What’s a day in the life of a technician like? We attempt to find out through this fortnightly column.
Udhayakumar, the 300-film old sound-mixer in Kollywood, is much sought after at the moment. Having had a breakthrough with Mysskin’s Anjaathey and Vetri Maaran’s Polladhavan, Udhayakumar’s latest films include the mega-budget Ajith-starrer Vivegam. He’s also working on Tik Tik Tik, a space film, and Vada Chennai.
Nothing escapes the ears of Udhayakumar, Tamil cinema’s hotshot sound-mixer. As we talk in his studio, his ears perk up at every sound. The scratch of pen against paper, the noisy, bustling road behind us… “I listen to just about every sound there is,” he says, “I tend to apply those in my work.”
Sometimes, things tend to get a little out of hand for Udhayakumar. He recalls attending a wedding in the family, and having to spend the night at the venue. “I couldn’t sleep that night!” he laughs, “for I was able to hear even the faint noises. That is really how my mind works.”
His typical day at work would involve obtaining the music track and the visuals from the production team. After watching the reel and discussing the content, Udhayakumar decides on the soundscape. “We will talk about the kind of sounds we can add to enhance the visuals. We then start premixing, and will separately mix the music and the sound. They will be combined later,” he says, adding, “The balance-side effect will then be applied. For instance, if many people talk in a scene, we decide on the dialogue that needs to be highlighted. This is imperative in comedy scenes as we need to get the timing right. This also applies to scenes that have characters conversing on the road where dialogues need to be enhanced.”
Around the time of a movie’s release, Udhayakumar stops sleeping. “We have to work round the clock to meet the deadline. We will work simultaneously on two films if it is the same genre,” he says.
He takes a break for two days after completing a project because his ears “would be tuned to the sounds of the film” he had just finished. “I need a fresh mind to begin the next one, so I usually plan a getaway – somewhere remote like in the middle of jungle. Even when working, I prefer a calm space.”
Having graduated in Sound Mixing from Chennai Film Institute, Udhayakumar worked as an assistant sound mixer for Deepan Chatterji, to whom he owes his skills. Having worked in over 300 films now, he declares that Visaaranai was perhaps the most challenging film of all. “We made two versions of Visaaranai. One for the film festivals and one for the theatrical release. When I was working on the sounds for the Venice Film Festival, Vetri Maaran called me up and said, ‘let’s go without any music, we need only natural sound effects.’ It was challenging to do that without a background score. Also, we Indians are generally loud, so our dialogues also are loud, but for the film festival version, I maintained a low sound level. I was told that it was well received there.”
Sound-mixing, Udhayakumar says, has never been a popular department in films. “In the ‘50s, there wasn’t a department called sound-mixing. There was no dubbing, either. Actors would perform on the spot during live recording. If there was a need for sound effects, they would call a sound engineer during re-recording. Sound-mixing was introduced only when dubbing came into the picture. Only industry insiders knew about sound-mixers. Audiences came to know about our work only when Resul Pookutty sir won an Oscar for sound -mixing. Until then, this department of cinema was not popular.”