A Few Words with Oscar Award Winner: RESUL POOKUTTYby Opinion Express March 13, 2018 0 comments
Although it isn’t in his nature to boast, Resul Pookutty is the only name in India who can brag about of having received an Oscar – The Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for Best Sound in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, National Film Award for Best Audiography in ‘Pazhassi Raja’, Golden Reel Award for Best Sound in Documentary film ‘India’s Daughter’, Padma Shri Award by Government of India, Ashoka Chakra by the Joint Session of Parliament and the list goes on.
He has spent over 23 years working in sound design and is one of the most highly respected sound designers in the film industry. Some of his greatest works were seen in films like ‘Ghajini’, ‘Black’, ‘Kaabil’, ‘PK’, ‘Kick’, ‘Highway’, ‘Saawariya’, ‘Gandhi, My Father’, ‘Blue’, ‘Robot’, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, ‘Shootout at Wadala’ and many more to his credit.
Tell us how your journey began. When did you decide you wanted to make a career in sound?
When I began I never thought I will make a career in sound. Actually I wanted to be physicist. On a general note like any other parent, my mother wanted me to take up science. I was in my 12th grade, when I fell in love with physics. I wanted to research conductivity and was keen on inventing super conductive element and bring Noble prize for India. That was my ambition in life then. But you know many things that you plan don’t happen and during that time I couldn’t pursue masters in physics. I was doing nothing so I decided to study law. When I was pursuing first year of law, couple of my friends from physics advised a course in Film and Television Institute (FTII, Pune) for sound recording and sound engineering and the basic qualifications for enrollment was B.Sc. in physics. The five of us took admission to the film school and applied for the course. I was the only one selected at the entrance exam. So I went to the film school from law college to attend the second stage of selection procedure and didn’t get through! All my structured learned mugged up answers didn’t do any good.
That failure was a very big turning point in my life. I discovered cinema in that failure and I decided cinema is what I wanted to do. So I came back to Trivandrum, joined my law school and for the next one year I prepared myself at understanding what art and culture is, as a science student I did not have much knowledge on the subject. There was not a single day and single event of any concerts or a kacheri (carnatic classical concert) or anything to do with art and culture in Trivandrum that I had left unattended. I visited temples, British library, university library, doorki bhavan and used to sit on the steps of Padmanabaswamy temple for a year to study and update myself. For the second time I went to the film school, I was complete different man. I stood first at the selection process and got eligible for scholarship.
I went to the film institute as the village boy who couldn’t speak good English and knew only Malayalam and if I had to make a notes in English then I would take some time to translate the same from Malayalam to English. I put a timetable to myself every day just not for me to learn but also because I had very limited resources. I never took money from my parents for something that I wanted to pursue on my own as they were already worried I was jumping through different professions. I had to manage my tuition fees, hostel fees and living expenses with 500 rupees. From three years of studying and watching cinema, I was transforming myself to a person of artistic integrity. The institute had changed my life completely forever.
I came out from FTII to the film industry as an idealistic student. If you ask me, what your journey is and what are the struggles that you faced, I had two kinds of struggle, one I was a village boy to a metropolitan city finding oneself in the realm of art and to meet different people from different culture and languages. And my second struggle was far more important and difficult to function with all the knowledge that I had acquired from a structured study in an industry that constantly told me that my education had no value or there is no need for education in this industry! That’s probably the biggest downfall of Indian film industry because we don’t need to study to be part of it. I had to find my foot holds in the industry that had constantly rejected me. I thought if the industry doesn’t need me then I had to create a need for myself to be a part of the industry. Fourteen years later when I won an Oscar I became the first Asian to win the award in Best Sound Mixing category and that is because of this conviction, hard work and people around me put together. It was not my individual achievement, it was an achievement of everyone who was a part of my life in that 14 years.
What does it mean for you to associate a particular sound to a visual event? What are the mental or purely instinctive paths competing in making the choice?
It still amazes me how a sound could open up the movie when I do it every time. Something magical happens when an effect of sound is added to the picture and sometimes it doesn’t turn out to be predictable. I still depend on experiments by putting sounds against image to see what happens and it doesn’t stop there for me.
First of all we sound technicians called the “sound man” is not understood well by the people outside the medium or at times people within the medium. I think we are far more powerful people compared to a Director of Photography. To me a visual is only abstract, when you look at a moving or frozen image, the meaning of it is an abstract but the moment I start putting sound into it the meaning gets concretized. And cinema is a continuum of time and space. The real meaning of an image is actually decided by the sound that is going with it, for it is the temporal element. We have some of the most amazing visual effects in a film but that does not become natural experience unless it has the sound that concretizes the meaning of moving image, the experience of sound and picture together makes the most real and natural experience. I think in terms of finding the meaning to the image we are far more powerful, which is not readily understood by the common man or even the common traits within my industry.
