Talking to Resul Pookutty is fun because he is always full of gyaan and energy. “I am no philosopher, but an ordinary man, thrown into extraordinary situations in life,” he smiles. “I’m running late. Would you mind travelling with me to Kodambakkam?” he asks, and I tell, “Sure” as I accompany the Oscar-winning sound wizard in his car to AM Studios.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Do you enjoy giving interviews? I think after some point it gets repetitive.
It is like asking a Hindustani musician, “How tedious is it to perform the same raga again and again.” No two interviews can be the same. Hey, I am good as long as they don’t ask about the Oscars! It is safe, yaar. (Laughs).
No worries. We are not going to discuss that. But you have been extremely vocal about the plight of the sound system in theatres, besides how the film industry hasn’t realised the importance of sound yet. Speaking the truth — has it put you in trouble?
I think it must have. We need sane voices in the industry, and how long can we pretend everything is hunky-dory? If I don’t speak out, who else will? I say what I feel like saying. Because that is how I am. This may not benefit me, but it can benefit aspiring technicians. We have to address the flaws, and see what could be done. When I started my career around 1997, I insisted that we use live sound, and that fetched me an Oscar many years later. The industry did listen to me, and it is open to accepting challenges. If it hadn’t adapted to the changing times, you would not be chasing me for an interview today.
You say things have changed for the better. So, is there any irksome aspect, in particular, that remains the same?
The music sells, but the sound, unfortunately, doesn’t. The success of a song can define the success of a film. But there is this perception overall that sound doesn’t bring in people to theatres. They forget that sound adds value to films. Only a little money is allocated for sound in our films, and it is the last thing on the producer’s mind.
Also, sound designing isn’t being given as front credit in Hollywood. You see a casting director’s name in the front, but not a sound technician’s. Take Christopher Nolan’s last film Dunkirk for instance. Without the sound, that film is nothing. See, I am a craftsman, and unless I add something different to the product I am involved in, I am going to be looked down upon. I managed to convince people throughout these years. Even my own Malayalam people didn’t know who I was until I won an Oscar. I was running after the press to write about the sound, not me.
Fifteen years ago, I never had journalists interviewing me. There were a lot of write-ups about the guy who did artwork for Slumdog Millionaire. Nobody reached out to me. But one Oscar changed everything overnight. That is the power of mainstream recognition.
I am sure. The last time I met you, you told me you have cracked the philosophy of 2.0’s sound. Tell us more.
I made the audience a part of the story, and the process was fascinating. Without the kindness of my fellow technicians, I would not have achieved this. We are one of the largest filmmaking countries, but we don’t manufacture equipment that others can use. We don’t make cameras, lenses or microphones. We survive on borrowed technology. We are also one of the biggest IT powers in the world. But do we make any software or an Operating System on our own? No.
Without Shankar and AR Rahman, 2.0 wouldn’t have been what it is. The film is a result of two years’ hard work. I didn’t want to talk about my work until I saw it materialise. It happened exactly two nights before the trailer launch.
An exhibition chain gave me their theatre complex and I used it to experiment. I had their staff helping me out. I ripped off AR Rahman’s studio. I had changed the set-up into an experimental lab. He let me be myself in his space and he went to Mumbai. Nobody understands me like him. Probably, I would say he is the only person who has understood me completely. Rahman recognised me when nobody did. Many top musicians looked at me as someone who spoils their work. I work for the film, and I don’t have an issue if my sound isn’t heard in some places. Whereas, it is not the case with music directors. They want to be ‘heard’. They don’t understand they are dealing with a film. It is not a music video, come on.
How do you make music directors understand that it is not about ego, but the craft?
(Laughs) I want tears to well up in the eyes of the audience. That is the kind of control I am referring to. We should control the melodrama, we can’t let it flow simply. It comes easy with like-minded technicians. When I design sound for Tamil films, I get my own mic and related equipment. Sometimes, I even get my carpenters to re-do the studio, in order to get the best quality sound. It is always about the work, not me.
Your choice of films is intriguing. I was surprised when you came on board for Remo.
I love people who are passionate about cinema and Raja of 24AM Studios brought in an amazing storyteller, Bakkiyaraj Kannan. In 10 years, he will be another Shankar, trust me, and I saw that in him. He comes from a humble background and has an excellent set of ideas.
Over the years, you have made sound yours. You are well-read and well-travelled. What do you think about the theatres in Tamil Nadu?
Imagine I am an artist, exhibiting my work in a museum. Don’t you think I should be given a proper canvas, good lighting and an ample space where the audience can look at my work? Only 30 per cent of a technician’s work reaches the audience. And we need equipped theatres with proper sound system enabled. I still don’t understand how licensing works in multiplexes, and on what basis they are given one. In European countries and abroad, you need to follow a specific set of criteria to get a theatre license. Cinema is an audio-visual medium, and for the amount of money they collect from the audience, what is being offered in return? I am not asking for the best projectors or the sound system. You can, at least, give them a normal one, but not certain things below substandard.
Tell us about Oru Kadhai Sollatuma, which marks your first film as a lead actor.
I am an ‘accidental actor’. It is about a sound designer’s journey, who wants to record the sounds of the Thrissur Pooram festival. It is a fictional story.
What is the best compliment you have received so far?
Hmm. This is an unusual question. (Pauses) A visually-challenged person called me and said, he ‘saw’ Pazhasi Raja through my sound. Also, after watching Slumdog Millionaire, someone told me they could smell Mumbai in the film, and that was because of my sound.
Share a few words about Shankar.
He is a maverick filmmaker, and I just love him. He is a socially-conscious person, and his films are nothing but a reflection of his thoughts. Tamil cinema needs more films like 2.0, where sound design is planned as part of the storytelling.
Having said that are you a part of his next, Indian 2? A film with Kamal Haasan has never happened.
I don’t know. He hasn’t told me anything as of yet. But it would be nice if Shankar thinks about working with me again.
Is the directorial dream on the cards?
As a film student from Film and Television Institute of India, of course, yes.