Bombay Showcase

It’s all about how you say it

Ahmad belongs to the world of films, stars, scripts and sets  

Before we can greet Kamal Ahmad outside our rendezvous — a Bandra café — he’s accosted by a young NRI student of his from New Zealand. She is working on a forthcoming film of PEN production house along with another new girl from the Middle East. Ahmad is working at honing their language skills and diction, and improving their thick foreign accent.

The two are among the 700-odd students, which include the likes of Hrithik Roshan, Imran Khan, Jacqueline Fernandez, Shruti Haasan, Neil Bhoopalam, and Boman Irani’s son Kayoze. Together, they have gone through Ahmad’s rigorous training in enunciation, pronunciation and everything else to do with the perfect spoken word.

Ahmad was born and brought up in Kanpur and hails from a family that is into eye wear and the optical business. There had been no connect with cinema back then when he was young. Even now his wife and kids — a son and two daughters — are least bothered about the world he belongs to; the world of films, stars, scripts and sets.

He calls his job “ ittefaq ki baat ”, a happenstance, something he hadn’t planned for in life. It was business that kept getting him back and forth to Mumbai from Kanpur. On one such tour, a friend suggested that he should take to acting. A stint in a few TV series with Hansal Mehta and Anupam Kher and casual anchoring on Akashvani (All India Radio) eventually led to a few acting assignments. There was Officer with Suniel Shetty and Jaan-E-Mann with Salman.

“But in both the films my roles had to face the brunt of the editor’s scissors, they were chopped off,” says Ahmad. He was seen later though in Jodhaa Akbar as one of the persons that the incognito Akbar converses with in Agra Bazaar and he plays a two-bit role as a waiter in Two States . On both these films, his primary role was that of who he essentially is: a dialogue supervisor.

It was out of the blue that Ahmad found himself on the sets of theatre, film director and playwright Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi My Father (2007). Ahmad’s first outing as a diction coach and dialogue supervisor. “Feroz is the one responsible for making me who I am,” he says. The film was being shot in sync sound and he couldn’t let linguistic mistakes slip, which is why Ahmad was called in to help out. One thing lead to another and Ahmad went on to work in films as varied as Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Honeymoon Travels Private Limited (2007), Agneepath (2012), Brothers (2015), and Two States (2014). He also taught at Anupam Kher’s school, Actor Prepares, for four years and takes private classes at the homes of wannabe actors. A typical working day, when he is not on the sets of any film, is all about travelling from his Mira Road home (his typed out lingo lesson sheets neatly tucked away in a plastic bag) and taking about four to six classes of an hour each. He works mostly in Bandra, Juhu, Khar and Versova, where the strugglers of Bollywood reside. “As do the ones with the money,” he laughs. Ahmad takes classes three days a week, every alternate day and 12 sessions over a month are enough to grapple with the basics of Hindustani for a newcomer.

Having embraced the uncommon job, he can’t talk enough about its significance and rues the fact that not many understand its importance. He gives an example. On the sets of one of his films, the actor had to speak the line “ main kisi tarah ka risk nahin le sakta ” but instead said “ main kisi tarah ka risk nahin lena chahta ”. Ahmad intervened; the director wondered how a small change like that would matter when Ahmad pointed out that one sentence showed the character being adamant whereas in the second, his decision seemed optional. “It may have been a small thing but the director understood my point of view,” he says.

Film, for him, is as much an aural medium as it is a visual one. “Anupam Kher once said that the actor’s diction contributed to 50 per cent of his performance. We also hear films, not just see them,” he says.

According to Ahmad the world of cinema was much better equipped when it came to language in the 50s and 60s. “Prithviraj Kapoor spoke great Urdu. So did Raj, Shammi and Rishi,” he says. Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kumar are his other favourites. “Even non-Urdu speaking singers like Mukesh, Lata, Asha, Kishore, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar had such a good hold over the language,” he says. Now he finds only Shreya Ghoshal and Sonu Nigam up to the mark. Of the actors, he likes the diction of the those trained in theatre: Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Om Puri, and, of course, Big B. “He was born in Allahabad in the home of a leading Hindi poet, his English is impeccable too,” says Ahmad.

It was in the 80s that the rot set in, he thinks. Now, the connect of films with language is not there. It’s a reason why diction coaches are required more than ever. And yet not every filmmaker always sees any merit in hiring one. “Most films are anyhow made in Hinglish these days,” says Ahmad. No wonder he doesn’t see it as a viable career option. But he explains his role on the sets with much pride and passion. It involves being present throughout the shoot, except perhaps in the fight and song sequences. “But in Agneepath there were dialogues in between the fights, so I had to be around for action scenes as well,” he says. Does he get to say cut if an actor messes up the lines and gets his diction and pronunciation wrong? Not quite. Cut is a director’s prerogative, he tells you. What he does do is bring a fault to the notice of the actor and the director and then it’s for him to decide if he needs another take or if the mistake can be edited out later.

In some films, the brief gets bigger. Like in Jodhaa Akbar , he wasn’t just supervising things on the sets but taking daily lessons with Roshan in his Jaipur hotel room and was with him right till the end, for dubbing as well. No wonder Roshan remains his favourite student. “Despite being a star, he worked so hard, he made me feel proud of him,” says Ahmad.

The basic format for his classes is worked on but he keeps improvising on things. He typically begins by focussing on the so-called flap and aspirated sounds in Hindi — kha, jha, tha, gha — which are not there in other language alphabets and hence difficult for a non-Hindi speaker to grapple with. One of the first things he does is to ask his students where they come from and works on them with their individual needs in mind. “For example someone from UP or Bihar or Assam is not able to say ‘ sha ’ well, they say ‘ sa ’. I have to train them in that more than the others,” he says.

Getting the Z sound correctl1y in Urdu is another important lesson. For instance: zaalim not jaalim , zulm not julm , zariya not jariya , zaroorat not jaroorat . “I give the students passages full of tongue twisters. It’s the fastest way to make them learn,” he says.

Over cups of cappuccino, Ahmad makes the fluent Hindi speaker in me realise that not all is quite correct with my own lingo. All my life, I have been mispronouncing phal [fruit], phatak [gate], khaki [the colour], galat [wrong]. It is an instant language lesson as he tells you that khaki comes from the Urdu word khaak, which means mud, and that most people pronounce the word rivaaj [rites and rituals] wrongly as rivaaz .

“The ‘ kh ’ sound in Khan, as in SRK, Aamir and Salman, has to come from the epiglottis otherwise it could end up meaning a mine in Hindi,” he laughs. And, at the end of the chat and the coffee, he quickly picks up the plastic bag full of lesson sheets to rush to Pali Hill to teach the basics of Hindustani to yet another student. The newest on the block, incidentally, is Vinod Khanna’s young son Sakshi, to be launched soon by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Another generation of actors getting Ahmad’s sound training.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 4:47:23 PM |

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