Resul Pookutty is an Oscar Award winning film sound engineer, sound designer and sound mixer
We who work on sound in cinema are constantly looking at how it affects our lives. That’s what we play with on an emotional level. Even before I finished film school, I decided I wanted to create India’s own sound library.
I was very young when I started this. Travelling the countryside recording sound, I realised that the sound spectrum in India is so huge, so vast—it’s mindboggling. It’s like the language, the food or the costumes of India. Every part of India has a different dialect, and the sounds are as diverse. Every culture has its own sound. For instance, sound pieces for religion from the north to the south of India will give you a hundred albums. It was like a cobweb. I could not get out of it.
At Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, where I studied, they insisted that we not depend on its library. We could hear the sound samples, but not use them. Every film needs its own sounds, and we were expected to go out and record our own library. That’s what makes each film different.
I realised then that India did not have an extensive sound library. In fact, Amitabh Bachchan was the first person to bring a sound library to India, during the shoot for Khuda Gawah. It came about because of an actor—they used to be so involved in the filmmaking process. But otherwise, when Indian films need sound, it’s either licensed from BBC, Hollywood Edge or Lucas Films, which don’t have Indian sounds. Imagine using a London city sound for a Bombay street shot. It just doesn’t sound the same. In any case, we technicians never had access to these libraries. We pretty much recorded most of the sounds we wanted ourselves. So, people ended up having personal libraries. There was nothing codified and available in the market.
In 1997, I decided to start working on this. When I started the project, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL) agreed to produce my idea commercially. The project went ahead, and I had a decent budget. But ABCL’s first film failed, and it struck off all unviable—or so they thought—projects. Mine too.
I still had to do it, though. I continued, along with a friend, with our own money. This was the time when stereo recording was just coming up in India. I used a friend’s stereo recording gear and travelled the whole of Bombay, Pune and some villages for months on end.
My idea was to give stereo sounds, recorded cleanly, as sound effects for use in films and theatre. You need clean ambiences, clean effects. The challenging bit, though, was to categorise the sounds. I had village sounds, religious sounds, public places. But a south Indian railway station is so different from a Maharashtra railway station.
I thought I’d give city sounds as one element, village sounds as another, then household sounds, and clips from religious and public places. I started thinking in terms of the public places you generally see in films. You see bus stations, railways, airports. I started thinking filmically. With religion, I had to incorporate Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, aartis and azaans. An evening aarti in Pune is completely different from an evening aarti in Bombay. It’s like dialect—the nature changes. If I want to be anthropologically specific, I had to go into minute detail.
But I generally do go into as much detail as I can. Not just a creak of a chair, but everything possible that you can hear. When you slap your hand down on a table, it makes a sound. But if I add a metallic sound to it, you immediately know that this man is affluent, he’s wearing a ring. I’m going into what this man is. That’s what I mean by detail.
I consider myself lucky that there was no software at the time. I had to do everything myself. Now you can sit in a bathroom and use Pro Tools. My first album, I edited on SADiE, which worked on a PC platform. I called it Essential Indian Sound Effects, Vol. 1. I managed to put in 60-70 clips on each CD. I tried to give loopable sounds, so that even if it was two minutes long, you could loop it. We also started thinking of analog. It is impossible for just one person to categorise and decide what is usable. We were looking at a musical album. We put it in music stores so that people could buy it—Rs 600 for a pack of three CDs. It was mastered in such a way that it could be used as analog elements. I even learned coding in order to number tracks. I can now boast of one of the biggest libraries. I also share it with my friends abroad so that I can get something from them in return. Two terabytes of sound is nothing. I’m going for a tie-up with one of the biggest sfx guys in Hollywood.
It’s been a huge learning experience. I feel the third album is my best work. While working on the first one, I was only learning how to record. But I still had a gut feeling that this is what I wanted to do. Nothing could stop me. I remember nights and nights of roaming in Pune and faraway villages. I was just moving around with my recorder. I wanted to give professional quality sound. Technically, I wanted to be perfect.
But I’m not just concentrating on creating a library. I’m a film person. I’d created the platform. So I thought I’d take it to the next level. So, every film I do, I carry my sound recorder and keep recording. For me, sound and cinema is a temporal element. If the visual is spatial, you’re making something that is intangible tangible with sound. For example, when you go to a valley, you feel completely quiet. At the sea, you feel calmer. This is because you’re hearing longer expressions of sound. Valley birds have long calls. Sea waves are…wavy… but they are long in nature. Sound is stretched horizontally. In the city, we have short bursts, or expressions, of sound. It’s a cacophony. That makes you restless. For me to capture a city, I have to understand all this. So, while recording ambience, I have to understand it, and then transfer what I feel to the audience.
I don’t think any other country has so much diversity in terms of sound. It’s so huge, I don’t know how to explore it. So I just keep building my library. Like a cameraman who carries a still camera, I carry my recorder. When I am recording a sound, I know if it is perfect or not. When you record sounds, it gives you an emotional clue. When it emotionally stimulates you, you know you have the right sound.