When I hear somebody walking in a film, I can define the person from an anthropological perspective. For example if a put the sound of a high heel shoe then the image of that person changes and it can be changed by adding the sound of a flip flop or an anklet. You don’t have to see the person, but just with the sound that I add for their walk you can define who is walking. And once the final edit of the film is over I sit on it and do my own version of the script through sound. It is as if I am rewriting the script of the film through sound.
Your primary job is as a sound designer – what does that entail? It sounds quite abstract and I don’t think that many people know what a sound designer actually does…can you elaborate?
You probably know the work of a cameraman, he gives the visual language to the film by a way of using lights, shadows, movements and lenses to achieve that. Likewise a sound designer gives oral texture to the film. He has the performance of the actors which is their oral performances as one of the elements, ambience that define each spaces of those performances as another element. And the sound the actors make while they perform are the third element. We have sound design which is very musical in nature but not real music. It is interpretation of a sound designer through various sound natural or otherwise like a musical score. Then comes the actual music, when composer interpretation through musical notes and instrument of a particular situation or of a performance in the film. With these elements in hand, I create loudness graph that compliments a narrative graph as the film progresses from one scene to another with certain emotional intensity. Sometimes you hear very little, sometimes you hear far more things, like a landscape is opening and closing. We make selective listening for the audience who come to watch a film and make him feel life as he is experiencing one continuous emotional ride so in a way sound design is very subconscious art. This is the job of a sound designer.
You are a believer that sound exists in nature and are not a product of a skilled craftsman. Your work has always been exquisite and known for unfailing delivery of quality sound. Would you like to talk about it?
(Giggles) It’s a huge compliment. Thank you. I do agree that sound exists in nature. When I was doing a film like ‘Saawariya’, the film had only four nights. A night before the rains, night during the rains and night after the rains. When a boy and a girl meet and when they are in love no reality exists between them. There’s only that moment where there is moonlight. ‘Saawariya’ was full of moments like that. I had recorded so many nights and one night I went into the deep jungle in film city Mumbai. The jungle was part of Western Ghats. I was standing next to a pond as I was recording the night, I realized there is space for every creature in this universe. What defined that night was there were sound of crickets from the floor, there were elements, there were creatures in every step, trees, leaves rustling, birds that were moving, sound of plonk with fishes jumping out of the water and the air around me as atmosphere. That day I realized that we think of ourselves so big but we are just a blue dot of dust in this Universe and nothing else. Every living creature in this universe are so embedded in the atmosphere which I managed to capture with that ambience. Someone who saw the film called me from New York one night and spoke to me about the sound of that night, I think for me with every piece of sound that I leave behind in the film strip, I am trying to make a conversation with my audience. With a phone call like that and talk of that particular night I feel my one such conversation is complete. For me every film is a pursuit to find that one person who would call me from some part of the globe where we are able to converse through images and sculptures in time.
Which movie do you consider “the perfect movie for sound” that you have worked on until now?
Oh god!! (Laughs) That’s a very difficult question to answer. If I had ten children and you ask me which one is the perfect child then who do I pick? Every film I have worked I have emotionally invested myself in it. So every film is important. Every film that I watch after years I want to change it. That is the feeling that I have on all the film that I have done. It is very difficult for me to choose just one film but there are certain films that are close to me for various reasons like ‘Gandhi, My Father’, ‘Black’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Liv & Ingmar’ etc.
How has life changed? Post Oscar!
Laughs… No easy films are coming to me after Oscars, I have to struggle as people’s expectations on me are getting bigger and bigger and if I work hard to create something new then people say that it is okay and was expected out of me. Every time I have this huge pressure on me to perform better each day.
Life hasn’t changed, but my life for others have changed. I think my life has touched people and I’m still the same person. I want to lead a ordinary life. I always tell myself that I’m an ordinary man thrown in extraordinary situations in life. To be honest I haven’t kept my Oscar anywhere in the studio or at my house because I don’t want to look at it each day. I remember what Mr. Amitabh Bachchan told me once that “the kind of achievement that we have taken in our life, we have to prepare our shoulders in a way that those achievements will shine on it”. I don’t know if my shoulders are capable enough (Smiles). I have locked my Oscars in my bank vault and every year I take it out to clean it and put it back and that’s the only time my children get to hold the Oscars and BAFTA. I also have big Ashoka Chakra that is given to me by the Joint Session of the Parliament and I have kept all these three awards in the vault room so that I don’t have to see them every day.
The best in the business. What made you decide to work on ‘2.0’?
