The art of sound and the artist: Amrit Pritam

September 1, 2010 Off By Sankhya Samhita

What would you do if you were asked to “see” sounds inside your head? Resist vociferously and say that sounds can only be heard and not be seen? Well then, if you are new to the concept of creating soundscapes (or sound images if you have it) based on nothing but your imagination, then try talking to a sound designer. And it is Amrit Pritamwith immense contentment that I say that I did. Just recently, I happened to steal an hour out of Amrit Pritam’s crazy hectic schedule and we talked about what goes into creating sounds and making an art out of it. What there is to know about Amrit Pritam has been written about and read about, over and over again, so I wouldn’t really delve into his extremely fascinating journey from the small town of Jorhat to the city of dreams, Mumbai. Although if I may add, it is just the kind of story that Bollywood would borrow to turn into a megahit movie. Amrit Pritam has been working with Resul Pookutty for eight years now and Amrit considers Pookutty his Guru in sound design. Noteworthy that Resul Pookutty, along with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke had won the Oscar for sound mixing in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. And Amrit Pritam himself has made quite a name for himself in a period of less than a decade, having done sound editing and designing in movies like Ghajini, Black, Sawariya and Blue to name a few, and is the only “Assamese connection” to the Oscars.

I admit that before talking to Amrit Pritam all I knew about sound designing was that it involved creating sounds and mixing them just right to produce the perfect effect. And I know that is what most of us think there is to know about it. But hearing Amrit Pritam talk about the extensive and rigorous process that sound designing is, made me realize that it is definitely not as simple as it sounds. You know how they say God is in the details? Well specific details, even the minutest of them, is everything when it comes to sound designing. So imagine a supposedly trivial scene in a movie, where a car drives into the frame, stops; someone gets down from the car and then the car drives on again. One would normally take this scene for granted, and wouldn’t even pay much heed to it. But think of it from a sound designer’s perspective. When he comes across this scene in the script, he has to recreate the whole scene in his imagination. The sound of the brakes and the tires screeching to a halt on the road, the handle being turned and the door opening, the person getting down, the door slamming close, and the sound of the person’s shoes (or her heels, if that’s the case) on the road, the car engine starting, the changing of gears and the car driving on. But wait, there’s even more to think of, like the make of the car or the type of shoes or heels the person is wearing and even what kind of road it is and the traffic ambiance around that place. And all these sounds the sound designer has to “see” inside his head. Even when reading the script, he has to visualize the scene in its totality and come up with exactly the right sounds that would make the scene look natural without any of the disturbances or “noises” that might creep in during actual shooting. The first thought that came to my mind was that this must require a lot of research as well. “Each film is like a thesis. Each and every scene is like a painting”, Amrit Pritam said to this. And the result is an intricate tapestry of sounds, a compilation of audio paintings that portrays the movie acoustically. A simple scene like the one involving the car that I mentioned above would require about a hundred different sounds! Try delving on it the next time you go watch a movie, and maybe then you would appreciate what goes into making a scene seem so perfect.

But even finding the right sounds can be excruciatingly difficult at times. And times like that, Amrit Pritam would just put a marker on that place, with a note like “needs to be worked on” and then leave it right there until he has a sudden flash of inspiration some other time. Because like you must have gathered by now, if it is not just the right sound, it just won’t do. Wanting to know about his most difficult and demanding project in his career of eight years, I asked him about it. Apparently it is the Malayalee movie Pazhashi Raja, for which Amrit Pritam got awarded by the AMMA (Annual Malayalam Movie Awards ) for best sound effects and engineering, and it was because he had to recreate sounds that were almost two hundred years old. The movie was based on the 17th century, and had warfare involved, so Pritam had to do some solid research on the kind of weapons they had used at those times. Since it also involved bows and arrows along with swords and guns, it was extremely tough to take his mind to a time when he wasn’t even born.

