Sound memories from Sholay

1975 was the year the blockbuster film Sholay was released – I had finished school and joined College to master Electrical Engineering just the previous year. The music was already all over the radio waves. Radio Ceylon had been playing a couple of tracks and interestingly, the LP’s and EP’s which came out not only covered its enchanting music, but also dialogs. We had a regular song LP and an EP with bits of the background music, the songs and the classic villainous dialogs of the ominous Gabbar Singh. But what was new about the whole thing was that it was all in stereo. Playing them in the ‘record player’ upstairs at home and at full blast during vacations was something the three of us (my brother, cousin and myself) kept at, irritating all and sundry. But it was fun, and an experience which still brings out the chuckles when we meet and reminiscence.

Can you believe it, that was the time when we used to sport headbands (the owner of the ladies fancy store at Sultanpet must have been mystified about boys being keen about those fancy nylon headbands all of a sudden) wearing them at all times, even when we went to the temple. Old women would ask us why we were sporting such outlandish contraptions over an even sillier looking step cut which was the fashion those days, and we had to go to Coimbatore to get those cuts! And I agree looking at those photos today, it does look gross, to say the least. I don’t remember what triggered it all, but lots of youngsters followed the attire of bell and elephant bottoms, fancy colored shirts with those dog collars and some sported the headband.

But I should not digress and stray away from the topic which is about all that new sound we heard and enjoyed, the stereo music of Sholay, created by the one and only man who advanced change, Panchamda or Rahul Dev Burman. All the innovations and experimentations, the adjustments, jugads and difficulties are a stuff of the legends in the Bollywood music circles, and so let’s also try and get to know some of it. I can assure you, it is stimulating stuff and thinking about it, for a person to experiment like RD did, it took a lot of guts!

An Indianised dacoit curry Western, that is how the movie is classified, Sholay was set around the real life exploits of a dacoit Gabbar of Gwalior. The script writers were the dynamic duo of Salim Javed, Ramesh Sippy the producer, Amjad Khan made his debut while Sanjeev Kumar, Amitab, Jaya, Hema and Dharmendra starred. After the movie came out in 70mm, also something new, each person had a favorite. While most noticed the entry of Gabbar and his very unique dialog delivery, accentuated by the background set by RD, others rooted for Sanjeev Kumar or Dharm or Amitabh.  

As the movie shooting chugged along, and as many of you know, the heroes and the heroines of the film got romantically involved with each other, replete with a triangle as Sanjeev – Haribhai who very much in love with Hema, watched in horror as Hema and Dharam came closer and closer.

Time to go behind the scenes and check out how the soundman RD was progressing. While the story writers and the director wove a four line basic plot around many inspirational movies like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance kid, the magnificent seven, Seven Samurai and many others, planning a shoot around Ramanagaram near Bangalore, the choice of MD or music director was none other than the man at his peak, RD Burman. A string of hits testified to the success, Amar Prem, Aap ki kasam, Yadon Ki Barat, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Kati Patang, Namak Haram, Aradhana, establishing him as a hit creator not only with westernized tunes, but also classic desi tunes such as those in Amar Prem and Kati Patang.

RD heard the story line at Sippy’s house with Salim-Javed in tow, as well as details on the song situations. And the tune for Koi Haseena jab was the first to be created, with Anand Bakshi writing out the lyrics later. Most of the songs which were written for the film were recorded at Rajkamal studios, and a full orchestra with 60-70 musicians was the norm. RD’s assistants Manori and Basu arranged the songs, went through many rehearsals and finally it was RD’s task to come in and finish it off, balancing the song. The music had been sold in advance to the new entrant Polydor for Rs 5 lakhs, again something new, straying away from the powerful stalwart HMV (perhaps a catalyst for this was the family relationship, Sippy was married to the sister of Polydor India owner Shashi Patel). It was a challenge for Polydor as they had to sell at least 100,000 records to break even on the Sholay royalty deal.

