By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on April 25, 2016
In recent years, digital technology has had a significant impact on cinema, particularly on the production and reception of cinematic sound. Techniques such as location ‘sync’ recording and surround sound design has altered the spatial organization of film soundtracks thereby heralding the digital era of cinema. The quality of sound systems in theaters have also added multiple layers to our cinematic experience.
Today, more consideration is given to the authentic ‘sync’ sound effects and the elaborate design of location-specific ambience, alongside actors’ ‘live recorded’ performance in front of the camera. These practices have encouraged the creative and inventive application of sound in films.
Looking back in time, 4th of March, 1931, saw the release of India's first full length talkie Alam Ara at the Majestic Theatre, Mumbai (then, Bombay). The film was a period fantasy based on Joseph David's popular Parsee play and narrated a fairy tale. Directed by A.M. Irani, the film consisted of half a dozen songs & marked the end of silent films in India. Though it was considered a giant leap then, pioneering filmmakers like Dadasaheb Phalke amongst others, couldn't cope with it as they felt that silent films was a form of art and introduction of sound corrupted the art form.
The initial talkies could easily be called elaborate dance dramas. The stories were narrated not merely through dialogues but included elaborate songs as well. Madan Theatres' film Shirin Farhad, which released in 1931, had 18 songs. A year later when Indra Sabha released, it had 69 songs in it - another Madan Theatre production. As years passed by, song & dance routines became an integral part of Indian cinema.
Overtime, sound has come to dominate our cinema. Indian filmmakers are often accused of over--using exposition to make up for lack of cinematic ability.
Labour of Love is a film that goes against this strain of populist Indian cinema, narrating the tale of a couple struggling with their lives in recession hit Kolkata, without any dialogues or songs in the film. The entire film takes place within the span of a day & the film brings this day alive by a brilliant mix of enchanting visuals backed by some amazing sound design.
The couple’s orderly life, unruffled by the vagaries of their circumstances, forms the spine on which the narrative framework of the film is built. The couples separation means they connect via objects at home. This denies them a voice, and with it a character, thus making them mere stand-ins for every man and woman.
The sun sinks slowly in the sky; a close up shows rice tumbling into a container, water evaporating in a hot pan, calmly washing clothes, shopping for food, praying at the altar at home, sleeping, travelling, eating alone, carefully saving money. This deliberate pacing is designed to fuse into the slow, rhythmic flow of the couple’s lives.
The thing that stands out in the film is that the two characters never once speak to one another. There's no verbal communication between them. The filmmaker sporadically uses slogans, that act as an off screen voice to depict turbulency.
Music also forms an intrinsic part of the narrative. The film begins as well as ends with the music of the Shehnai, which points to the marital bonding between the two characters of the film (the instrument is popular in weddings & often used as an allegory for the marriage ceremony).
The film also uses the popular Bengali song, Tumi je amar, ogo tumi je amar, almost as the mid-point of the film when the husband is preparing to leave for work while the wife is getting ready to come home. The song beautifully contrasts the romantic bonding between the two of them and the lack of physicality in their relationship. Work is followed by home, and only in fantasy are they together.
For most of the film, the soundtrack is structured entirely around the ambient and the diegetic use of objects. There is a sharp contrast in the sound design of the film. The sharp noises of the city, comprising of the tram, the mammoth printing machines, packaging machines, the noise of the fish market, the crowd, the newscasters voice, the workers protest on the streets all meticulously blend with the delicate humdrum of the ceiling fan, the soap bubbles, the girl next door practicing music every morning, the water evaporating on the frying pan, fish frying, floor sweeping.
The absence of words, thus becomes a metaphor for understanding the films milieu, set in a metropolitan on the verge of transition, where the lack of spoken words is crucial in highlighting their mutual dependence & unique relationship.
Sound design is an often overlooked aspect of our cinema & a film like Labour of Love shows us the possibilities inherent in the medium, for filmmakers who are willing to try.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India. He was selected in 2007 for the Talent Campus organised by the Osian Film Festival. He's currently working as an independent film and video editor.