The Bombay film music industry has been dominated by male music composers for the past eight decades. In this essay, the author explores the work of Sneha Khanwalkar, a young female music director who has brought forward new sound practices on popular television in India and in Bombay cinema. Instead of working in Bombay studios, Khanwalkar prefers to step out into the “field,” carving out dense acoustic territories using portable recording technologies. Her field studio becomes an unlimited space as readers see her backpacking, collecting sounds and musical phrases, and, finally, working with the material she has collected. Khanwalkar's collaborative approach to musical sound has challenged genre boundaries between film music and folk music on the one hand and the oral and the recorded on the other. Her radical intervention in sound and music brings together unexplored spatialities, voices, bodies, and machines by foregrounding the process of citation, recording, and digital reworking. Through an exploration of Khanwalkar's work, involving travel, mobility, and a prosthetic extension of the body through the microphone, the author brings into discussion emerging practices that have expanded the aural boundaries of the Bombay film song.
The Bombay film music industry has been dominated by male music composers for the past eight decades. Their domination extends to the fields of sound engineering, location sound recording, and music orchestration. The only exception has been the near-hegemonic control of the field of playback singing by the Mangeshkar sisters.1 In this article, I explore the work of Sneha Khanwalkar, a young female music director who has introduced new practices of sound on Indian popular television and Bombay cinema over the past decade. Moving out of the confines of the Bombay studio and into the “field,” Khanwalkar's is creating a digital archive of music of the regions. Moreover, I argue that her radical intervention in sound and music brings together unexplored spatialities, voices, bodies and machines by foregrounding the process of citation, recording and digital reworking. Finally, through the lens of Khanwalkar's work, I offer some insights into larger shifts in the production and consumption of the Bombay film song.
The material and industrial practices of sound recording in the Bombay film industry have relied largely on studio sound, privileging intelligibility over fidelity, ever since the coming of talkie cinema.2 According to film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha, this points toward Indian cinema's “curious resistance to live sound,” which results in the elimination of all sounds recorded during the shooting phase. These are then “replaced by the spatial grounding of all source into a single point produced in the studio.”3 The industry's production protocols grew attuned to the practice of dubbing, in which actors would lip-sync their dialogue in a studio by watching the filmed sequences onscreen and following the audio cues of location sound. This system means that actors have to literally perform their scenes twice, once in front of the camera and again in a sound studio.
The technological and material practices of the production of film songs have gone through several transformations. After the arrival of playback technology, songs were recorded prior to the filming, or “picturization,” of song sequences. This recorded song was played back during the process of filming so that the onscreen actor could lip-sync the song in front of the camera. The aural was thus privileged over the visual, allowing songs to circulate in the public domain prior to the film's release. Later, the introduction of the track system enabled composers to prepare tracks before recording the playback singer's voice, which made the recording process less cumbersome by fragmenting the recording process into several segments. Despite these transformations, the studio has remained the center of all activities that involve recording of tracks, sound processing, and mixing.
Among the important recognized features of Bombay film music has been its ability to borrow from diverse resources, including folk, classical, and western music, as well as music from the Middle East or Far East. The easy borrowing of folk tunes, local music, and the sounds of folk instruments has helped music composers of Bombay cinema to situate film songs in diverse geographical musical contexts. Significantly, however, the folk artists whose songs are thus used have remained completely unacknowledged. A well-known example of this elision is the song “Ramaiya Vasta Vaiyya,” from the film Sri 420 (1955, dir. Raj Kapoor). It is said that the members of the Raj Kapoor (RK) musical team were inspired by a folk song that they heard one night while walking by a construction site in Bombay.4 The first line of “Ramaiya Vasta Vaiyya” is in Telugu, while the rest of the song is in Hindi. Loosely translated, the first line means “Ramaiya, when will you come?” This song is deployed in the film to depict a community of footpath dwellers in Bombay and thus underline the polyglot nature of the city, which attracts migrants from disparate parts of the country.
A related and an important question that needs to be explored is how the Bombay studio became the spatial resource for a diverse repertoire of sounds, musical phrases, vocal accents, grains of voice, folk tunes, sounds of folk instruments, and “world” music. The studio emerged as a creative space that allowed all these diverse auralities to animate one another.