While trying to emphasize on the importance of sound designing in movies, Amrit Pritam cites the example of the megacult film Sholay. In the “Gabbar Ka Badla” Scene, after killing all the members of Thakur’s family, before killing his grandson there is no music. There is only the sound of the “jhula” swinging. That sound is eerily irritating and sends shivers down the spines of the audience. This really enhanced the feel of the scene. Then again, in the “Jai Ki Maut” scene, when Jai was fighting alone, there was no music. Each sound was crystal clear, right from the click of the gun to flap of the jacket to the breathing sound. In one part of the scene, the “daaku” tries to come from below the bridge. The sound of the moving wooden plank adds to the tension of the scene making the audience very attentive. As Jai tries to see where the sound is coming from, the audience also does the same. The tension ends only when Jai shoots the Daaku through a hole in the plank.

Something as elaborate and involving as this requires a lot of focused and undivided concentration; add to it the fact that the most difficult bit is balancing standards and deadlines. Sound designing can be extremely demanding, and specially when a movie approaches its release date, the studio turns home to Amrit Pritam, as he works late nights and even stays back to save time that he would otherwise have “wasted” driving back home and coming the next morning again. When working for Ghajini, which happens to be the first movie for which he got credit as a sound designer, Amrit Pritam stayed back in the studio for 25 days (although not consecutively) while for Pazhashi Raja it was 72 days. In this industry, where you are only as good as your last movie, creativity and discipline need to go hand in hand. One without the other would lead you nowhere. A sound designer has to work to the best of his ability, stretch out his imagination to the ultimate, and also ensure that he delivers on time.

Advise for wannabe sound designers? Amrit Pritam suggests you get a sound knowledge of what sound designing is all about. Initially it is about getting to know the field, and maybe observe and learn from seniors in that area. A sound designer also needs to be artistic, and a musically bent mind is a must. If one is really serious about making it in the industry, he has to be prepared for extreme hard work. And like Pritam points it out, one can’t expect things to get easier with time. Eight years down the line, Pritam still finds himself slogging! Another major aspect in sound designing is that it is not one of those conventional jobs where you appear for an interview in answer to an advertisement, and then they check your credentials and give you a job based on that. In fact, one needn’t even have a degree or be qualified educationally in order to make it big in the field of sound designing. It is all about your talent and your creativity, and how you make things work for you.

Amrit Pritam’s first taste of success came to him almost two years after he had started working. While having been an assistant for quite a number of movies until then, it was in November 2005, during the making of the movie Zinda, that he gained the confidence of Resul Pookutty. That was the first movie where he had independently worked on the sound editing bit for the entire movie all on his own. And after that there was no looking back. However, the defining moment of his career would have to be Slumdog Millionaire gaining an Oscar for sound mixing, because it was he who had assisted Resul Pookutty in the sound department for that movie. Also, in the IDEA IIFA Awards’2009, Macau, Amrit Pritam won the award for Sound Recording together with Resool Pookutty for the film Ghajini and the award for Best Sound Recording for the film Blue in Apsara Film and Television Producers Guild Awards 2010. Currently, Amrit Pritam is working as a Chief Sound Editor cum Sound Designer at Resul Pookutty’s Studio Canaries Post Sound at Andheri (west), Mumbai. His latest project is a movie called Endhiran (The Robot) and yes, on the night I talked to him, he was still planning on staying at the studio overnight and working well over 2am in the morning.

I was on a fascination high long after talking with Amrit Pritam. And what reflected most in the way he talked was the amount of passion he puts in his job. He has a contagious enthusiasm, and it is bound to rub on to you once you get talking with him. Although being absolutely absorbed by his work in Mumbai, Pritam still misses things in Asom, and specially “Bhauna”, the theatre, “Sattriya” and our signature Bihu. His dream? He wants to someday come back to Asom, and maybe open a school to teach the art of sound designing to interested students out here. We already are proud of him on his carrying Asom’s name to the most prestigious Oscars, and the only thing we can ask for is that he continues to enjoy his work and achieve more success in it.

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