Being There: Evocation of the Site in Contemporary Indian Cinema

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay


The first talkie[1] made in India was Alam Ara (Ardeshir Irani 1931), which used optical sound recording. The following period from the 1940s to the late 1950s was an era in which cinema adapted to the technicalities of direct synchronized-sound in films that were largely music-oriented and/or devotional in nature. The directly-recorded sound in these films provided for some evidence of the fictional sites represented in the monophonic narration. The synchronized monaural practice of sound production continued during the 1950s and 1960s, a period termed the Golden Age of Indian cinema, when film auteurs such as Satyajit Ray, Chetan Anand and Guru Dutt emerged and placed Indian cinema on the world stage. Through a gradual conversion to more convenient, portable and robust magnetic recording and stereo mixing (re-recording), the Golden Age gradually dissolved into studio-centric production practices, following the commercialization of popular mainstream Indian films, with the colourful antics, half-known foreign locations and spectacular song-and-dance sequences of the 1980s. During the early 2000s, a major upgrade followed in the form of the emergent digital technology, which introduced “sync”[2] sound recording techniques and surround sound formats to Indian cinema, accelerating the process of globalization and corporatization of the Indian film industry. It was at this time that there was a significant shift in focus to redefine aesthetics within sound production and for sophisticated terms like “sound design” to emerge.

Since the late 1990s a large-scale conversion from analogue recording and analogue production practices to digital technologies was taking place in Indian cinema.[3] Digital technology was integrated into the production and post-production stages of filmmaking as well as the reproduction and projection formats. The ramifications of this, cinema adapting to a new technology, have been far-reaching, particularly evident in the way filmmaking changed through the novel practices with digital sound (Kerins 2011; Holman 2002) in cinema. Production practices and techniques such as location-based multi-track sync recording and surround sound spatialization altered the notion of the film soundtrack[4] in the imminently digital realm of cinema. This process of digitalization has had a substantial impact on the narrative strategies and aesthetic choices made with cinematic sound production, informing the creation of the presence of the site[5] in the pro-filmic space[6] by novel modes of diegesis.[7] Likewise, the Mise-en-sonore or the auditory setting[8] has also been reconfigured, contrasting considerably with earlier cinematic experiences with their monophonic and stereophonic frameworks of sound production. Therefore, it is necessary to consider these transformations in light of the aesthetic choices, strategies and novel spatial experiences they have triggered in order to reach a thorough understanding of the implications of digital technologies on modes of sound production that alter the sound–site relationships of Indian cinema. Given the complex and multi-layered sound environments of urban and rural sites in India, the desire to evolve in terms of sound production and reproduction is seen in how the sites are recorded and represented in the sonic practices of its national cinema.

In this article, I will consider Indian cinema’s intrinsic changes following the digital revolution and the transformations in the narrative strategies and auditory settings that took place in the quest to creatively construct the presence of the site within the cinematic experience. The study will help reveal the implications of digital technology on sound production in the light of previous eras within a broader historical trajectory. The particular focus on these new sets of approaches helps to reveal how the site is constructed as spatially present within the diegetic story-world, evoked by site-specific digital recording and surround sound design.

Contemporary Indian cinema in the digital realm facilitates deliberate sound practices to create cinematic experiences that, I will show in this paper, are spatially present (Lombard and Ditton 1997; Skalski and Whitbred 2010; Grimshaw 2011). This mode of sound production differs considerably from earlier production practices.[9] I have discussed concerning the previous production eras in my other writings.[10] In this article, I will examine how digital sound practices, such as multi-track sync recording and surround sound design, impact the organization of ambient sound to produce novel cinematic experiences. I will use significant examples from post–2000 Indian cinema, which is not only the world’s largest producer of films[11] but also a vibrant market for digital film technologies, such as Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Atmos.[12] Drawing on existing works in film sound production (Kerins 2011; Sergi 2004; Holman 2002; Sonnenschein 2001), the contemporary practice of ambient sound in Indian cinema will be studied in the light of the narrative strategies of “diegesis” (Percheron 1980; Burch 1982). Considering the notions of “presence” (Lombard and Ditton 1997; Grimshaw 2011), I will argue that the current practice tends to construct spatially evocative sonic environments as opposed to the spectacular “song and dance” sequences typically found in Indian cinema (Gopalan 2002; Rajadhyaksha 2009). I will show that the creative and innovative ambient sound practices of the digital era are leading to a new realm in which the audiences can increasingly connect with the presence of the site through spatial perception (Waller and Nadel 2013) and auditory cognition (McAdams and Bigand 1993). Crafted with sync recording and surround sound design of multiple ambient sound layers recorded from the actual locations, these layers can provide audiences with an embodied experience of sound, which can be termed “cinematic soundscape” if we consider the notion of soundscape (Drever 2002; Schafer 1994) as a point of departure for studying a site-loyal evocation of sound in cinema as a shift away from the linear and spatially-limiting notion of the film soundtrack. These significant shifts in production practices emphasize the need for a coherent approach when studying the role of ambient sound in contemporary Indian cinema.