Several music directors, from the 1940s to the '70s, have been inspired by or borrowed directly from music from various parts of India. Ghulam Haider introduced Punjabi folk tunes into popular film songs.5 Salil Chaudhary was known to be particularly inclined toward music from Bengal and Assam, while Naushad Ali used folk music from Uttar Pradesh in several compositions.6 S. D. Burman, on the other hand, drew heavily from the music of West Bengal, especially the bhatiyali songs7 and the tunes of itinerant musicians such as the bauls8 and the fakirs of the region.9 But attribution and citation were never given any significance by the film music industry. With the coming of the cassette revolution in the 1980s, recordings of folk and regional genres became the largest category of nonfilm music in India, as many folk artists took this opportunity to issue their recordings in the public domain.10 A controversy arose in the 1990s when Ghazi Khan, a Manganiar folk artist from Rajasthan, accused Ismail Durbar, the music director of Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali), of using Khan's song “Nimbuda” and claiming credit for it without acknowledging him.11
The arrival of digital sound recording and computer software in the 1990s transformed the music studios of Bombay. The postproduction of songs now took much longer, involving pitch correction, processing, and layering of voice tracks and other sound material. A. R. Rahman, the most celebrated composer of this phase, leveraged new technologies to emphasize a sense of play and indeterminacy in the creation of songs.12 He used many Tamil folk tunes in his songs, but he also experimented with electronic sounds, slowly eliminating acoustic instruments from his studios.13 In “Rukmini Rukmini,” a popular song from Roja (1992, dir. Mani Rathnam), he introduced husky-toned voices to match the actors' bodies: old women who are teasing a newly married couple, who are expected to consummate their marriage on their first night.14 This kind of voice casting for film songs was unusual in Bombay film studios. To record a song, singers were invited to sing in a basic key, with freedom to improvise and sing as many variations as they pleased. Rahman then used this sonic material to assemble a song through an intense process of editing and layering of musical tracks.
Rahman worked only from his own studio in Chennai, and, after establishing himself as a star composer, he became much in demand in the Bombay film industry.15 Even Bombay's senior producers, directors, and artists were expected to travel to Chennai and wait for days on end if they wanted to work with Rahman.16 Another story, often repeated in film magazines, was that Rahman liked to record his music at night, meaning that musicians and singers had to attune themselves to both his spatial and his temporal styles of working.17 Though Rahman eventually stepped out of Chennai to enter the global stage, his work remained studio-driven. His first collaboration was with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the stage musical Bombay Dreams (2002, dir. Steven Pimlott). Consolidating his oeuvre of innovative and creative musical tracks, his international success was further recognized with an Oscar and two Grammy Awards for his score for Slum Dog Millionaire (2008, dir. Danny Boyle).
SNEHA KHANWALKAR: THE JUGNI WITH A SOUND RECORDER
While Rahman's westward journey from Chennai to London and then to Los Angeles, was a transnational one, Sneha Khanwalkar moved in the opposite direction. Her most important early film was Dibakar Bannerjee's Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008), which got noticed for its soundtrack's use of quirky voices and folk genres mixed with peppy beats. None of the songs in this film are typical Bollywood songs in which an onscreen actor mimes the song with the use of lip-sync. The songs are introduced in the track as background sonic material, adding dense textures to the sequence in the film.18
In an interview, Khanwalkar hinted at her own boredom with Hindi film songs: coming from a musically inclined family, she always had been asked to sing at family functions. Rebelling against this environment, she took up an interest in animation films but soon veered toward music direction. What interested Khanwalkar was the creation of a new kind of soundwork that was edgy and well blended with the spatiality of the films' narratives upon which she worked.19
Let us turn toward the kind of strategies Khanwalkar adopted to create her music. Rather than work from Bombay studios, Khanwalkar stepped into the field to carve out a new kind of soundtrack. I highlight two aspects of her work here (figs. 1, 2). The first is the interface among mobility, technology, and gender. The second is the staging of these events to foreground the process of collecting, citing, archiving, and making music in a collaborative style. This process became the trademark of her style, which meant that each time her films were released, it was expected that videos would be uploaded onto YouTube that showed Khanwalkar working with local and regional artists out of makeshift studios as part of the promotional strategy of her films.
