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The Exquisite Art Of Listening | Dipankar Sarkar

Dipankar Sarkar

Image and Sound, like a stranger who make acquaintance on a journey and afterward cannot separate.                —-Robert Bresson (1900-1999)

In recent years, digital media technologies have had a significant impact on cinema, particularly on the production and reception of cinematic sound. Techniques and practices such as location ‘sync’ recording and surround sound design have altered the spatial organisation of film soundtrack thereby heralding the digital era of cinema. At the point of reception, these phenomena subsequently initiate reconfiguration of audience engagement. So a contrasting demarcation between the early monaural audio and current Dolby stereo settings has vehemently made its presence felt in our aural reception of cinema viewing. In the present context of the filmmaking process, gradual consideration is being given to the authentic ‘sync’ sound effects and an elaborate design of location-specific ambience alongside actors’ ‘live recorded’ performance in front of the camera. Consequently, these practices encourage a creative and inventive application of sound in film.

Tracing back into the pages of Indian film history, 4th of March, 1931 Indian cinema was historically elated with the release of its first full-length sound film ‘Alam Ara’ at the Majestic Theatre, Mumbai (then, Bombay). The film was a period fantasy based on Joseph David’s popular Parsee theatre play and narrated a fairy tale. Directed by A.M. Irani the film was inundated with half a dozen songs thereby putting a complete cessation to the ongoing practice of silent films production in the nation. Though it was considered a giant leap within the domain of Indian film industry, but pioneering filmmakers like Dadasaheb Phalke and others couldn’t cope with as they felt that silent films were a form of art and introduction of sound corrupted the art form. The initial talkies could easily be called elaborate dance dramas. The stories were narrated not merely through dialogues but elaborate songs. Madan Theatres’ film ‘Shirin Farhad’ which released in May 1931 had 18 songs. A year later when Indra Sabha released, it had 69 songs in it- which was also a Madan Theatre production. As years passed by songs and dance became an integral part of Indian Cinema at the core of its inception. Soon dialogues started playing an important component in enabling Indian Cinema to etch an indelible impression in the collective psyche of its citizens. We have dozens of legendary films, tones of epic sequences and a plethora of memorable dialogues, which we just can’t get enough of no matter how many times we may have watched a particular movie. In fact, some dialogues go on to become so famous that the movie itself is remembered for them for generations to come. The importance of dialogue in Indian Cinema gathered such a considerable amount of attention that the 57th National Film Awards for feature film section, presented in the year 2010, witnessed the splitting of Best Screenplay Award into three categories, viz. Best Original Screenplay Award Best Adapted Screenplay Award along with Best Dialogues Award, in order to felicitate different aspect of the techniques of screenplay writing.

Thereby under such circumstances, it becomes important to highlight the important role sound plays not only in contributing to the quality of a film but also, and very significantly, its role in cinema as a cultural signifier of a people. The popular Indian cinema seldom considers ‘non-verbal moments’ in a film as an important as well as a stylistic feature in the shaping up the auditory aura of their films. By ‘non-verbal moments’, what I mean is the expression of the logical cognition of the narrative structure of a scene or sequence, without the usage of dialogues or a playful display of song and dance. The advent of art house or parallel cinema in India has creatively utilized these medium and such filmmakers have used the axiom of the non-verbal communication to enable their craft of storytelling in transcending the linguistic expression and linguistic consciousness towards an enlightened state of pure contemplation. 

By citing the following examples of four Indian films I have attempted to chart an analytic perspective of films made by different Indian filmmakers who has deftly incorporated silent moments, with the lack of dialogues, within their narrative progression and displaying a supple negation with the method of storytelling, as well as technically constructing a parallel world for the viewer where their auditory functionality enhance to a psychological proposition.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)

Director: Satyajit Ray

A deft portrayal of an emotionally entangled relationship between an ailing mother and an ambitious son, Aparijito (1957) begins with a montage of visuals depicting the morning happenings of Benares ghat of 1920s where images of the crowd, river, boat a group of community performing various rituals and reciting holy verses etc. accompanied by an array of ambient sounds of the happenings in the ghat area, where barely a word is articulated, establishes the milieu of an animated geographical space. Even the death scene of Harihar is dissociated with the image where a huge flock of pigeons gyrates against the dawning sky. So here instead of showing the corpse of Harihar, the off-screen cry of Sarbojaya and the evoking soundtrack indicates the soul departing the body.

