Pow! Whack! Boom! The old 1960s Adam West version of Batman was famous for its alliterative comic sound effects splashed brightly on screen. While India didn’t have Batman, they later developed their own version of a flawed super hero, the angry young man who fought for good and evil.

They also developed their own brand of action sound effect, the dhishoom! dhishoom! A genealogy of 1970s fight scene sound effects brings us to ask the unanswerable question: what does dhishoom sound like?

Om observed the protestors were about fifty whereas the audience was over 800 strong. “We could have easily overpowered them. Dhishoom! Dhishoom! Like that fellow in the film,” he said clenching his fists before his chest. (Rohinton Mistry. A Fine Balance, 329)

Hidden behind the story of Bollywood and its influence on world cinema, art, culture, politics and “Indianness,” is the fact that this cinema has created its own language. And I’m not just talking about the name “Bollywood” itself, but something with greater force behind it. Paramount among the language of Bollywood is the Dhishoom!, a word derived from the punching sound effects in fight scenes.

It’s popular and kitschy enough to be used for everything from the name of an arts and culture festival to a hilarious viral video about Amitabh Bachchan running for President. But sitting back and watching the new action movie, Dabangg recently, I wondered: Does that punch really sound like a dhishoom? And perhaps most importantly, what sound effect were people originally referring to when they used the word dhishoom?

Hunt for the Dhishoom!

Now the “hunt for dhishoom” is a difficult battle filled with dead ends and false starts, but perhaps I can make some general claims about what Dhishoom actually sounds like. If we look at fight scenes from 70s films, there is a lot of diversity in fight sound effects. And just because he’s my favourite, let’s focus on Amitabh’s films.

Let’s take a look at Deewar which features a classic Amitabh shovel fight scene, where he single handedly takes on 7 men with only his fists (and fortuitously placed shovel).

Now the punching sound effects in this sequence don’t sound like “dhishoom” at all. They’re short snapping sounds that only go on for a beat and seem to be a mix of several sounds, including a drum shot and someone cracking their knuckles. Not so much a “Dhishoom” as a “Tdheek,” and although the sound effect gets the job done, the sound effect is leftover from the fights of earlier heroes like Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand. Should the 1970s Angry Young Man’s punches sound like they came from the perpetually shaking head and circling arms of Dev Anand? No. New times call for a new hard hitting vocabulary.

The Amitabh Fight Scene Checklist

Part of the impact of the classic 70s fight scene featuring Amitabh is style. We’ve already seen Amitabh throw a knife back to the villains in Deewar and in Trishul he pulls up in an ambulance because he promises to put the bad guys in it.  What ensues is a checklist for all the best Amitabh moments: fighting insurmountable odds – check, fighting with a wooden stick – check, punching someone through a brick wall – check, fighting while not messing up a snazzy shirt-vest combination – check, and generally Amitabh taking out the trash – check. In terms of sound, this fight scene features what might be called a “realistic” punching sound effect with punches and kicks interspersed with canned grunts and yells. Impressive and a change from the past but not exactly “dhishoom” if you know what I mean.

Down Goes Frazier! (Dhishoom Knockout)

Obviously, dhishoom has to be a sound with bit of weight behind it. It has to be a bassy sound that conveys the magnitude of a strong punch while at the same time being iconic enough to be featured in the most popular films. Here’s where I turned to 1977’s Amar Akbar Anthony, and one of the most traumatizing fight scenes of my childhood – Amitabh getting beaten up by (of all people!) Vinod Khanna. Now I know that Amitabh is playing the younger brother in the movie so it makes sense that Vinod as the eldest should be able to beat him up. Not doing so would screw up the internal mythology and delicate hierarchy of family and respect for elders embedded in all Manmohan Desai (director of Naseeb, Coolie and Amar Akbar Anthony) films. However, this scene intentionally jabs at one of the most fundamental laws of Bollywood cinema, ie. when two heroes fight each other, their powers have to cancel each other out. (see for instance the numerous Shashi-Amitabh fight scenes throughout the 70s and 80s that maintain this harmony, and the end of Andaz Apna Apna where Aamir and Salman spoof it).

Despite this small issue, this scene does provide the closest thing to a Dhishoom! that probably exists. Vinod’s crippling body blows and kicks have a muffled bassiness, a two syllable structure (a Dhish and a shoom) and some deep down connection with Bollywood watchers who can tell instinctively that, yes, this is a punch. (Watch the video from 13:57 to see the fight scene).

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

As a parting shot, check out Amitabh and Neetu Singh’s action sequence from Adaalat.  I don’t know what makes this scene funnier, the fact that Amitabh is playing his own father and disapproving of his son/himself, or the fact that none of the guests seem to be acknowledging the elephant in the room….Kung Fu dancing?

Story By: Naveen Girn