The narrative of Oye Lucky Lucky Oye is set in the Delhi/Haryana region, and Khanwalkar chose to draw extensively from local voices and the instruments of this region. For instance, the root of the song “Tu Raja Ki Raaj Dulari” can be traced to a Haryanvi folk song that director Dibakar Bannerjee had heard more than a decade earlier—as he said in an interview, “I asked Sneha to get me that song somehow.”20 Then followed Khanwalkar's journey into the interiors of Haryana, where she met several folk artists and heard different versions of this song. This search finally took her to a ragini festival, an all-night gathering of male artists who sing for and listen to one another. Khanwalkar then selected two young boys to perform the song and rehearsed with them for a few days. Finally she took them to a studio in Delhi, where “Tu Raja Ki Raaj Dulari” was recorded with Rajbir, one of the boys she had selected from the ragini festival.
This song appears in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye three times as a background track, but it is audible for only thirty to forty seconds each time. Despite this ephemeral and fragmented presence, the song made a stir, judging by the number of people who watched it on YouTube.21 Interestingly, the publicity for the film highlighted Khanwalkar's style of working, and the publicity video included clips from the ragini festival and of Khanwalkar rehearsing and directing Rajbir in the studio.22 The video was cleverly constructed, with short interviews with Dibakar Bannerjee and Khanwalkar speaking excitedly about their experiences of traveling and hunting for voices, sounds, and songs.
Another popular song from the film was recorded with Des Raj Lakhani, a folksinger from Punjab (fig. 3).23 The video shows Khanwalkar traveling to Lakhani's village: in the interaction that follows, she asks him to sing his version of “Jugni,” a popular folk song narrating a regional legend. After rehearsals and improvisations at Lakhani's home, the folk artist is taken to a studio in Chandigarh to record the track. In the section shot with Lakhani, we see Khanwalkar swaying to the beat of the song while Lakhani sings. In these sequences, she comes across as a traveler, listener, musician, technician, and sound artist. It is her embodied experience as an explorer of sounds that paves the way for the spectator/listener to connect to her music.
It is interesting to look at “Jugni,” a popular genre of folk songs that recently has been performed by several artists, each bringing a new perspective. According to film scholar and music composer Madan Gopal Singh, “Jugni” describes the “voluntary travels of the feminine spirit staged as aggressive subterfuge.”24 The genre, performed by male singers, describes the journeys and observations of a spirit whose name is Jugni. In several versions, Jugni is described as a rebellious woman who wears western clothes and travels fearlessly. These songs point toward the anxiety caused by her free-spirited and enigmatic figure.25 One important facet that attracts poets to the figure of Jugni is her immense passion to travel, to literally force an entry into places—and to offer her own observations.26
TRAVEL, TELEVISION, AND SOUND TRIPPING
In 2012, Khanwalkar became an anchor of Sound Trippin, an innovative new travel show on MTV that allowed her to carry forward the work she had experimented with in her film soundtracks. The content of the show involved Khanwalkar recording a region's local sounds and turning this sonic material into songs. The show captured Khanwalkar traveling to one particular region of a state, collecting sounds, meeting local artists, listening to their work, and then collaborating with them to create a song. Thus the process was quite similar to the one that she had followed in creating some songs for Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. Freed from the confines of a studio, and through her acts of traveling, listening, recording, citing, and performing, Khanwalkar inhabited the Jugni spirit.
There has been a lot of scholarly interest in cinema as a vehicle for mobility and sightseeing. Giuliana Bruno has drawn our attention to the sensualized self-fashioning of the nineteenth-century woman travel writer, who could break out of domesticity to enjoy public circulation.27 With the arrival of photography, the camera has also been seen an empowering technology that allows women photographers to reverse the gaze. The documentary form across various media platforms, such as still photography, radio, cinema, and television, has significantly contributed to women's ability to travel and intervene in diverse media practices. In this regard, both the presence of women's bodies in the public domain and women's access to technology have been subjects of debate. Traveling or wandering is intimately linked with the idea of knowledge about a geographical place, with the traveler acknowledging her body in space.28 In travel shows, a popular genre on television, women anchors have played an important role in staging their bodies to explore nondomestic spaces. In many of these shows, female anchors lead viewers to beaches, resorts, hill stations, flea markets, street food stalls, cultural events, or heritage monuments. The anchor's body, engaged in leisurely consumption, is as much under the gaze of the camera as are the sites under exploration.
