When Cambridge graduate and horn player Joseph Walters decided in 1998 to travel to India to learn the tabla after completing his studies, he fell in love with the country. But he had no idea that ten years later he would be returning with director Sarah McCarthy to make a film about a group of children learning to sing songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The Sound of Music. These children attend a remarkable school called Muktangan School, in the Worli slum area of the city, and like half of the population of Mumbai, they live in poverty in ramshackle lean-tos.
The resulting film, The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical has already been a hit on the festival circuit, was screened in the UK tonight on More 4, and will be screened later in the year on HBO in the US. It’s a remarkable story, made all the more remarkable by the twists and turns of bringing the film itself to the screen, a story in which Sibelius played a small role. Read on to find out more.
I recently had the chance to talk to Joe about this project, which has consumed the last two years of his life.
“Since my first visit to India I’ve been returning to Mumbai to conduct, coach and play the horn with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and on one of these visits I was asked to give a workshop at Muktangan,” he says. “I always thought about documenting the musical lives of these wonderful people but always wondered how best to capture the topsy-turvy nature of their world. When I heard about the orchestra’s plan to collaborate with the newly-formed school choir of Muktangan to perform songs from The Sound of Music at the National Centre for Performing Arts I decided I had to make a film.”
Joe persuaded his director friend Sarah McCarthy and camera operator Liam Iandoli to join him, and the three of them headed off to Mumbai, having put the cost of the plane tickets on his credit card. Entirely self-financed, the trio spent ended up spending the next two months in Mumbai filming.
The result is an intimate portrait of the lives of several of the children, focusing in particular on Ashish, who is chosen to sing a solo. Living in a single room with his parents and his brother — who outright states that the whole family’s hopes are pinned on his younger sibling — he struggles with his own self-confidence, the envy of his friends, and perhaps even a little heartbreak on the way to the concert in the opulent National Centre for Performing Arts. The film is full of touching moments, such as when a group of pupils from the school encounter flushing toilets, or when they are given their pristine white shirts for the performance, Ashish taking his home and hanging it in a carefully chosen plastic carrier bag amongst dozens of others that line the roof of his squalid home.
The Sound of Mumbai is a film of extraordinary contrast, and all the more affecting for it. But it nearly didn’t make it to the screen at all after a dispute with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate over the use of the original soundtrack recording in the film’s soundtrack. Originally scheduled for broadcast at Christmas last year, at the last minute rights were refused, and Joe was left scrambling to find a solution.
To use the famous music from The Sound of Music in the film, they would have to record it all from scratch. That meant getting hold of the sheet music, a symphony orchestra, a recording studio, an engineer… and all on no budget! That’s when Joe called me, and asked whether Avid would be willing to donate a copy of Sibelius to the project in order to help him with the score preparation; naturally, we agreed.
Joe had managed to source copies of the original parts used in the studio recording of the original musical, but of course they were in terrible shape. Joe had three weeks to re-copy the parts for around thirty minutes of music, ready for a recording session at the world-famous Abbey Road studios, under the baton of conductor John Wilson and an ensemble including some of London’s finest players, including section principals from the London Philharmonia, the LSO, the Royal Opera House… and he had never used Sibelius before in his life.
Fortunately, Sibelius really is as easy to learn and use as everybody says. “I found a lot of the answers I needed on the Internet,” Joe told me, “and I was never stumped for long.”
He had hoped to use PhotoScore to scan the original parts and then tidy them up in Sibelius, but unfortunately the quality of the copies he had received was too poor to make that feasible. In the end Joe had to enter all the notes by hand, but he found input quick and efficient, and he succeeded in getting the music on the stand for the downbeat of John Wilson’s baton at 9am sharp in Abbey Road’s famous Studio One.
Conductor John Wilson and his orchestra also generously donated their services, and Abbey Road not only provided the incredible recording space and their unparalleled equipment, but also provided an engineer for the session who also mastered the final tapes, including the final sound mixing for the whole film.
Joe is astonished by, but grateful for, the support he has received from individuals and corporations alike in bringing the film to the screen. “I’ve been utterly moved by the generosity surrounding this project. All proceeds of the film will go towards the school and the children’s education.”
Although it has only just aired on British television and will not air in the US until the summer, it has already made an enormous difference to the lives of the children whose endeavours it celebrates. “Since the making of the film the choir has continued to flourish and now performs regularly in Mumbai,” Joe says. “We’ve maintained an especially close relationship with the school and will be returning regularly to visit the children. The Mumbai screening for the choir last year was one of the best days of my life and on seeing themselves on the big screen the kids truly shrieked with glee!”
In addition to its TV broadcasts, the film will also be screened this year at the Hollywood Bowl and at Carnegie Hall in New York, and Joe hopes that it will raise a lot of money to help continue the school’s good work. You can find out how you can help them at JustGiving. If you missed the film in the UK, you can watch it on demand on More 4’s web site.
Joe says that he’s in this for the long haul, and he is determined to make a real difference to the lives of these children, and more like them. “The film will hopefully encourage more people to donate to the school and the future of the amazing children in the film. I know I’ve signed up for life. How privileged I feel.”