The philosophy of sound

SOUND GURU: Resul Pookutty

After the relentless spotlight on him him following the Oscar, BAFTA and the Cinema Audio Society (CAS) Awards — the last one his most coveted as it is given by CAS, a body with an exclusive membership of 500 best sound technicians of the world — he is back in the relative calm of his Canaries Post Sound studio in Mumbai, doing what he does best, which is weaving audio magic around images to add a vital ingredient to the cinema-going experience.

Now is also the time when he is through with all the “how-do-you-feel-on-winning-the-Oscar” kind of interviews, and Pookutty is more than keen to speak on his art that for him goes much, much beyond mere winning of awards. For example, he is at his eloquent best if you ask him about how he perceives sound and how he uses that perception in his work. “It’s not a easy question. When you talk about visuals in cinema, you are talking about the spatial element, which is horizontal, whereas sound is spherical in nature, it is something that you get immersed. So, sound is a very subconscious element, and you can constantly play around people’s emotions with it, and which is why you need a great understanding of what sound is and how it’s affecting our lives every day. For example, when you go to a valley, you immediately have a feeling of calm, whereas in a city like Mumbai, you have short bursts of cacophony, multiple layers of sound, which are busy in nature and make you unsettled,” he says. This “embodiment of sound”, he explains, subconsciously effecting human beings all the time, and “as a sound man, I am constantly looking for this kind of sense of rhythm that is affecting me. I am constantly trying to decipher how sound is embedded in me, and that’s what I try to embody in my work”.

The soft-spoken man, who has worked in films like Split Wide Open, Everybody Says I’m Fine!, Raghu Romeo, Mathrubhumi, Musafir, Amu, Black, Bluffmaster, Traffic Signal, Gandhi My Father, Sawaariya and Ghazini understands the need to adjust his vision depending on the creative mindset of the directors he works with. To do that, he says, he looks for that vital clue which comes with the concept of every film. “That’s your driving point, and as a professional you have to adapt that to your work. You have to cater to every kind of things, which means you require a larger understanding of things. You need to see what is your cinema, where you are going to place yourself, and what are you trying to achieve in work, and then couple it with the vision of the director. Sometimes, the directors are below you in understanding, and sometimes ahead. When they are ahead of you, you try to assimilate things, and when they are not ahead of you, you try to take them with you.

So, what is necessary is a great understanding of art and culture around you and your cinema. That’s how I position myself in every film I do,” he philosophises.

The 1995 batch Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate, who hails from Vilakkupara village in Anchal, 23 km from Kollam in Kerala, still remembers the sounds he heard as a child in the quiet area, elements of which he uses in his projects whenever there is an opportunity to do so. He reminisces as he works on the sound of Rajat Kapoor’s Rectangular Love Story, — “I feel very close to the sounds of water flowing in a stream in my village. Maybe that’s why in as many films as I can, I try to use the sound of water as a metaphor. I have done it in Black, in my diploma films. I am also fascinated by the sounds of time, sounds of season, and that comes from my communion with nature because I was born and brought up in a village where I was constantly with nature. I even remember that in my childhood, when we would walk down a pathway, I would know there is a snake lying there. I think there was a greater understanding of nature then. That has helped me a lot when I am confused and don’t know what to do. Whenever I am depressed, I go back to my association with nature.”

Pookutty knows he has become an inspiration for many youngsters, but for him the real heroes in the field are the early pioneers like Devadas, Krishnan Unni and Mangesh Desai, who worked when technologies were rudimentary and yet achieved outstanding results all the time. “They are truly international in terms of work, and the quality and ethics of it. I always wanted to be like them. Thanks God because of the Oscars, I have come to the limelight, and people now know about this profession, but I want to say that it is not just me, but there are so many other technical people, including writers, screenwriters, costume people, make-up artistes, people who we don’t take seriously, are the people who are making the product that you see on the silver screen,” says the sound designer who admires the work of sound design guru Ben Burt.

Oscars have made him an unlikely star, but Pookutty has his vision clear — he would continue working for both big and small projects. Quite clearly, Pookutty is a man of sound, with a mind that is sound, and grounded.

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