The overpowering predominance of the sense of vision in fashioning the idea of travel in audiovisual media recently has been challenged to offer an alternative: to know and experience a place through its sound cultures.29 It has also been argued that the camera's vision can be linear, directional, goal-oriented, leading to the pervasiveness of an objective engagement.30 What is unique in Sound Trippin is how Khanwalkar, armed with a microphone and recorder, uses a travel genre to negotiate space that foregrounds sound cultures (figs. 4, 5). The female anchor's body is no longer the focal point for the ocular gaze of the camera, and this sidestepping of vision in exploring a place helps to emphasize the terrain via overlapping sounds and diverse sonic registers. By drawing attention to the act of listening and recording, Khanwalkar frames herself as a dynamic listening body. The microphone becomes a prosthetic extension of Khanwalkar's body, upholding an enhanced form of being and knowing.
In his ethnographic work on the Kaluli people of Southern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea, Steven Feld has proposed the idea of acoustic knowledge, which gives primacy to sound as a “modality of knowing and being in the world.”31 According to Feld, “Sound emanates from and penetrates bodies; this reciprocity of reflection and absorption is a creative means of orientation—one that tunes bodies to places and times through their sounding potential.”32 For Feld, the Kaluli experience of music is deeply embedded in their collective experience of space and time.33 My interest here is to understand the bodily experience of the traveler–sound collector in extending the acoustic knowledge of a place as mediated through sonic technologies. Khanwalkar's bodily enhancement through the microphone makes possible the spectator's sensory engagement with the spaces explored in the show's episodes. The porosity between Khanwalkar's sonic body and the material technology of sound recording becomes crucial in extending the acoustic knowledge of a place. At the same time, I argue that Khanwalkar's approach to space is not about claiming the “real,” but about approaching it as a plural category that is constantly being produced through this sensory engagement. Moreover, the use of technology in her work foregrounds the performative and processual nature of technology, adding new layers to the aural culture of Bombay cinema.
In the first episode of Sound Trippin, we see Khanwalkar in the state of Punjab. Her first stop is Kila Raipur, where she captures sounds at the rural Olympics and at a popular regional sports festival. As a key auditor, Khanwalkar invites us into the process of sound recording in its raw and material form; each time she is shown recording, the digital audio meter fades up on the screen, its constant electronic traces moving in sync with the sounds we hear. As the episode unfolds, we see Khanwalkar recording sounds of horses and horsemen, gunshots fired at the beginning of a race, and announcements and running commentary from the public address system. She makes a stopover at a sugar cane juice–extracting contraption, then pays close attention to a series of sounds from various machines and engines that are part of the rural Punjab sonic landscape. Another key element is her collection of the sounds of Punjab folk instruments as part of her interaction with musicians at the rural games. The accent here is on capturing the rhythms and percussive sounds that bring together all these heterogeneous elements.
