The Human Factor, a documentary by Rudradeep Bhattacharjee poignantly evokes the life of the unsung musicians who played music in Hindi cinema

Homi Mullan pulls out a suitcase, and from it lovingly unwraps bongos tied up in old cloth. “These are the bongos I’ve played in Shankar-Jaikishan films,” he breaks into a toothy smile. Then, this percussionist who’s played in hundreds of Hindi films, gently unwraps a pair of ghungroos. “This is the ghungroo that was used in Guide.” And immediately you’re transported to the image of Waheeda Rahman dancing.

It is into this familiar world of Hindi film music that director Rudradeep Bhattacharjee ventures in his film The Human Factor. But the story is not about music directors. It’s about percussionists, music arrangers, instrumentalists in orchestras who did the background scores — people whose names we never saw in credit roles.

We get a glimpse of what went on in Bombay’s studios through the eyes of the Lord family — of father Cawas Lord, and his sons Kersi and Burjor or Bujji Lord. Spanning two generations, these three men contributed collectively to Hindi film songs for almost 60 years, and were part of every third Hindi song that came out of Bollywood since 1947. In fact Cawas Lord is said to have worked on India’s first sound film Alam Ara, though he says in an interview that he “started playing from the second Indian sound picture” when he was about 15. Rudradeep chooses a beautiful way of telling a story — of mixing events and public memories with the personal histories of the Lords. Interviews with the three Lord men are peppered with clips of songs they worked on, and edited slickly to the tunes are black-and-white photographs from the Lords’ family albums.

While the Lords tell their story, what also emerges is how the music industry functioned, an insight into the sophistication of instrumentation in Hindi film music, the influx of Latin-American instruments and Spanish bands into Bombay, of the jazz bands of Bombay with whom there was much give and take, of iconic Goan musicians like Chic Chocolate who made their name in Bombay, of instruments like the kokiriko, and other strange-looking things that produced familiar sounds in our songs.

Through the interviews what come through is also the tedious process that went into recording a song that would be over in the film in a jiffy, and what technology did and undid in the film music industry. From recording live, with 10 musicians sharing one mike, and redoing an entire song if one person made a mistake, to calling in musicians by batches with change in technology to record in parts, to machines making music, the journey was gradual and painful.

Kersi talks of how he imported the first synthesizer into Bombay in 1973, recalls Famous Studios, the first independent music recording studio in Bombay, of playing on wax masters, and how he built an instrument in six days to meet R.D. Burman’s demand for a particular “bhoonk bhoonk” sound! Kersi also had to deal with the dichotomy of technology — he brought in synthesizers to improve sound. But the same synthesizer, he realised, would replace musicians and render many jobless.

The Human Factor also weaves in interviews with ethnomusicologist Gregory Booth (see box), and Naresh Fernandes, author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story Of Bombay’s Jazz Age. The feature-length docu has great nuggets of information, and is also so much more entertaining than you would expect a documentary to be.

It also performs the role of an archivist. Rudradeep has spoken to many musicians, like accordionist/arranger Enoch Daniels, percussionist Narendra Vakil, but who really holds your attention in the film is Kersi Lord. “All the dirty work is done by us,” is how he sums his role matter-of-factly at one point in the film. “Except for what the singers did, everything else was done by the music arranger. He scored for the orchestra,” points out Fernandes. “Many composers didn’t have a sense of harmony,” says Daniels. And most music composers didn’t know to write notation! Music directors would tell arrangers what sort of sounds and moods they wanted.

As much as the story is exciting, it’s also heartbreaking to hear some of the musicians’ views. Bujji Lord, from the pictures you see, is a swashbuckling drummer whom you would like to believe lived “the life”. But through the film it emerges that for him it was “just our bread and butter…and of course, jam,” he laughs cynically. “In film titles, even the car drivers, and cooks names were mentioned, but never our names,” he says with obvious resentment. It’s the detached professional in Bujji perhaps that finally makes him conclude: “You don’t have to love your profession”.

For more on the film check the facebook page The Human Factor/thefilm