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The Sound Guys

Anirban Sengupta (Potla) and Dipankar Chaki (Jojo), both 37 and trained in sound engineering, won the National Award for best sound design for Kaushik Ganguly’s Shabdo, which releases this Friday. The duo let t2 into their quiet, fascinating world of sounds...

Shabdo revolves around a foley artiste, played by Ritwick Chakraborty. Who is a foley artiste?

Anirban: A foley artiste recreates whatever movements happen in a film, like a person getting up from a chair, sitting down, placing a cup on a table... all this and more. We have three teams who work on different films. First, we cover all the basic sounds, like sitting down, keeping the cups, plates. Then the foley artiste does the rustling noises. According to different character movements, he finishes that. And finally, he does the footsteps for all the characters.

Every character movement is different and you have to replicate it. It is done very subtly. The main point of foley is that it should not be noticed. The minute you start noticing it, it means something is wrong. Maybe it is too loud or exaggerated. If I put a cup down and then there is no sound, that is when you realise something is missing. You don’t even think about it. Foley is how you replicate natural sounds.

Where do foley artistes come in?

Anirban: First we dub the film with artistes. After the dubs are over, it goes back to the edit table for the final cut. Once the final cut is done, we start doing sounds... foley. For Shabdo, we worked for two months.

How does the process work?

Anirban: When the foley artistes record, they don’t hear any dialogues. They see the reel once and after that they switch off the dialogues. He hears only what he is doing. The foley artiste steps into a room containing trunks of material. If he is doing footsteps, he takes off his clothes (otherwise the rustling sound of clothes would leak through the recording). So he is in his underwear, in the dark, wearing his shoes.

Dipankar: For women, he wears heels! (Laughs out loud)

Anirban: So he has the television on, he wears his headphones and takes instructions from the engineer. He picks out the props placed near him for that particular scene and recreates the sounds. He only listens to what he is doing. It has to be a quiet environment... which is why we do foley at night.

Dipankar: People who do foley here are not trained in schools. They are people who have suddenly come into the industry... who can work at night. And they need very good body rhythm and good timing. They have to practise for two years before they can follow motion.

Anirban: Yes, it is not easy to walk in someone else’s footsteps. You have to get the rhythm of the person right, which Gaya, our person, does very well.

Dipankar: Gaya, 34, was the tea boy at Black Magic studio where I used to work in 2000. When we started doing a lot of film work, we didn’t have a foley artiste. So I asked Gaya to come in and do the foley work for cups and plates. Then I asked him to be shifted to the studio and Gaya became a studio person. We trained him in foley.

Anirban: Foley work takes around 15 days. It happens through the night, from 10pm to 6am, every alternate day. Ritwick also did foley work to get his timing right. He is shown recreating footsteps of another person. Ritwick came and sat with Gaya for a couple of nights before the shoot and got an idea of how foley is done.

Tarak, the character played by Ritwick, is obsessed with sounds. How did you get into his head-space?

Anirban: Tarak listens but he cannot process the dialogues. So in some instances, we muffled other dialogues. We were trying to put the audience into his perspective, the way he was feeling. In a scene a lady is stapling, so that sound becomes very loud. When she is talking, he can see her lips move but he cannot process the words. In a tea shop, he is sitting and talking to an old friend. His mind gets diverted and he starts hearing sounds of a kettle, of spoon against cups.

When did Kaushik Ganguly come to you with the idea of Shabdo?

Anirban: We were mixing Laptop in Mumbai in August 2011. Kaushikda played a blind character in the film. There, in one scene, we had exaggerated all the sounds when it was from his perspective. When the perspective changed, the ambience became normal. That’s how Kaushikda got the idea and started developing it. After mixing Laptop, he told us that this film would be his next one. He didn’t give us any brief. Initially, when he said it I thought may be the film won’t happen... it’s a niche subject. Who’s going to be interested in a foley artiste?

Shabdo is a dynamic film, and Kaushikda has done a brilliant job. I hope he gets to make more films like these. And the next time you watch a film, maybe you’ll pay more attention to sound! (Laughs) Often we do not think about the sounds around us. Every locality in Calcutta has a different sound. We have been trying to capture and recreate sounds all these years and mostly, it goes unnoticed.

The film has no music, just sounds...

Dipankar: Kaushikda said he would put in situations where he would illustrate the actual sound happening on visual and replicate it through foley, which would also be shown. It is almost like a foley demonstration, where you see the person trying to do the sound for a particular scene.

Anirban: The first scene of Shabdo is also a great example of foley. A drunk man comes up the stairs and sort of beats up his wife. So when you see the scene there is no sound. Then slowly one sees what the foley artiste is doing, one step at a time. So you see the foley artiste recreating the sounds by walking on wood, dropping this big box on a wooden floor...

Did you do things differently for Shabdo?

Anirban: We wanted to be true to the narrative and keep it simple. The main idea was to do the foley right, get the texture correct and not overcrowd it with sounds. We had to see that the story flowed naturally and the film sounded natural.

How challenging was it to do a film without songs or a background score? Did the film make you rethink how to use sounds?

Anirban: It was fun. Usually, when we lay effects for a film, there is no music. Music comes in later. We are used to doing a full film without any music. We were treating this scene by scene. Once we ran through the entire film, we decided we don’t need any music. Some transitions were done with sound effects. And Shabdo is about a guy who is heavily into sounds. He doesn’t hear anything else, he only hears sounds.

Dipankar: Somehow it was easier working on Shabdo. When you are working on a period piece, your sound has to be believable and not give the impression that it was recreated. So that becomes more challenging. A little bit of intelligent planning had to be done for Shabdo. But there are films which are much more elaborate and difficult to construct, since they are not about sound.

Do you go out and record sounds?

Dipankar: I had gone to Sri Lanka to record wind for Q’s Tasher Desh. Q wanted to do a different section for the winds, since the film is about the wind of change. They were shooting in Sri Lanka and he said that the wind is very heavy, loud, has a layer, which you can hear. Here we don’t hear the wind that much. It’s difficult to recreate it here. Say if you go to Digha, there’s a wind but the microphone will get blown away and you would not get any sound! For Tasher Desh, we recorded wind with wet towels on our heads since it was so hot!

Sound check

Foley is named after Jack Donovan Foley (1891-1967), who was the developer of many sound-effect techniques used in filmmaking.

Since 2008, Jojo and Potla have designed the sound for 120 films.

The duo’s favourite Holly films with great sound effects: Transformers, Zero Dark Thirty, Almost Famous, The Dark Knight and The Hurt Locker

Arindam Chatterjee

Do you notice the sounds in a film? Tell t2@abp.in