Sound and Indian cinema Movies

Resul Pookutty:Why can’t actors learn their lines?

It’s not often that you see an Oscar winner iron his own shirt before an interview. That’s sound designer Resul Pookutty for you.

After a tiring day promoting his debut as an actor, Oru Kadhai Sollatuma (The Sound Story), Pookutty settles down for a late-night chat that he hopes will be his last for the day. Excerpts:

You’ve just completed your first film as a lead actor. But before we get to that, I’ve heard that you once went on a hunger strike because you didn’t get a role in a Malayalam film. Is that true?

(Laughs) Yes, that’s right. I applied for the role of a child actor after seeing a newspaper advertisement for a movie called Ishtamanu Pakshe (1980). My first professionally clicked photograph was for that application. When I didn’t get a call back, I didn’t eat for three days. I remember my mother felt very bad then. It was her rule that the kids go to bed with a full stomach.

It may have taken longer, but that dream of yours seems to have come true with Oru Kadhai Sollatuma, that too with a hero’s role.

I’m not a hero. This is not a film that is meant to launch my “acting career” so to speak. It’s a film that just happened, like the many other things in my life.

Oru Kadhai Sollatuma, about a sound designer’s pursuit to record the sounds of the Thrissur Pooram, cannot be imagined with anyone else. How biographical is the film?

This has nothing to do with my life. The whole idea happened because I had once told in an interview that my dream was to record the sounds of the Pooram, one of the biggest sound events in the world. A person who watched that interview called me up from the US and said he would like to facilitate that dream of mine. That was the producer (Rajeev Panakal).

So there’s no acting involved?

I wanted to record the sounds of the Pooram for my personal archive, but I also wanted to capture the process of recording it. The magnitude is massive — with 100 elephants, 300 musicians, a million people over 70 acres. During this phase, I visited a place where elephants are bred, and discovered that one of the elephants was half blind. So I wondered how a visually-challenged person could experience the pooram without being there in person. That’s the fictional story around which the film is woven. It’s not a documentary, and that’s how I became an accidental actor.

Do you feel it will help the audience understand the importance of sound design in our cinema?

It will. Like how a film like Singham spoke about the trials faced by a policeman, this will tell the story of a sound man.

Do you feel that your Oscar win helped in taking the art form of sound design to the people in India?

Oh yes. Film sound wouldn’t have been understood the way it is now being, without the win. It’s a pivotal moment.

But there are still several misconceptions that revolve around sound. I’ve heard that directors resist from using silence in their films, fearing that the audience would hoot or grumble.

That’s a very common and unhealthy practice in our country. Our mainstream cinema is afraid of silence, but they don’t realise that the more we pump up the sounds, the more the people get irritated. These are things a director resorts to when the story and craft are weak. The work of a sound designer is not to fill the gaps. We need more films like 2.0, where sound design is planned as part of the storytelling.

You mentioned that you wanted to record the sounds of the Pooram as part of your archive. Do all sound designers have to be collectors of sounds as well?

The first officially-coded sound library was something I brought out back in 1997. It was called The Essential Indian Sound Effects. A year later, I started hearing my sounds in several radio and TV commercials, and most of the Hindi films. Every foreign film with an Indian setting would use my sounds. I thought it made people lazy, so I stopped the library. But I still have a huge collection of Indian sounds in my studio… probably the largest.

There is also another assumption that using a sound library for a film is lazy...

You need to understand how little money is allocated for sound in our films. The valet of a superstar gets paid three times more than a film’s sound team. When I was doing Ra.One, I had to go to the sets to tell Shah Rukh that a pandal that was set up for him to walk from his caravan to the studio had cost more than the film’s sound design budget. Sound is usually the last thing on the producer’s mind. So the makers resort to libraries. They just don’t have the money to go out and get their own sounds.

That brings me to the topic of sync sound. As one of the ambassadors of it, why do you feel that our cinema is using so little of it?

One of the main reasons is indiscipline in the industry. I don’t understand why our actors need to be prompted their lines, even now. Our industry also has a peculiar practice of casting a person who doesn’t know the language. In the 90s, you couldn’t imagine Tamil cinema without Manisha Koirala, but she couldn’t speak the language. How can you use sync sound then?

So it’s always sync sound over dubbing?

Obviously, sync sound... there’s just so much that we lose during dubbing.

Your Oscar win might have attracted hundreds of youngsters towards the profession. But what prompted you to get into it in the first place?

I wanted to be a physicist before cinema happened. I completed my Physics Hons. but I didn’t get admission for Masters. So I got into Law without knowing what I was getting into. While there, a few of my Physics classmates showed me an ad inviting applicants for the sound recording course at FTII and the basic requirement was a BSc in Physics. I jumped at it because it was an extension of the Physics I had learnt.

And you got in?

Not in my first attempt. I prepared for the FTII entrance like it was an IAS exam... So I gave them clichéd answers like ‘I wanted to change the world with sound design’. I was rejected, but that process changed my life. I discovered cinema and I returned to Trivandrum with an aim to connect with art. I visited every single art event in the city and revived the film society in my college. I had a professor named Satyaseelan, who bought me food, books and film magazines. He is one of the reasons I had the courage to take it up. I got into FTII in my second attempt, and the next three years was only cinema... nothing else. When you’re experiencing a Tarkovsky, it is difficult to look at normal people doing their regular things. All that seemed meaningless beyond a point.

On a lighter note, where have you kept your Oscar?

In a bank locker. Once every year, I bring it home, clean it up and put it back.

How’s it looking?

It’s very well-maintained. Gold never fails to shine.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 9:09:27 PM |

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