When an Oscar winner had to go on TV to stop angry people from breaking down theatres 

I had interviewed soundman Resul Pookutty soon after he returned having won the Oscar for his work in Slumdog Millionaire. Who says filmy people are shallow?

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“The industry may look at me as a soundwallah, but I am actually a very powerful man. I can do a complete analysis of a person just listening to the sounds they make. You’ve got to be very careful when I am around!”

Minutes before the interview, Resul Pookutty narrated his Oscar experience to me, how standing within sniffing distance of Kate Winslet and Steven Spielberg almost made him lose his wits! He sounded completely ordinary, like a friend who is happy to be back in the normal world after a bamboozling alien abduction. Then he started talking about his craft, and a most fascinating, angsty depth replaced the frivolity of that introductory banter.

What is it about sound that attracts you the most?

It started when I was a film student at FTII. Thanks to my physics background, sound appeared a natural choice, and that choice acquired greater significance when I began to understand the emotional power of sound, the fact that here’s a tool that can continuously manipulate audiences, and they don’t even realise it!

As a technician, sound also attracts me for its defining role in cinema as a medium. If you view cinema as a continuum of time and space, then the visuals that you see introduce you to the space element. That is very 2-dimensional, horizontal, you can see it, you can feel it. But sound is spherical, you cannot see it, you can only feel it. In that sense, sound becomes the time element in cinema. It takes you inside the space that the visuals hold up and helps you find emotional content in the scenes. Sound allows me to make something intangible very tangible.

But beyond the creative incentives, it is also a very responsible job. As a sound professional, it is up to me to understand and do justice to an actor’s performance in a given acoustic space. You know what difference a 50mm lens or an 80mm lens can make to an image, but do you know that the perception of an image can also fundamentally change based on whether I use a long-gun
microphone or a short-gun microphone to record the sound? Sound recording then transcends from being a technical job to a function of how well I can relate to and interpret the real intent of a scene. I am constantly listening for something and executing to arrive precisely at that.

At another, and larger, level, working as a sound technician for the past 15 years has also opened up my consciousness to the great Indian tradition of sound. Historically, we were probably the only people in the world for whom sound was everything. All our knowledge came from sound. The Vedas, for instance, were memorised and passed on from generation to generation orally. The verses were organised in a particular way so that they produced a particular kind of sound. We also found out early on that our bodies are the greatest musical instruments. So we started honing them to produce the swaptaswaras, which was our way of reaching Brahma…through the primordial sound Om.

This is a great inheritance, something that I am trying to understand and take forward through my work as a practitioner of sound techniques. It could be through something as banal as a chase sequence, but I feel privileged that I can at least borrow a little bit of our riches in whatever I do. That’s why I referred to my traditional roots in my Oscar acceptance speech too.

Since you mentioned the Oscars, I have often heard people say that the sound of Slumdog is very Indian, and that your win is actually the triumph of a distinctly Indian aesthetic. Do you agree?

I think Slumdog is rather European in its aesthetic, especially in its treatment of sound. Where it is very Indian is in its refusal to shy away from any kind of expression, no matter how high the pitch. The drama, the emotions, the music—everything is relentlessly in your face. That free-flowing sensibility is Indian. Danny Boyle later said that he wanted to dub the whole movie, just like we do with our films. Such kind of understanding of what works with Indians can only come if one has understood our sensibilities. Also, if you take language itself as a unit of sound, as a determinant of the colour and texture of sound, then Slumdog is obviously Indian.

I have often wondered why the Academy chose me for the award. In fact just before the Oscars, I met the legendary sound engineer Ben Burtt at the Cinema Audio Society Awards, and I told him how it appears so unreal to me when I remember how I started out in Mumbai 14 years back, lugging my heavy equipment from location to location like a porter. I feel that my victory is actually a reflection of the willingness of the global sound industry to welcome and acknowledge change. Otherwise what chance did the rough sound of Slumdog have over the sophisticated, epic canvases of movies like Wall-E and The Dark Knight?

When I was working on Slumdog, every day was a huge emotional strain. I often felt like I was failing as a professional. A microphone cannot exactly reproduce the same kind of sound perception that the human brain is capable of registering, and Slumdog is a deeply human movie. I struggled to create this humane perception. After a while, it occurred to me that I should let the movie evolve within the soundscape of Mumbai rather than mechanically recording it. I think the Oscar was a recognition of that idea rather than of any specific aesthetic. When I watch the movie today, I can still spot technically poor dialogue recording. So kudos to the Academy for disregarding all that and showing the discernment to reward the emotional investment that went into the movie.

Be that as it may, you have made sound glamorous. After you won the Oscar, many people have started reaching out for sounds in movies they never heard before. It’s like a whole new door of perception has been opened up for them. But for all the rejoicing and celebration, what is the scene at the grassroots? What is the real state of sound in India?

