This article was originally published in Herald, July 1997, as ‘Recording the past’ with the caption ‘Profile: Syed Afzal Hussain’ (I think!). I had interviewed the subject – popularly known as Shahji in the showbiz circles – during a recent visit to Lahore. He was a thorough gentleman and it was a treat to have a conversation with him. He liked the write-up and conveyed his approval to me in a letter. Unfortunately, he is no more with us. May his soul be blessed.
This interview was also part of the information that eventually went into the making of Waheed Murad: His Life and Our Times, and I have thanked Shahji in the prologue of my book.
Recording the past
Syed Afzal Hussain, popularly known as ‘Shahji’ in film circles, is the most senior sound recordist in the the national industry. But few know that he is also the man who produced landmark films of Pakistani cinema like Lakhon Mein Eik and Naag Muni. Unlike others in the industry, Shahji’s unassuming personality belies his achievements. “Film is a team effort. I am lucky that I was able to work with a good team from the very beginning,” he claims modestly.
Syed Afzal Hussain was born in 1924 in Amritsar. His father was a government servant and his elder brother a journalist. After obtaining a degree in electrical engineering from Lahore, Afzal decided to join Pancholi film studios.” People used to join the railways, electricity and such fields after doing their engineering,” Shahji recalls, “But when I was offered a job at Pancholi I was drawn to it because it was different from the routine – a meeting place for both science and art.”
Six months later he moved to Bombay. “Among my neighbours was S. D. Burman,” Shahji says in his characteristically unassuming tone – not anticipating the effect that this statement would have on his listener. And he casually prepares to move on to other things but I interrupt. “You must tell us something about your interaction with this musical genius…” “Oh, he was always immersed in his tunes,” he then adds.” Often I saw him taking a stroll along Marine Drive in the mornings and even there he would be humming a tune.”
When Shahji returned to Lahore in 1948, he found himself working with Master Ghulam Haider, Baba Chisti and, from the mid-fifties, Khurshid Anwar. “The early days were difficult. I remember, I had to work without a microscope…”
“Oh!” the smile is quite paternal. “You see, when we are working with celluloid we use a microscope to view the optical track (i.e., the scratches on the film negative that denote the soundtrack). This microscope happens to be a tiny thing and as it turned out, somebody had pinched it — we had to continue our work without another one for six months.”
The audio was recorded directly on the sound negative in those days, since the 35 mm perforated magnetic tape had not yet been introduced. The soundtrack was also not erasable – if one wanted a re-take, one would have to use more celluloid. “I remember the heap of celluloid that piled up when we recorded Iqbal Bano’s ‘Hum bhi to paray hain rahon mein.’ Master Inayat wanted one particular note rendered in a particular manner and would not be satisfied until he got it just right. Apart from the wastage, there were 20 or 22 takes and the final version comprised the best parts from all of them.”
Although this method appears similar to the modern technique of recording, in which the singer chips in one line here and one line there to be mixed by the machine, Shahji does not seem to think so. “The artist never sung a required line in isolation. We always recorded the whole stanza, so that he or she could get into the mood, even though it was more costly in those days since the material was non-earsable. Today, it would be much cheaper to work this way but it seems that the artists have neither the patience nor the time. Yes, time is money, but if it is an art form your are working on, then you have to give it the time that it requires.”
Rafiq Ghaznavi, the legendary music director of the ‘40s, was another master Shahji remembers working with. “I had to record the background music for Parwaz. I arranged the team of musicians in the hall in the usual manner: facing the screen to be led by the music director. When Rafiq Ghaznavi saw this he said, “what is this?” I told him that the hall was set for his recording. “Not this way,” he said. “The musicians will sit with their faces turned away from the screen, so that they do not get distracted. Only I see the film, and they only watch my signals.”
One of Shahji’s greatest patrons was the inimitable Khurshid Anwar – a man known for being very difficult to work with and capable of being extremely unpleasant on occasion. But not with Afzal Hussain. “He believed in rigorous rehearsals, and I took advantage of that. While he was rehearsing, I would tune in my equipment and check out all there was to be checked. After finishing his rehearsals, he would ask me to begin my preparations. I would surprise him by saying that I was ready.”
Shahji recalls the time when the sound department at Evernew Studios ran into a difficult situation on the sets of the film Naela, an Evernew production and one of the earliest Pakistani films made in colour. Master Inayat insisted that the songs in Naela be rendered by Mala who was a little known playback singer at the time. The problem was that the singer’s voice lacked resonance but undeterred, Shahji carefully studied the literature of sound recording and decided on an experiment: he virtually attenuated all the upper highs in the frequency level. This was something that had never before been attempted. “I still remember,” he recalls with a smile, “my assistant Saeed came running to me after we had finished recording the first song. ‘Shahji, ‘You forgot to set the cappings. We’ll have to record it again.’ The poor fellow could not believe that I would record a singer on such frequencies, and therefore he thought it must have been a mistake. But when I played the recording, everyone was satisfied and the rest of Mala’s songs were recorded on the same setting.” Incidentally, this first song was ‘Ghame dil ko in ankhon say chhalak jana bhi ata hai., a major breakthrough for Mala.
