Thursday, May 17, 2012

King of Prop! The Piano as a character in movies.

As I lay with my leg in a cast on a terribly hot Bombay afternoon circa 1989, my misery fuelled by boredom, mother in all her cheery wisdom slyly brought out an old keyboard synthesizer.

I thought I had stashed it away, quite craftily I might add, under a pile of old toys, school books, and the partially inflated inner-tube of a truck.

The synth-keyboard, a Casio model, was bright red, ergo very girly. The array of buttons confused me. Worst of all, I was disappointed by the fact that I couldn’t play every known song and masterpiece as soon as I turned it on and smacked those keys. It was false advertising of the worst kind and the thing was disobedient!

Mom was unperturbed. She knew I couldn’t run away from this brainwave of hers. Moms can be tricky that way. Then came the swift, verbal killing stroke, “Guess what, there’s a piano teacher coming today, thought you could learn to play this instead of just being miserable?”

The “teacher” was a classically trained south Indian musician who ran a paan-shop (a tobacconist) and moonlighted professionally as a keyboard player in an orchestra; at weddings, birthdays, and pretty much every event in India wherein large crowds gather and clamour for live music they request and then manically gyrate to.

“Ah, nice red piano! Small, but will do. We learn, you get good for big piano.”


“Ya, ya, piano!”

He then hit a few buttons, cracked his knuckles and lo and behold, the sounds of a piano emerged from the tinny speaker. 


Okay, he sold me on the piano bit, because the only reason I’d begged and cried for a synth-keyboard was my love for the piano. 

A grand piano was, and still is, one of the most regal instruments I’ve had to pleasure to see, hear and feel up close. 

And one of my earliest memories of hearing and seeing classical piano stems from its depiction in something quite unlikely, a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
Of course, Bugs Bunny was a mean piano player too.

Those classic short animations did a fantastic job of incorporating the piano as part of diegetic sound within the visuals, something that silent era live action films still couldn’t achieve, though they relied heavily on a live or dubbed piano soundtrack to support the visual narrative.

It would be seen as a prop in live action, but it would take a few more years to actually hear the on-screen piano in a live action film come to life believably.

While animation shorts gave me a taste of western classical piano, my childhood movie staple consisted entirely of good old Hindi films.

Now, in a Hindi film and some regional Indian films too, the piano as a prop played quite a few significant roles.