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.

Primarily it acted as a symbol for the elite. 

Let’s say you have a rich business tycoon, a zamindar’s haveli, a party in a night-club, you then see a piano as the convincing piece-de-resistance to the production design. It is the visual campfire to the choreographed dancers, a chick magnet and boombox rolled into one.

Importantly, just like the universal narrative rule for seeing a gun on the screen establishes that it shall definitely be used, so does the piano in a Hindi film. If it's seen, you're going to see it being played.

Mostly, it’s almost always played by the hero to either;

        Show how much he enjoys it.

-          Woo his lady love.

-          Sing about heart-break, being watched by his lady seated with the baddie.

-          Get her to confess that she’s having an affair with another.

-          Partially recover from amnesia and figure out he can play the piano.

Okay, the last one isn’t a Hindi film, but is Frank Darabont’s under-rated gem, “The Majestic”, which I must say, is very much like a retro Hindi film with an amnesiac hero, caricatured charming townsfolk with strong black and white characters peppered throughout the narrative.

A piano in a Hollywood film is actually quite memorably used as a prop and in most cases drives the narrative or enhances dramatic tension brilliantly.

A Hollywood movie piano has been,

-          Iconic.

-          Sexy.

-          Tragic and haunting,   or Hilarious and epic.

Not only is it all those things, it’s lent its name to a film and is even part of several genres like the Western saloon piano, or the gangsters night-club piano that you know will be riddled with bullets.

My favourite film involving the piano however is an overlooked, epic scale fictional biopic by one of my favourite directors, Giuseppe Tornatore, of Cinema Paradiso fame.

The Legend of 1900 (1998), is too long, very over the top and melodramatic, has an episodic structure often disconnected from the main narrative, yet... there are moments of such beauty and style, ably supported by the brilliance of Ennio Morricone's score which transcend its flaws and remain with you forever.

Perhaps, the choice to shoot in English was what did the final product in, or the epic scale overwhelms the narrative, but neither the cast nor the technical aspects give up on the effort to keep the film in classic company.

Tim Roth, the versatile and extremely talented British actor, plays the titular and tragic 1900, born aboard an ocean-liner, prodigiously grasping the nuances of playing the piano he comes across in the ship's ballroom as a kid.

His life is lived entirely aboard the ship and he has never set foot on land. He doesn't ever yearn to do so, except once when his eyes fall upon a beautiful lady passenger he happens to glance at whilst being requested to record his piano playing.

Such is his talent, the film shows us, that he composes a tune on the spot, inspired as he watches her. A cheesy notion, true, but fabulously executed and I buy it completely every time I see it.

The most amazing fifteen minutes in the film however is a brilliant duel between 1900 and the world famous jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton. There are some classic Tornatore trademarks, quirky characters, colorful extras, deft pacing, comic relief and an edge of dark emotions that bubble out towards the end.

1900 kicks some serious butt ably supported by his piano, and how! A fantastic fifteen minutes in the film!


The Piano is sadly waning away from Hindi films, rarely seen and mostly heard in the musical soundtrack. Hollywood too has rare sightings of a prop that once moved stories and created history.

As for my playing, well I exchanged my red Casio in 1992 for a large professional synth-keyboard as my teacher felt I was good enough to learn on it. I trained for six more years and had the honour of playing two live gigs with him, which are unforgettable life experiences.

Then college happened, he left Bombay and my professional keyboard went into dignified storage amongst my rare books and treasured possessions.

It makes an appearance sometimes, when I have an article to write about pianos or just remind myself that it's not the buttons or keys that make the sound but the fingers following the ear and the heart.

The piano will always be one of my favorite characters in movies. 

Do share your memorable piano scenes from films in the comments dear reader, as I leave you with another memorable bit of piano playing. 

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