The state of the digital


Digital multi-track “sync”[13] recording and multichannel surround sound mixing offer a wider palette of sound materials for designing a spatially elaborate Mise-en-sonore in cinema. With the advent of digital technology, widely available and easy-to-handle recording devices, applications and facilities have made various options and formats available to sound practitioners.[14] Scholars of sound production Tomlinson Holman (2002) and Mark Kerins (2006, 2011) inform us that digital sound systems (DSS) have introduced a number of possibilities, including significantly larger dynamic ranges of over 100 dB (a fourfold improvement over its monophonic predecessor and almost double that of stereophonic format[15]), a larger headroom[16] of 20 dB (a major improvement to the 6 and 12 dB headroom of monophonic sound), six discreet channels (5.1 surround sound) and more channels in other multi-channel formats, such as Atmos, wider panning for sound spatialization, and full-frequency channels (20 Hz – 20 KHz) with a flatter response. These capacities have made possible new production practices – a wider range of dynamics in sound as well as increased complexity in mixing and spatial fidelity (Kerins 2011) – while recording and processing the available depth, perspective and width[17] of ambient sounds collected on location.


In Indian cinema, on-location sync sound recording technique has been a direct result of this trend of digital innovation in sound production, which means that sounds are recorded on location in synchronization with the image during shooting. In this widely used term in the industry – “sync” – the emphasis is on the “synchronization” aspect of recording sound, pointing to the fact that the practice qualitatively differs from earlier post-synchronized dubbing, therefore triggering a completely different set of narrative methodologies in approaching the pro-filmic space and creating the presence of site in the cinematic story-world. The interviews[18] with prominent Indian film sound practitioners also give insights into these inherent transformations and their ramifications in the narrative diegesis. In this practice, multiple options for organizing numerous tracks for ambient sounds, sync effects, dialogue and background musical scores open up possibilities for recording a larger number of sound elements in multi-track formats. The increased storage space of digital formats also allows for recording and mixing additional ambient sounds after the shooting in order to capture the intricate details of a location. These extensive recordings are incorporated in post-production stages without the need to reuse sparse archival content from stock sounds and pre-recorded ambiences. In the studio there are a variety of digital applications to manipulate recorded sounds in order to restructure their site-based characteristics to fit the cinematic narrative. As the new trend of sync sound and surround design became widely accepted in the contemporary Indian films, sound production incorporated newly available digital technological innovations over the existing set-up. Post-production techniques – editing, designing and mixing in the studio – became faster and the projection of sound in theatres and multiplexes moved toward systems such as Dolby 7.1, Auro 3D and Dolby Atmos.[19]


What is aesthetically different in this new trend as compared to the earlier production practices of optical synchronous recording, monophonic mixing, magnetic recording, dubbing and stereophonic mixing? Gianluca Sergi (2004) asserted that the early digital surround sound mixing practice relied on “the same screen-centric notion of cinema sound as their mono and Dolby stereo predecessors” (Kerins 2011: 5). But he also pointed out “a reassessment of the relationship between screen sound and surround sound” (Kerins 2011: 5) in the later technological innovations in surround sound. These statements suggest that surround sound technology shifted the preconceived idea of screen-centric sound (mono as well as stereo) towards a wider area of diffused sounds surrounding the cinema screen. Film scholar Vivian Sobchack expresses this as “shifts of emphasis and attention in both sound technology and our sensorium” (Sobchack 2005: 2), leading towards what Rick Altman has termed as ”greater realism" (Altman 1992: 159), predicting the future of sound production in cinema in terms of technological innovations that support realistic representations of place in the sensorium.


As a matter of course, the emergence of any new technology in cinema generates a great deal of discussion and deliberation about its potential use or abuse. The question of how “stereo” should sound has been much debated since the advent of stereophonic sound in the 1950s, when cinematic sound was already standardized in accordance with the monophonic recording-production-reproduction chain, from direct sound recording to its projection in monaural theaters in most parts of the globe. Gianluca Sergi has described this transition as a change from a low-quality optical monophonic soundtrack to a relatively cleaner (via tape-based magnetic recording) and better-quality Dolby stereo soundtrack with higher dynamic range, wider depth, and signal-to-noise ratio, but with problems in sound localization still at the fore, raising serious questions about the contribution of stereo to cinema. He states:


This design (i.e. early Dolby stereo) follows the principle that audiences should be offered directional sound (i.e. sound whose direction could easily be identifiable) only from one wall of the auditorium, namely that where the screen is placed. The notion at the core of this thinking is that sound emanating from somewhere other than an onscreen source would cause the audience to get distracted in an attempt to locate the origin of that sound, hence disrupting the narrative flow. Thus, the implied suggestion is that the surround channel be employed only in a diffuse, non-directional manner so as not to ‘disturb’ the narrative. Despite implicitly suggesting that primary information ought to originate from the screen, the one-wall principle did away with the need to deal with complicated alternatives, like additional surround channels, that would have meant a serious rethink of the meaning of stereo in the cinema. (Sergi 2004: 20–21)


From what Sergi writes, it is evident that more channels meant a rethinking and reordering of the existing set-up in order to achieve a new spatial organization of sound in cinema. If we refer explicitly to practical and experiential accounts in this regard, noted sound designer David Sonnenschein wrote from his own practices in the book Sound Design about the addition of channels to the existing normative structures of routing and mixing sounds in order to design different elements of the soundtrack for the emerging surround sound design:


In the LCRS[20] (Dolby SR and Ultra-stereo) system, the dialogue normally projects from the center with effects and music coming from the left, right, and surround speakers. Ambiance and music can take advantage of the multiple sources to create a space within which the audience can be enveloped. […] With the addition of other speakers beyond the basic four LCRS, the variables increase and more discrete placement can be made with the sounds. (Sonnenschein 2001: 47)


