No Way to Treat Sound Experts: Deaths In Bollywood Ring Alarm

In the wake of the sudden death of 29-year-old sound engineer, Nimish Pilankar -- following a bout of high blood pressure and haemorrhage last month - it has come to light that four more sound specialists of the Mumbai film industry, have also met with tragic ends this year.

All familiar to the Bollywood bigwigs, sound engineers Carl Alfonso and Hanif Tak, recordist Pinky More and composer Pritesh Mehta – in the primes of their lives – passed away. The tragedies have gone unreported so far.

Pritesh Mehta, Hanif Tak and Pinky More were among the sound technicians who passed away recently.
Pritesh Mehta, Hanif Tak and Pinky More were among the sound technicians who passed away recently.

Pritesh Mehta has to his credit the creation of several background music scores, including those of Guzaarish, Sarbjit, Tanu Weds Manu and Padmaavat. Alfonso was reputed for his impeccable music recordings and concert designs. Tak for being a congenial recordist with a soft corner for indie cinema. More was a sound recordist, whose Facebook page, is now packed with comments about his helpful nature.

Bereavement note for Carl Alfonso.
Bereavement note for Carl Alfonso.

Any knee-jerk response to their deaths, would be alarmist. Indeed, a single tweet and Facebook post on the passing away of Nimish Pilankar, had evoked an outcry about the state of the sound recording working conditions at the post-production studios, largely located in the Mumbai suburbs of Andheri.

To clarify, Nimish Pilankar was not subjected to over-stress (he worked on blockbusters like Race 3, Kesari and Housefull 4). His employees have described him as a chilled-out guy who was always smiling and spread good cheer. His sudden end came when he was at home with a friend.

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The shock at the apathy of the top Bollywood brass on the loss of a young, dedicated sound engineer subsided to a degree when Akshay Kumar expressed his grief on Twitter. Vipin Sharma and Richa Chadha, too, emphasised their concern over the incident on social media.

The Oscar-winning sound maestro for Slumdog Millionaire, Resul Pookutty, has called for an inquiry into the working conditions of the sound department of films, asserting that a stand has to be taken instantly. Followed WhatsApp messages about the unreported deaths of Alfonso, Tak, More and Mehta.

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It would be gratuitous to point fingers solely at the Federation of Western India Motion Pictures and TV Sound Engineers. Within the given infrastructure of the association can do only so much and no more.

When I spoke to at least a dozen work-colleagues and peers of Nimesh Pilankar and the four others deceased, it was indicated that the pressure is at its highest in the sound department of films’ during post-production.

Other disturbing deductions emerge:

  • As a result of unrealistic timelines for the completion of recording, dubbing and re-mixing, the workload is unreasonable, often calling for non-stop schedules of 18 to 20 hours a day. The final edit of a film is often delivered late and has yet to be sound-finessed since its release date has already been announced and a chain of multiplexes booked.

  • Even a minor change – say, editing out a few frames or a scene – by the director or producer, leads to the major task of re-laying the sound track.

  • The common remark is that this is the way it is in the film industry. Arguing against unreasonable working hours is not an option.

  • On the one hand, with the advance of technology, a bunch of sound studios have updated their equipment, besides ensuring proper ventilation and hygiene. On the other hand, a countless number of relatively cheap, hole-in-the-wall sound rooms have mushroomed, particularly in the MHADA-belt and Aaram Nagar. These cater mostly to the boom of web series and short films. Are these invigilated by the civic health authorties? No brainer question, that.

  • The basic amenities – rest rooms and meal supplies often dialled from takeaway food outlets – range from the barely tolerable to the abysmal.

  • If a film producer delays paying up for months, which is frequently the case, this leads to a domino effect, a delay in the technician’s take-home salary.

To avoid any repercussions to their already-fragile careers, I quote some telling comments from young sound technicians, anonymously: “We’re here for the sheer passion of being involved in filmmaking. The junior assistants, particularly, cannot speak up. If they do, they are out of a job. A new one can be hired within minutes.”

Another stated, “When I couldn’t deliver an ad film – with changes demanded by the client within an absurd deadline, I was slapped on the face.”

Here’s what a woman sound technician stated - “Although my house is just a 10-minute walk away from a sound studio, I had to stay on the premises for 15 days… at the console, without a change of clothes. A toothbrush and toothpaste were all that I had. Somehow I survived.”

A leading, award-winning sound designer emphasised, “Like it or not, some of us do have to make a choice. That’s why there are some who quit, either leaving the city or seek an alternative career. The crazy hours make them smoke packs of cigarettes and hit the bars. They don’t want to end up as a statistic.”

The statistics will perhaps never be tabulated. Yet, there’s no escaping the fact there’s been a spate of deaths of sound specialists this year. Bollywood bosses, obviously, have to wake up and reform the post-production system. How? As Pookutty puts it wistfully, “The answer is blowing in the wind.”

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)

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