In another remarkable sequence of the film, Sarbojaya and Apu are returning to the village from Benaras. Through the windows landscape of Bengal is visible, green and beautiful, and we hear theme tune of the film. Thus the soundtrack accompanied with the rumbling sound of the train sets the aura of nostalgia evoking a feeling of joy and melancholy that embodies the fabric of the narrative structure.

As the narrative of the film advances the whistling sound emitted from the train becomes an extremely important component of the mise-en-scene, a signifier of suggestive emotional sensitiveness amongst the characters of the film. Apu on hearing the train whistle rushes to watch the train passing with an extreme sense of juvenile regalement and curiosity. Towards the climatic scene of the film when Sarbojoya listens to the whistling sound of the train, she opens her eye expectantly, imagining the arrival of Apu. With an effort, she raises her feeble body and moves towards the threshold of her house only to face disappointment. She stares at the glimmering pond, the empty path along which Apu has so often walked from the station, and sparkling fireflies.The scene ends with the sounds of the nocturnal creatures as the fear of death dawns on her face. Also the last image of the film where Apu barefooted trudges towards his new point of disembarkation with a firm resolve, is accompanied by the thematic use of music that serves more as a leitmotif.

Thus sounds elements both in diegetic or non-diegetic pattern constitutes an aural space; where the images give us a vivid exploration of ‘mother – son relationship’ deeply rooted in reality — with no larger than life image; a very simple and realistic form.

Elippathyam (The Rat-Trap, 1981)

Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Set in the rural Kerala of the 1960s Elippathyam (1981) reconfigures the limbo of self and identity in a post-feudalistic society, where the deliberately slow pacing combined with the minimalism within the narrative framework of the film, delivers the latitude for contemplation. The skillfully structured sound design of the film essentially highlights the symptomatic effect in the realm of the key features of the characters and gets harmoniously with the thematic fabric of the film.

For instance, the sequence where Unni has prepared himself to attend a function, but his plan for the visit gets thwarted when he comes across the waterlogged lane. He waits there, holding his slippers in his hand for a good length of time and finally decides to retreat. The sound design consists of mostly of the ambience, with the chirping of a bird. The similarity in another scene where Unni is flipping through the pages of the newspaper, lounging in his armchair, and a cow invades his compound. He makes feeble attempt to shoo away the animal and seeks the help of his sister Rajamma. In this particular scene also the ambience dominate the sound pattern. In both the scenes, the minimal usage of sound element thus not only makes the entire scene into a comical situation but also introduces us to the traits of the character.

The usage of the piercing sound of an airplane flying off-screen has also been used as a creative device in two scenes of the film. The first time we come across the sound both Rajamma and Sridevi makes an effort to have a glimpse of the airplane. Rajamma gets attacked by a sudden dizziness and slumps her body to the ground. In the second scene when we hear the sound Rajamma is doing the dishes. Sridevi does not accompany her because she had mysteriously eloped with someone. The sound of the airplane makes its off-screen presence once again. Rajamma rises on her feet with effort. She looks skywards and the as the sound of the airplane keeps heightening the abdominal pain of Rajamma also keep increasing, proportionately. Unable to bear the excruciating distress, she declines to the ground. So in both the scenes, the sound of the airplane not only gives information regarding the physical deterioration of Rajamma but also the progression of the narrative structure.

One of the remarkable feats achieved by the film in maintaining almost uniformity in a silent pattern of sound design in sequential orders initiates right from the moment where the condition of ailing Rajamma progressively degenerates. We just follow her frontally as the conscious villagers escort her out of her home. The low, inarticulate sound escaping from the feeble lips of Rajamma as a well low note of the strings playing in the soundtrack is all we can hear. 