Sonnenschein suggests that stereophonic cinema makes it possible to create an extra off-screen space allowing the audience to engage with the directionality of sound. This capacity opens up a new spatial orientation towards the fictional space, creating the possibility of a dynamic sonic experience in which the sound can move around and beyond the screen (Sergi 2004). Mark Kerins claims that stereophonic system also had its own limitations in off-screen diffusion of sound (2006: 43). However, the “off-screen space” has now been expanded with added channels in the digital surround sound system, which emphasizes a spatially-evocative sound environment instead of offering a linear one-dimensional “soundtrack”, with voice, effects and background music mixed into a single track. Mark Kerins has argued that in comparison to the screen-centric monophonic and stereophonic soundtrack, digital surround systems “spread out into the theatres as their makers see fit” (2006: 43), granting the sound practitioner more creative freedom in the narrative strategy. Kerins has also argued for the “spatial fidelity” that is provided by digital surround system. The sound practitioner uses the digital systems to puts forward “more perceptible sounds” in the surround channels “to build multi-channel environments. They assume that audiences will understand sounds originating in the surround channels to be part of the same diegetic space as those originating onscreen” (Kerins 2011: 70), spatially expanding and substantially enriching the sound environment.

Film sound scholar Giorgio Biancorosso also placed emphasis on the spatial reordering of sound in order to create diegetic space in cinema, with the shift from mono to stereo and to digital surround:


After all, sounds whose sources remain unseen not only reach us at all times, but are also crucial in guiding our sense of inhabiting a certain kind of space, specifying its properties and suggesting the kinds of activities taking place therein. It is fair to assume that we bring this ability to perceive the space around us through sound to bear on the construction of a diegetic space. Digital Surround Sound depends on it. (Biancorosso 2009: 263)


The growing digitalization of post–1990 filmmaking allows for the appreciation and construction of a diegetic space to which previous sound practices, in mono and stereophonic frameworks, paid lesser attention. The increased importance of authenticity in diegesis led to more site-specific spatial details in an embodied experience of sound. The spatial organization makes the audience convinced of the presence of the site within the narrative construction of the story world, which, as I demonstrate in this article, is achieved through the use of ambient sounds in the multi-channel sonic environment of contemporary Indian cinema.


Apart from adding more audio channels in the digital surround realm, an emergent fascination with real locations over sets and more detailed and accurate evidence – noticeable in production practices such as sync sound in films – suggests a rediscovery of cinema’s origins in cinematic realism.[21] For example, in recent mainstream Indian films, the preceding practices of dubbing, stock sound effects, and studio Foley are gradually being replaced by authentic, site-specific sync sounds.[22] These sound layers incorporate a wider dissemination of naturalistic and site-specific auditory artefacts into the creation of pro-filmic space, adding depth, texture, and perspective. This reordering of pro-filmic space has been gaining momentum with the increasing amount of direct participation of sound technicians in the filmmaking process through their involvement in location-based sync recording, production mixing, and surround sound design. Digital multi-track sync sound has been accepted as a highly-precise, artistically-demanding and skilled recording technique practiced by sound technicians, involving the use of actors’ original dialogue, thereby eliminating tedious post-production processes such as dubbing and Foley in contemporary Indian films.

The auditory setting of Indian cinema in the contemporary digital era


The scholarly perspectives on sound production as discussed above (Kerins 2011, 2006; Sergi 2004; Sonnenschein 2001) and the aesthetic impacts of production practices on the cinematic experience – described as “real” (Altman 1992), “sensorial” (Sobchack 2005) or “authentic” (Biancorosso 2009) – can not however be evenly applied to Indian cinema in the context of its historical trajectory. It is not difficult to maintain that the site in Indian films has been inconstantly rendered and produced due to evolving phases of production practices, affected by technological innovations and shifts. There have been phases of sound practice, such as the entire period of “dubbing era” (1960s – 1990s), that cared less about the site, giving more importance to the typical narrative tropes such as “song and dance” sequences. However, there are also phases such as the “digital era” (2000-) where a concrete representation of site is observed. In this light, I consider the advent of sync sound and digital surround sound in Indian cinema to be significant, at least in the context of cinematic sound’s developments through its earlier phases of production practices (i.e. monophonic and stereophonic frameworks). In my other writings I have discussed mainstream Indian film’s general tendency to ignore subtleties of the site while constructing the pro-filmic space. These observations resonate with Indian film scholar Asish Rajadhyaksha when he points out the “peculiar inability of Indian cinema to produce a persuasive relationship with live location sound” (2007: 1). He elaborates:

To point to the inability of music to become sound, thus providing one context, and even a key explanation, for the peculiar inability of Indian cinema to produce a persuasive relationship with live location sound, the only proper sound resource actually available to the cinema […] this in fact echoes the lament of all location recordists at the Indian cinema’s curious resistance to live sound: both in the end questioning the dubious antecedents of the content of a film’s soundtrack. (Rajadhyaksha 2007: 1)

The lament of the location sound recordist, however, tends to fade away with contemporary digital tools and techniques, allowing for the capture of multiple layers of sound, particularly ambient sounds, directly from the location of shooting and the incorporation of these layers into the multi-channel environment of surround design. The result is significant presence of the site in the spatiotemporally constructed story-world, using ambience as the primary element. In an interview, a practitioner clarifies, “I think the ambience (becomes) an extremely artistic aspect of the film sound, where it is probably one of the most behind-the-scene things which is constantly coloring up[23] the whole aspect of the whole treatment of the film.”[24] How is the construction of the pro-filmic space in Indian cinema “colored” or affected by the use of ambient sound in the narrative process of diegesis? Rajadhyaksha points out the overwhelming desire of the (Indian) audience to believe in the filmic reality, which leads to a convergence in the mind of the audience with a delineated narrative based on the conventional protocols of verisimilitude. He quotes Chion to support his point:

