Please tell us about yourself
There is a scene is in Talvar where Irrfan Khan questions the parents of the murdered girl why they could not hear the murder in progress and they blame it on the loud AC in their room. He then gets his team to make loud noises in the girl’s room while he switches the AC on in parent’s room.
Shajith Koyeri, sound designer of the movie had to manipulate these auditory details well so that audience could relate to these nuances, and he did it so well that he won the National Film Awards 2016 for the film’s sound designing. He tells Vinita Bhatia that the job was not easy because since the movie was about dramatization of real life events and he had to use silence to convey emotions effectively.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Koyeri himself bears a lot of this balance, as he speaks about the world of sound. He doesn’t harp much on his past, a ‘fight-against-the-odds’ story. He was affected by rheumatoid arthritis when he was just 13, which crippled his social and educational life. Confined indoors for years, his life took a turn when he visited Mumbai at the age of 25 with his sister, who was visiting her sailor-husband. The perkiness of Mumbai caught him up and he stayed on, merging with its noise and friendly chaos to learn the ropes of how to add sound to films.
It was probably such a mind that helped Koyeri make a mark in a field teeming with highly trained personnel, despite being academically untrained. His learning ground, in those “confined” years at home after illness forced him to stop his studies, was a local library. “I used to be a librarian at a local library in my hometown in Kannur,” he says. Reading was his mainstay and so were discussions with like-minded people who visited the library.
“There was so much energy in me; I knew I was not one to sit at home. My sister wanted me to accompany her to Mumbai. At first, I didn’t want to go. But I went, and was forced to stay for some days. Irked at this, I used to stare out of the balcony for long hours. A girl used to pass by who caught my eye, and she was my door to a lot of friends in that area. Later, when the time came for me to actually go, I didn’t want to leave Mumbai.”
He then thought of PM Satheesh, the acclaimed sound designer, who he knew from his hometown in Kerala and who used to be a source of encouragement. Shajith was called to Satheesh’s studio, which he later joined. At the age of 25, my career had come to a standstill due to some health issues. But things started shaping up when I left for Mumbai to work with P M Satheesh, my mentor, in Firefly’s Post Sound Studio. I just got to scrutinize the work-in-progress. My passion for sound designing, positive energy and my hard work drew my success. By God’s grace and everybody’s blessings, I received an award even before my mentors in the industry received it; that inspired me to put in extra work and do more magic with sound.
“Those were the days of struggle, yet they were interesting when work filled most of my waking hours,” he says. City shutdowns never bothered him, and neither did lack of transport during strikes. “I used to be at the studio even at 12 in the night. It was a hands-on job and there was no one to train me. We used to watch and learn,” he says.
He has trekked a long way from editing sound for other designers to being a sound designer himself. His portfolio now flaunts a rich list of films, including acclaimed films like Maqbool, Haider, Mangal Pandey-The Rising, Omkara, Kaminey and The Blue Umbrella, to name a few. This is apart from the many documentaries and short films to his credit and that have done the rounds of film festivals.
Even as Shajith looks at future roads to travel, he wants once more to go back to the apartment where he stayed during his first Mumbai visit. “I want to thank that girl and those friends who made me stay back,” he says.
Tell us about your work as Sound Designer in Dangal
One of the interesting things I noticed when I saw the wrestling in front of my eyes and not through a TV screen is that we miss a lot of sounds through the TV. Wrestling is a very real action sport and the sounds that you hear when they hit each other or grip or fall is too realistic to the point that you don’t believe the sounds when you watch it live. This was what I wanted to give the audience too. I was sure that like me there were many people who haven’t watched wrestling live and at the same time I had to justify the sounds to the ones who did! That was not an easy task.
The sounds were equally from the location as well as foley. There were two kinds of wrestling in the movie. In an open space and in a stadium. There were a few things that would change in this case. The Wrestlers, space and the floor. Getting an original sound of a pit whose mud is made with sand and Ghee, to be recorded outside in Mumbai is very difficult purely because of the traffic that we would face. Much of this was done as Foley by Karan Arjun Singh and his team at both Just Foley and YashRaj Studios. We got the original mats used in competition and also had competitive wrestlers come to perform the body falls and grips. We did record a lot of body falls in multiple mics to get the sound we wanted and layered this with the location sounds. This gave a good bout of realism. Because it’s important to understand that while these sounds are great on their own, when you introduce music, for the drama/excitement, the sounds that once made up the body of the fall and the grip, are not heard anymore. This is when they had to be enhanced. And once you knew what the original sounds were it was easy for me to find the layers to add to what was missing.
We recorded a lot of sounds in a training centre as well. This gave it the feel of the body falls in the real space. We then enhanced some of this with reverbs and some compression to get out the meat of the sounds. Layering was what took time and personally for me the effort has paid off.
My team is a very closely knit team and also is like my extension. They understand what I have in mind and the path of communication with the Director. Like all my projects, Dangal too is a team effort.