‘2.0’ is a sequel of the movie ‘Robot’ (Hindi version) or ‘Enthiran’ (Tamil version) which I had worked for earlier. ‘2.0’ is huge and a very ambitious film. So I worry for Shankar because I don’t think anybody else can do something like that in Indian cinema. I think time has come for us to think big, we have to capture our imagination of our people and improve the markets of our own films. 80% of India’s films market share that we make are domestic and is the biggest saving of our industry. A number of Hollywood films like ‘Avatar’ which made 57 crore, ‘Fast & Furious 8’ which made 71 crore and ‘Jungle Book’ which made close to 200 crore and other such movies are making huge collection from India. Hollywood is taking away the resources from India without spending a single penny in its making and that is where sanctity of film like ‘2.0’ lies. If we do not contain our audience for the next decade then we will be wiped out and there will only be Hollywood. There is already a generation of youngsters who think that Indian cinema is redundant and only Hollywood is real and for me that is unacceptable.
As more and more young people get drawn towards careers in the film industry, where do you think the future of sound design lies?
After my Oscar there are tons and tons of sound engineering institutes that have sprung up. I just want to tell my youngsters and their parents that I have studied the art of film making and sound as a craft. If you want to become somebody like me, you have to study in a film school where they teach you history of cinema, art and culture. Sound is just one small part among them. Not any private institutions can do this because education has become business. Don’t be a victim of these business proposals.
You have worked closely with A R Rahman on a number of films. Does a good relationship with a music director help the collaboration from an early stage?
I have a very different equation with A R Rahman. Working with him for every film has bought me different experiences. He has brought a new dimension to music in Indian cinemas. The first time we worked together was ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and even though ‘Ghajini’ came earlier than ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ it was the second film that we sat in a room and worked together. ‘Ghajini’ is an unforgettable film for me which has touched my heart due to death of Sreedhar who was the sound engineer for A R, who created that unforgettable sound of Rahman’s music.
Rahman and I spend a lot of time talking together whenever we meet and we share parallel ideas when it comes to work. It has helped us give great sound and music to the film that we worked together. He is kind of an elder brother to me and guides me. For me he is just not a colleague or a music director who is working in a film together, he is much more and bigger than that.
You said a movie needs to be designed for sound before you start designing sound. What do you mean by that?
Yes, first and foremost choice of the sound has to create a sense of image of something that I have seen, heard, experienced or that I invent. I remember when I was doing a film like ‘Blue’, what would it sound like 200 meters deep under the sea, it was something that I had probably not experienced but I imaged it as an experience and transposed that experience to the audience. In a way I become the first listener. I did a film with Buddhadeb Dasgupta called ‘Sniffer’. There was a sequence in the film which was a single shot of 8 minute long. The camera was placed at the bottom of a hillock and the sun comes up as Anwar(main character in the film) begins his last journey in the film. Just this shot offered me so much possibility of sound. I decided to visit the exact same location and recorded many such morning, the result of which is a composition of 8 minute long with sounds that are captured in many mornings diegetic and non-diegetic. This simply can be called as sound art that is probably why I said a film needs to be designed for sound before sound is designed.
Could you talk about your acting debut film which is making sensational news across and yourself playing a sound designer in the movie?
(Laughs) I don’t look at it as an acting debut. The whole idea happened after my Oscars, when I 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. I wanted to record the sounds of the Pooram for my personal archive. Rajeev Panakal a producer himself called me from US and said he would like to facilitate the dream of mine.
The event was massive with 100 elephants, 500 musicians and a million people over 70 acres of land and realized it was not possible by just being a sound man. I wanted to capture the process of recording it. During the shoot I met a mahout and discovered that one of the elephant in the procession was blind. I wondered if an elephant could go through the procession with the help of the sound then why not a visually challenged person experience the Pooram without being there in person. That was the seed for the film titled ‘The Sound Story’ directed by Prasad Prabhakar. It is basically the struggle and survival of the sound man to record the Pooram to make it an experience for a visually challenged person. That is how I became an accidental actor and it’s not a documentary film.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
I think this year I’m pretty much occupied with a lot of films. At present I have ‘2.0’ coming up. I’m working on a Hindi film ‘Manto’ which is a biopic of Saadat Hasan Manto. I have a Hollywood film called ‘Love Sonia’ from the maker of ‘Life of Pie’ David Womark and directed by Tabrez Noorani. I have a Malayalam movie ‘Praana’ directed by VK Prakash. I have another Malayalam film based on a novel ‘Aadujeevitham’ written by Benyamin where I and AR Rahman will be working together again. And I have got a couple of more Hindi films.
Do you have any final words for the readers of OPINION EXPRESS magazine and your fans across the globe?
For readers and fans out there I would like to say that we are living in a time where technology is constantly telling us that we don’t need faculty of memory anymore whereas our tradition says our memory is knowledge. Till this contradiction we need to be constantly aware of three things; first to be factual, second to be logical – in things we say and propagate and third to be more humane. It is respect and love for one another that makes us a truly one good family in the world of contradictions.
By Nithya Ramesh – Bureau Chief; fashion & entertainment