Features, India

One-on-One With Sanal George

Sanal George is yet another sound engineer making his mark in Indian cinema. He is a double graduate of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, having done both the one-year TV course and the three-year film wing course in sound recording and sound engineering.  Sanal has done location sound and sound designing for a variety of feature films such as Walking With The Wind (2017) – for which he won the National Award for Best Sound Design – and Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) besides various shows on the OTT platforms like Mismatched (2020), Aranyak (2021) and The Broken News (2022) among others. Currently, he has just completed doing the sound design for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus, Heeramandi (2024), streaming now on Netflix. Dipankar Sarkar caught up with Sanal to trace his cinematic journey…

Do you recall your earliest memories of the cinema? What fascinated you about it when you began watching films?

To be honest, my earliest memories of  film viewing are rather vague. I remember just a few scenes here and there from the films of Mammootty or Mohanlal in Malayalam. But it all changed during my graduation days at Devagiri College in Calicut. One of my teachers, Mr Salil Verma, formed the Devagiri Film Club (DFC) and he suggested that I be its first President because I was already the Arts Club Secretary of the college. As part of the film club, we got to watch several films from all over the world. One such film I remember clearly was Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003). Watching it made me realize that cinema is not just about entertainment and that it could give you life-changing experiences as well. This was a turning point for me and I decided that I was going to be involved in the filmmaking process.

What motivated you to choose a career in Sound Design and Sound Engineering? Why did you choose to study at FTII?

Around the same time as I realized that I wanted to work in the film line, I got the chance to be involved in the video production of a local music album. While working on it, I found I wanted to be more a part of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Later, an opportunity to visit the recording and mixing studio of a television channel gave me the inclination to pursue sound engineering. And as far as FTII is concerned, it is one of the best film institutes in India and a lot of eminent film personalities in Kerala like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shaji N Karun, just to name two, have graduated from there. Naturally, it was my first choice and I was fortunate to get admission there.

What was the impact of FTII in your life?

The years I spent at FTII were not simply about studying the aural part of filmmaking. It was more about understanding films and their aesthetics. I feel that to become a film technician, you need to have a deep understanding of filmmaking as a whole. You need to understand the overall emotion and mood of the film and then use sound design to achieve those aspects, all of which occur over some time.

FTII also left an enduring mark on me through its distinctive educational approach. One notable aspect was the emphasis on revisiting certain films annually. For instance, when we watched Andrei Rublev (1966), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, in our first year, one grasped only a fraction of its depth. However, watching it again in subsequent years allowed for a deeper understanding to unfold, offering more insights into not just the film but also the intricacies of its creation. This iterative process enabled me to gauge my evolving comprehension of cinema and filmmaking—a vital aspect of film education.

In my view, comprehending cinema parallels understanding life itself. Moreover, the time spent on campus engaging with fellow students and esteemed faculty members coupled with extensive reading on cinema significantly enriched my development. FTII stands out as a sanctuary of artistic liberty within the country. Such liberty is indispensable for artists to explore their identities and carve out their unique creative paths.

Which films would you say made a major impact on you at FTII?

During my time at FTII, we had numerous film screenings, particularly of works by Tarkovsky, which left a profound imprint on me, both in terms of filmmaking and sound design. Films like Stalker (1979) have a completely different soundscape and are very beautifully done and still impress me though that it was made in a totally different era. When it comes to Indian filmmakers, I sincerely believe we have yet to produce a visionary on par with Satyajit Ray. As an ardent admirer of Ray, I’ve always held all his work in extremely high regard.

Regarding a specific example concerning sound design, one scene that stands out for me is from Amit Datta’s short film Kramasha (2007)  where Uday Chandra walks amidst trees swaying due to strong winds. Despite the apparent simplicity of the scene, the powerful sound effects create a powerful, immersive experience that ignites the viewer’s imagination. It was a revelation for me, underscoring the profound impact that effective sound design can have. It showed me that sometimes what you hear can evoke far more emotions and imagery than what you see on screen.

While studying at FTII, you were part of the Asian Film Academy (AFA) Fellowship in 2013 at the Busan International Film Festival, South Korea. Could you elaborate on your experience there?

At AFA, I got to meet several filmmakers from different parts of Asia at Busan. Several of them came from countries where the movie industry was not as robust as ours but they still made some brilliant films with their limited resources. At AFA, I learnt to strive for perfection while at the same time having fun. It was also quite enriching to learn about the South Korean culture, their food and their language, all of which was a great experience. I would say that AFA gave me several friends and some wonderful experiences.

Given that your first independent film Walking With The Wind (2017) was shot in Yangthang, situated at the foothills of the Himalayas, capturing location sound in this setup must have been challenging for you. How did you manage? How did you feel when the film won the National Award for Best Sound Design?

I would say it was a very challenging project although capturing sound from a location in Ladakh was not that difficult a task. It was a demanding process since the crew was mostly from Mumbai and we had to get acclimatized to the climate at Ladakh.  We shot the film at Yangthang village in Ladakh where we stayed in a tent and collected our drinking water from glaciers and the oxygen levels were low. At night, it got really cold and in the mornings, most of the crew used to wake up with nosebleeds. However, since I had already done a project at Ladakh before Walking With The Wind, and that too during winter, I was pretty much prepared for this film, which was shot in the summer.