Subsequent to the scene Unni shut himself up in his house in a self-inflicted solitary confinement. A compulsion to resign oneself within the safe confinement of his house after everyone near and dear to him have departed, like the rat who has trapped himself in his own house. We see a child stray into his courtyard and the mother comes rushing in and yanks her away as if the house is haunted by Unni’s very real ghost. There is minimal use of the ambient track as well as the extended use of silences creates a claustrophobic aura of the space. Finally, the villagers break down the door and dump Unni into the pond. This final moment of the climax accompanied by the rousing soundtrack of the, which we had heard at the beginning of the film when the rat was chased in the house. As the fainted Unni is carried by the villagers from the confinement his house to the exterior the shrilling soundtrack of the metallic percussion instrument, which we had heard whenever a rat is carried by Sridevi in the rat-trap to be drowned in the pond as well as when the ailing Rajamma is carried away by the villagers, plays in the background. Thus the usage of the soundtrack throughout the film creates an overall metaphoric imagery of the characters and also acts as a leitmotif of individuals actually caught within the confinements of the rat trap, thereby bringing the thematic structure of the film to a full circle.

Hence, the meticulous use of non-diegetic music, the prominence of noise, the scarcity of dialogue and long moments of silences compels the viewers to participate in progressive decline of a privileged household in very vivid terms, and with a delicate combination of sympathy and irony,

Pushpaka Vimana (The Love Chariot, 1987)

Director: Singeetam Srinivasa Rao

The Kannada film ‘Pushpaka Vimana’ (1987) with its’ Chaplinesque gags can be touted in the history as India’s first film made without dialogues, several decades after the end of the ‘silent era’. The film narrates the tale of an unemployed graduate who lives in a room located in the chawls of the city and by sheer stroke of fortune runs into a drunkard lying by the roadside that presents him the opportunity to take his identity and enjoy the stay in a star hotel for a few days. Fortune further introduces him to a lady and love blossoms between the two characters. The protagonist becomes the victim of a mistaken identity and being stalked by an icepick-wielding contract killer. Such deftly plotted incidents are craftily narrated without the crutch of dialogues or introducing any title cards such as in the films of the silent era that took the recourse to flashing of captions to drive home the ideas which could not be conveyed through expressions and gestures.

The sound design of the film is mainly comprised of musical soundtracks to suit the mood and emotional tonality of a particular scene or sequence. The use of digital sound has been used sporadically over the film in order to fill the gaps at places where the usage of music might not elicit the desired impact of the scene. For example in the scene when the unemployed man is walking through the market area ambient sound of the commotion created by the people around is audible on the screen. We even hear the noise created by a group of people who tries to stop a fight between two people from getting worse. Similarly, in first ‘bus stand’ scene of the film when the unemployed man is trying to dispose of the excreta of the rich man, well packed in a carton. Another man standing nearby suspects the act of the unemployed man and monitors the laters’ movement. Till this portion of the scenes, we get to hear only the ambient sound of the vehicular traffic. As soon as the unemployed youth scamper and the other man starts to sniffs the heavy perfume sprinkled on the carton musical tone gradually is hearable on the soundtrack. So the judicious use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound designs builds up the apt emotional overtones of the narrative structure.

There is another humorous use of the musical soundtrack in the scene when the unemployed man randomly enters a handicraft showroom and the employees of the showroom, who has been under the false impression of taking the unemployed man to be the friend of a previous rich customer, follows the later as a close associate across the showroom. The music playing on the soundtrack of the particular scene has a hilarious effect and appears to be following each shot of the scene just like the employee following the unemployed man. But the music changes from being comical to romantic as soon as the unemployed man catches a glimpse of the magicians’ daughter.

An extremely creative use of diegetic soundtrack is also used in the film. While lying is the comfy bed of the posh hotel can’t sleep comfortably and thereby gets the tape-recording of the stunt scene noises coming from the theatre in the neighborhood of his chawl, for a good night’s sleep. So here the diegetic sound playing from the stunt scene acts a device to lull the unemployed man to sleep. There is another scene in the beginning of the film where a lecherous old man is ogling at a maid while a radio broadcast vocalizes the plight of retired people.

It is not that the various characters do not communicate with each other throughout the film. But whenever the characters talk or discuss amongst themselves we do not hear them speaking. Because the soundtrack is used to express the intentions expressed by the characters. Thus the innovative use of music for such particular scenes of the narrative structure employs cognitive repercussions to the viewing experience and sanctions the spontaneity to the viewers for discerning the narrative interpretation of the film as per their emotional responses.

Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love, 2014)

Director: Aditya Vikram Sengupta

The film ‘Labour of Love’ (2014) narrates the tale of a couple who are compelled to sustain their livelihood as their life is threatened by the perilous warnings of recession taking place in the city of Calcutta. The entire film takes place within a span of one day.