In the next segment, we see Khanwalkar and her team of sound designers having fun with this material, molding these recorded sounds into a groove or a template. The song that is in the making is described by her as dubstep, underlining its bass and broken-beat patterns.34 The second day, we are back in the field, and the camera shows Khanwalkar driving through Punjab. Her first stop is a factory near Jalandhar where cricket bats are manufactured. We watch her record the sound of the factory siren and the din of the factory while the bats are tested for quality. Next she arrives at a village to search for the Nooran sisters—two young folk artists with whom she had worked briefly on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. They meet on a rooftop where the entire neighborhood is gathered to curiously watch the proceedings of the “live” setting. This locale illustrates scholar Shaun Moores's recent observations that certain places can be pluralized through the use of electronic media.35
“Tung Tung,” the song that is in the process of “becoming,” attempts to vocalize the sounds of the folk instruments of Punjab. The lyrics, loosely suggested by Khanwalkar, are a mix of English and Punjabi words. Following rehearsals and improvisations, the recording camera is placed in a makeshift studio, where the Nooran sisters record the song while Khanwalkar dances to the beat and gives them cues (video 1). The final version of the recorded song, after postproduction (done in a makeshift studio in the hotel room), is played on the rooftop, allowing almost the entire village to hear it. The soundtrack of “Tung Tung” is retrieved through a series of accelerated and pulsating images of sounds, which have already been cited by Khanwalkar over the past two days. The soundtrack creates a continuum with the sounds of folk instruments, tractors, bikes, the factory siren; ambient noises; and the voices of athletes and cheerleaders. All interpenetrate one another. We can recall here Deleuze and Guattari's conceptualization of an assemblage of elements of different kinds—a human, social, and technical machine.36 Through this audio loop, which highlights the vocal energies of the Nooran sisters; the sonic elements of the machines, engines and contraptions; and the visual iconicity of musical instruments such as the dhud, the algoza, and the tumbi, we enter a synesthesia, a multisensory experience of auditory and visual stimuli. This intersensory experience is not based on symmetry, but rather on multiplicity and lines of flight.
Drawing on Elizabeth Grosz's rereading of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of assemblage from a feminist point of view, Diane Currier argues that elements that form assemblages are not “unified, stable or self identical entities or objects” but are based on asymmetries.37 The components of assemblages are “multiplicities of flows, matter, particles, speeds and intensities which differ in kind with each new linkage.”38 Currier suggests that this notion of assemblage challenges a “straightforward prosthetic account of meeting of bodies and technologies where a pre-existent, unified body and technology meet.”39 The ordering of sounds and images in “Tung Tung” needs to be seen as an assemblage of such multiplicities. Moreover, in Sound Trippin, the entire process of searching for, citing, recording, and storing sonic material, followed by the foregrounding of the editing process and retrieval of sound, is undergirded by Khanwalkar's own bodily engagements. Her corporeal body becomes a site that allows these promiscuous flows between human and nonhuman bodies to materialize. Moving out from the studio, the place of recording becomes an unlimited space, as we see her backpacking, collecting sounds of musical instruments and vocal musical phrases, and finally working with the collected material in makeshift studios. The microphone becomes an empowering tool, drawing the curiosity of people around her. More important, Khanwalkar's collaborative approach to musical sound challenges genre boundaries: between film music and folk music on the one hand, and the oral and the recorded on the other.
HUNTING FOR BIHAR
In 2012, Khanwalkar got an opportunity to work on a megafilm project that turned her into a cult music director. She composed twenty-seven songs for Gangs of Wasseypur (2012, dir. Anurag Kashyap), which was released in two parts. The narrative of both is set in the badlands of the Bijar mining regions, over which the coal mafia has had a stronghold. To get the aural flavor of the region, Khanwalkar traveled to Bihar and plunged herself into searching for local voices and sounds. Released well before the film, the songs of Gangs of Wasseypur earned Khanwalkar her first nomination for the best music director in the fifty-eighth Filmfare awards. As Raja Sen, a reviewer for rediffmail.com, wrote about the music of the film, “It's a strikingly flavourful and headily authentic collection of quirky music, often too grubby for our ears.”40 In a clear departure from Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, in which Khanwalkar had used some numbers sung by popular Bollywood stars, she drew the music of Gangs of Wasseypur predominantly from the local voices of Bihar. Once again, the strategy of self-fashioning, deployed through “making of the music” videos uploaded on YouTube, allowed audiences to connect with her music.