Some may remember the haunting title theme, think back and you will hear the guitar tune strummed by Bhupinder Singh and Kesri Lord in your mind. This kept you hooked as the camera moves into the jungle through a dirt track with the French horn taking over, as the two men on the horse clip along showing viewers the hilly terrain of Ramgarh and takes you to the village and as the tune gets along, now the tune perks up with drums violins other and instruments join in and then, bits (I think) of the familiar Ennico Moricone ‘for a few dollars more’ whistling by Manohari Singh clips in.

Or recall the scene which introduces us to the villain in Amjad Khan, the ‘Are O’ Sambha, Kitne admi’ the scene, you will hear that creepy  background wail made with a cello by Vasudeo Chakravarty which was later associated with all other Gabbar scenes. Sholay’s music unlike most blockbuster musicals was in reality not just about the songs in the film, but its great background score which took over a month to compose,  using specially constructed devices to make screeches and groans. The BGM became such a hit, so also the dialogs as time went by, so much so that Polydor set up stalls in larger theaters to sell dialog and BGM discs. Soon the dialogs were burned into our memories, and the sounds still remain there in the heads of the people of that generation. Over 500,000 records were sold eventually, five times the breakeven plan. Polydor actually won a platinum disc for the sale of the 'Sholay' records in two years, the first time such a disc has been awarded in the 75- year-old history of the Indian record industry and this was what established Polydor as a proper competitor to HMV.

In retrospect, one could ask how it would have been if Gabbar hummed a few lines in Sholay, and another would answer that Mehbooba Mehbooba would have been right with him lip-synching to that number, but the fact is that villains such as Gabbar are just not allowed to do such things in Hindi movies, as Anna Morcom was told by Bollywood bigwigs. Villains lose their fierceness if they were associated with music, they said, and were quite emphatic about it. So it was pictured as a gypsy song, and many of you would remember the famous Panchamda number as well as Helen’s dance in the film. The brainwave of using an inspired tune for Mehbooba did not actually come from RD, it was a suggestion by Sippy’s wife Geeta who had heard the Demi Russo number while visiting his brother Ajit at London. Panchamda agreed and decided to sing it himself (the original plan was it seems, to have Asha sing it) to match a right voice to the raunchy tune. RD had the Iranian santoor played by Shiv Kumar Sharma following on after the sounds of air blown into half-filled beer bottles matching the swing of Helen’s ample hips(it was perhaps changed later by Mangesh Desai when it was mixed at London, with a Rubab, as a recent report states)

Making it all stereo was what that made it a daunting proposition. The six-track sound, which was a difficult proposition technically at that time in India was the very thing which transformed the music scene in Indian films, forever and set the trends for big budget films thereafter. I still recall that coin toss, and the many sounds from that film, stuff we never noticed in a film until then (barring the train whistle at the ends of the Pakeezah song). One should also note here that Sholay was not the first 70mm movie or one using the six track stereo, but it was a Raj Kapoor movie shot 7 years earlier called ‘Around the World’ about an Indian who travels around the world with just 8 dollars.

Nobody has analyzed the music in the Sholay song ‘yeh dosti’ and how it fits its video better than Anna Morcom. A synthesizer was used in a film for the first time. Kesri Lord plays it as Jai and Viru spot a village girl during the second interlude of the Yeh Dosti song. Morcom explains it so beautifully – In interlude 2, trouble appears in the form of a pretty woman, and the music changes abruptly to a repetitive phrase built around two tritones played in a rough synthesizer sound as she smiles flirtatiously at them.  This phrase used the tritone to signify the potential threat to their friendship, and indeed, Jai and Veeru start arguing over her. …Jai and Veeru now toss a coin, which lands on its side, indicating that neither will have her, and they are meant to stick together. The woman sees that nothing is to be gained from either of these two and scuttles off in fast motion, to the strumming of high piano string glissandos…Jai and Veeru lose control of their vehicle, which starts to skid around, as this happens, violins begin to play fast and chromatic ‘dizzy’ phrases.

Her analysis continues on, but you can I hope, understand how music gets set in a song (listen to the song on youtube and visualize, but focusing on the music as you watch) and the visual sequence, and how it all comes out on screen, just the way you want it and now you can visualize the role and work a music director has!! If you did not know, it took 21 days to shoot this one song.

