Tovino Thomas starrer Kala, a man VS wild home invasion thriller, released theatrically across India on March 25th, a Thursday. The film's print needed to be ready by noon the Monday before, to be shipped off to the various cities. That Monday morning, Dawn Vincent, in charge of the soundscape and background score of the film, was still tinkering with the final cut of the fight sequences, layering and editing over 500 tracks.
Everything about the film — from its conception and production during the lockdown, to its post-production as the country was opening up — was boiling over towards release at a breakneck speed. This was understandable because even in March when the theaters were opening up, there was a sense of the looming second wave of the Coronavirus shutting down communal theatrical experiences. Vincent, in a conversation with us, noted that as the release date was nearing, he and his team would work 48-50 hours at a stretch without sleep.
The Malayalam film, shot in and around a house in Kerala surrounded by an areca nut plantation, is a lush audio-visual spectacle. The sound design is an integral reason for the film's rave reception, creating an atmosphere that, like a taut thread, always feels on the verge of snapping. And it snaps often, to tighten up again, and again.
It is also extremely immersive, giving as much screen-time to the smaller animals — the rabbits, the snake, the grasshopper, the udumbu (monitor lizard) — and smaller acts — lighting up a stove with a gas lighter, walking up the stairs, mixing milk with Horlicks, blowing cigarette smoke, etc. Vincent — who was in charge of both the music and sound design and thus had entire control over the soundscape of the film — breaks down some of these sounds and music choices, and how he was able to create a lived-in world that is as palpable, as it is haunting.
Before Kala even began production, the director Rohith VS asked Vincent to cook up 3-4 tracks to get the vibe of the film. Rohith used them during the shoot to time and choreograph the action sequences. For example, the scene where the workers are coming in intercut with Thomas' character making love to his wife, was choreographed to the synth and percussion track Vincent composed beforehand, "We understood the genre before we even went into shooting. The cuts and movements were also very well described in the script… In the final cut, I just had to extend the track a bit according to the visual timing."
Even the ending track — from when Sumesh Moor's character looks into the eyes of the dog till Tovino Thomas' character is at the foot of the stairs — was worked on before the shooting, only extended in post-production, "I just had to tone down what I composed before the shoot because it was too loud for me. Already there is so much in the visuals, I need not do too much with the music, otherwise it will be too overpowering."
Kala was supposed to be a sync-sound film, but due to budget, time and COVID-19 constraints which restrict the number of people on a set, it wasn't possible. Vincent and his team, instead, tried to recreate the sounds of the set in a foley studio. "Foley artists from Chennai were literally fighting inside the studio to create that sound — wrapping a wooden piece with cloth and hitting. If you are hitting a pillow, you won't feel that hardness. We also bought meat from the market, and hit it to make the sound of flesh. Inside the dubbing booth also, the actors were literally performing."
He was very clear that since the perspective keeps changing in the film, the sound design too had to change according to who the focus is on. If the close-up is on Tovino's face, the sounds you hear are the sounds he is hearing at that time — the workers in the field, the animals in the background, or the person on the other side of a call.
Since the film is lush with fauna, Vincent gave the animals a distinct sonic presence, creating footstep sounds in the foley studio using dry leaves and barks by flapping them around. The tik-tik-tik for example came from rattling a small metal piece.
Where he had to be more creative was with the fight sequences. Sumesh Moor and Tovino Thomas chase each other across the plantation and finally into the house. They fight on all possible surfaces — dry mud, wet mud, inside water, on the surface, on the banks. Each required Vincent to produce a distinctive sound. "The wetness once the rain comes is unique. We got wet leaves into the studio and walked on them. For the mud sound we used dosa and idli batter. If you move your hand on that, the hard liquid sound can be heard. If you have clothes being dipped in it you get the sound texture of clothes on mud. The main difficulty was to get these things during the lockdown because of the 100 regulations that were in place."
