Long before he became an Oscar-winning sound designer, Resul Pookutty had briefly nurtured a dream of becoming an actor. He had begged his mother for permission and money to respond to a call for child artists for a Malayalam film, and he had even sent in his application, but another boy was selected for the role.
“I sank into depression,” Pookutty writes in his autobiography Sounding Off (Penguin India, 2012). “My second brother-in-law noticed me hanging around, looking pathetic and not eating at all. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, son, one day we’ll send you to the Poona film institute.’” Pookutty did eventually go to the Film and Television Institute in Pune, but to train as a sound designer.
The childhood dream of becoming an actor was forgotten as Pookutty forged an estimable career in sound design through such films as Black (2005), Gandhi My Father (2007), Saawariya (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2009), Enthiran (2010) and Highway (2014). Pookutty will finally realise his acting dream in the upcoming The Sound Story, in which he sets out to record the sonic experience of the annual Pooram festival in Thrissur in Kerala.
An audio project that was intended as a documentary and then became a feature film is how Pookutty describes Prasad Prabhakar’s multilingual production (Oru Kadhai Sollatuma is the title in Tamil). “The Sound Story wasn’t tailor-made for me as an actor,” 47-year-old Pookutty told Scroll.in. “After I won the Oscar, a television journalist asked me what my next dream project would be. I said I’d like to record the Thrissur Pooram live. Pooram is the biggest festival in the year, if you look at it in terms of sound alone. This interview was watched by Rajeev Panakkal, a Malayali settled in America, who then contacted me and said he’d like to fund the project.”
The Thrissur Pooram seemed to be an ideal, if challenging, choice for a sound designer. The five-day festival involves the assembly of nearly 60 elephants and more than a million people across 70 acres. Among the festival’s many attractions is the melam, a three-hour performance of percussion instruments.
“It’s not just the music, but the sound of the entire tradition, one that has been carried over for a thousand years,” Pookutty said. “This, coupled with the energy of the people and the elephants, puts one in a state of trance. More than five lakh firecrackers are burst as a part of a symphony and to my astonishment, I realised that even the fireworks have their own musical structure.”
When Pookutty began his mega audio recording exercise, it was decided that the process would be simultaneously filmed. A documentary was shot for five days, but the project still felt incomplete, Pookutty recalled.
“I resumed my research into all the elements of the festival,” he said. “Because elephants play such a huge role in the festival, I visited an elephant farm. There I met a mahout and he told me the main elephant that carries the deity at the festival is blind. I asked him how the poor thing managed to stand in the melam amidst the noise, the music and the heat, and the mahout replied that it was sound that was guiding it the whole time.”
This insight provoked an idea for an altogether different film. “What if I were to replace the elephant with a visually challenged person – how would he or she experience Pooram?” Pookutty said. “Without any script, we then began shooting with this idea. We turned around the entire project and converted it into a feature film about a sound designer’s attempt to record Thrissur Pooram for the visually challenged.”
It took the team two years to complete the film. Stepping in front of the camera after years of working behind it felt strange and tough, Pookutty said, but what was undoubtedly more difficult was recording the sounds at the festival.
“We were trying to record a three-and-a-half-hour long event outdoors in summer in Kerala, where the temperature can go up to 38 degrees,” Pookutty recalled. “We tried to combine different formats to record the sound – Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D and others which help in experiencing high-clarity sound. We used 50-60 microphones and multiple recorders. Around 34 cameras were covering the event live. I was stationed where the main event takes place, which is inside the sanctum sanctorum, with equipment that weighed 25 kilograms placed on my shoulders for nearly three hours.”
In more ways than one, the film is a culmination of Pookutty’s childhood obsession with the spectrum of sound, especially the ones produced by animals and birds and those emanating from places of worship across religions. For Pookutty, these sounds have never failed to leave an impression. “Sound is memory and memory is knowledge,” Pookutty said. “And India is the only tradition in the world which identified sound as knowledge. Take our Vedas, for instance. Thousands of years ago, an entire knowledge system was passed on from one generation to the other through memory and sound.”