The couple’s orderly organized life, unruffled by the vagaries of their eventualities as well as the existence, forms the spine on which the narrative framework of the film has been hoisted. The couple’s separation understandably means they connect via objects at home, which literally deny them a voice, and with it, a character, as well as the absence of personality, makes them mere stand-ins for every man and every woman. The sun sinks slowly in the sky; a close-up shows rice tumbling into a container, water evaporating in a hot pan, calmly washing clothes, shopping for food, praying at a home altar, sleeping, travelling, eating alone, carefully saving money. All such sort of deliberate pacing is designed to melt with the slackened rhythms of the couple’s lives.

The key feature in the narrative structure of the film is that it adheres to its’ entire eighty-five minutes long length without letting any characters in the film speak to one another. There are no verbal communication or dialogues taking place amongst the characters of the film. Only sporadic uses of slogans, which have been meticulously used as an off-screen, voice to depict a sense of the turbulent period of early 2000. It is interesting to note that the usage of music also forms an intrinsic part of the narrative. Firstly, the film begins as well as ends with the music of the Shenai, which gives us a sense of marital bonding between the two characters of the film because playing the instrument is widely used as a symbol of a wedding. Secondly, there is a musical score of the popular Bengali song  ‘Tumi je amar, ogo tumi je amar,’ playing at the mid-point of the narrative as the husband is preparing to leave for work while the wife is getting ready to come home. The very songs suggest a romantic bonding associated between the two of them and missing the physical presence of one another has become a part of their routine life. Work followed by home, and only in fantasy are they together.

In the major portion of the film, the soundtrack is constructed entirely on the ambient and the diegetic use of the objects. There is a sharp contrast administered in the sound design of the narrative structure. The sharp noise of in the exteriors of the city comprising of the tram, the mammoth printing machines, packaging machines, the noise of the fish market, the crowd, the newscasters voice, the workers protest on the streets is meticulously blended with the delicate humdrum of the ceiling fan, the soap bubbles, the girl next door practicing music every morning, the water evaporating on the frying pan, fish frying, floor sweeping. The absence of words thus becomes a metaphor for clearly understanding the film’s milieu set in the perfect environmental charge and setting of a metropolitan on the verge of transition, where the lack of spoken words becomes a necessary component for fruitful emotional alliance and dependence.

Despite this ‘Labour of Love’ is no silent film or is it? Under what conditions can a film can be christened as a ‘silent film’? Technically speaking silence can be created when the soundtrack is turned off at the post- production stage such that all sound (diegetic or not) is muted. As a result, absolutely no sound is emitted from the speakers. What comes to the fore here is the difference between hearing and listening. While hearing is, as Roland Barthes argues, “a physiological phenomenon,” listening is “a psychological act” which requires one to decipher the meaning behind what is heard (1985: 245). It may thus be said that, through listening, sounds heard becomes evocative of the film’s “internal sounds”.  As Béla Balázs perceptively notes: “Silence [in cinema] is when the buzzing of a fly on the windowpane fills the whole room with sound and the ticking of a clock smashes time into fragments with sledgehammer blows” (1970: 207). Balázs also notes the exceptional status of cinema silence: “The presentation of silence is one of the most specific dramatic effects of the sound film. No other art can reproduce silence, neither painting nor sculpture, neither literature nor the silent film could do so” (1970: 206). Silence can operate so that we become aware that it is the film that listens to us, that makes explicit our act of listening and that requires our own silence in response to its quietness.

So it may be inaccurate to state that everything associated with sound in Indian cinema has always, historically and in the present, been equated with dialogues, music, song and dance which forms a major part of the narrative and cinematic space, and are almost automatic ingredients of the popular film culture. The discussion regarding the four films above should rather help us to renovate our viewpoint regarding the usage of sound design in Indian cinema. So can we form the opinion that the creative utilization of intricate sound designing has helped in shaping up the historicity of Indian Cinema?



1.  Balaz, Bela. Theory of Film. New York: Dover, 1970.

2. Barthes, R. Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. (R. Howard, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

(An edited version of the article has appeared in Lensight, a Quarterly Journal of Film & Media, Published by Film & Television Institute of India, 2014)

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India. He was selected in 2007 for the Talent Campus organised by the Osian Film Festival. He’s currently working as an independent film and video editor.

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