He understands the texture of sound, the hiss of silence and music in the hustle and bustle of cities

Sound designer Shajith Koyeris inspiring fight against the odds to win the National Award
Features Cinema Saturday, April 16, 2016 - 17:42

By Manasvi

The opening scene of ‘Omkara’ shows an expanse of a rugged terrain, marked by an eerie silence. As the camera moves over the land, all one hears is the slow hiss of air, the ruffle of clothes of the actors and an uneasy pause that punctuates their speech. Sound hovers around the people on screen, and has a natural, yet distinct presence in the scene. For anyone who’s watched this scene, it’s hard to miss the work of National Award-winning sound engineer, Shajith Koyeri.

A subtle, qualified balance between silence and sound is the mark of most of the films that feature Koyeri as the sound designer. The famously passionate kiss between Vidya Balan and Arshad Warsi in Ishqiya too bears the same stamp — just the right amount of sound, not less, not more. And more recently, there was Talwar, which fetched Koyeri a Filmfare award in 2016.

Koyeri himself bears a lot of this balance, as he speaks about the world of sound. He doesn’t harp much on his past, a ‘fight-against-the-odds’ story. He was affected by rheumatoid arthritis when he was just 13, which crippled his social and educational life. Confined indoors for years, his life took a turn when he visited Mumbai at the age of 25 with his sister, who was visiting her sailor-husband. The perkiness of Mumbai caught him up and he stayed on, merging with its noise and friendly chaos to learn the ropes of how to add sound to films.

But that is the past for the man who has a commendable line-up of films to his credit and several accolades. He chooses instead to speak on how sound is transforming films and how film-makers are now investing more on sound to bring their films closer to realism.

“Earlier, sound in films was not so advanced, except probably in parallel cinema where it got a better treatment than in the mainstream. There was nothing called sound design. But over the years, people have changed and so has technology. Film-makers now understand the difference that good sound can make to a film,” he says.

Where productions allotted less than a month for treating the sound of a film earlier, now the time allotted varies between five months and a year for various phases of sound treatment, from ambience capturing to the final mix. “For Dam 999 (a 2011 science fiction film), we could convince director Sohan Roy to stretch the time for sound work and take the film for technical treatment to Germany. Such advances are more prominent now,” he says. 

Koyeri feels that despite all the advances in technology, what still makes a work stand out is a mind that can conceive and interpret reality uniquely. Sound, its vivid texture and varied character, has to be understood first. So, it is still the man making the sound who matters most, he says. “Technology is just to assist.”

It was probably such a mind that helped Koyeri make a mark in a field teeming with highly trained personnel, despite being academically untrained. His learning ground, in those “confined” years at home after illness forced him to stop his studies, was a local library. “I used to be a librarian at a local library in my hometown in Kannur,” he says. Reading was his mainstay and so were discussions with like-minded people who visited the library.

“There was so much energy in me; I knew I was not one to sit at home. My sister wanted me to accompany her to Mumbai. At first, I didn’t want to go. But I went, and was forced to stay for some days. Irked at this, I used to stare out of the balcony for long hours. A girl used to pass by who caught my eye, and she was my door to a lot of friends in that area. Later, when the time came for me to actually go, I didn’t want to leave Mumbai.”

He then thought of PM Satheesh, the acclaimed sound designer, who he knew from his hometown in Kerala and who used to be a source of encouragement. Shajith was called to Satheesh’s studio, which he later joined.

“Those were the days of struggle, yet they were interesting when work filled most of my waking hours,” he says. City shutdowns never bothered him, and neither did lack of transport during strikes. “I used to be at the studio even at 12 in the night. It was a hands-on job and there was no one to train me. We used to watch and learn,” he says.

He has trekked a long way from editing sound for other designers to being a sound designer himself. His portfolio now flaunts a rich list of films, including acclaimed films like Maqbool, Haider, Mangal Pandey-The Rising, Omkara, Kaminey and The Blue Umbrella, to name a few. This is apart from the many documentaries and short films to his credit and that have done the rounds of film festivals.

Even as Shajith looks at future roads to travel, he wants once more to go back to the apartment where he stayed during his first Mumbai visit. “I want to thank that girl and those friends who made me stay back,” he says.

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