The convergence – in which ‘ambient sounds, which are often the product of multiple specific and local sources’ do not recognize the hierarchy between a ‘space inhabited by the sound’ and its multisource origin – hinges on a confusion that is ‘at the very heart of our experience itself, like an unsettled knot of problems’. This confusion has had significant technical consequences where the desire to read in the sound its origin has run counter to the conventional protocols of verisimilitude. (Rajadhyaksha 2009: 10)

The convergence thus expects the audience to delineate a story world and make sense of the presence of the site narrated in the story using the conventional protocols of verisimilitude. This sense of verisimilitude is provided by the qualitative attributes of sounds, namely textural richness, depth, perspective, volume, dynamic range and spatialization of on-location recordings of ambient sounds incorporated in the sound production. These qualities help the audience to relate to the site as lived experience as part of the phenomenal world (Bordwell 2009). I have discussed in an article[25] how ambient sounds recorded from the controlled environment of direct or synchronized sound recording and monophonic production-reproduction chain gave rise to a construction of reality in terms of a strictly screen-centric projection of sonic information about the site. The following phase of magnetic recording, dubbing and re-recording instigated a distancing and abstraction from the filmmaking location, the audio process thus escaping the site altogether. Stereophonic sound design, mixing and reproduction rendered this abstraction as something spectacular (Sergi 2004; Kerins 2011), like an expanded fantasy-like experience located far away from the reality of the site. I have shown in another article[26] that in this period of sound production it was mainly studio-centric technicians who tended to construct the pro-filmic space by synthetic means, typically paying little attention to any site-specific sounds and using song sequences and music as aural masking.

The advent of the digital in sound production has opened up previous limitations, offering a wider and more flexible milieu of sound recording and design practice and more freedom for the sound practitioner. Kerins writes of the American cinema (which is also valid for Indian cinema to a certain degree):

When 5.1-channel digital surround sound (DSS) first appeared in the early 1990s, it offered filmmakers better dynamic range, more channels, and greater flexibility for placement of sounds within the multichannel environment. (Kerins 2011: 53)

The 35mm filmstrip had a dynamic range of 78 dB (Kerins 2011: 54), limiting the signal-to-noise ratio in optical sound recording. Within this narrower dynamic range, monaural synchronized recording was restricted in the amount of ambient sound content that would be optimal for a film soundtrack, putting an emphasis on the voice. In the magnetic recording era, the dynamic range of sound recording was around 98 dB, depending on the quality of tape material. The digital format, on the other hand, offers over 100 dB of dynamic range, which means that sounds can include more breadth and depth of recording, i.e., retaining high volume capabilities alongside the transmission of very soft and minute sounds, as explained earlier. This wider headroom[27] allows for an inclusive capacity for recording, layering, designing, and mixing sounds that gradually replaced previous practices of dubbing, Foley and stock ambient sounds, to include more of the actor’s live performance, sync sound effects and location-based ambient sounds in digital recording. When these “actual” sounds are experienced by the audience – through a spatially wider, digitally cleaned multi-channel surround design by film-school-educated sound designers – they can trigger a subjective sense of presence of the site in the auditory perception and cognition of the listener, exploring the immersive and embodied potential of the ambient sounds. This mode of production inherently engages with ambient sound’s corporeally immersive potential. As Mark Grimshaw argues, ambient sounds “can create a sense of physical presence” (Grimshaw 2011: 38). This immersive sense of presence of the site in the cinematic universe is constructed with the surround spatialization of site-specific recordings of ambience, enveloping the audience outside of the screen but diegetically connected to the story world, producing a perception of being there. This process of diegesis brings into play a “coherent representation of the sound world” (McAdams and Bigand 1993) in the spatially-organized cinematic experience.

The nature of the site in digital multi-track sync sound

The first Indian film that was shot mainly with digital multi-track sync sound was Lagaan (Taxation, Ashutosh Gowariker 2001). In this film, location sync recording and Dolby digital sound technology were implemented, following a major debate in the Indian film industry,[28] and since then, most of today’s filmmakers have gradually embraced the digital revolution. This is why Lagaan represented an important benchmark in the history of Indian cinema: shot entirely on a difficult yet quintessentially typical Indian location using sync sound recording,[29] this film prompted a recognition of the site as a significant actor in the development of the story. Lagaan was a trendsetter in its celebration of the sync sound technique as well as the sound technician’s, Nakul Kamte, artistry and recording skills. This qualitative shift has become evident in the way the film industry’s crews, actors and directors have adapted to the changing circumstances and how these changes have been reflected in their work, with consideration for commercial viability and functionality. Some of the relevant comments from prominent industry personnel[30] may shed more light on this shift.