Recording for 70mm in multiple tracks and stereo output was nothing less than challenging. Each sound was recorded separately at Bombay. The Twickenham studios in London had initially sent out an engineer to Bombay who gave the Burman team the recording advice for taping the raw sound. Every sound, such as the tonga, the bike, was recorded and for three months Ramesh Sippy shuttled between London and Bombay carrying the sounds to London.

They used three magnetic tape recorders linked together on six tracks at Rajkamal studios to record these sounds. Deepan Chatterji, RD’s recording assistant, explains that it was a full orchestra playing in one go, with everything being recorded on the six tracks. As one of the tracks was the monitor (the mono being listened to) the other tracks composed the five track mono which was compiled and remixed to Stereo at London. The eerie Gabbar BG sound we talked about earlier was picked up by a contact microphone stuck on Vasudev’s cello and looped. Bhanu Gupta, RD Burman’s trusted musical hand explains “There were four sectional mikes for guitar, bass, drums and side rhythm sections. The singers had individual mikes. The balancing took ages. Once the balance was Okayed, we were supposed to maintain the volume. If someone moved a bit away from the mike or started tapping his feet, the recording had to be started all over again. Interestingly the fight and gun sounds were replaced with the popular ‘dishum dishum and dishkyon’ sounds at London, since Indian audiences liked it.

Bhanu Gupta adds an interesting aside about the music popularity, about him being stooped by a traffic policemen and being let off when he tells him that he was the Sholay (There is a poignant scene where Amitabh plays the mouth organ as Jaya the widow looks on from the Thakur house) harmonica player!

RD did have a setback though after Sholay and due to various reasons, RD’s enthusiasm slacked post Sholay perhaps even plagued by the plagiarism accusations about Mehbooba. Bengali’s incensed with the song even spread a rumor that Sachin Dev Burman, his father, had a fatal stroke listening to mehbooba. But well, today that cult song is one of the fondest memories from that great movie and one which continues to be remixed. It is ironic and life is strange, for it was only because of a 4 month CMA (Cine musicians association) strike in Bombay that Burman and team obtained all the leisure time to work out the details of the Sholay music!!

More than the vendetta in the film’s story line, there was another brewing in the background. Due to a tiff between a Delhi bureaucrat and the Sippy’s, the 70mm print being readied at London did not get the required import approvals in time and was seized by the high commission officials. Sippy used his connections with Rajni Patel and VC Shukla to push the bureaucrat who still managed to stall the print for some time and the premiere had to be done on the 14th Aug with a 35mm print at Minerva Bombay (the print arrived later that evening). But apart from the technicians, nobody in the theatre realized what had happened. Only four 70mm prints of Sholay were released initially - one for Delhi, one for Uttar Pradesh and two for Bombay. The same 70mm print was screened at Plaza and Liberty in Delhi, which had different show timings so that the film could be taken back and forth between the two halls in a car.

But the film took a while to catch on, and was panned initially. K L Amladi, the critic with India Today, wrote that the film was a "dead ember" and added that "thematically, it's a gravely flawed attempt." As the picture hit the screens, it did not drum up any crowd enthusiasm initially and after a number of days rose up to the heights off and remained there for ages, as the numero-uno in Bollywood …

Lata Jha in Live mint explains about its continued impact - It was the film’s 25th anniversary in the year 2000 and Sholay was declared as the “Film of the Millennium" by BBC India. Bombay’s Minerva re-released the classic and the theatre was as expected, jam-packed. “I couldn’t hear a single dialogue," Sippy recalls of that show. “The audience kept anticipating each word, delightfully showing off what they knew. It was frustrating but so euphoric."

Sholay - the making of a classic – Anupama Chopra
Hindi film songs and the cinemas – Anna Morcom
Behind the curtain – Gregory D Booth
RD Burman – the man and the music Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balajee Vittal
Sholay’s background score ( link

When Melody was Queen - Part 1 From the soundtrack
When Melody was Queen - Making the song
When Melody was Queen - As music changed - The magic of RD Burman

pic - wikimedia