One of the most popular songs in Gangs of Wasseypur is “Womaniya,” a song whose opening word, womaniya, or “Woman,” is a curious mix of English and a suffix from the Bhojpuri language. This song was particularly popular among women audiences, and listeners' requests mounted on the FM radio channels. The song was performed by two lead singers, Rekha Jha and Khushboo Raj, with a chorus supporting them in the background. The song becomes a playful conversation between two women who trade ideas about how to dodge as well as play a flirtatious, leering man. In the video on the making of the song, we see Khanwalkar working in a small studio in the city of Patna (fig. 6). While she speaks about the song, a group of women sing the chorus.41 In the next segment, Khanwalkar introduces to the audience Rekha Jha as someone who is very “prim and proper” and a little distant from other singers. “She had a very sweet tongue but a very sharp voice,” says Khanwalkar to explain why she was attracted to Jha's voice. The second singer, Khushboo Raj, was discovered in Benaras, and Khanwalkar found her extremely outgoing and boisterous, in contrast to Rekha Jha. This dissimilarity in their personalities, according to Khanwalkar, added to the zest of the song, for “they were two different kinds of womaniyas.”42
In another interview, Khanwalkar shares her understanding of voices and how she uses them in her film soundtracks, making particular reference to “Womaniya”:
In every state, voices have a different grain; the textures of voices are so different, so diverse. And so instead of bringing them to Mumbai … I did not want them to be uncomfortable or intimidated in a studio—I thought I will go there. I like to travel, and technology allows me to do that. I can go to people's homes and record or go to an open field … but sometimes I need a studio. “Womaniya” was recorded in a room with a group of women, and everything is leaking into each other, and this leaky quality of sound is bringing out the liveness of the song.43
It is this notion of the “leaky” quality of sound, with voices interpenetrating one another without clearly defined boundaries, that resonates with Currier's reading of the assemblage. The voices, the microphones, the space of the studio, and the bodies of women performing in step with Khanwalkar's corporeal body become volatile: they are affecting and being affected by one another. Moreover, the leaky quality leaves a trace, turning the recording into a continuous event. The attempt here is to denaturalize the voice, challenging the notion of voice as a locus of subjectivity, an idea that I explore later in the essay.44
In each video that describes the making of her songs, Khanwalkar is the mediator between the singers and the listeners, placing her own corporeal body in their midst as a sonic traveler. In another song from Gangs of Wasseypur, we see her dancing enthusiastically right in the recording booth, helping the singer stay with the rhythm and enthusiasm of “Taar Bijli Se Patle Hamare Piya,” sung by Sharada Sinha, a well-known artist from Bihar. In this track, the lead singer is supported by a chorus, for which Khanwalkar managed to recruit local women who were singing in a temple in the vicinity of the studio. The video on the making of this song reveals an interesting twist: “Taar Bijli Se Patle Hamare Piya,” which literally means “my husband is skinnier than an electric wire,” is performed in the film by the women protagonists at a ladies sangeet.45 The text of this folk song describes a woman complaining to various relatives in her conjugal family about her husband's emaciated condition. For Khanwalkar, this format makes the song repetitive and monotonous. On a suggestion from the director, Khanwalkar and Varun Grover, the lyricist of the film, reworked the song to describe the condition of Bihar, one of the most underdeveloped and poorest states in the country. The addressees of the song are no longer just members of the family, but also the political and ruling classes. The song thus begins on a playful note, drawing upon audiences' familiarity with a folk song, but acquires darker political overtones.
One of the most interesting songs in Gangs of Wasseypur is “I Am a Hunter,” an English chutney song performed in the film by a Caribbean-based group of performers of Bihari descent.46 The song evoked a lot of discussion in both social media and the press about Indo-Caribbean music and its historic antecedents. “I Am a Hunter” was noticed for its use of double entendre; its mix of English, Bhojpuri, and Hindi lyrics; and its eclectic use of hybrid genres alongside the distinct flavor of chutney music.47 The sequence including this song unfolds on a train in the second part of Gangs of Wasseypur: the lead protagonist is undertaking a journey to Patna, the capital of Bihar, to pick up guns from an underhanded dealer (fig. 7).48 The trip, in this song, refers to other journeys and to the circulation of songs that accompany mobile bodies. As Khanwalkar explains:
For “Hunter,” I went to Trinidad and Tobago, where a lot of Biharis live. I have used a chutney kind of track, and then I have used these Bihari singers who have never visited Bihar, along with these other Bihari singers who have never been to Trinidad or Tobago or even outside Bihar. [Yet] they all have their origin in Bihar. And they are singing “Hunter” in English, but their accent is Caribbean, and they are also grooving to the dholak.49
By choosing to use a chutney song in a film that does not really require a reference to that genre as part of its narrative world, Khanwalkar expands the repertoire of Bihari folk music, animating its imaginations, flows, spatialities, and temporalities. This choice resonates with Lawrence Grossberg's idea about imagination as enabling a better understanding of the present.50 Imagination, according to Grossberg, needs to be “rethought as a rediscovering of the contingent, the virtual in the actual.”51 By speaking about the chutney song and its roots, Khanwalkar foregrounds the important role that sound and music play in producing a space that articulates diverse imaginations of belonging and identity. I suggest that though the theme of diaspora remains unexplored in the film, the inclusion of an Indo-Caribbean soundtrack in Gangs of Wasseypur expands our acoustic knowledge of Bihari folk music, including its virtual spatialities.
