Why do our filmmakers, who are so meticulous about visuals, ignore realistic sound design?

In 1978, at the first Indian Panorama in Madras, I met British filmmaker Bill Douglas who asked me “Why are your Indian films so ‘unsound'?” I thought he felt the local theatre volumes were too loud for his taste. But no, he felt something was basically irrational with our approach to film sound. Over the years, I have often wondered why none of our films garner any kind of critical attention with international cineastes. Even filmmakers like Adoor and Benegal do not get the attention that is given to fellow Asians, Kiarostami or Kimkiduk. And I realise that the problem is with our “unsoundness”.

Experiential state

To explain this I need to invoke a rather complex word called “Diegesis”, often used by even more complicated film scholars. It simply means “the telling of a story by a narrator to recreate the world in which the narrated action and related events occur”. Diegesis is the experiential state where viewers/audiences combine the moving-images offered by the camera/projector and sounds by the microphone/speaker in order to reconstruct the narrated event in our psyche. Whereas the images seem to be reproduced in a similar/realistic mould, the soundtrack seems to be disconnected somewhere. The lush green valley, in which the stars gyrate looks “real” but their voices seem to be coming out of a recording studio. While the images synchronise with our perceived visual sense, the soundtrack seems to emerge from another recorded space, compromising the diegetic experience.

The question is, “Why do 95 per cent of our filmmakers refuse to practise ‘live' sound recording and continue to dub their voices and sound effects later?”

There are the obvious answers such as the actors not knowing the language or the directors giving instructions while the shot is on or the locations being too noisy etc. These excuses fall flat today when audiences watch “live” interviews on TV with personalities talking in the most crowded roads and stadiums. If untrained anchorpersons can deliver “audible” sound so well, why can't film and TV professionals in the entertainment world follow suit?

In fact, there are some brilliant “live” sound technicians available in India today like Resul Pookutty, Nakul Kamte, Baylon Fonseca and our own Ilango and Anand in Chennai. But our “creative” filmmakers believe that they enjoy more artistic freedom by doing their entire sound track inside the recording studio.

The unsound crisis lies here. While our filmmakers choose to use the best of cameras and lenses to get sharp realistic images on location, they seem to challenge the verisimilitude of their own images with the synthetic quality of the studio-based microphone.

Honestly, I have to admit feeling like Bill Douglas and accept that even our so-called good films deserve to be trashed at the altar of “quality” cinema. Why do filmmakers who spend so much money, effort and time planning the visual design, completely ignore the sound design for their works? The reason could lie partially in the rather abrupt transition from studio sets where they recorded “live” sound to outdoor locations during the mid 1960s, clubbed with the popularity of the portable/noisy Arri 2C camera and its amazing 10x zoom lens. Production boomed due to the effortlessness of filming real locations even during night with high speed film negatives. Soon, the resultant scarcity of talent got filled up by using non-actors incapable of delivering dialogues and music directors churning away songs by the dozen. An army of dubbing artistes lent their voices to multiple actors and good sound engineers were scarce.

Interesting reason

It is baffling to see how our cinema, which is so verbose, has not paid any attention to the proper usage of dialogues/ sound, its primary resource. There is an interesting reason provided by contemporary film analyst Slavoj Zizek who proposes that the spoken voice is inherently alien. The dialogue emanating from the human body is an exceptionally artificial construct, capable of mesmerising and provoking listeners in almost demonic ways. Thus, we can watch films and TV serials dubbed from one language to another with all their lip-sync aberrations and yet not feel detracted from the main narrative flow. We don't feel shocked by the abrupt switch-over from a Rajinikant speaking in his own voice to singing in Udit Narayan's. And these playback singers are visible icons too! How long will we survive in this crazy run?

As we enter the 80th year of Indian talkies' enviable presence in the world of cinema, I seriously hope that our filmmakers and theatre owners become conscious of this lacuna and treat the Indian ear with more regard if we have to become a true global player. We need good sound designers or else get ready to sink our films in the already noisy cityscapes and the unsoundness of a compromised nation-state.

The writer is Director, LV Prasad Film & TV Academy.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012