What about other singers? Shahji says that some of them like Mehdi Hasan, Ahmed Rushdi and Runa Laila were usually given a ‘straight line’, which means minimum tampering with the original rendition. “We give a straight line to crooners who have naturally soft voices.” Madame Noor Jahan, of course, was an exception. She was simply too great a performer to be subjected to a fixed rule. “In her case the setting would vary from song to song,” says Shahji. ‘Sajna ray’ for Naag Muni was recorded on a straight line despite its high-notes. ‘Aaj bhi sooraj’ from the same film was recorded with all the highs attenuated, and Madame still remembers this little trick of mine with some amusement.”
By 1964, Shahji had found some very good friends in the business. These included Raza Mir, the director of Beti, Zia Sarhady, the legendary film writer who had migrated to Pakistan from India some then years earlier, and a music director from Bombay, Nisar Bazmi, who was about Shahji’s own age and who had recently moved to Pakistan. “I got along very well with Bazmi Saheb because we had common interests such as classical music.” With 20 years of experience in the trade and now turning 40, Shahji decided to launch a film of his own. This was the memorable Lakhon Mein Eik.
“Raza Mir and I asked Zia (Sarhadi) saheb to write a script. A few days later he came up with an idea which he wanted to share with us. We stopped him. ‘Let’s not create any confusion. Take your time and complete the entire script so that it retains your originality.”
Sarhadi took two months to complete the entire script which includes the story, dialogue and screenplay. “As I was keeping abreast with the script, I kept praying that Raza Mir would also like it because I really wanted to keep it as it was. Later, Raza saheb told me that he had also liked the script immediately, and was praying that I would like it…” The only suggestion Raza Mir made was that the story be shifted to Poonch in Azad Kashmir rather than the Ganda Singh border where Zia had originally based it. “This would add glamour, as we would be able to get footage of mountains, trees, rivers…” Sarhadi had no objection and the rest, as they say, is history.
Shahji also has other interesting anecdotes related with the making of this hugely successful film. “Originally we had thought about Waheed Murad for the male lead. But then we began to wonder whether he would be convincing in the role of a truck driver. Finally we decided that Ejaz would be a better choice.” Initially, the ‘other man’ in the film was going to be Alauddin. But we had one consideration in mind: when portraying the other side of the border in the second half of the story, everything there should appear unfamiliar to the audience. They should be confronted with faces they had never seen before. Then they would feel as if they were in another country.”
Consequently, the team singled out an unknown radio artist on a visit to Hyderabad. “We were at a party when we saw this young man and Raza asked me, ‘doesn’t he look like our character?’ That’s what I am thinking’, I replied.” This young man was Mustafa Qureshi.
While they were working on the music of the film, Agha G. A. Gul brought in another young artist whom he thought should be given a chance as a playback singer. “He is fond of singing, why don’t you give him a try. His name is Mujeeb Alam.” Nisar Bazmi liked Mujeeb’s voice and asked him whether he had received any formal training in music. To his surprise, he learnt that he was a simple farmer from Thar. They decided to take him on nevertheless. Shahji remembers with amusement Mujeeb’s acute embarrassment when he found himself singing in a recording studio for the first time. And to make matters worse ‘Kahan ho, Khan ho,’ his first song, was a duet sung with none other than Madame Noorjehan herself!
The first song of the film to be recorded was, Chalo achha hua tum bhhool gaye. Nisar Bazmi thought it was a very low song and asked Shahji to reduce the bass. Shahji convinced him that the song should be recorded on a straight line. “What is interesting about this song is that it begins in a situation in which the heroine has been dealt a severe emotional blow,” says Shahji. “Music directors normally use a full orchestra to provide the background to such situations. But Bazmi Saheb has been able to create the right mood with a single flute.”
Around this time, Kodak sent to the team some information about some improvement in the audiography equipment just when they had finished recording this song. Shahji postponed the rest of the recording until after the equipment was imported since he believed that the machine has a will of its own, and no matter how great the talent, the ultimate product will surely have to do a lot with the equipment and the way it works. Lakhon Mein Eik took a few years in the making and was finally released on April 28, 1967.
The team’s next venture was the relatively lesser successful social film Aneela (1969). It is perhaps best remembered for the unforgettable tandem ‘Bohat yaad aain gay who din’, the happy version sung by Ahmed Rushdi and Mala, the sad one by Mehdi Hasan.