Well-known producer and star Aamir Khan, who was the lead actor and producer of Lagaan, comments on the advantages of sync sounds over dubbed sound as transmitting a more natural performance of the actors that otherwise cannot be recreated inside the studio:

I believe it is most favourable for an artist, as it enhances their performance and they can successfully record both emotions: sound and mime, and also avoid unattainable repeating of sentiment in a vacuumed dubbing studio. Certainly ‘sync’ sound will become a preferred way of working especially amongst artists, as it directly results in an enhanced performance.[31]

Veteran actor Om Puri echoes Amir Khan’s endorsements of sync sound recording, adding comments concerning the tediousness of dubbing, which can be replaced by the natural presentation of sync sound:

from an actor’s perspective, dubbing is tedious and un-attached to their performance on the screen. Sync Sound helps sustain a coherent and natural presentation.[32]

Noted filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor, who utilized sync sound in his debut film Hyderabad Blues (1998), supports the use of sync sound in Indian cinema in order to bring increased professionalism and discipline in the set, alongside better sound quality:

Sync Sound is not at all limiting. In fact quite the contrary: it liberates the performance of the artist. Definitely, it helps promote increased professionalism and discipline on the sets, which is usually absent in our Film Industry. Had I my way I would prefer using Sync Sound in all my films. This technique can certainly be promoted if the Director and Producer make a call to understand that Sync Sound is as good as, if not better than dubbed sound.[33]

Independent filmmaker Dev Benegal comments on the “lifelikeness” of sync sound and reiterates that the practice can actually facilitate the smooth functioning of the filmmaking process:

Sync Sound breathes life into a film. […] Sync Sound unites the cast and crew and facilitates smooth functioning. I would urge all filmmakers to begin using this method, which is actually an untapped gold mine.[34]

These sound technicians and practitioners, who have been embracing the shift and appreciating the flexibility and creative freedom involved with sync sound more intensively than other film crews, express their enthusiasm by fully implementing the technique within their practice. Renowned sound recording and mixing engineer Manas Choudhury[35] mentions the hierarchical relationship between sound and camera personnel in Indian cinema and sheds light on the larger debate concerning the domination of the visual over sonic elements. However, he stresses that the creativity involved in sound practice following the advent of digital sync recording and surround sound design upsets this hierarchy to situate sound in a more creative and innovative context.[36]Another well-known sound recordist Ashwin Balsavar shares a similar view: digital technology, with its higher quality recording and audio workstations provides more efficient techniques and facilitates skills as well as creative practices of sound.[37] Moreover, sound recordists within digital sync sound film production acquire equal importance to the cameramen and other technical stakeholders, leading to more appropriate cooperation and equality within the film crew. Balsavar further comments:

Sync Sound texture is very realistic and cannot be reproduced in a Dubbing Studio and the actor’s performances can never be repeated while dubbing either. Dubbing anyway never gives 100 percent Lip Sync. Dolby Digital, Non-linear editing, better microphones and Audio Workstations provide efficient technology and facilitate better Post Production. In a Sync Sound film, a recordist holds just as much importance as the cameraman and hence there is appropriate co-operation within the crew. The final output in the theatre makes the film look and feel real. […] Dubbing is time consuming, patience testing and is an exercise in futility. Sync sound saves time and sounds better and gives due respect to the sound people. Big banners should adopt the use of ‘sync’ sound and make it a norm.[38]

Balsavar’s comments focus on the quality of digital multi-track sync sound. According to him, sync sound texture is recognizably “authentic” and cannot be reproduced in a dubbing studio. Furthermore, the actor’s specific expressive articulation can never be repeated in dubbing. In his opinion, dubbing has never provided complete lip-sync, while in sync sound this is achievable.

Likewise, Lagaan[39] offers authentic sound layers and spatial textures that were previously unheard-of in analogue mono- or analogue stereophonic rendering of sound components in Indian cinema. The opening sequence in particular draws the audience into the universe of the historic region of Champaner in 1890 via a “real” or “lifelike” sonic experience and perspective. Set in the ancient village of Kanuria, located a few miles away from Bhuj in Gujarat’s Kutch district, the sound crew placed the actors in the dry, empty and hilly landscape of the village to record most of the effects, voices and ambiences in sync.[40] This landscape comes alive with hitherto unheard plausibility in the use of sync sound.

In the same year, another film primarily using sync sound was released: Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires, Farhan Akhtar 2001), which enjoys cult status now thanks to its refreshing attitude, embracing the “here and now” approach provided largely by the practice of shooting on location with sync recording, followed by surround sound design. Right from the beginning of the film, which is set in the contemporary city of Mumbai, the accurate sound portrayal of the traffic was in such contrast to audience expectations and experiences with studio-recorded sound that it placed them immediately “on the streets.” A major portion of the ambient sounds used in the indoor sequences consists of room tone, a noise-like “hum” (Holman 2002) coming from different electrical, electronic and other indoor machineries. The incorporation of such room tones in the ambience was a novel approach at the time. Each indoor sequence, thus, affords not only the right perspective and placement of the characters within the Mise-en-sonore, which is heard not only through the reflection of the voices on the walls, but also through the room tone surrounding the audience. In the last major sequence of the film[41] the synchronized sound perspective is manifested in the diegetic use of wedding songs. This sequence was noteworthy for its novel use of diegetic music, sans studio processing, unlike preceding Indian films. By using sync sound at the location of the story-world, the sequence offers ample information to the audience about the specific site, which is sonically reconstructed to the point that they feel immersed in the embodied experience of its presence.[42]

The use of sync sound and surround design reaches a high point in the acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle 2008), an essentially Indian production due to the number of actors, writers, locations and technicians from the Indian film industry. The production sound mixer and location sound recordist of the film, Resul Pookutty, won an academy award for his work with sound. He later became one of the promoters of and a campaigner for sync sound in Indian cinema. In this film, several sequences[43] are shot on location at the slum area of Mumbai.[44] These sequences portray the complex depth of acoustical environment that Indian urban sites offer. Right from the opening sequence in the police station, with its rich multi-layered rendering of environmental sound in Mumbai coming from the surround channels – front, rear and the center, the audience is provided with the bodily sensation of the spatial presence (Skalski and Whitbred 2010) of the site. For example, the sync recordings of the actor’s voice carry the dense ambience and detailed reflections of the room and the site that they occupy. Add to this the respective room tones and noises in the spatially elaborate sound environment. Outdoor sequences in the slum areas come to life with the immersive quality of the ambient sound recorded and shot at the very locations they capture.