Another song that brings to the surface ideas of mobility, travel, and migration—albeit in a totally different context—is “Dil Chi Cha Lader,” a song created largely with words evoking the imagery of everyday language and nonsensical rhyming words. The song is performed by Durga, a twelve-year-old tribal girl from Andhra Pradesh who sings on Mumbai local trains while seeking alms. She was first discovered by Phat Phish, a music company trying to create alternative music albums from Mumbai. Khanwalkar noticed Durga's effortless throwing of her voice in a way ideally suited to catch the attention of commuters on the trains. By using singers with rough-and-ready voices, such as Durga and Rekha Jha, Khanwalkar has fundamentally challenged the way that songs sequences are used in Bombay cinema. Furthermore, she has openly spoken about her artists and where they came from.52 In case of Durga, she also gave joint interviews, asking the girl to sing for the camera.
Like most of Khanwalkar's film soundtracks, “Dil Chi Cha Lader” was also used in Gangs of Wasseypur as a background song, returning us to the legacy of playback singing in Bombay film music. Playback singing involves a mimetic relationship between the playback singer and the onscreen star, who performs the song in front of the camera by listening to the singer's vocal performance. The use of close-ups during the vocal sections of the song ensures that the voice of the playback singer remains aligned with the body of the onscreen star. By introducing a diversity of textures in vocal production, Khanwalkar's songs fundamentally challenge this legacy of mimetic interaction between playback singer and onscreen actor, making way for songs and sounds that can be connected to spaces beyond the studio. It is not surprising that most of Khanwalkar's compositions for films are used as background songs. Unhinged or cut loose from the body of the onscreen performer, the voice in these songs becomes part of an assemblage of sounds, rhythmic grooves, and designed sound patterns. Digital technologies have enabled stretching of sound, looping of phrases, and sound delays that have completely changed the sonic identity of film music. Without the use of lip-syncing, which was instrumental in nailing the voice to the body, the voice has become an unstable entity.
This change, with its stylistic blending of the voice, has expanded the aural boundaries of Bombay film music. As noted earlier in this essay, it was unthinkable for the RK team, in 1955, to ask the immigrant worker they had heard at a construction site to sing and record “Ramaiya Vasta Vaiyya.” As was expected, the RK team instead invited Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Mukesh—three leading playback stars of the 1950s—to rehearse and sing “Ramaiya Vasta Vaiyya.” The “final” song was created by managing the flow of sonic fields. Marked by sonic erasures, the practice of playback singing crucially controlled the relationship between singing and recording. By introducing a diversity of textures in vocal production, Khanwalkar's songs fundamentally challenge this legacy.
By foregrounding the process of recording, editing, and retrieval of sound through a listening body, Khanwalkar's soundwork animates the digital platform as an important auditory archive of a region. Marked by mobility, the “recording room” becomes dynamic space, claimed by multiple locations, regions, and bodies. By moving out of the confines of the studio, which was exclusively a space of male music directors, musicians, lyricists, audio engineers, and film producers, Khanwalkar has been able to destabilize the highly masculinized industrial structures of the Bombay film music industry.
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Shikha Jhingan is an associate professor at the Department of Cinema Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research focuses on music and the technologies of sound dispersal across diverse media platforms. She has published articles in the journals Seminar and Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies. Jhingan is a founding member of Media-storm, an independent women's filmmaking collective formed in Delhi in 1986, and her documentary films include Health Matters, Living through Performance, and Born to Sing. She also codirected The Power of the Image, a twelve-part documentary series on Bombay cinema.