Resul Pookutty — that’s a name to be revered. And not just because he’s one of Bollywood’s top sound designers, a recipient of the Padma Shri and the first Asian to win the Golden Reel award. Or the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, even. All these awards should be afterthoughts to his most important contribution to Indian cinema — making an entire film industry realise the importance of sound design.
Listening to him speak in his hotel room, where he attended an event linked to Tamil film Remo, you get a sense of his immense passion, his quirky sense of humour and the madness that Pookutty has for his art. But there is a method to his madness, a method honed after years of putting his soul into his art. From growing up in a very ordinary family in Kerala to becoming one of the most sought after sound designers in the world and someone whom A R Rahman swears by, Pookutty tells us about life, through his eyes. Excerpts:
Your father was a ticket collector. It is rare to see someone from a humble background aspire beyond engineering. Was it a struggle?
Struggle is a part of everybody’s life. Rajinikanth was a ticket collector too. What I wanted to be and what I’ve become are completely different. While studying Science, I fell in love with Physics and wanted to become a physicist. I wanted to study superconductivity and I thought I will invent a superconducting element and win a Nobel Prize for India — that was my ambition then. But I couldn’t get into a Masters course, so I joined Law. I then either wanted to be a lawyer like Nani Palkiwala or The Chief Justice of India — that was my ambition then.
So how did Sound Engineering happen for you?
In my first year, I heard about a course in Sound Engineering. So I went to FTII thinking that it was an extension of my Physics studies — I was still in love with it. I go there, it’s a different place, a different language, a different culture, I don’t know anything about all this. The selection process is pretty tedious. I wasn’t selected, and as a result of my first failure I discovered cinema, and I found my calling. Then for the next one year I prepared myself — I saw many films, went to every concert and film screening in Trivandrum, I revived the film society in my law college, went to the museum, even the Russian Centre. I went back the next year to attend the interview. I thought I’d completely screwed it up. In those times, when you’re happy you go watch a movie; when you’re sad you go watch a movie, so I did that. When I came back, I saw I had cleared it.
So, was it easy to find work after graduating from FTII?
In this country, anybody who studies in a film school, the moment you pass out, you are struggling, whether you’re an actor, cinematographer, editor, director, cameraman or a soundman. All through your life too, you’re struggling for your first film, your second film, and after that, the system may not allow you to pursue your art. It is this struggle that is going to define you.
Do you believe that there is a problem with the film industry?
The industry’s biggest downfall is that you don’t need formal education to be a part of it. It can also be a positive aspect, but is mostly a problem. You study for three years and form your opinions, and then you come out into the industry, and it says it doesn’t need you. My second struggle was to create a need for myself in the industry. Even if the industry doesn’t need me, I need it. Somebody said I had become an overnight star, but my night was 14 years long. That sums up my journey.
How did you do that?
I wanted to specialise in live sound recording because I felt even in B-grade Hollywood or European cinema, the sound is much closer to life. Whenever I’m on the set I’m driven by some madness, by the fear that I won’t be able to capture the smallest nuances of my actor. Every breath they take within the frame is of my concern.
Black was a game-changer for sound in films, wasn’t it?
When Black came out, everyone said ‘Wow!’ Till then, nobody thought good sound was good production value. From there, I didn’t have to look back. When I came out of film school, three films out of the 800-900 made in India used live sound. Now that number is much higher. Such a vast number of technicians and craftsmen work just in that aspect and for me that’s a real achievement.
How would you describe your relationship with A R Rahman?
It began with Ghajini, since we never actually worked in the same room in Slumdog Millionaire, and has only grown with a lot of mutual respect and admiration. He has grown to be a big brother and a spiritual guru to me. Post-Oscars, he has given me a sense of direction.
You’ve also worked with Shankar
Shankar and I have a beautiful understanding. I respect him a lot for his huge repertoire of work, I also think he is someone who understood the mainstream, which is not easy. It is kitsch, and kitsch is very difficult to understand. And over the years he has consolidated the Tamil audience and now the rest of India which I think is very very huge.
Do you like Rajini Sir’s work? Is there pressure working with him?
(Laughs) I enjoy his work, there’s an aura around him. The biggest thing when you’re working in South Indian cinema is fulfilling the aspirations of the people. The film stars here aren’t just actors, they’re the epitome and embodiment of a sense of goodness. For me, they have a far bigger responsibility than any other artist in the world. During Enthiran’s music release in Malaysia, someone from Warner Brothers saw Rajini Sir and remarked – “You mean this guy (pointing to Sir) is that guy (Rajini Sir in the movie)? Impossible! The makeup man needs to get an Oscar.” But because I had never worked in South Indian cinema before, I didn’t have any pressure or fear. I could take his voice and work with it as any other voice.
Is sound design more artistic or technical?
The fact is it’s very technology-oriented, but of course, you have to be creative. When you see something you’re hearing it, but not listening to it. There’s a difference. The whole sound design in films is all about making it easy to listen. Every sound has an ability to move and affect you. Human behaviour is psycho-acoustical. You stand in a bathroom, you start singing, there’s a reason behind that. So you have to constantly analyse human behaviour in a given space, then you put that into a work of art. Yes, technology is a tool, but at the end of the day, it is the person behind that technology who matters. Everyone is using the same software and camera, but the work of Madhu Ambat, Santosh Sivan and Ravi K Chandran is different. That’s where personality comes in.
When Mrs Pookutty was proud of her husband
Once my wife was travelling to Kerala and she had to change her flight in Chennai. I said, “If you have any problem, go and tell anybody that you’re my wife, and you’ll be immediately taken care of. My wife thought I was bullshitting. She landed, and when she told a SpiceJet guy who she was, he fell on her feet. He took care of her and the kids, got her the boarding pass, made her sit in a coffee shop and brought coffee and pizza for her and didn’t accept money from her. My wife said, “Whatever you had said has happened!” Those are the times when she feels proud of me, like when she gets discounts from shops, and feels that the Oscar has come to some use