PAGE 05: The Apsara Opportunity

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By Suyash Kamat

Over the last 30 years or so, Madhu Apsara, a sound designer and professor, has silently played a crucial part in many landmark Indian films and documentaries. Frequently collaborating with filmmakers like Sudhir Mishra and Sriram Raghavan, Apsara’s work always maintained the rare ability to keep the narrative of the film at the fore while still retaining the distinct quality of his design. The Peacock virtually attended his class on Sound Design & Cinema. 

‘How did sound come to cinema and what did it do to it?’ Professor Madhu Apsara began by taking us back to the silent era of cinema. ‘People were happy with silent picture. Sound wasn’t a requirement.’ But over 20-30 years, in the early 1900s, sound and music slowly started becoming a part of cinema. ‘While the images and title cards conveyed the narrative, there was a looming question of holding the attention of audiences.’ At this stage, practitioners bought in the use of music played by orchestras that travelled with the films. At times, the score travelled and different orchestras played them, primarily to cue the emotion on screen.

But much like the introduction of any new element to an already existing method, sound wasn’t invited wholeheartedly by a lot of established silent era film directors, including Charlie Chaplin & Alfred Hitchcock. ‘Hitchcock believed that sound had taken purity out of the cinema.’ However, it’s not Hitchcock’s apprehension but his insight about the function of sound in the larger context of storytelling that Madhu Apsara highlighted upon. “At some level, we are still facing the same problems they faced despite the advances in technology and the evolution of our relationship of working with sound”. Ironically, at this point, we can also hear a few other sounds in the background of this class, which is an attempt at virtually holding the session without glitches. 

But sound has evolved from that era and Madhu Apsara began exploring the history of sound through the approaches sought by directors who changed the form of cinema.

“When Hitchcock began working with sound, at times, he wasn’t even bothered about what dialogue was spoken, but instead about how it sounded.” This idea of working with inflection instead of just information is what Apsara believes remains an extremely crucial aspect of how films sound. “Sound being parallel to the image has taken away the importance of what it does to the cinema.” 

Federico Fellini, another master of the craft, similarly wrote dialogues that had a rhythm to them. “Fellini composed music before he wrote a scene to understand the tonality of the scene and ultimately, never even used that music in the film. He even used pitch variations to define different characters.” Building upon the context of rhythm, Apsara highlighted the work of Robert Bresson, who sought temporality in his form through the use of sound. “Bresson’s idea of the image was about presenting, not representing. To him, the emotional togetherness of the sound and the picture is what created the image.” 

Back home, in India, Madhu Apsara spoke about the work of Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul. While Ritwik Ghatak’s work was sentimental, for Mani Kaul restrain was the key. These defined personal approaches to cinema are reflected in their use of sound beyond the conventional ideas of conveying information. “In Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the use of sound in certain scenes doesn’t have any relation to the location. These sounds are aesthetic instruments. Sound then becomes a metaphor and conveys an emotion that is beyond the image.” Mani Kaul, whose practice is associated with Bresson’s approach to cinema, was equally interested in the temporality and rhythm that sound bought to the medium. “Mani would design the movement of a shot and explain its rhythm to the cinematographer by singing a phrase in the form of an alaap. This sensation and emotion of the movement were communicated only through sound. And this reflected in his cinema.”

Ultimately, through the journey of the associations held by directors with sound, Madhu Apsara urged each attendee to find their personal connection with sound. “Each of us goes through sound experiences. We are always experiencing the vibrations of sound. It’s the last sensation that shuts down when we go to sleep. That’s when live sound and dream sound mix together. When we observe these, we realize how deeply these affect our subconscious.” 

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