The underwater sequences required a different method because underwater you cannot hear the impact of hitting anyone. Vincent worked with sounds produced near the surface of the water — bubbles, ripples — by creating them in a water pit in the folio studio, and layered it with the sound of movement under water.
After the shoot I went to the location and spent a couple of days there so I could record the exact sounds of the same doors, the way the metal gate creaks, noises inside the house, glasses that break. I literally broke things inside that same house.
He also paid special attention to the crackle of the cigarette which the visuals place front and center — focusing on strings of tobacco turning to ash, "I found out that during the 90s the cigarettes did not have filters, so they burned harder. Nowadays the cigarette doesn't make that noise, because the filter doesn't allow air to pass through that much. So, we had to layer that, by burning small dark leaves with sounds of burning specific brands of cigarettes that creates this sound… I don't know the name. You see, I don't smoke."
As noted by Vincent there is a lot of layering in the sound design, with a permutation and combination of different tracks to figure out the optimum sound. Understandably, these layers can get out of hand. "The last fight after the black pepper bag burst was the most layered sequence of the film — glass breaking, debris, clothes rustling, footsteps, etc. There is also music there, which in various points you cannot say if it is music or sound. We probably used 500 tracks to layer it, including dialogues. At one point the system we were working with couldn't even support the number of tracks we had."
While the sounds you hear make up the predominant impression of the film as immersive, I think what Vincent did with sounds you don't hear, or at least at first don't notice, are also instrumental in bringing the visuals to life.
"After the shoot I went to the location and spent a couple of days there so I could record the exact sounds of the same doors, the way the metal gate creaks — which is also like a character, opening and closing loudly — the stones, noises inside the house, glasses that break. I literally broke things inside that same house. All the plates, jugs, shelves, the sound of windows being closed from inside and outside, chairs being dragged, the table, the clock, people shouting and singing songs from the next house. I recorded the ambience of the place every morning, afternoon, and evening. How the wind blows, for example. In the morning and evening it is different. The same with crickets, the morning crickets and afternoon crickets don't sound the same."
He used these sounds to prop up the film's reality even if the sounds are non-diegetic i.e. are not coming from on-screen action. For example, there is a scene in the movie where Vidya (Divya Pillai) walks in on her husband and brother speaking, and then goes off screen while they continue their conversation. While the camera stays with the men, Vincent's audio continues to follow her, "The steps when she goes up… I had one of my friends climb the stairs to go up, close the door and come back. It's not there in the visuals, but if you notice carefully you can hear her go up and close the door and come back."
There is almost a mathematical precision with some of the detailing. A jeep's horn at a distance is muffled, and a jeep's horn at a distance during the rain is more muffled, because the rainwater would get into the horn of the jeep. "My cameraman said he couldn't even hear the horn. But it's there! I wanted to have the muffled on-and-off thing, because water is there. Once the shot is closer to the jeep we have a louder sound. The location had a road behind, so we wanted to show the jeep coming, coming, coming, coming."
For such an intensely rooted film, scored with horns, percussion, and synths, the sudden burst of an English country song at the end strummed on a guitar was not just an odd but a risky choice. Vincent and Rohith were in two minds wondering if a safe Malayalam song would work just as fine, but finally decided to roll the dice.
"There is a graph for the film. In the first 40 minutes, there is an intense build-up. Then again, once he finds out about Moor, there is a build-up. Towards the end, once the black pepper is destroyed, the tension is again increasing. At the very end, however, we wanted to bring the tension down, coming back to the perspective of Moor's character. That is why the song is about him, that he will be home."
About the sudden use of the guitar in an English song in a rural Kerala setup, Vincent notes both the need to sound distinct, but also slips in his influences and references, "Yes, the setting is rural, and green Kerala. If we used a Malayalam song, it would have felt normal. In Hollywood Westerns, towards the end of all the violence there is a country song that is usually played. That is the kind of approach we wanted."