Perspectives of a Bollywood Sound Mixer

March 27, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Amala Popuri is one of a number of women working successfully in Bollywood film production. She shares with us the challenges and blessings of her chosen career.

Developing an interest and a career


Amala Popuri ‘mans’ her mixing console on a recent shoot.

“I have always been an avid film enthusiast since I was a young schoolgirl. I gave in to the parental pressure of taking up physics and math and studying for the engineering entrance exams. Little did I realize that studying physics would be a necessary prerequisite for studying sound recording at the Film and Television Institute of India,” FTII-the government sponsored film school young Amala dreamed of attending, “and that it would really help me in my vocation.”

“My first stint in the audio visual world was with a top TV production house wherein I was exposed to the world of regular news and current affairs programmes. Within the gamut of switchers and cameras and other gear I was quite drawn to huge sound mixers. The visual is very banal in NEWS world. The sublime multilayered world of sound, especially in world cinema, drew me in.”

“While still at the institute, I worked with Resul Pookutty” (the Oscar winning Sound Designer for Slumdog Millionaire) “on a film called Amu. He was a perfectionist, and demanded perfection of his associates. This was the shoot which broke me in and set my path into production sound. One more mega project (Mixed Doubles) with Resul (and a whole lot of independent documentaries and television work) and finally I was offered my first independent assignment for production sound of Ghajini.”

Popuri notes that due to the sheer number of theaters or “cinema halls” throughout India they sometimes lack the projection and sound standards she would prefer, however, she recalls, “a screening of Apocalypse Now Redux was a breathtaking experience. Analog recorded tracks on film, laid on Steenbeck and digitally mastered, opened up our lives into an appropriate use of surround sound.”

Popuri attributes her studies in Sociology with making her “more aware of the various kinds of social beings around me…especially on the set. Your vibe with the crewmembers, the Director of Photography and the Director has a very key role to play in the smoothness of working on the set. We usually shoot such long hours that unless work is fun it could become a professional exercise without a heart.”

Start of a Typical Shoot Day

“I usually arrive much before unit call and start my workday with a cup of ginger tea. Meanwhile I look around, try and enjoy the location and get the sense of it. I like outdoor much more than indoor, even if it means a rough time controlling uncontrollable sources of noise. “

“While my assistant and cable guy set up the equipment on the cart, I get the sides that need to be shot that day. While I go through it, my sound lockup guy checks me out on the walkie-talkie. I call him over and discuss the plan, the expected sources of trouble and the production’s attitude. Meanwhile, as the scene begins to be set up, the Chief AD explains the supposed shot breakdown.”

Challenges for Sound Production


Popuri booms during this beachfront interview in Mumbai.

“The biggest challenge in sound recording in India is the innumerable sources of undesirable sounds and the high level of prevailing noise-much higher than the permissible limits. The roaring horns of the sea of different kinds of vehicles on the roads, the unstoppable din of construction, the relentless use of noisy machinery, the echoing sounds of religious places in every corner are all part of the texture of sound here. To retain the texture while cutting out the noise, besides maintaining the balanced rich texture of human voice, is the challenge. A sound-sensitive lockup crew and a production team which believes in and is aware of good sound are hard to find. Pulling all the stops in this regard, at the same time maintaining healthy rapport with crew, especially production crew, is the ultimate balancing act.”

Popuri recounts an example of the trials of working in Mumbai’s production heavy environment, “On a recent set shoot for a Bollywood film, we had no way of dealing with a loud PA system of another film shoot happening in the same premises. It was a typical song and dance sequence for them and a soft climax scene for us. These were production houses at war for a decade now. There, production sound had to be put on the altar.”

Technical standards

“In India, the standards of technical excellence in cinema are quite at par with international standards. However, for the number of films that India produces every year, only a few reach that standard.”

“I like the dichotomy of digital and analog in our worlds. I appreciate an analog mixer in my recording chain even if I like to record on 5.8 DEVA multi-track recorder. I miss the Nagra 4.2 and the 7-inch spools that I struggled to cue while studying at the Film Institute.”

“Production Mixers record on hard disc recorders. Mixing Engineers who mix in the tracks for the film use digital consoles, with reference to picture that is on a beta or digibeta format. In many theatres films are not screened from prints, but from large servers that present a very clear picture without losses that are attributed to prints. In this changing scenario, the industry is more or less cued into DOLBY DIGITAL format, even though a large part of Indian population ‘hears’ films on the SR track.”

Women’s Work in India

“Traditionally women are deemed to be better editors, dress designers and hairdressers. As more and more women are getting into the traditional strongholds of men, the mountains of notions about women at work are breaking down and we have women gaffers, camera women, even music composers. The present generation of Indians is facing a huge bandwidth of tradition and modernity– women presidents to right wing traditionalists who believe that women should be homebound and devoted only to family life.”

“As a woman technician, I feel a sense of bias in people around me (spotboys, lightmen, carpenters, dressmen, hairdressers, dress designers, technicians, etc.), and at the same time, most often people forego their preconceived notions about women’s capacity and professionalism when confronted with confidence and good work.”

“Generally, men can relate better to men. I have often heard of camerawomen being referred to as a cameraman. They are actually gender neutral, and I don’t bother correcting them. Crew has even addressed me as sir. All-women teams are a rarity, but the concept has been long alive.”

Final thoughts

Popuri notes with guarded anticipation the recent buzz over Bollywood production, “with Oscar mania hitting the Indian shores now, a new vision of India is taking over–a new ray of hope for the industry, the technician and the sound ‘man’.” All the world seems eager to experience more films made with, as she puts it, “the Bollywood flavour of ardent and inspiring mix of hope and fantasy.” She hopes this interest will create opportunities for her to travel and work.

Popuri lyrically sums up her chosen carrer. “Sound is a vast medium and it can touch your soul even without you knowing it. It is the interplay of the subtle nuances amongst themselves and the visual that create a mood, a space, a certain cinematic expression that is profound.” Popuri’s ‘vision’ for sound is a sign that she is truly where she wants and needs to be.