In the following phase of Indian cinema, the practice and use of sync sound gained momentum, and more films employed this production practice. The so-called “independent” filmmakers, who preferred to stand apart from mainstream Indian film production in order to establish auteuristic signatures and voices of their own, were the ones who picked up sync sound as a stylistic feature in their emerging film work. Dibakar Banerjee, among others from this new breed of Indian filmmaker, used location sync sound to its fullest potential. In Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee 2012), the raw, rustic soundscape[45] of an Indian city and its familiar phenomenal world is represented “true to life”[46] through sync sound and surround design.[47] Let us go through some of the substantial reviews of the film to illustrate the point I am making. Raja Sen of points out, in his review of Shanghai, the sense of familiarity evoked by the sound strategy: “The time is now, the location pointedly fictional and decidedly familiar.”[48] Saibal Chatterjee of NDTV stresses the sense of place provided by sound: “Lensed with great sense of place and occasion […] Shanghai projects the dark, dank, redolent-with-danger innards of small-town India to absolute perfection […] The most striking aspect of Shanghai is its marvelous use of sound, both ambient and otherwise, to build up dramatic tension.”[49] Chatterjee, in another review on The Sunday Indian emphasizes the atmospheric and convincing use of ambience, “They embrace the ambience of Shanghai with complete conviction, aiding and abetting the build-up of tension and atmosphere.”[50]

The sound practitioner’s experiential accounts only reaffirm these claims. The re-recordist of Shanghai, Hitendra Ghosh, speaks[51] of the sound design – how surround sound has been used to create “a very real experience and immers[e] the audience into the director’s narrative.” He points to the novelty of the approach and the potential shift in contemporary Indian cinema: “for the first time you will notice throughout the film that we have not used much of the foley [sic] sounds recorded in the studio. We have tried to use sound from the location. That’s why the feature sounds very real and authentic.”[52]

Being situated: The site-orientation of surround sound


As it stands, contemporary Indian cinema in the digital realm holds 1) multichannel recording capabilities, 2) an enormous dynamic range from the softest sound to the loudest, 3) discrete full-frequency channels and their complex routing options, 4) the ability of the digital multi-track digital recorder to capture sounds from all corners of the location in synchronization with the image-gathering synchronized recording of actors’ live performances, movements and effects, rich layers of ambient sounds – all separately captured on multiple tracks simultaneously with the camera, 5) extra storage for recording stray ambiences like environmental sound marks, room tones and other characteristic sounds from the location after the shooting, and, finally, 6) the capacity of the digital sound studio to employ surround sound design, with the numerous tracks holding the possibility of layering location-specific ambient sounds in most creative ways. How do these new capabilities influence the construction of the site in pro-filmic space, and how is this new practice reflected in the audience’s experience of sound? The expressions used earlier in the reviews, such as “real,” “familiar,” “authentic,” “immersive” and “great sense of place,” etc. indicate shifts within sound experience of Indian cinema, the proliferation of a new trend, with audiences increasingly feeling the need to relate to the convincingly real and sonically-believable sites in the constructed pro-filmic space within the diegetic universe.

Concerning the spatiality of surround sound, Mark Kerins states that the digital sound system “is engineered to model a ‘true’ 360-degree multichannel environment where the focal point of the soundscape can be anywhere in the theater” (2006: 43). In this statement one may notice the use of the bracketed word “true”, which underlines the “lifelikeness” (Rogers 2013: 56) of the acoustic environment created by a narrative strategy for which ambient sounds are organized and spatially rendered so that they “construct for us a sense of the material world which the characters inhabit” (Fischer 1985: 239). To Kerins this practice engenders “expansion of the cinematic soundfield beyond the screen.” (2006: 43). He adds:

To some degree this represents a simple acceleration of established narrative strategies – filmmakers have long relied on ambient sound in the “surrounds” to set up diegetic spaces, and this trend has certainly continued with movies employing DSS. The difference here is that DSS has encouraged the construction of complex multichannel sound mixes, where the different sounds in each speaker channel together create a seemingly realistic and complete aural environment in a way difficult (if not impossible) with monophonic or Dolby stereo sound. (Kerins 2006: 44, italics mine)

How do audiences relate to the site and further orient themselves in the sonic environment? As Kerins shows, DSS’s use of ambience might be considered as an expansion of established practice in the sense that it “centers on a strategy of immersion in the filmic environment – audiences are, visually and aurally, literally placed in the middle of the action […] in which the narrative processes of cinema […] communicate complex perspectives, and dependence on a complex interplay between sound and image to orient audiences” (2006: 44). To understand how audiences orient themselves in this surround sound environment by “being there,” I refer to the processes of spatial perception and cognition. Betty J. Mohler, Massimiliano Di Luca and Heinrich H. Bulthoff theorize spatial perception and cognition in terms of careful navigation through multiple modalities, including audition:

