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Interview American British Hindi

Sound mixer and designer Shalini Agarwal: Good sound design begins from the script

Agarwal, who has assisted Oscar-winner Resul Pookutty and several top Indian and international sound designers, was at the Asian Women's Film Festival to conduct a workshop on sound for film students.

Shalini Agarwal at work on location

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Shalini Agarwal has worked as production sound mixer and sound designer with some of the biggest names in Hindi cinema as well as Hollywood. Her filmography includes titles such as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Ghajini (2008), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), Ra.One (2011), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), Life Of Pi (2012), Jobs (2013), Highway (2014) and First They Killed My Father (2017).

Apart from feature films, Agarwal has worked on commercials, documentary films, music videos, corporate films and television.

An independent sound designer, she is interested in exploring the possibilities of sound and learning its many technical and aesthetic aspects. Her love for sound is integrated with her love for music. She sings and plays the guitar, the didgeridoo and the harmonica whenever she has some time to spare.

At the 14th edition of IAWRT India's Asian Women's Film Festival, Shalini Agarwal conducted a workshop on sound for film students. Later, she spoke to Cinestaan.com about her journey in film and sound. Excerpts:

You have worked on several Indian and international projects, but how did you take up sound design?

Film was never something I thought of as a kid. I was always confused about what I wanted to do. Fortunately, my parents let me be so. Despite studying science in school, I chose English literature in college. I think choosing to go to a film school after that made sense because film is a combination of technique, which is craft, and storytelling, which is aesthetics, so [it is] literature and science coming together.

I was specifically inclined towards sound as I am more aurally inclined as compared to other people who may be more visual as painters or sculptors. I am a musician, not a professional musician, but I have always been interested in music and trained a bit in it, so listening comes naturally to me.

I was also interested in the world of film sound because it is so ambiguous. We don't get to see the making of a soundtrack. Microphones and studios intrigued me, so I thought of studying film sound and applied to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). The FTII orients you to what sound is in theory, and only when I started working in the real world did I learn hands-on what film sound is all about. It's just not what you see in film school. It's about your people skills, teamwork, negotiating different things and only then comes your actual work.

You have worked on big-budget films like Ghajini, Ra.One, Slumdog Millionaire, Highway and many others. What has your experience been like?

I have been very fortunate because not everyone who moves to Bombay gets to work on such big films.

Your first project was Saawariya (2007).

Yes, that was my first film. I started off assisting [Oscar-winner] Resul Pookutty. It's always good to learn from a master and have your standards set very high from the beginning. And he is a hard taskmaster.

So, I got to work on Saawariya, Ghajini, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It really opens up your world and professional ambitions as you get to work in different situations, different terrain, and then you start working naturally and the whole process becomes second nature. So now if you throw any situation at me, I know what to do.

Working on big set-ups is also about working with so many people, so being professional, composed and coordinating with the director is very important. Working with stars and how to convince them about small things like wearing a mike, which will ultimately make them sound good, is important. As sound people, we are also judging performance because voice is what lends itself to performance.

It is interesting you say that, because this aspect is more obvious in theatre when actors modulate and throw their voices in certain ways, but not so much in film, perhaps because of dubbing, where emotions can be added in the dialogue delivery later.

Absolutely, but now it is about things sounding more organic and natural, where an actor is in a natural space. While shooting Highway, for example, we shot a lot on the road and in the mountains, so if Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda were taken out of that space and put into a studio to simulate that performance, it would never be the same, ever.

So, it's important for everyone working in cinema to understand how sound works. We work with the costume department, the director, the cinematographer, everyone together. Costumes are very important for body mikes, so we have to figure out what costume the actor will wear, so we can get the right microphones and right accessories, so the sound is clean. Art direction might create a set that is too creaky and noisy, but if we plan at the pre-production stage, we can fix it.

So, sound works with so many departments in small ways that really make a difference.

I was speaking to veteran sound designer T Krishnanunni who has worked with filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and he said the best kind of sound design is one where you do not notice sound in a film. Would you agree?

Perfect. I totally agree with that because sound affects us at a subconscious level. Sound is really integral to a film and should be used to tell stories more effectively. It adds texture and emotion to the image and the magic of sound actually lies in the subtle layers which one never notices. Of course, the loudest scenes might end up getting all the attention and making it into the trailer, but if you want the audience to be truly immersed in the film, the key is to dig in deeper and play with the subtle nuances of sound.

Horror, for example.

Yes, horror, but horror also uses sound in very subtle ways which are unexpected. Genres like the blockbuster, Hollywood movies, etc use big sound.

Do you think we use sound effectively in Hindi cinema? Christopher Nolan, for example, uses sound evocatively in his films. And you worked on Life Of Pi where Ang Lee used sound in a certain way to heighten the emotional engagement. I feel that in our cinema, sound is usurped by the song and filmmakers end up not paying that much attention to sound design. What are your thoughts?

That's a good observation, but it also boils down to resources. 'Bollywood' is a star-based system, so the biggest chunk of resources goes to the stars, and whatever is left is for the people behind the camera. Also, with sound being the last process in the film, often not enough time is spent on thinking about good sound design and what it can add to a film.

But I think good scripts have sound design incorporated within them, so I think there should be workshops for screenwriters. If it's not in the writing and it's left for post-production, it never happens. Then you resort to cheap tricks like playing music to move people. But these days people are aware of world cinema and they can tell if something is superficial, so I think Hindi cinema needs to work on that. We are getting there slowly.

Tell us about your presence at this festival and doing your workshop at a festival that celebrates women's work, especially as you are working in a male-dominated industry.

I'm really happy to be here. I was not supposed to be here as I have a shoot happening in Bombay. But when I was called for this festival, I was really happy that I was called for a festival that celebrates women. I have never met so many women filmmakers who are so proactive about sharing their lives and work with one another. Being a practitioner, I don't get to do this often, but coming here has added to me as a sound person because I'm really happy about being able to share my work with students. 

Talking about it being a male-dominated industry, I went to Cambodia to work with Angelina Jolie on her film, First They Killed My Father (2017). I was the only Indian there with most of the crew being from Europe and America. They told me they have never worked with a woman sound designer before, which was surprising, because you would think there are more women working in sound in the West.

So, it's all over the world that there are fewer women in technical fields. Now it is really good that if we share more, other women may get inspired to have an alternative career, away from the obvious costume and makeup.

Related topics

IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival