Oscar-winning sound engineer Resul Pookutty talks about the challenge of working on the Tamil science fiction film 'Endhiran'
For the past two months I have been following Oscar winner Resul Pookutty through e-mails and text messages. And each time he has found the time to write back. It didn't matter that he was away in Los Angeles on work, the last time I sent him a message, prompt came the reply.
That is one thing about him — no celebrity airs. When I text him again, he replies: "In Chennai for two weeks."
We meet at A.R. Rahman's studio, where he is working on the final stages of Endhiran, a Tamil film being directed by Shankar, dubbed in Hindi as Robot and in Telegu as Robo.
Pookutty's friendly smile greets you and an easy conversation follows, as he opens up about his work and the philanthropic foundation he has set up that is so close to his heart.
So what are the challenges of working on Endhiran [a science fiction film]?
"Initially, it was difficult conceptualising the script," replied the 39-year-old sound engineer. "Trying to live up to Shankar's creation and finding an auditory expression is a challenge. The film begins in rustic Chennai and is a story of an experiment going haywire.
"It's a film starring Rajnikanth, whom I adore. Rajni has three faces in the film. In one role, he plays a scientist. In the second, he portrays a humanoid [a robot created by the scientist and which is his look-alike]. And when this robot turns wicked, it reveals another facet of the character.
"In Endhiran, what Rajnikanth does is surreal. He finds logic in everything he does. For me, it was interesting to find that logic, to make it believable. My work was to create a soundtrack for all these elements, so that everything becomes believable. It is an interesting project."
Need for balance
Sounds for the film were not pre-laid, which means Pookutty had to create sound effects from nothing.
For the character of the robot, he had to create a voice for a machine that talked.
"We had to make the audience feel it wasn't the voice of the human Rajni. Yet, it could not be too different from the real Rajni's, which fans love identifying with. We had to find a balance between the two voices. Again, we couldn't be playing the same robotic voice in every sequence. When the robot displayed emotion, we had to make it sound partly human. And when it turned villainous, it had to have another tone."
In the film, Rajnikanth talks in several languages. He even tunes in to the frequency of mosquitoes and has a conversation with them.
"That is a funny scene. How do we make a mosquito talk?" Pookutty laughed. "These were challenges we had to deal with."
Again, since the sound was not recorded while shooting, he had to recreate sequences. "I had to reshoot a fire scene, where the power of the robot is revealed, using a hundred people," Pookutty said.
Cut to the climax scene and the robot is transformed into a snake made of numerous robots. When the snake moves forward, several robots move together.
"We had to rack our brains to come up with a sound for that kind of motion. Such a sound does not exist. We arrived at a suitable one after several experiments."
When the robot turns into a ball, "we had to roll a huge iron ball down a street" for the sound effect, Pookutty said.
All machine-related sounds in the film have been created from real sounds.
"Some sounds came to us in a eureka moment. The football World Cup was on. And we were working on the scene in which Rajnikanth converses with mosquitoes. Listening to the sounds of the vuvuzela, we thought, why not use this sound?"
Another scene involves using the sounds of a Harley-Davidson.
"I am always listening to various types of sound and I record a palette of sounds for each film," said the Padma Shri recipient.
Did Pookutty refer to other science fiction films?
"I watched I, Robot, RoboCop and Transformers to understand why these films appealed to an international audience. I also spoke to people who had worked on them. But Endhiran is our creation. Nothing has been borrowed from any film. The shortfalls are our own and if appreciated, we take credit."
So when does a sound engineer enter the film?
"My work starts from the moment the script is locked. For sync sound, I have to be there at the time of shooting. In the case of Endhiran, I stepped in after 80 per cent of it was complete. Being a science fiction film, it was difficult to record live sound."
Freedom to experiment
And then we get talking about Shankar.
"Shankar is a gem of a person," Pookutty says. "He gives freedom to his co-workers and trusts people. For this project, I wanted to record everything in a particular way so that I could manipulate it later."
Consequently, Prasad Studios was revamped to suit the requirements of the acoustics. Pookutty flew in his recording gear from Mumbai. His friends, Tom Marks and Kunal Rajan, who work in the US, assisted him too. And when he played some of the sounds, the director was astonished as to how well he had read his mind.
