[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o be a good sound technician, the first thing you need to be is a good listener. Sound designer Pritam Das is just that. His passion for the music box that is the universe is clear as he speaks about all that goes on behind-the-scenes to bring a story alive through sound. Pandolin meets the man whose realistic sound designs match the gritty realism of Dibakar Banerjee’s films, LSD and more recently, Shanghai, and is hurtled into a world of sound, noise, melodies and clear dialogues. 


Pritam Das

What was the discussion with you and director Dibakar Banerjee regarding Shanghai?

Dibakar and I had worked together on Love, Sex aur Dhokha, where I was the sound recordist. We teamed up again in Shanghai, where I was the sound designer. The primary idea for Shanghai was to set up the ambience just like one would find in the city and the rooms we shot in. Nothing should seem unnatural. For example, Kalki’s character belongs to a fairly rich family, where her maid is taking care of her grandmother. So in the scene in her house where the maid’s cleaning the books, we decided to add the constant whirring of a washing machine. Also in the scene where Emraan and Kalki visit the maid’s house, they find the truck driver there. In the first shot, he has a glass in his hand, but we don’t see him in the next shot. We wanted to give the hint of another person’s presence in the room, so we added the sound of the glass being put down.

Even the songs in the film, the first two have been used as a playback in the film itself, as an ‘ambient song’. It’s not heard clean and clear like a ‘film song’. The treatment is as though it’s played from an amplifier. So, each sound that you hear carries the character of the place. The dialogues are processed to carry the resonance of the room the action’s taking place in, unlike the clean sound you’d get from a studio. For each foley, we took care to treat it that way. It immediately takes you to the place where the action is taking place.

Now, in order to bring out the fact that the bigger picture is usually forgotten when it comes to our problems, we’ve highlighted it by placing the sound of the drums and the julus through the filmIt takes the attention away from the fact that the CM and the political parties are involved in evicting the slum residents in order to build the IBP, as you forget the imminent problems and join the celebrations. So the drums and similar sounds have been placed in most of the scenes from different perspectives, sometimes close, sometimes far away, just to give the idea that there is a constant clatter happening in the city constantly. I drive a motorbike in Mumbai and I carry a recorder with me, so wherever there were drums or a marriage band playing, I’d stop my bike and record that. There were many types of patterns, and I recorded them from different distances to get different perspectives.

We discussed each scene on the edit table. At first we felt we could do with far less background music, but in the final film there’s more. I gave my associate a list of sound effects I needed from the location. Of course, the dialogues were priority, but I also told him that if we have time, then record the effects we’d be later using in the film. We couldn’t follow the list to its entirety, but we did get most of it.

Not only did we record on foley, but live too. In the film there’s a scene where two goons attack Kalki and Emran and jump from the stairs. We hadn’t recorded that, but near my mixing studio we had similar stairs, so I jumped from them and we recorded that and synced it. It’s like foley done in my studio. There are hundreds of instances where we’ve recorded sound on a plain ambience recorder on a good level, cleaned the noise a bit and inserted it. In the scene where Emraan is shooting the porn scene, the bell rings and there’s a suggestion of the couple wearing their clothes. I recorded that as Dibakar spoke. I recorded the sound of me wearing my jacket, the zipper of the jacket; we added the woman’s bangles…that’s how it was done.

Our idea was that through sound design, we transport the audience to the space where the film’s happening, and I feel we’ve managed to achieve that. The thing I like about Dibakar is that he’s a naturalist when it comes to filmmaking. There’s no moment in the film where you’d be like, ‘Arre, what just happened here?’ Nothing’s too dramatized. It’s all very smooth…

So is this your creative philosophy for scoring films as well? Keeping things natural for the audience?

That depends on the script and the treatment of film we’re making. A lot of times, the sound needs to represent the visuals. In low-budget filmmaking, we might not be able to source everything or show everything needed for the scene, so in that case, the sound needs to make up for its absence. You spend so much money constructing a set, and then try to make it authentic. Why? Just to make the audience feel it’s natural. Since cinema is an audio-visual medium, sound should be treated the same. So yes, that’s the idea. But at the end of the day, we do what the script needs.

We all know how challenging a sound recordist’s job is. What percentage of films ADR or record sound on location? Is must be very challenging?

It sure is. I got to know from the sound recordist that during the shoot, people were throwing stones as they weren’t able to see the stars! So forget about sound recording, the crew had to take shelter! That aside, in LSD as far as I remember, 99% of the dialogue was recorded on location. Later, some V.O. was added and some words were changed by the censors. That obviously had to be dubbed. For Shanghai, a few lines were changed and added and some off-screen dialogues were added to make the story clearer. Only those were dubbed.

