welcomed me with warmth,” says Lad, who published Quest in 2004.
The book was a precursor to Sahoo’s efforts to bring to the limelight Desai’s “genius” as well as to reinforce the fact that “sound mixing is not merely a technical job”. The 52-year-old director, who studies sound engineering at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, says: “Sound is the soul of any movie and requires deep understanding of cinema.” The documentary, which premiered at the MAMI Film Festival, took four years to make. But Sahoo succeeds in driving home what he believes in: “One can be a hero behind the camera too.”