Winning the National Film Award for a small film like Walking With The Wind was not at all something that I had expected. I was completely overwhelmed and extremely grateful for having been chosen for the award. At the same time, I have always had a cautious approach to awards since I believe that awards always do not brand or label you as the best. Instead, it is about you being at the right place and the right time and about getting noticed by the right kind of people. But yes, it has motivated me to do better work and inspired me to continuously aim for the the best. Of course, it’s incredibly fulfilling to be acknowledged that my contributions have enhanced the project, allowing it to resonate more deeply with the audience.

You have done both location sound and sound design. Which do you enjoy more and why?

I enjoy the sound designing part because it gives a wider spectrum to experiment with your creativity. It is not just what is connected to the visuals and there is no limit to creative freedom. You can create any kind of sound be it birds, wind, construction or traffic and incorporate it within the film to enhance the experience of the viewers.  That said, I also enjoy doing location mixing for projects, especially outdoor shoots.

What is the kind of relationship you look for with your director and the rest of the crew? And your department?

I seek a close working relationship with the director to understand his/her vision for the project. The key here is clear communication so that I can align my sound design to their creative vision. Collaboration with the rest of the crew be it producers, editors, cinematographers, and other department heads, is vital. I believe in actively participating in discussions and meetings to ensure that the sound design complements the work of other departments seamlessly. Getting to know your fellow crew members and building a strong connection with them can make work a more enjoyable and productive experience.

Within my department, I prioritize effective communication and teamwork. This involves coordinating with sound editors, mixers, foley artists, and other sound professionals to ensure that each aspect of the sound design process is executed smoothly and efficiently. Regular check-ins and brainstorming sessions help us stay aligned and address any challenges that may arise during the production process.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali is considered one of the foremost filmmakers of contemporary Indian cinema. What were your takeaways from working on Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)?

I consider Sanjay Sir to be like my second film school. I have learnt a lot from him not just in terms of filmmaking but even in sound design as well. I have discovered while working alongside him that absolute certainty about your goals is not a prerequisite. Embracing uncertainty and allowing intuition to guide your decisions can often lead to surprising and positive results. Should things not unfold as expected, there is still always the opportunity to refine and meticulously work through the details to achieve the highest quality outcome. I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with him in Gangubai and Heeramandi (2024).

Heeramandi, currently streaming on Netflix, has eight episodes each of about an hour’s duration. Could you elaborate on your experience on designing its soundscape? 

The process of creating Heeramandi‘s soundscape involved exhaustive research and experimentation to capture the essence of its period setting. Each sound was carefully selected and placed to enhance the storytelling experience. The intricacies of the sound effects edit and design were crucial in evoking the essence of the period, from the lively market scene to the hustle and bustle of the crowds, the clatter of buggies, and the rumble of cars in the background. We painstakingly recreated the sounds of jewelry, props, footsteps, and the rustle of actors’ attire, using the very items worn during filming. We also meticulously layered in sounds of horses galloping, fountains gushing, fires crackling, chandeliers tinkling and vintage cars and motorcycles rumbling. This creative and immersive process was both extremely challenging and engaging.

It has been more than a decade that you’ve been working as a professional. Can you talk about which of your works have given you the most satisfaction? Are there any particular scenes/sequences that stand out for you?

In Gangubai, the fight sequences between Karim Lala and Pathan, as well as Gangubai and Pathan, posed a distinct challenge. With over 70% of these sequences occurring offscreen, we leaned heavily on sound design to capture the intensity and action. Successfully bringing these sequences to life was both demanding and incredibly fulfilling. Another memorable sequence is from the series Aranyak (2021), where Angad ventures into the jungle and is surrounded by eerie animal and bird sounds until he encounters the panther. The crafting of these soundscapes to build suspense and atmosphere exemplifies the power of sound in storytelling. It remains one of my favourite projects due to its immersive nature and the collaborative effort invested in its creation.

In 2023, you were also one of those selected for the BAFTA Breakthrough programme from India. Tell us more about it.

BAFTA’s Breakthrough program is a year-long mentorship and networking opportunity designed to elevate and empower emerging talents in the creative fields. This exclusive program, available in the UK, US, and India, offers participants the chance to become a member of BAFTA and connect with industry professionals on a global scale. Through this program, filmmakers, producers, and other creatives have the chance to collaborate, learn, and grow in their careers. I view this program as a valuable stepping stone towards achieving my professional goals and expanding my network in the entertainment industry.

Lastly, would you say sound design has still not got the importance it deserves in our film industry? Or have things changed today? 

I should say that more people have started realizing that sound design is an extremely essential component of filmmaking and that it needs to be taken care of properly. The filmmakers, who understand that and are willing to spend more time and energy on it, can make better films.  Luckily, most of the directors whom I have worked with understand the power of sound and know its importance. Even in my latest film, Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Ulja Jiya (2024), we have added a lot of minute details  and worked extremely hard in the scenes that deal with Sifra’s voice malfunction. The producer, Dinesh Vijan, as well as the directors, Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sah, used to sit with me and we would discuss every minute detail for each and every scene in the film. I’m a firm believer that sound design can make or break a film and those who grasp its significance will craft better films both technically and qualitatively.

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