"For the mosquitoes flapping their wings, I used the sound of a helicopter. A surprised Shankar told me: ‘You know, while writing the script, I had called the mosquitoes ‘koshukopter'. How did you know that?' And this script had been penned ten years ago!"
Shankar's films have a social message. This time, he talks about human greed for money and power.
Pookutty considers Endhiran a perfect mainstream Tamil film, with all its elements and entertainment value, chocolate-wrapped and ready for an international market. About 95 per cent of Endhiran has been filmed in India.
"In terms of content, scale, production, technical finesse and acting, Endhiran has been made on the scale of a Hollywood film, with larger-than-life sequences. Shankar has succeeded in achieving that. Rajnikanth's performance is comparable to that of Jack Nicholson in Batman."
"Films such as Avatar take away millions of rupees from India. We, as people from the medium, must understand this and counter it at an intellectual level. We can be original and true to ourselves — that is the need of the hour," believes Pookutty, who has recorded the first and only library of Indian sound effects called "The Essential Indian Sound Effects".
About Rahman, he says: "We share a great understanding. There is always an exchange of ideas. Few composers do that."
"Music is just one element of the entire gamut of sounds you hear in a film. But this element must not clash with the other elements of sound. My job is to ensure the audience a selective hearing. I have to make choices as to where, how and when to hear a particular sound."
No conversation with Pookutty is complete without memories of the Oscars. Besides bringing him fame and glory, it was a catalyst for the birth of his philanthropic venture.
Pookutty added another feather to his cap when he was chosen as one of the voting members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "I feel privileged to be a part of the academy," he said. "It is a matter of pride that we are being accepted by the Western world and asked for our opinion."
And for one who studied in a vernacular medium till Class 10, it is no mean achievement when his Oscar speech was voted the best at the Academy.
He owes it to Rasheed sir, his physics teacher in college, "who taught me to be fearless", and his law-college professor Sathya Seelan, who believed that true education is beyond syllabus.
"Professor Sathya goaded me into joining the film institute. He would give me books and even food," Pookutty recalls.
Looking back, he talks about his visit to Bhuj, when it was devastated by the earthquake. He was part of an international rescue team and using sound sensors, rescued people trapped under the debris.
"Among them was a 20-year-old boy trapped for 108 hours. You realise then that nothing is in your hands. I became a different person after that. I started valuing people," Pookutty says.
An incredible journey indeed for the youngest child of P.T. Pookutty and Nabeeza Biwi, from the nondescript village of Vilakkupara to the Oscar podium.
Dipping into his palette of sounds, the sound engineer goes back to his canvas.
He will also provide the sound effects for Shonali Bose's Chittagong and Francois Gerard's Voyage Sans Detour.
Endhiran is scheduled for release on October 1.
The Resul Pookutty Foundation
After he won an Oscar, Resul Pookutty received letters seeking financial aid for education and medical treatment. "People presumed that Rahman and I had received billions of rupees as prize money. That made me ponder," Pookutty said.
On the suggestion of his friend, media entrepreneur Ramesh Menon, and with encouragement from Amitabh Bachchan, The Resul Pookutty Foundation was born in 2009 to serve the needy in the field of education, health and social welfare.
The Resul Pookutty IIFA scholarship amount of $10,000 is awarded to two students of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, every year. The Resul Education Society for Unified Learning was launched in New York in July. Menon, CEO of the foundation, says: "We intend to work with schools in the Middle East by exposing them to achievers in various fields and inspiring Indian students there through interactive workshops. There are plans to start sound engineering institutes in Mumbai and Kochi and also to be associated with schools in Kochi, Trivandrum and Calicut."
Joining hands with Laskhmi Hospitals of Kerala, the foundation aims to conduct 3,000 subsidised treatments in a year, including 300 free surgeries, of which 30 will be heart surgeries.
As part of their social-welfare initiative, Pookutty (who has done the interiors of his house and company himself) will design plush homes in association with companies and real estate groups. A part of the revenue thereby generated will go into developing houses for the poor.
Also on the anvil are plans to adopt a village in Kerala.
"The Oscars gave me access to the powerful and the wealthy. Through my foundation, I hope to reach out to those with fewer opportunities," Pookutty says.
For more information, visit http://writerresulpookutty.com/
- Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.