So on location recording is considered very important so that it can be fixed later?

Filmmakers now are leaning towards sound on location. They know it’s the best. You hear the dialogue and watch the performance on the monitor and you know it’s in sync. For dubs, the actor has to go on again and again with the same dialogue and emotion, which may be better than what he did on location, or get worse. It’s very hard to match an emotion in ADR.

What were the challenges you faced when filming LSD?

Mumbai isn’t a very sound-friendly location to shoot in as there isn’t a single place in the city where there isn’t a construction happening. When it comes to the camera, all you need to do is move the camera around and you’ve eliminated the eyesore. Sound doesn’t work that way- it’s everywhere. Constructions are happening throughout the day, and night too at times. Shooting exteriors in localities at night, you pick up the sound of ACs that are running. So it’s quite tough, but we have good cleanup engineers, so on-location sound is gaining more priority. Besides I believe the performance you get on location is the best. Also the actors don’t have much time to spare for dubbing.

We’ve all heard about sound recordists performing gymnastics of sorts to get the best sound. What techniques did you apply for your shoots?

Talking about LSD, it was a small schedule, shot in 30 days I think. We shot at the Aarey, Goregaon. So many shoots happen there. You need a proper sound block-up team with a number of people so that you can send them in different directions and request those who are making noises to stop doing so during the shoot. In LSD, not men, but the crows were creating the noises. Everywhere we went the crows followed us. Maybe they saw the food on the sets. So, we had to buy some firecrackers, and before each shot, I was bursting the crackers to scare them off!

Depending on the engineer’s capability, a lot of noise can be cleared up during the post production. So when shooting a continuous, minute long fight sequence in LSD, we faced a problem as there was another unit shooting near us, but they didn’t have a silent generator and that was spoiling the sound take. The other unit obviously couldn’t stop their shoot. So, in the post, after clean-up, we added extra generator sound, to hide the present generator sound. During the shoot, the camera had gone close to the generator and at times, it was far. It was easy to clean up the far points, but the close ones weren’t that easy to clean up, so to hide the disparity, we added an extra layer of generator sound and I could do that as in the script it was a film inside a film. So this is how you use different ideas to overcome obstacles in sound. Shooting sync sound is the hardest in Mumbai, but so many films are doing just that. You can say that the problem has been solved.

What were the challenges you faced in Shanghai during the post production?

The moment you shoot outdoors, ambient noises come in, which aren’t as problematic. Like when shooting in the streets for Shanghai, you have traffic horns, bells ringing, etc which are fine unless it collides with a dialogue. However, when shooting indoors at night, when everything’s already silent, any kind of sound is a problem. If you go too close, you’ll pick up the camera’s noise. That’s a tricky situation and takes much more time than shooting exterior. We used different kind of tools and plug-ins in Shanghai like the hum remover, the noise remover. You can’t use them blindly as they also affect the dialogue, so we need to change the parameters in such a way, that the noise is removed without affecting the dialogue. After the noise is gone, we notice a slight hum, for which we use the hum remover. Then we equalize. All this is done to get the best clarity for the dialogues. I believe that once that is achieved, you can use all sorts of sound effects, depending on the scene. If the inherent track is noisy, you can’t really do any sound design, your hands are tied. So the primary thing is to get as much a clear recording as possible, which gives you space for sound design.

Do Indian filmmakers understand the importance of sound?

Oh yes, and they’re getting much better each day.

How much time did it take you for sound design, from inception to the final mix?

It took a long time, not so much for designing but the edit wasn’t getting locked, so we had to keep changing the cut points and that was a bit of a bother. Changing edits, a frame or two, takes time. Say you’re in a mood of composing music and someone tries to correct the instrument, that’s creates a break, but these things happen. I think it took almost 5 months for Shanghai. There were some gaps in between.

Have you heard anything interesting from the actors when they’re mic-ed up? We’re talking in between shots, of course?

(laughs) I turn off the mic when they’re not in use, so I wouldn’t be able to comment on that. If I’m not hearing, there might be someone else who might be.

What advice would you give to those who want to become sound designers and recordists?

I’m sure each one understands their forte. Some understand music, some are good recordists, some are good at sound design. Knowing what you enjoy is the most important thing. While working on Shanghai, I watched a scene so many times and started thinking what would be the best sound for it, what would heighten the drama. At the same time I love the challenges of shooting on location. There are so many people you interact with. If you love challenges, on location recording is for you. It all comes down to knowing what you would like. You need to enjoy what you do.