What about the body sounds? They were something that stood out.
Yeah! I loved those squeaky sounds too. Usually, you hear them in a basketball match but those are too sharp to be used in this instance. We managed to get good recordings as well as did foley for this. This was one sound that took me a lot of effort to get right. If it wasn’t, they would be muted off straight, but I wanted to make sure that we get to hear that. Usually by the time the session hits the mix stage my work is done. But the first time, I wasn’t able to send the last 2 reels because of these sounds. I spent a lot of time tweaking fixing, redoing and again layering these sounds! I am sure the foley guys hated me at that time! But it’s great when you are friends with them and have a beer later!
How did you plan the sound designing for Talvar? Did you have gameplan in mind?
We did not plan for the sound in Talvar as there was no extra sound script written specially for it. The crucial parts were mentioned, but nothing was given in detail. I took around five months to finish Talvar, trying to use the maximum sync sound in the film correctly and added only what is required from my library.
I had a detailed discussion with Meghna Gulzar (director) in this regard because it is a highly emotional movie where we present a neutral perspective of the incidents and also show the parent’s emotional trauma. We hardly used any kind of ambient sound at home other than the dialogue.
Throughout the film we used very little music; inserting it only wherever essential. Since the movie was a dramatization of real life events, the sound had to be very organic. We wanted to play with a lot of silence in the film, because it is heavy and emotional film.
You say you played with silence while designing sound for the movie; isn’t that contradictory?
When I say silence, I do not mean absolute silence; we did use some kind of sound to give the impression of silence to the audience.
In Talvar, the same scenes were replayed at several points and then perceived differently by various characters in the movie. Did this mean you had to modulate sounds differently to translate relative emotions?
Yes, there were some scenes like the maid coming home in the morning after the death, which was replayed around three times in the movie. We had to be very careful how this was translated in the movie like using very little sound, because it was early morning.
In the scene where the parents are mourning with many people, or during the cremation, we used silence rather than lot of noise. I could have used surrounding sound, but I purposely avoided it. I instead used peripheral sounds like a distant train passing by.
Then there was a very crucial scene, where the parents said that the AC in their room was too loud. So when the actual killing happened in the film, when the servant’s friends enter the girl’s room, we had to keep in mind that the AC was heard in the background. These small details had to be adhered because they play a key role in this movie.
I went through all these these elements related to sound, many times with Meghna. She took great interest in the way the sound was used in Talvar and she and I went through the entire sound designing – redoing and undoing it many times as we were working. It was especially pertinent because with a movie like Talvar, which had a well written script, so the director and I could not go wrong with elements like the AC’s sound, the girl’s screams being stifled, the servant’s friends talking in his room, etc.
It is easy to play with sound where loud emotions are displayed in a movie, but Talvar was more of a docu-drama. How difficult was it to design sound for such a movie where you had to evoke emotions through sound in drab and dry situations?
The film is supposed to be neutral as it is not taking the parents side or that of the law enforcers. We just wanted to put the series of incidents that took place and support the progression of these incidents through the sound and music, and sometimes through silence. I believe silence is the best way to use sound effectively.
What is the difference between a Sound Designer and a Sound Engineer?
When asked about his career as a sound designer he says “I call myself a sound designer. There is a wide difference between sound designing and sound engineering. Sound designer should be highly creative. Sound engineer is the one who records sound and make the environment apt for recording, but sound designer is more than that.”
He adds that he was clueless about the field when he entered it as a novice. “When I had some health issues and was left with no further option, my friend called to me to Mumbai where I started learning sound editing. It took six months to learn the basics and I wanted to do something different and worked hard. The first film I worked for was ‘Blue Umbrella’.”
Interestingly, even though a Keralite, he hasn’t done any work in Malayalam. He has his own justification for this. “There is no scope for a sound designer in Kerala. Here, it takes two to three months only for sound recording and dubbing. But, there the whole film will be finished in that time. There is a lot of good and talented technicians, but they are not paid well. Mostly, there are only a few quality theatres in Kerala. Sound treatment in Malayalam films should be changed. I am ready to do Malayalam films, especially if it’s a film like ‘Barfi’.”
What is the scope for sound designing in India?
Sound designing is commonly used and appreciated in Hollywood more than in India. But the magic of sound in Indian cinema industry is soon being realised. A sound designer, like the music director, narrates story, emotions, drama, and style through sound while prioritising the need of the director and the script. We first understand the psychology of the audience before kick-starting our task. P M Satheesh, Resul and I worked as a team to promote sound designing in India. Parallel movie directors used to approach us for sound designing, as the sound plays a major role when a film is presented on an international platform.
What’s new with your work in Dam 999?
Dam 999 is easily the best project of my career. The sound designing was done in Belgium. This was important as the film has some challenging situations especially the one that shows the dam collapsing. We used various new sound elements to ensure it was realistic.
What’s next on the cards?
I am working on Someday, an Indian- English movie about three friends and Sohan Roy’s next – Saint Dracula.