All sound, no sense

Randeep Wadehra on how raucous background scores sound anything but musical when they become intrusive

WHILE watching television soaps one can’t help harking back to the days when theatre, radio and cinema were popular mediums of mass entertainment. Theatrical props were generally modest — a suitably painted canvas to provide background, sparse furniture for indoors and a rock or two, generally made of cardboard, by the side of a drooping tree to give the impression of outdoors.

A sudden tonal change in Rabba Ishq Na Hove jars
A sudden tonal change in Rabba Ishq Na Hove jars

For music, one had to do with whatever talent was available. Radio-dramas used to be fun. Dialogues and music were so presented as to send one’s imagination into a world that was both special and private. One remembers comedies and classics, translated and adapted from Indian and Western literature, being broadcast during nights and on Sunday mornings and afternoons.

Cinema — and its small-screen derivative the TV show — transformed the very grammar of entertainment. If theatre was predominantly visual and radio entirely audio-centric, cinema and television amalgamated the audio with the visual. Sets became increasingly lavish.

Today, of course, they can be termed too glitzy to be realistic. Songs are indispensable tools for furthering the narrative. Music in the background is much more than a contrivance to heighten the effect of a sequence, turning into a parallel source of entertainment within a movie. Hence, from the 1970s onwards, audio-cassettes of soundtracks began to sell like hotcakes in the market. But soon, tackiness crept in, effectively downgrading the art. Both songs and music became irrelevant to the flow of the plot, yet remained indispensable cinematic inputs.

However, the two audio-visual ingredients began to evolve thanks to the technology-driven special-effects syndrome. Normally, such developments should be welcome, but in the context of Hindi television these have certainly deprived us of such simple pleasures as enjoying our favourite show unhindered. You’ll be perfectly justified in wondering whether anyone in his senses could actually have a fave telly-show while quoting the Polish-American producer Samuel Goldwyn’s observation, "Why should people go out and pay to see bad films when they can stay at home and see bad television for nothing?" Well, not exactly nothing if cable TV subscription rates are any indication.

Nevertheless, just when an interesting confrontation is unfolding on the TV, say between Millie and Vishal Rastogi, high-decibel background music drowns all dialogue. You may not miss much if sweet-nothings whispered by lovebirds-on-telly are rendered inaudible as it often happened in the now concluded Astitva`85or the current Rabba Ishq Na Hove, but you’ll certainly like to know the verbal exchange between Disha and DK Sehgal (Tumhari Disha`85) in a dramatic scene, but the off-screen high notes shoot up to such a jarring extent that you are left guessing. And yes, Sarrkaar ‘experimented’ with underscoring, what the director/editor thought was an important dialogue, with echo-effect. You wouldn’t know what Bhagwat or Karan etc actually said because of the sudden change in the tonal quality sounding like reverberations from an empty well. Consequently, instead of facilitating the flow of a narrative, musical effects actually block it.

The Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini might have boasted of setting even a laundry-list to music, our musicians are doing much worse — they are turning musical notes into the sounds from our fabled dhobi-ghats. A dramatic announcement is made in Sindoor or Kahani Kismat Kay, and you find the camera zooming on individual characters’ faces in super-quick succession, accompanied with what sounds like a thousand drums and cymbals banging away in unison. You can’t read the emotions – whether the assembled persons are stunned or angry or both. And, you do not know what the accompanying noise is all about.

Visual special effects are equally off-putting. If there is a slap — it’s repeated with the help of what technicians describe as "dynamo-effect"; the uninitiated feel that the recipient has been smacked several times with lightning rapidity and begins to marvel at the renderer’s dexterity, strength and speed.

Another superfluous camera special effect is changing the colour to black-and-white, or monochrome, momentarily to convey`85 what? Then, some cameramen have this penchant for turning frames upside-down, or show a sequence at angles that make us wonder whether the characters have somehow acquired Spiderman’s powers. Thus, viewers’ confusion gets further confounded.

Artistic embellishment is certainly the prerogative of the maker of the serial, but it should make sense to the audience. If the idea is to zap them with spectacular sound or video effects then such efforts are subject to the law of vanishing returns, for these cinematic tricks fail miserably to communicate.

There is a difference between tawdriness and aesthetics. The former grates one’s sensibility while the latter provides transcendental experience. Going by what one’s senses are subjected to in one’s own drawing room, you are reminded of the late British music critic Ernest Newman’s words, "I sometimes wonder which would be nicer — an opera without an interval, or an interval without an opera."