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Jai Arjun Singh: Aural storytelling

Mr Pookutty's memoir, Sounding Off, notes that the sense of reality that sound creates in cinema is a manufactured one

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It is an oft-repeated dictum that the technical elements of film-making should be placed at the service of the narrative and must not draw attention to themselves. “If someone comes out of a film saying ‘Art design brilliant thi’, then it means we have failed,” a production designer told me recently. I get the broad point – that these things should work on a subconscious plane; they must not divert the first-time viewer’s attention – but I also think a one-size-fits-all proclamation on this subject is naive. Much hinges on the type of film one is talking about and the type of viewer (a professional critic wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t consciously register some of a movie’s inner workings).

Also, the idea that technical crew should be invisible worker ants often becomes a rationale to neglect discussion of certain elements of movie-making; we don’t have much accessible literature on film craft aimed at the engaged but non-professional viewer. Which is why it’s pleasing to come across Sounding Off, a memoir by the sound designer and mixer Resul Pookutty (written in collaboration with Baiju Natarajan). One can guess why this book has been produced by a big-name publisher, even though Mr Pookutty is only in his early forties: to cash in on the publicity from his Oscar win for Slumdog Millionnaire. But ignore that little detail and focus on the content, because this is an engrossing mix of reminiscence and information.

Sound design and editing are things that nearly every viewer takes for granted, but Mr Pookutty’s book is a pointer to the thought and planning that a good sound man must put into his work. When he discusses the relationship between sound and imagery, and how the two things work in conjunction to create a particular effect, he almost comes across as an amateur psychologist; unsurprising, because his job entails understanding how the human mind works, how it makes connections and fills in gaps for us while we are watching a movie. “The sense of reality that sound creates in cinema is a manufactured one,” he notes, “You can mimic the sound of rain by making sugar fall on a piece of plain paper; but if you hear just the record of such a sound, it might not sound like rain. Only along with the visual footage of the rain can you feel that it’s raining.” Reading this, one thinks of intensely atmospheric movie sequences set on rainy nights, and how convincingly they can create a required mood. The idea that the pattering sound one hears in the darkness of the hall might be grains of sugar hitting paper casts a new light on conventional notions of cinematic “realism”.

Mr Pookutty also makes special note of other film people especially attuned to the nuances of sound, such as Amitabh Bachchan, who once asked for a “reverb” effect in a dubbing studio because he wanted the setting to approximate the acoustics of the hall where the scene was shot; or Mani Kaul, who he reckons may have been the only Indian director who was informed enough to demand the use of a particular type of mike for a particular shot. Some of these passages may seem highly specialised, but the book’s chief mode is personal and friendly; it provides insights into the sort of person Mr Pookutty is, his well-rounded film education and the combination of qualities that led him to his field. As he recalls the effect that a childhood memory of a rotating fan – during an intense illness – had on his sound recording, or discusses the Malayali way of eating in terms of sound effects, “from guttural grunts to violent gargling”, one gets a sense of a man from small-town Kerala discovering and embracing a wider world, and bringing his own experiences into his work.

I was particularly struck by an early chapter – not, on the face of it, directly “relevant” to Mr Pookutty’s career – where he describes, with much affection, his close relationship with animals. Some of his most vivid childhood memories, he says, are the sound of cows’ hooves “scratching the floor on a quiet night; the sound of them getting up; the distinctive rhythm of their breathing”. When he attributes “humility, soulfulness and a sense of depth” to donkeys, it’s an immediate reminder of the complex use of sound in Robert Bresson’s great film Au Hasard Balthazar, where a donkey’s bray acquires a dozen different cadences depending on the mood of a scene. By revealing things about himself (his personal life, his ideologies, inspirations and misgivings, his eye and ear for the natural world), Mr Pookutty organically reveals much about his attitude to his craft too, and how the work he does subtly affects the viewing experience for millions of people. This makes his memoir a more effective window into a relatively esoteric topic than a jargon-heavy textbook could be.

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