CINEMA Thomas Kurian’s sound effects have enhanced many a documentary film in the country and abroad

Thomas Kurian describes a Kasaragod reeling under the effects of Endosulfan as a dead place. For the sound recordist, as someone who had been trained to capture sound, it was an unnerving experience because there was only deafening silence to capture.

Effects of pesticide

The stories that Thomas got to see while working with his brother, film maker Simon Kurian, on Simon’s documentary film Toxic Valley will stay with him for a long time. The film traces the effects of the pesticide and its variants. As part of the film he travelled, with his brother, to Andhra Pradesh and Punjab in India besides Australia. Filming was also been done in the United States. This film will be released as a feature-length documentary (for theatre release), first in the U.S., and then the rest of the world.

“It was a kind of an eerie feeling filming in places where pesticides were used heavily, like in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. These places were devoid of any form of life, no frogs or fish in paddy fields and no bees or butterflies in places they grow flowers,” Thomas says. That eerie feeling hasn’t worn off yet. The sheer carelessness with which the pesticides are handled came as a shock to Thomas.

“People mix pesticides in the same buckets they use to fetch water. In Punjab, it is sprayed using 10 feet long sprayers…at the end of a session of spraying the farmer is doused in pesticide…”

Then there was the time he was sound recordist for Cancer Train , a film on the cancer train that chugs to Bikaner in Rajasthan from Bhatinda in Punjab with cancer patients. And these are just some stories that Thomas has come face to face with during the course of his career.

He studied film making (“a comprehensive course comprising cinematography, sound, editing”) at Los Angeles City College. Understanding a film as a whole and being able to work on any one aspect was something that his course enabled him to do. He says, “When I finished my film studies in Los Angeles, my brother, who also studied film making in LA, was already making films for the BBC and I started working with him.”

The most recent documentary they worked together on, for BBC, was with British actor, Felicity Kendal. Thomas has been sound recordist of documentaries made for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), RFO (France) and UNU Tokyo and did the sound recording for the film made by Hattie Bowering from the United Kingdom on the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB).

Into feature films

He does not limit himself to documentary films alone. He was the sound recordist for Drapchi , a film directed by Arvind Iyer. The film was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram last year in the Top Angle Cinema category (films that have been critically acclaimed abroad.) Drapchi was also screened at various international film festivals such as the Warsaw International Film Festival, the Cairo Film Festival and the Ocean Film Festival.

Thomas works primarily with foreign television companies and on international projects. He is, however, keen to work with filmmakers in the State. But the hitch is that sync sound is something rarely attempted in films made in Kerala, it is used in documentaries perhaps, but rarely for full length feature films. There are many reasons for this, Thomas says.

The equipment is hard to come by, actors have to be willing to learn their dialogues, as an aside he adds, and some actors are not native speakers of Malayalam. Sync sound gives that added something to films as opposed to sanitised sounds where there is only dialogue. He dismisses the notion that it is expensive. “What sync sound does is it enriches the visual. The ambience of the location at which a piece of dialogue is delivered or an action is filmed is incomplete when it is devoid of actual sound. Yes, you can recreate some of it in studio but it will never have the fullness or reality of sync sound.” Besides, sync sound “doesn’t have to be expensive. It is less expensive when compared to spending hours dubbing in a recording studio.”

Recording sound ‘live’ is no cakewalk. It requires a lot of hard work and involvement, as much as the director. And the experiences are raw, real and first hand in the making of a documentary. There is no script to work on it as it is live. “We talk to the people before the shoot so there is preparation in that sense.” Otherwise it is sound as life happens.

As it was while they were filming for Toxic Valley at ‘Enabavi’, an organic farming community in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, “It was just another world, full of life.” So does a heightened sense for the visual help a sound recordist? “This is a two way process. A sense of the visual helps the sound recordist understand the sounds that make it real.” And sound does complete a picture.