At a time when many actors and filmmakers from the Northeast are making waves in world cinema, Susmit Bob Nath, an FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) graduate from Silchar town of Barak Valley, has made a name for himself as a sound designer par excellence who is sought after by many prominent filmmakers of today.
It is needless to say that sound designing is a vital part of storytelling in films. It is both a technique and an art.
Nath, who is behind the sound of acclaimed films like ‘Chauthi Koot’, ‘Bhavesh Joshi’, ‘Rama Raghav 2.0’, and ‘Bulbul Can Sing’, among others, is a firm believer that cinema is beyond language. He also acknowledges that institutes such as FTII play an important role in bridging the gap between less affluent sections of society with a’ bourgeois art form’ like cinema.
In a freewheeling chat with The News Mill, the Silchar lad spoke about his remarkable journey in films, the special bond of friendship he shares with Assamese filmmaker Rima Das and a lot more. Here are the excerpts:
Q: You frequently work in documentary films, some of which are critically acclaimed the world over. How different it is from working in a fictional film?
Susmit Bob Nath: I always feel sound designing for a documentary film is far more challenging. You have a lot of creative freedom in a fictional film. The kind of sound you weave into that space depends upon the imagination of the director as well as the sound designer. Whereas in case of documentaries most of the times you are depicting reality. So, the sound has to be really grounded. It has to blend in with you see so that the audience have a sense of believability. It is tricky in the sense that it should not feel like a lot of work has been done yet a lot of work goes into it.
Q: Do you always strictly follow the director’s handbook?
Susmit Bob Nath: It depends a lot on the director. I believe great directors are the ones who improvise. I have been lucky because the directors I have worked with have given me a lot of freedom. Normally, I do not think or ideate much in the scripting stage because things change. I have seen from my own experience that if you strictly follow the script, things do not turn out to be as great as expected. I start ideating from the editing stage.
Q: Which approach is creatively more satisfying for you – designing sound in the post-production stage or getting involved right from the beginning of a project?
Susmit Bob Nath: I prefer working right from the beginning because that way it becomes a more organic process. Sometimes beautiful accidents happen in terms of sound during shooting. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult to imagine if you don’t go on location. Everyone has their approach. In Europe and America, people who do location sound generally don’t get involved in the post-production stage.
Q: There were reports that sound engineers captured ‘pure sounds’ during the lockdown phase earlier this year when the din and bustle of everyday life was absent. Did you carry out a similar exercise?
Susmit Bob Nath: I keep recording whenever it is possible or if I visit a new location. In a country like India wherever you go, be it big cities or small towns, there is always some construction activity going on or somebody is honking nearby. We do not value silence that much. Our culture is in a way loud. You feel the difference when you go abroad. I mean there even in big cities you hardly hear any noise.
Q: How particular are you about using ‘pure sounds’ in today’s era when technology can mimic almost anything?
Susmit Bob Nath: When I record sound, I don’t think whether it is pure sound or not. These days there are many software and other aids that have expanded the horizon of sound designing in the post-production stage. Recently I finished working on a documentary on Delhi’s pollution with director Rahul Jain. I used sounds of firecrackers which I had recorded during Diwali from the terrace of our hostel building at FTII. It was way back in 2010. All these years I never got the opportunity to use that sound. But this documentary had a couple of sequences where that sound blended in nicely. Of course, we edited it.
Q: ‘Machines’ is one documentary film which occupies a very special place in your filmography. From the perspective of sound designing how did you approach the film?
Susmit Bob Nath: That film played a huge part in my journey. I came onboard when a sizeable chunk of the film was already shot. I saw it and immediately realised that it could be very powerful as far as the man-machine relationship was concerned. The factory in which the film was shot was actually owned the grandfather of the film’s director Rahul Jain at some point in the past. I spent almost a month in that factory and recorded the sounds of all the machines from different perspectives. Everything was done in the post-production stage. It was the first Indian documentary to be mixed on Dolby Atmos.
Q: You have worked with Assam’s very own Rima Das in the film ‘Bulbul Can Sing’. How was it working in an Assamese film both professionally and personally?
Susmit Bob Nath: Personally, I believe cinema is beyond language. The story and how it is being said both creatively and technically makes all the difference. ‘Chauthi Koot’ is a Punjabi film. I have also worked in a Kannadiga film which unfortunately ran into some trouble and did not see the light of the day. ‘Bulbul Can Sing’ was my first Assamese film. In a way it was the symbolic union of Barak and Brahmaputra Valley. Rima is very talented. I mean the way she tells her stories, the way she gets performances out of her actors is amazing since most of them are non-actors. She is also someone who does not interfere much and it is an easy process t work with her. We have become really good friends and now she prefers to work with me. She is currently working on the sequel of ‘Village Rockstars’ and will be directing her first Hindi film. It looks like a long collaboration…hopefully.
Q: It has been seen that many actors and filmmakers from the Northeast are making their presence felt in films. What are your thoughts regarding this trend?
Susmit Bob Nath: It is good. There should be a lot of diversity in this field. Everyone has so much to say you can’t compartmentalise things in terms of regions. That is why I feel institutes such as FTII play an important role. These are the ones which are grooming people who do not come from affluent backgrounds. See whether we like it or not cinema is a bourgeois art. It is an art form of the rich or intelligent people. It is not easy to break into the fold. If I hadn’t studied in FTII, I would not have been where I am today.
Q: Anish John, an award-winning sound designer used to be a vocalist and a rhythm guitarist of a rock band when he was a student of St. Xavier’s College. You were also a part of a musical band during college days. Does it help in sound designing if you are a musician?
Susmit Bob Nath: It plays a huge role for sound people. Every film has its own rhythm, its own beat. If you have a background in music it helps in understanding that and you can lay your sound without breaking that rhythm. I must however add that music and films are two different things. So, you take inferences but you don’t replicate what you would do in a musical environment. By the way me and Anish were part of a band in FTII!