Award-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty tells Udhav Naig how he discovered new challenges and possibilities while working on Rajinikanth’s upcoming animated feature Kochadaiiyaan

The final phase of work on Rajinikanth’s upcoming animated feature, Kochadaiiyaan, is on in full swing at A.R. Rahman’s studio. Among those working without looking at the clock are two Oscar winners, Resul Pookutty and A.R. Rahman. Around three teams of sound editors working out of Los Angeles, Mumbai and Chennai are toiling to finish the film. Despite the deadline, Resul is quite chilled out. “My work is almost done,” says the sound designer of the film, which, he says, will give a fillip to the careers of many visual effects and sound artists in the country.

Just like director K.S. Ravikumar, who urged the fans not to expect a regular Rajinikanth feature, Pookutty too begins the conversation by putting things in perspective. “It is not easy to do such an ambitious film at one tenth of the budget and in half the time that a Hollywood production house would normally take. We have done all this without compromising on quality. Rajinikanth could have done another Sivaji or Enthiran and made millions. But he didn't. If not for his involvement, this film would never have had backers,” he says.

Immersive 3D experience

Working on this film for the last two-and-a-half years, Resul admits to have discovered new challenges and possibilities everyday. “We are very familiar with the filmic images of Rajini, and it will take a bit of time to get used to the computer generated images of the actor. My task is to make it feel real and believable through sound. Though the images are computer generated, the sound you hear will be as real as possible. We have used special microphones to create an immersive 3D experience.”

How did he recreate ‘real’ sound for a film that features sequences of war and action happening in big fortresses? “For the war sequence, we got 150 people scream like how they would in a war and recorded the sound. I went to fortresses and collected samples of how sound resonates. Based on the impulse response data, we recreated the acoustics of a durbar.”

The problem was that he and his team had to start from scratch. “For example, when we started working on the Foley [ambient sound], I told Soundarya that I needed the costumes of the film. But there weren’t any because the film wasn’t shot conventionally. How do I recreate the sound of a man walking in his armour? We then had to put together the entire costume,” he says.

That wasn’t all. He couldn’t work on Kochadaiiyaan the way he would for other films. “For instance, the image you see on screen is a composite of several layers of images. The clothes, the movement, the swords and so on were created separately and put together. My team also had to add sound, layer by layer. Add to this the responsibility of making sure the footage was safe, it was quite an extensive task.”

He again drives home the point that such efforts wouldn’t be possible without the presence of a huge star like Rajinikanth. “When a film like Avatar released in India, it grossed almost Rs. 65 crore without spending a single penny. The time has come to think big. By backing Kochadaiiyaan, Rajini has forced us to take the next step,” he says.

When Resul started his career, the sound department was often neglected and sound design as a concept hadn’t gained currency. The moving image has undergone so many transformations in the last couple of decades, but when it comes to sound, the technology has largely remained stagnant. ‘‘From a single mono playback, we went to multi-stereo playback, but it has stayed there,’’ he says.

Post his Oscar-winning feat, however, things seem to have changed a lot, not just for him, but for sound artists in general. But, what is so special about his approach to sound design that he ended up with an Academy award and others didn’t? “Every film technician has one Friday in his/her lifetime and I had mine on the day Slumdog Millionaire released. I don’t think I am the best in India and there are others whose work I greatly respect. Let me just say this, most sound designers in the country use the same software, same equipment, but their understanding of cinema, of art and culture varies and it makes all the difference,’’ he says.

He is especially miffed with the so-called ‘Sound Engineering’ boom which has resulted in thousands of small institutes cropping up across the country. ‘‘It is very sad to see kids spending so much money on these courses. If you want to be a good sound designer, you must understand the craft of filmmaking in totality. A sound designer can change the audience’s focus by drawing their attention to something else. It’s not just about learning to use the software; it is about what you do with it. I would rather urge them to join a film school than these institutes.’’

Through such frank speak and his unrelenting desire to get everything right, he has gained the reputation of being a tough professional. “The stories of me being difficult are a bit exaggerated,” he says with a smile. He adds, “But those who understand the value I bring in support me.” He has had no such problems with Rahman, who, he says, cares deeply about the film as a whole. “Rahman always would listen to what I was doing and only then start composing. What I am doing is directly related to the performance and he understands that.”

Directorial dreams

Resul doesn’t want to just stop with sound. ‘’I will soon direct a film with a big Bollywood star. In fact, I have ideas for three films. I will start working on them as soon as I am done with Kochadaiiyaan.’’