While they were making arrangements in Dhaka for the release of Aneela, a distributor pointed out that there was a ready market for films about snakes which also had relevant music. This led to the making of Naag Muni. “Masroor Anwar brought the book written by Waheeda Naseem and I took the entire team, Masroor, Zia, Raza Mir, Nisar Bazmi, Najmul Hasan and myself, to Hasan Abdal to complete the script and music. Zia had to leave the country at this time but we completed the script as well as the score, and began shooting in Swat.”
The film was about a pharmacologist who goes to Nagram, a fictious land inhabited by snake-worshippers, and falls in love with a naag-daasi (a devotee in a snake templt). The second half of the film goes into a long flashback about the prevuious incarnation of the couple, in which he was born a prince and she was yet another naag-dassi. “There were people who said that the film wouldn’t click, because it was set in a different culture, it plays upon the theme of reincarnation, and so on. We were not discouraged by such comments because we firmly believed that it was all a matter of treatment. Good art is good art after all,” says Shahji without intending to sound pompuous. This time Waheed Murad was cast in the lead role opposite Rani.
“Waheed was a thorough professional and extremely cooperative when it came to working with out team. I never got a chance to complain. In fact, I remember, while we were shooting in Swat, we stayed at Mingora and every morning I had to make all the necessary arrangements (and there were a lot to be done) so that our first shot was always delayed up to 10.00 am. I asked Waheed if he could do me a favour by agreeing to escort Rani from Mingora to the location. Forgetting all about his star status, he did so and he was as punctual as if this was the job that he had been hired for.”
Shahji and his friends had planned to cast Mustafa Qureshi and Firdous to play Waheed Murad and Rani in their previous incarnation. But Waheed came up with a suggestion. “This is too close to the ending,” he said “just when your film is heading towards the climax. If you change the lead at that crucial point the viewer may be left a little unsatisfied…” Raza agreed with him and, as it turned out, so did the audience who made the film a huge success when it was finally released on April 7, 1972.
After Naag Muni came Naya Sooraj (1977) with a progressive theme directed by Masood Pervaiz. But, unfortunately, the team’s earlier success could not be repeated.
Shahji made two more films after this, Dah Gaz Da Maidan (1981) and Dagheroona (1984), both in Pushto. “The martial law regime had decided to register the film producers and I was included in the seven or eight who got registered in the first lot,” remembers Shahji. Apparently some friends, who were not as lucky as Shahji, urged him to lend his name to these two Pushto movies. “I did not know the language but I had each line of the script translated for my perusal. One of the two movies earned me a National Film Award.” But Shahji got the shock of his life when he went to a cinema house to watch Dagheroona, and viewed an obscene ‘tota’ (sequence) inserted into the main feature. “None of my team was aware of this dance sequence. We had not shot it. The cinema manager told me this was the standard practice – they insert such sequences in most Pushto features in order to attract the viewers. ‘That’s the end of it,’ I said to myself.
After these long years of wandering in the domain of filmmaking, Shahji finally returned to his original field – the sound department at Evernew Studios. Here he found that everything had changed except for his own high standards of perfection.
“Filmmakers have switched over from audiography to magnetic tape,” he tries to explain the one technical issue which disturbs him most. “Let me help you understand what I am saying. You see, when we record a song or music for film it is done on a special perforated 35 mm tape, which is about eight times more expensive than the one-inch magnetic tape used in cassette recording. The benefits of this perforated tape are, first, that it never goes out of synch and, second, that it captures the ‘personality’ of the voice for reproduction in the cinema. Consequently, when you watch a movie in the cinema you can distinguish between Masood Rana, Ahmed Rushdi and Mehdi Hasan. Moreover, you are also able to appreciate the mood of the singer. These days, film producers record their songs on ordinary one-inch tape and then bring it to us for printing on the film. The don’t understand that the money saved in this manner is a false economy. When I go to a cinema house, even I cannot distinguish between the voices of different singers nor do I get the real feel – how can you reproduce effects in a big cinema house filled with hundreds of people when the recording apparatus you have used was actually meant for reproducing voice through a small tape-recorder and intended for individual listening?”
Although Shahji still heads the sound department at Evernew, he personally keeps away from any recording in which perforated tape is not used.
“Once in a while there comes a movie which is recorded on the legitimate audiography equipment – invariably all of Evernew productions plus some others like Jeeva.” On such occasion, Shahji is seen busy like in the old days. “I have studied engineering in a college. I cannot betray my profession.” He claims. “I wish studio owners today did not leave matters in the hands of novices who are technology-illiterate. I wish they could give me assistants trained in polytechnics so that I could pass on my craft: which is a science as well as an art.”