The Sound Story Review: A documentary-type film that is let down by its over-the-top backstory
While the parts that employ the documentary format are excellent, the fictionalised elements fall prey to the pitfalls of overacting and poor writing
Just prior to the opening shot of this multilingual film (Oru Kadhai Sollatuma in Tamil), there are minutes worth of acknowledgements from the makers. Ranging from Mammootty to AR Rahman, the list of thanks extends to several stalwarts of Indian cinema. Which makes it rather clear that The Sound Story is a collaborative effort. Taking into account Pookutty’s impressive credentials over the years, it’s a given that the essence of Kerala’s ever-popular Thrissur Pooram festival is captured perfectly through its sound alone. And the cinematography, especially those frames that focus on the sheer scale of the Pooram, is quite fantastic. Technically speaking, The Sound Story checks all the right boxes.
One needn’t necessarily be a believer to evince interest in the spectacle that is the festival. Its history and the special place it holds in people’s hearts/minds are worth exploring, purely from an anthropological standpoint. What lets the film down is the fictionalised moments in between various aspects of the Pooram. Which begs the question - wouldn’t it have been wiser to go with a standard documentary format instead of pedalling a made-up story surrounding Pookutty’s brush with the festival? This narrative involves Resul being emotionally-blackmailed by a good friend living abroad to cover the Pooram for a rich businessman from Thrissur. The latter is apparently a big deal in local circles and has designs on using Pookutty’s attachment to the project for his commercial benefit. It’s the age-old tale of art versus commerce. Resul’s artistic integrity is put to the test when the producer sheds all pretence of ethics and attempts to boss him around citing the money he has invested in the film.
Director: Prasad Prabhakar
While there is much truth to the oft-repeated story of financiers making unreasonable demands, and auteurs, in turn, refusing to back down on their vision, the film presents a melodramatic portrayal of it. Resul is natural in his role, for the most part, but the caricatures of Joseph (the businessman/producer), the man’s insufferable cronies who hang on to his every word, and Resul’s manipulative friend pushing him to take up the project, are too masala-driven to be entirely believed. The only parts of the fictionalised narrative that work fine are the ones involving Resul’s frequent conversations with the visually-impaired musician attached to the Pooram documentary, and his exchanges with the agent who liaises between him and the producer.
The behind-the-scenes documentary footage of The Sound Story is to be savoured, though. Shot along the same principles as an informative video, these rushes have Resul interviewing a host of people associated with the festival. This has the power to pique your interest even if you aren't a believer or a Malayalee. The first interview Resul conducts is with a renowned high-priest, an adept percussionist who leads the famous drumbeat at the Pooram. The former is told that training begins as early as eight years of age. After capturing the rendition of a few familiar beats, Resul and the priest have a Q&A session, where the audience is given an understanding of the artists’ financial constraints.
The Kathakali section includes only close shots of heavily made-up dancers in their traditional attire and the resultant sounds emanating from rehearsals. The elephants are perhaps the most integral part of the festival, and Resul has pertinent questions for an expert. Sitting on one of the river banks while a temple elephant is being bathed, the documentarian is told that the animal has an extremely limited vision (which is only balanced by its heightened sense of hearing and smell). In a loud and crowded environment such as the Pooram, how are these noble elephants so calm, Resul asks? It’s not to be forgotten that they are heavily decorated with gold and other uncomfortable ornaments. The expert tells him that the elephant and the mahout share a co-dependent relationship, with the latter possessing but a small stick to discipline the animal if the need arises.
Other scenes that work are the ones involving Pookutty’s team and the coordination that goes into capturing the sheer magnitude of the Thrissur Pooram. The logistical challenges of a small group of people depicting a festival that has hundreds of thousands of frenetic devotees, cannot be stressed enough. These bits seem to be portrayed quite authentically, with Resul joking and motivating his members to keep their spirits up.
For the makers to be able to pull off four languages (Malayalam, Tamil, English, and a smattering of Hindi) almost simultaneously is something to be marvelled at as well. Perhaps the fictionalised story is not as effective because of the amateur acting. Take away Resul (whom I assume has quite an understanding of the trade because of his long association with cinema), and the supporting characters just don’t cut it. The additional cast (with the exception of the blind musician and the agent/middleman who liaises between the filmmaker and financier) relies on a high dose of melodrama to get by.
This masala-driven push that reduces the effectiveness of the overall theme can also be blamed on subpar writing. A documentary within a documentary (even if it employed the tenets of a mockumentary) would have been the way to go, in my opinion. A case can be made as to why Resul Pookutty did not undertake the direction and writing himself. But there's a good chance the film would have been far superior if he'd done so.