The Scariest Sounds In Hindi Cinema

What does blood spurting sound like? Or bones cracking and flesh being chewed? Bollywood sound designers and foley artists talk about crafting the sounds of horror movies
The Scariest Sounds In Hindi Cinema

What’s a horror movie without the unnerving creak of a door being opened with agonising slowness or a sudden, startling clap of thunder? Or even the disquieting, all-encompassing silence that precedes a jumpscare? The sounds of horror movies could range from the familiar and expected, such as the falling of rain and the rhythmic clack of approaching footsteps, but they could also be as specific as the squelch of flesh being devoured or the guttural sounds of a lurking creature. “People in the industry feel like horror stories need extra sound design,” said sound designer Anish John. “I get a lot of calls to do horror films. They think horror needs good sound design and so they’re willing to allocate bigger budgets towards the sound.”

Sound designers enter the picture at its post-production stage, rummaging through sound libraries for stock noises – crows cawing, glass shattering, crickets chirping – and collaborating with foley artists to envision wholly new ones. Foley artists then use props in a controlled studio environment to match the action happening onscreen. Rajendra Gupta of Aradhana Sound Studios describes his job as “sound acting”. “The first thing to look at is what attitude the character has – is he aggressive, emotional or sad?” he said. “Whatever your state of mind is reflects in your behaviour. So if the character is walking normally, you can’t create the effect of someone walking forcefully.”

Bollywood sound designers and foley artists break down the scary sounds of some recent horror movies:

Ghost Stories (2020)

“If you twist and jerk a watermelon in the right way, you’ll get the feel of flesh being cut into and blood oozing out. It sounds beautiful on the mic,” said foley artist Karan Arjun Singh. Fruits and vegetables were pummelled, bitten into and smashed so that he could create the sound effects for Dibakar Banerjee’s Ghost Stories short. In it, a man (Sukant Goel) arrives at a small town to discover that its inhabitants have begun turning into animalistic flesh-eating creatures. “We had to create the effect of flesh being chewed, for which we bit into watermelon. That’s the best element you can use to create the sound of blood too,” he added. To create a stabbing sound, he poked a knife into wood. Cabbages were punched to mimic the sounds of fists hitting flesh and frozen carrots were snapped in half to create the effect of bones being snapped.

For Zoya Akhtar’s short film in the anthology, in which a young nurse (Janhvi Kapoor) is assigned to care for an elderly woman (Surekha Sikri) in a desolate apartment, Singh’s first question was whether the flat was tiled, wooden or concrete. Since it was an old wooden house, he began accumulating the sounds of creaky doors and windows. For the scene in which the old woman drags herself across the floor with her colostomy bag trailing behind her, Singh dragged himself across a plank made of gypsum to create a scraping effect. The trick was to not pull himself across smoothly, but to pause every now and then to create the effect of exertion.

The sounds of creaky doors also played an important role in Karan Johar’s short, in which a woman (Mrunal Thakur) in an arranged marriage finds out that her husband (Avinash Tiwary) still talks to his grandmother who died 20 years ago. Also crucial were the sounds of children’s toys. “The guy and his grandmother would play peekaboo and so we tried to create the sounds of childhood games,” said sound designer Anish John. “We used the sounds of turn-key toys to create a spooky effect.” John also layered voices over each other to create the impression of spirits trapped within the old house.

“When I played it back for Karan, he got scared at a couple of places. He flinched and it was so funny because I thought, ‘Dude, you shot this!’.”

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Bhediya (2022)

Bhediya is a film that relies on heightened sound. Soon after developer Bhaskar Sharma (Varun Dhawan) is bitten by a werewolf, his sense of hearing becomes acute, turning everyday sounds into a cacophony. But there were times even sound designer Kunal Sharma had to admit he was overdoing it. Sharma’s first instinct was to use sound to convey emotion, and then layer it with noises that would create terkror – think teeth grinding or saliva dripping. “But we were exaggerating more than we needed to. We overdid the details and lost the essence of the wolf,” he said. “Sometimes keeping it simple lets it be more real, so while we were sound mixing, we were actually minus-ing noise and filtering out stuff we didn’t require.” Still, for the film’s big action sequence towards the end, in which the wolves fight the local police, Sharma had as many as 600 audio tracks, including the sounds of gunshots, wolves growling and people screaming, all mixed together.

When Sharma got the film at the edit stage, he initially used the sounds of lions, tigers and bears growling as a placeholder for the actual wolf sounds since the effects hadn’t been completed yet and he wasn’t sure what he’d be working with. He then began digging through sound libraries and accumulating the sounds of wolves snarling and growling, wanting each one to convey a specific emotion given that Bhaskar becomes a man trapped in a wolf’s body. He felt like he’d cracked the film’s sound when he sourced noises for its opening scene in which the legend of the bhediya is couched in the form of a bedtime story against the backdrop of thunder and the wind eerily whistling through caves.