The film fulfills another one of Pookutty’s obsessions: of building a grand sound archive. The project began as a sound effects library after he began working in documentaries and films in the late 1990s. The Pooram event alone has contributed “millions and millions” of sounds to a collection totalling nearly 45 terabytes of data.
The first film that Pookutty worked on was Rajat Kapoor’s unreleased Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One in 1997. Pookutty assisted Vikram Jogalekar, who was the sound designer of the film. Pookutty worked on several more films, including Everybody Says I’m Fine! (2001), Boom (2003) and Musafir (2004), but the breakthrough came with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005), which Pookutty believes represents an important moment in the evolution of sound design in Indian cinema.
“In terms of live sound recording in Indian cinema, there is a pre-Black and a post-Black era,” Pookutty declared about the Rani Mukerji-Amitabh Bachchan starrer. “When Sanjay gave me the script, he told me that this was a script for live sound. Back then, nobody had any understanding of how to do live sound. Good-looking people, good sets, good costumes, good music, good camera work – these were the markers of production values. Good sound was never part of the production value. Black changed that.”
One of the reasons sound design has been neglected is that it is one of the most misunderstood aspects of film production. Also, sound isn’t a selling point in itself, unlike, say, a musical score, Pookutty pointed out.
“My attempt throughout my career has been to sensitise people about sound design,” Pookutty said. “For the audience who doesn’t know anything about cinema, my duty is to give them an experience they haven’t experienced. For those who practise cinema, I have to add value to what they are doing. And as a sound designer, I have to satiate my own technical craving and aesthetic sensibilities.”
Audiences are far more sensitive to a movie’s soundscape than before, feels Pookuty, who drew attention to Indian talent in the field when he won an Oscar for sound mixing for Slumdog Millionaire along with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke in 2009. “Today, a fair share of the audience looks for good sound design in films, they look out for names they know in the field,” Pookutty said. “Sound designers have gone from being anonymous to having fans. Even so, the business we create is still quite minuscule compared to, say, music. If a song is a hit, it will bring in a good share of business for perpetuity. Sound doesn’t do that.”
Pookutty defines sound design as the amalgamation of technical knowledge and aesthetic sensibility. “Nothing that we hear in cinema is accidental,” he pointed out. “Someone has consciously really worked on it, thought about it, recorded it, edited it, processed it and put it together.”
A sound designer’s role is to give an auditory texture to the narrative, to lend meaning to what Pookutty calls the “loudness graph” that guides a viewer’s reactions and emotions. “We want the audience to cry or maybe not cry – we just want their eyes to be welled up or the tears should not drop now but at a later stage, or we have to scare them, we have to make them sit on the edge of the seat,” he said. “Whatever it may be it is done by taking a step out of a frame of a picture and by scientifically and psycho-acoustically calculating how the audience would react at a particular moment in time.”.
Pookutty gave the example of Anthony D’Souza’s diving drama Blue (2009). “In the last 45 minutes of the film, we hear the characters and witness all the action first from 50 feet below sea level, then 100 feet and gradually up till 250 feet,” he explained. “How do you show this depth has been covered? Through sound. Or take a film like VK Prakash’s Praana, which is a one-character, one-space kind of film. We’ve recorded live sound but in a surround format. It is not just the spoken word or the performance of the actor in a given space but also how the sound, embedded in that space, becomes a part of the narrative.”
In a film like Sanjay Gupta’s Kaabil (2017), in which Hrithik Roshan’s character is visually impaired, sound design played an important role in taking the narrative forward. “The first person Sanjay called and narrated the script to was me – he told me that he had written the script with me in mind,” Pookutty said said. “It is all about a couple who cannot see and how Hrithik Roshan’s character uses sound to achieve his revenge. It is sensitively done and technically ahead of its time.”