The sound hunter

Oscar-winning sound engineer Resul Pookutty's acting debut in an ‘accidental’ film

On record: Resul Pookutty in ‘The Sound Story’. On record: Resul Pookutty in ‘The Sound Story’.

Tninunu nunu...,” Resul Pookutty breaks into an animated voice, mimicking the flute rendition of All India Radio’s signature tune. “Remember this tune that would play in our homes every morning?” he asks me. Academy Award-winning sound designer Pookutty may have widely traversed the spectrum of sound, but his strongest and oldest memory of ‘moving sound’ is this tune from the portable radio of a neighbour who would set out early morning for rubber tapping.

Pookutty’s early obsession with sound found its natural culmination in a mammoth dream project—live recording Kerala’s annual Thrissur pooram. For Pookutty the Malayali, the pooram, known as the mother of all temple festivals in the state, is one close to his heart. “It is the sound of a tradition that has been passed on for over 1,000 years. I wanted to capture that and preserve it for posterity,” says 47-year-old Pookutty. A challenging task for a sound designer, the pooram is an extravagant amalgamation of sounds—a three-hour performance with about 300 percussionists, about 60 caparisoned elephants and elaborate fireworks in sync—all bound together by the energy of a million spectators. The sonic highlight of the pooram is the ilanjithara melam—a gathering of traditional percussion artists who play chendas (drums), elathalams (cymbals), and wind instruments like kombu and kurumkuzhal.

The Sound Story, which was initially envisaged as a documentary on the sounds of the pooram, is now a feature film which made its world premiere in Toronto on August 11. A multilingual film, The Sound Story (Oru Kadhai Sollatuma in Tamil) directed by Prasad Prabhakar and produced by US-based Rajeev Panakal, also marks another milestone—Pookutty’s debut as an actor.

As Pookutty embarked on the massive sound recording exercise, it was simultaneously filmed for a documentary. As part of his research, Pookutty visited an elephant farm where a mahout told him that the main elephant that carried the deity at the festival was blind. “I was shocked,” Pookutty says. “But that opened my eyes to new insights. What if we replace the elephant with a visually challenged person; how would he experience this sonic feat?” From there, the documentary took a new direction, and was converted into a feature film that told the story of a sound designer’s struggle to record the pooram experience for a visually challenged person.

Not a pre-scripted film, The Sound Story has a purpose, and it was never meant to launch Pookutty as an actor. He may call himself an ‘accidental actor’, but truth remains that becoming an actor was a childhood dream. A 11-year-old Pookutty had once sent in his photographs in response to a call for child actors in Malayalam actor-director Balachandra Menon’s Ishtamanu Pakshe. He wasn’t selected. “I was extremely upset and didn’t eat for three days,” he says.

From nurturing dreams of acting, to pursuing a degree in physics and hoping to bag a Nobel Prize in superconductivity research, to becoming a law graduate, and studying sound design at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Pookutty’s life has been a smorgasbord of learning and experimentation. “Sound is my calling; now I feel I was meant to be here,” says Pookutty, who feels recording the pooram was a life-altering experience.

If he was floored by the whirlpool of sound and energy at the pooram, it was the heart-warming response at the world premiere that proved the effort was worth it. Pookutty recalls an overwhelmed woman from the audience hugged him. Her mother had just undergone cataract surgery in both eyes. “Thank you for making me understand what she goes through,” she told him.