Sharma also relied on well-placed silences to drum up fright, creating a lull before a riverside wolf attack and another scene in which Bhaskar, in wolf form, jumps atop a car his friends are driving. For that scene, foley artists in France recorded the sounds of footsteps on metal and windows being scratched at.

The toughest scene to set to sound was the werewolf transformation sequence, in which Bhaskar’s clothes rip, he painfully contorts himself as his bones rearrange and he begins clawing the floor with his newly grown nails. “We were just not getting it right,” said Sharma, who scoured libraries for the sounds of blood flowing, muscles straining and grunts of pain. For this scene, foley artist Theophile Collier squished oranges to mimic the sounds of blood spurting and broke celery stalks to achieve the effect of bones cracking. Eventually, the team had to add in Varun’s voice to fully convey how much the transformation was making Bhaskar suffer. “We dubbed with Varun for one session where we just made him scream and scream. He went on doing it and at a certain point, I had to say, ‘Stop, stop’ because he really looked like he was in pain.”

For most of the film, the bhediya is meant to sound like a werewolf or a fictional scary creature – his sound design is geared more towards frights. But towards the end, when the two wolves unite to save the forest, Sharma moved from fantastical to realistic, giving them the sounds of real wolves.

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Tumbbad (2018)

When sound designer Kunal Sharma was first offered Tumbbad, a dark fable about the corruptive, corrosive power of greed across generations, he wasn’t sure if he should accept. At that point, the film had been in the making for eight years. The sync sound was unusable because the insistent patter of the torrential rain had drowned out everything else. The young boys in the film had grown up and couldn’t dub for their characters because their voices had changed. Everything had to be done from scratch. “I saw it, I loved it, but I realised that there was a humongous amount of work to be done for it to land right,” he said. It took Sharma a month to say yes to the project, and a year-and-a-half to finish the film.

First, he and his team auditioned young boys who could dub for the children in the film. When they found Malhar, a boy who had never tried dubbing before, it took them two days to get him comfortable with a mic. Dubbing for the rest of the film took less than a week, during which they worked for two hours a day. “Malhar really came to life during the scene in which the dadi attacks Vinayak,” said Sharma. “He started playing around with his voice and tonality because he understood it quite well by then.” There was one more problem – Sohum Shah, who plays the adult Vinayak returning to the same hometown his mother fled from, did not sound Maharashtrian at all. His options were to either have someone dub over his lines or get a diction coach, which the actor did.

For the sounds of Hastar, a fallen God banished deep within the Earth’s womb, Sharma used the sound library Tonsturm to source zombie sounds, which he then layered with the sounds of ferocious animals like boars. Foley artist Rajendra Gupta was secretive about what materials he used to create the wet, squelchy sounds of the pulsating womb, but said it took a fair bit of invention. “In horror films, the sounds are usually hyperreal, or exaggerated to create an effect,” he said. “But for this scene, we had to make sure the wet surface sounded real. We could not use mud because it had to make a 'chuck-chuck' sound. So we created a wet surface with a combination of materials.” Some of his trial rounds included clothes and newspapers, which the foley team tested by wetting them first and then walking on them with their bare feet. For the scene in which Hastar devours an opium trader, they bit into various fruits to create the effect of bones snapping and blood seeping out.

Pari (2018)

Pari is a cornucopia of strange and unusual horror noises – the ‘click’ of a gold tooth being extracted from a mouth, the sizzle of burning flesh when an arm is branded with a hot iron, the crackle of a whip as it slices through the air before meeting skin. The easiest sound for foley artist Rajendra Gupta to create, however, was that of a neck breaking, a combination of a Bisleri bottle being twisted in just the right way and the stalks of spring onions being snapped, just to give it a more “fleshy” sound. For the sounds of food being devoured hungrily, Gupta and his team recorded themselves chewing cooked pieces of chicken. To create the effect of nails scratching concrete, he scratched the floor of his Andheri studio. “It’s painful but that’s what we do,” he said. The sound of burning flesh was achieved through the use of a hotplate.

Sound designer Anish John, who worked on the film for three months, approached it from the point of view of its sheltered protagonist, Rukhsana (Anuskha Sharma), the daughter of a demon. “Rukhsana is somebody who had been isolated for several years. So she’s a person of very few words,” he said. “The way she interprets environments is very different from you or I would. She sees and hears things a certain way, she’s more observant than the average person. We had to create all that through sound.”

To create the low, gravelly voice of the Ifrit, an evil djinn-like creature, he enlisted the help of an actor with gigantism who he’d worked with on the horror miniseries Ghoul. “He had a unique voice that was unlike any other voice I’d heard,” he said. “It was bass-y and it stayed with me.” John processed it further, adding a reverb to it to make it sound even more spooky.

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