When an observer moves, the sensory systems capture multiple signals: The retinal projections of the environment change, the vestibular organs sense acceleration, environmental sounds move with respect to the body, and so forth […] Information from multiple sense modalities is often necessary to navigate successfully. Vision, touch, and audition can provide contextual information to vestibular signals for a more robust and stable representation of perceived head orientation and movement. (Mohler, Luca and Bulthoff 2013: 90)

If we consider the observer to be stationary and the environment around her/him as moving, as in the case of a DSS experience, the same orienting process leads to the perceptual and cognitive appeal of cinematic sound. Audiences are invited to orient themselves within the narrative world depicted in the film, and the process essentially involves capturing sensory signals from the environment and performing an internal mental computation that can be divided into early or low-level perception and advanced or higher-level mental processing or cognition. The sense modalities provide sensory information (Bordwell 2009) – for example, ambient sounds from any given environment of a film – and process them accordingly for the perception of spatial properties such as distance, direction, depth, etc. In the case of audition, as one of the sense modalities, air vibration in the cinematic environment provides for vibratory information that human ears, due to their slight but perceptually significant difference of position on the right and left sides of the head, can capture interaural time differences and interaural intensity differences (Waller and Nadel 2013). Spatial information is recovered from ambient sounds that come from the cinematic environment, and audiences locate themselves within it as lived experience (Bordwell 2009). Ontological questions such as “where I am?” and epistemological questions such as “what do I hear?” relate directly to the site of the story-world via the spatially constructed soundfield that the audience interprets (McAdams and Bigand 1993; Mohler, Luca and Bulthoff 2013). I refer to a key statement by Béla Balázs on sound in cinema: The careful inclusion and spatial organization of ambient sounds in contemporary Indian cinema reveal to the audiences the “acoustic environment, the acoustic landscape in which we live” (1985: 116), adding to the site’s presence in the pro-filmic space.

It is no surprise that in many post–2000 Indian films, such as Delhi–6 (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra 2009), Love Sex aur Dhokha (Love Sex and Betrayal, Dibakar Banerjee 2010), Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries, Kiran Rao 2011), and Kahani (The Story, Sujoy Ghosh 2012), spatial arrangements of ambient sounds trigger cognitive associations with the site, facilitated by the creative and inventive strategies of sync recording and surround design. The multi-layered and richly evocative audio information play out in the minds of the audience a spatial topography of the locations where they were shot, creating a sonic association with the sites in the story-world. Referring to believability and cognition in cinema, Bordwell has described the audience as an active information seeker (2009: 360) in the way they extract information from the phenomena of the natural environment (Bordwell 2009: 363). In contemporary Indian films, the site-specific ambient sound brings a wider diffusion of auditory information into the pro-filmic space, adding depth, texture, and auditory perspective, so the audience can develop a spatially oriented, enveloping and expanded sound environment beyond the screen. These possibilities motivated film scholar Ranjani Mazumdar to claim that in contemporary Indian films even “The city’s wastelands saturate the mise-en-scène” (2009: 238). The practice of digital sound in contemporary Indian cinema manifests in paying due attention to the sound atmospheres of India’s urban as well as rural sites and landscapes.

The Cinematic Soundscape: Critical observations


The emerging spatial sensibility in the digital realm’s sound production becomes apparent in the way contemporary Indian cinema incorporates the proliferation of ambient sounds that play out in the mind of the audience a believable topography relatively closer to the lived experience of place. The use of ambient sound via the intricate digital surround spatialization[53] of these sonic layers produces an enhanced sited experience of sound. It is no surprise that the current breed of Indian films, made with digital technologies, compels the audience to utilize their sensorial and ambient or environmental faculties of listening. This new realm of sound production supports the emergence of an embodied experience of the site.

Don Ihde has articulated embodied experience in this way: “Sound permeates and penetrates my bodily being. […] Its bodily involvement comprises the range from soothing pleasure to the point of insanity in the continuum of possible sound in music and noise. Listening begins by being bodily global in its effects.” (Ihde 2007: 45). The pleasure derived from bodily relating to the constructed film and media environment is based on how convincing and realistic they sound to the ear. Likewise, the convincingly realistic portrayal of the fictional sites in Indian cinema of the digital era leads to popular appreciation and a sense of euphoria. In the user reviews of the film Jab We Met (When We Met, Imtiaz Ali 2007), shot with sync sound, two amateur reviewers underscored the distinct experience of recognizing the site, calling it “real, natural, and believable.”

The scenes have been mostly shot at outdoor spots like Chandigarh, Kulu, Manali and Shimla, and this entertains us as if we are experiencing a real tour ourselves. Again and again, seeing daily studio scenes made the eyes wounded and fed up the mind [sic]. [54]

[…] the execution is so […] realistic that no situation in the movie looks out of place. […] absolute[ly] real, natural and believable.[55]

This euphoria reflects new developments in the cinematic experience, acknowledging a renewed sense of realism in the narration of fictional sites created by the spatial ordering of ambient sounds to “produce a space for the film to exist in” (Holman 1997: 177). A number of recent Indian films such as Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love, Aditya Vikram Sengupta 2014), Court (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014), Masaan (Fly Away Solo, Neeraj Ghaywan 2015), and Killa (The Fort, Avinash Arun 2015) do not rely on the musical score, or practically do away with it, using instead a reduced amount of dialogue (or no dialogue, as with films like Asha Jaoar Majhe) in the narration. These films are packed with rich layers of ambient sounds: street noises, car horns, tram bells, voices of street hawkers, cats meowing and crows cawing, background radio’s news announcement, and other recognizable mundane ambiences that are present in the everyday life of India. Due to this careful inclusion and elaborate spatial organization of ambient sounds, these films have a “gritty documentary feel” to them, marked by an immersive immediate realism that stands in contrast to the typical song-and-dance films from the conventional Bollywood. These independent films represent a renewed sense of situated-ness in everyday life, meticulously portraying ordinary sites known through a lived experience in contemporary India. Due to their narrative strategies, these sites become another character within the narrative, contributing a resounding presence in the pro-filmic space.

