Utpal Borpujari

July 28, 2009

Resul Pookutty: The Philosophy of Sound

By Utpal Borpujari

Resul Pookutty is sort of relaxed now. 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. Yes, his life has changed forever now, and he has to attend various public events quite frequently, unlike the relative anonymity he lived with prior to the hurricane called “Slumdog Millionaire” hit the world, but he is at his best form when he is in his studio, because that is where he finds his true calling, film after film.

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, however big they may be. 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.

Ask him which classic he would like to rework on given an opportunity, and pat comes the reply – Sholay. Why? “Well, Hindi cinema has not been able to go beyond that in terms of sound, but even in Sholay, only what is required for the story was done, and nothing much was done in terms of ambience track or spatial element of sound. It was typically a mainstream Hollywoodean kind of approach. That’s where my interest lies, to see if I can take it to further level,” he says.

Oscars have made him an unlikely star, but Pookutty has his vision clear – he would continue working for both big and small projects. “That’s one of the philosophies behind setting up of Canaries Post Sound, so that I am able to cater, to the optimum level, to small budget cinemas. I want to dedicate my own time in my own space, and over a period, to a film to which I can add some value even if the money is not good.” Quite clearly, Pookutty is a man of sound, with a mind that is sound, and grounded.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 26-07-2009)


February 24, 2009

I long to win the National Award: Pookutty

Resul Pookutty, along with A R Rahman and Gulzar, have brought glory to India, winning the most-glamorous film award in the world, joining the ranks of Bhanu Athaiya, who had won the Best Costume Design Oscar for Gandhi and Satyajit Ray, who was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Kerala-born Pookutty, who has the Canaries Post Sound studio  in Mumbai with his partner Akhilesh Acharya, has travelled a long way since he made his debut in the world of films through Rajat Kapoor’s “Private Detective – Two Plus Two Plus One” in 1997. Since then, he has worked in good mix of both mainstream and art house films, rising to become one of the most highly-rated sound designers of India.

It is “Slumdog Millionaire”, for which he has won the Oscar for Sound Mixing jointly with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke, that has catapulted him to international fame, though he has already achieved a great range of work 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”.

Here are Pookutty’s thoughts, post Oscar win, exclusively for Deccan Herald readers:

On the win: This is an incredible moment. Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would get such a big honour, just as I had not imagined in my wildest dreams that Slumdog Millionaire would become such a wild success. I am really proud that I could bring this honour to my country.

Future aspirations: I long to win the National Award, as that is what my country gives to the best among those in the field of cinema.


On the other awards he has won: On a professional level, the Cinema Audio Society (CAS) Award is the ultimate win for me, as the society has an exclusive membership of 500 best sound technicians of the world. It is the award given by your peers, the best in the business. BAFTA was definitely big, but on a popular level, of course, nothing can beat the Oscar as it is the most well-known award worldwide. This will help taking a technician like me to make the common film viewer understand the importance of my work.


His most satisfying work: Gandhi My Father, because this film gave me the opportunity to work with a huge responsibility. The sensibility of an artist is displayed also in he should not do. This film was about a man whose philosophy had been simplicity and truthfulness. So, I had taken a conscious decision of not manipulating audience feelings in that film. I was very truthful and genuine.


The Slumdog experience: My first reaction when Danny Boyle gave me the script to read was like ‘my god, this is a full on Hindi film’, completely unlike what he’d done before. He studied our films and followed that path, and I have great respect for that man. One week into the shoot, I found this was not an easy film to shoot. I had to reinvent myself as it as technically a very difficult film. Being a technician, you reach a level of sophistication with time, and I realised if I approach it in the conventional way of recording sound, it won’t work. So, I decided to record the soundscape of the city of Mumbai for this film. I had to use a different mindset. Many a time I had to think in terms of how human perceptions work, and stimulate those things by multi-track recording in this film.


His plans: I am in the process of appointing an agent in Hollywood, but I am not interested in doing small films there. I am doing a combination work here, of mainstream and independent cinema. I am more interested in doing work here and taking it there. I am also interested in working in regional cinema, but nobody has called me from Kerala, my home state, till now. However, I am doing a Marathi film which has a fantastic script. It’s director is Jayprad Desai, and I am lucky to be working with such young people with lot of spark in them, and also a lot of truth and genuineness.


Most humbling experience: When I met the legendary Ben Burtt at the CAS award ceremony. He was nominated for “Wall-E” (he lost to Pookutty in the Oscars too). He is a legend in sound technology, and much of what we know in cinema sound is thanks to him. He himself came up to me, and said ‘I am honoured to meet you’. Such humility in such a great man. They have shown me such great respect. I am yet to do work of the level that people like him have done, but what humbles me is the appreciation they have shown towards my work.


(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 24-02-2009)



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