You know you have put me in a dangerous position by saying that I have made sound ‘glamorous’! No one has said that to me before, and that is just as well because sound in India is light years away from being glamorous. I will tell you the story of one of my most recent films. It was a Malayalam film that came to me right after the Oscars. I wanted to do something different with it, so I took the actors back on location and retook sound shot by shot. It worked wonders. For the first time in my career, I heard about a film being sold, about people flocking to theatres, because a soundman has done a particular sound job. I received massive applause as a technician, and it felt really good. And then things flipped.

One day I got a phone call that in villages and small towns in Kerala, people were breaking down cinema halls because they came to see my film and were let down by the ramshackle state of the sound systems. I had to actually go on TV to pacify the angry crowds.

I had actually seen this coming for a long time. In this multiplex era, while there is a policy governing everything in a theatre—from legroom to fire safety—there is absolutely no policy on technical aspects like sound or projection. It is appalling how trivially these elements are treated. I know only one thing: many people in India are still living off less than twenty rupees a day. In such a setting, if a villager goes to a theater dishing out forty rupees for a movie, the least we can do is to give them the best possible audio-visual experience. But we have absolutely no standards in this industry when it comes to technical finesse.

Let alone involving us technicians in research and development, even after I won the Oscar, no one from the academic fraternity came up to me even for a casual chat. We want to share our knowledge with students and the general community at large, but there is no impetus from anywhere. I feel very strongly agitated about this and have been fighting long over it.

After the fiasco with this particular film, I sent a bunch of letters people had written to me to the Cultural Affairs Ministry asking them for answers…

Do I sense a great deal of frustration hidden somewhere?

Unfortunately, yes. You see it’s simple really. Cinema is an audio-visual medium. As serious professionals, how can we even dream of reaching out to the intended recipients of our work if there are so many barriers in the way? No policies, no regulations, no support structure. We call ourselves an industry; we churn out five hundred movies every year spending a few hundred crores. But why do we need to spend so much on substandard fare? Why can’t we produce fewer movies that are technically perfect and invest in improving our infrastructure?

Forget about all that, we don’t even have anything to document our linguistic diversity. It’s a shame that for a country where dialects change every few kilometers, there is hardly any archival interest in this most basic manifestation of sound. I understand that we are a poor country and there are other priorities, but my suspicion is that the real problem lies in our complacency and lethargy.

That we as a society seem unable to appreciate something as elemental as sound, does it have anything to do with the fact that we are turning into a very loud, cacophonous nation?

But we have always been a loud nation! That’s been our identity, right from the days that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were performed out loudly…or think of the nautanki tradition for that matter…such performances were not ‘genteel’ affairs in any sense. Foreigners still think that the song-and-dance routine in our films is bizarre. But that’s what our ancestry and heritage is all about! We are a nation of performers, singers, dancers.

On an emotional plane, we have always liked expressing ourselves, no holds barred. However, while these performative excesses were and still are popular in the public cultural space, we are also a people who light a lamp at dusk and say a quiet prayer for
everyone’s souls, blocking off all the noise, trying to find order in chaos. That part of our Indianness hasn’t been affected by the cacophony of urban civilisation.

To an extent, technology is playing this ordering hand today. How does that combine with your philosophical approach to understanding our traditions?

Post Industrial Revolution, I think these are the most crucial times in human history. Technology has completely changed our lives, it has given us so many possibilities, so many options. But sometimes I feel that these are not really options, rather they are indecisions. Thanks to technology, we don’t need to make decisions any more. The computer has taken over that part of human intelligence.

A bigger challenge lies in how technology is fast making the faculty of memory redundant. So it’s scary that a whole generation is growing up with these incapabilities, thinking that if a satellite goes off the orbit tomorrow, we will be finished. It’s like living in a conceptual vacuum.

But the good part is, once we understand that there is a huge difference between information and knowledge, and that technology can give us all the information in the world but knowledge is something the human mind is best equipped to process, then technology becomes an exciting tool and not an inhibitor.

Has it ever happened that when you listened to your work later, you wanted to change everything? What  part of your work stays with you at the end of a long day in the studio?

It happens all the time. In fact if you gave me some money and time, I would remix Black from scratch! Thanks again to technology, we can indulge in such fantasies every now and then. Sometimes when we design a track in the studio and mix it around, it feels perfect. Then when we hear it the next day, that magic is gone. So we keep deleting things, removing things from the track, till we are left with that one sound that feels just right. It’s somewhat like how Bergman’s films feel exactly the way they do not so much because of what he chose to include in his frames but because of what he chose to leave out.

My perception of sound changes every day as I imbibe newer sounds for the same experiences, and cinema as a medium allows me to indulge in constant reinterpretation with every new film. That’s why I love my work—it allows me to take everything that the directors and actors have created, compose it all anew, and then do it as differently as I can in the next film. That’s what stays with me at the end of each day.

(First published in the now-defunct UTV World Movies magazine; photo courtesy Kunal Kampani)

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