However, even in the conducive creative environment of digital sound production framework, it is of course a question as to whether all the subtler aspects of the phenomenal worlds from the urban and rural sites of India are narrated truthfully and faithfully in the experience of cinematic sound. On many occasions, the noisy parts of the ambient sound recordings are controlled and sanitized by editing and noise reduction to provide “cleaner” sonic environments in cinema.[56] The typically syncretic, chaotic, and inchoate structure of Indian cities reflected in the general manifestation of the urban environment, particularly in the complex character of the everyday urban ambience – with multiple layers of sounds from pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial eras – are simultaneously active in juxtapositions or in contrapuntal relationships with one another (Chattopadhyay 2014: 140). The urban sound environment is thus sonically overwhelming and potentially disorienting for the listening subject (2014: 140). The complex and multi-layered sound environments of urban as well as rural sites from India do not always appear completely in the augmented sonic environment of Indian films, where more “aestheticized” accounts of these sites are delivered in the spatial atmosphere of cinema. This spatial atmosphere, however, can no longer be understood as a linear and one-dimensional “soundtrack,” but instead might be termed the “cinematic soundscape.” Here I am explicitly referring to R. Murray Schafer’s original (1994) proposal of the term “soundscape,” which “seems to offer a way of describing the relationship between sound and place. It evokes the sonic counterpart of the landscape” (Kelman 2010: 215). However, at the same time the Schaferean soundscape’s “particular aim is to draw attention to imbalances which may have unhealthy or inimical effects” (Schafer 1994: 271). These “moralizing” (LaBelle 2006: 203) tendencies toward controlling the incoming ambience in terms of “acoustic design” are strongly tied to the “sound design” deployed in contemporary Indian cinema, involving editing and advanced noise reduction in the digital platform. The underlying intention of these aspects of sound practice is to transform the “lo-fi” sounds into “hi-fi” sounds, while in the process removing their “noise” contents in order to ensure the potential entertainment and pleasure of the audience members. Within this paradigm, some of the ambient sound frequencies recorded at the site are judged to be “noise,” and more often than not “referred to in the negative” (LaBelle 2006: 203). According to Schafer, “lo-fi” sounds have a lower signal to noise ratio, tending to impose “an increased level of disturbance upon the body, society and the environment” (LaBelle 2006: 202), while “hi-fi” sounds “have a low ambient noise level and discrete sounds emerge with clarity” (Rodaway quoted in LaBelle 2006: 202). This compulsion to achieve clarity in the cinematic soundscape leads the sound practitioner to use selected “soundmarks” instead of capturing faithfully the complete ambience of the sites. A “soundmark” is, according to Schafer, a “community sound, which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people of that community” (Schafer, quoted in LaBelle 2006: 216). In the popular Indian road-movie Highway (Imtiaz Ali 2014),[57] the two protagonists (the abducted girl and her fugitive captor) travel through north India in a truck, staying in hidden places for a few days before running away. Every place is established with a certain “soundmark” specific to the site. A place in the state of Rajasthan, in north India, for example, is narrated through the distant and proximate calls of the Peacock, since Rajasthan is well known home for a wide variety of Peacocks. This tendency to underline a particular sound, often at the expense of many other ambient sounds emanating from the specific sites, serves as a kind of sonic “compensation” for the noise reduction and editing of digital multi-track sync sounds in the post-production.[58] These “industrial” norms, rules and regulations embedded in the film industry’s sound production practices hinders the sound practitioner in applying a more artistic approach that might further enrich the sound experience offered by the film.

Despite these apparent drawbacks, the pervasive digital technologies endow contemporary Indian cinema with a scenario for “best practice,” incorporating an augmented and impressive amount of ambient sounds in the recording and design methodology. This realm of sound production renders the narration of the site far more believable than the previous eras of production frameworks, with an enhanced and intensified sense of the site’s presence in the film’s augmented universe, crafted by multi-track sync recording and surround sound design.

Concluding remarks

After the advent of the digital innovations during the late 1990s, a more aware practice of incorporating ambient sounds allows the audience to more effortlessly and directly relate to the sites narrated in the story-worlds of Indian cinema. This newer mode of sound production reconfigures the linear construct of a soundtrack into a spatially evocative sound environment. Through this emphasis on the location-based synchronized recording and including a substantial amount of ambient sounds in the surround design, the film-industrial practice of sound production – regardless of being controlled, having undergone noise reduction and editing – develops an inextricable relationship with the site. The practice of sound in contemporary Indian cinema provides an intensified sense of presence, giving ample evidence of the site in the spatial experience and anchoring the diegetic story-world in an apparently sonically-realistic universe. This capacity strengthens as practice of ambient sounds shifts from analogue eras to the digital, becoming more detailed in recorded textures as well as present in the spatial organizations, to produce a believable Mise-en-sonore as simulated environment of the site.


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