Scene And Heard

Screen + Sound + Stage

Text and videos by Zaral Shah

During the initial days of the lockdown, I found myself uncharacteristically oversleeping. It turns out that this was because my usual secondary “alarm” – the sound of the doorbell ringing thanks to the various people who would visit our home like clockwork each morning – had stopped. I slept on without realising that 7 a.m. had come and gone.

This lack of house bells and the sudden surge in birdsong brought up the other recent changes in my “surround sound” and how I unconsciously relied on them to add dimension to the happenings of my day. I began to acutely miss hearing the ambient noises of the office: the lightly buzzing compressor of the AC; the microwave beeps; the creak of the lift; and, most of all, the voices of my colleagues.

And as the days of confinement melt into months, with movies and streaming shows becoming my constant companions during a period of heightened feelings, I find myself wondering about how their auditory experiences fit into this framework. I cannot imagine a James Bond film, for instance, generating the same adrenaline rush without the roaring of supercars or the exciting strains of the theme song. And no one will deny that Amitabh Bachchan’s on-screen presence is enhanced by the megastar’s baritone. In contrast, how much of an effect would a film have if I were to only “listen” to it?

I decide to carry out a personal experiment and find out for myself….

Watching a film without audio or subtitles

Ad Astra (2019). It’s got Brad Pitt, a trip across the solar system and an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Mixing, and I’m about to watch it on mute. I’m a bit reassured when I think of early cinema, when silent films were the champions of the silver screen; it was the production design, cinematography, editing and the actors’ emphasised mannerisms and facial articulations that kept the audiences focused. These movies did, however, have recorded or live background scores for ambience and title cards or intertitles that flashed in between scenes to provide key plot developments and dialogue. Here, without any of those additional cues, I am all set to discover whether a picture truly is worth a thousand words….

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Twenty minutes in, I know that if I’m not paying attention at all times, then I’m going to understand very little. While there are moments when the actors’ faces clearly project their emotions, without auditory cues I have to wait for visual ones (like rapidly blinking lights that could be easily misconstrued as cause for pandemonium when they’re simply how the machines of the future function) to figure out where the story is headed. The absence of audio doesn’t bother me too much during the atmospheric scenes without significant plot development, in fact it’s almost meditative. But the pin-drop silence feels discomfiting during the action sequences; I watch with an almost troubling sense of stoicism as Pitt perilously falls through space.

At times, I tune out the outside noise and instinctually fill in the blanks with the more familiar sound effects, like that of doors opening and closing or an underground train. But, during the scenes driven by conversations, particularly with close-up shots and no background context, I can’t do the same. I miss out on even more details, and the birdsong, drilling, hammering and occasional phone ringing in Mumbai become the sounds of Neptune. It feels a bit like watching a movie with dubbed audio where the lip movements and dialogue are out of sync.

I recall a conversation with friends about how subtitles in films can be distracting when we already understand the language being spoken; however, it’s now obvious to me how critical they are in terms of accessibility. And though the chance of missing an integral auditory cue or part of a dialogue continues to exist, closed captions – designed with the hearing-impaired in mind – also include transcriptions of background sound, other audio effects and music and indicates distinction in speakers too. But on trying to find out more, I discover that it was only as recently as October 2019 that a fresh directive to introduce closed captioning and audio descriptions (primarily in theatres) was shared with the Central Bureau of Film Certification by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

For me, the silence doesn’t stop feeling unsettling, but it does turn out to be an enriching experience overall because I was compelled to catch the nuances I’d otherwise miss, such as lighting changes with the mood of each scene.

I must admit that I did rewatch the movie with the audio on to satisfy my curiosity, but what took me by surprise was realising how much more attentive I had been and how much fun the movie had proved to be the first time around.

Watching a movie without looking at the screen….

Isn’t It Romantic (2019). A rom-com with Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Anyone who’s seen their fair share of them can trace a pattern in how they’re likely to play out. It’s not my go-to genre, so when I come across a film about a woman whose worst nightmare is her life turning into a rom-com, I’m interested!

While narrowing my focus to how the two female characters – Natalie (Wilson) and Isabella Stone (Chopra Jonas) – are portrayed I set out to try and “watch” the entire film without looking at my screen for the next 90 minutes.

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I have a pretty good understanding of Natalie’s character and psyche early on. The movie opens with an older woman (I assume it’s her mother, and it sounds like they’re watching Pretty Woman [1990]) asking her to “look in the mirror”, adding that they’re “no Julia Roberts” and that no one would ever make a movie about girls like them “because it would be so sad”. Even if I didn’t already know that Wilson isn’t the typical Hollywood sample size, the fat-shaming I hear from a man within the first five minutes (“You’re built like a cement truck!”) makes it obvious. What she says as an adult then, comes as little surprise: “Like, super rich, like, super successful, a super-hunky guy. I’m just extra invisible to a guy like that….” Even at her workplace, she’s a pushover, and in the rom-com universe too often questions any attention or appreciation she receives. “I hit my head really hard, and I woke up in this alternate universe…. And things are supposed to be better, but it’s actually worse because people are treating me like I’m special…. And I’m not special!” The film’s constant need to have her react in shock at being complimented or seen as attractive is a jarring reflection of how unhealthy standards of beauty are still deeply embedded in global mainstream culture.

As I am sealing my impressions of Natalie, I hear a familiar voice – Chopra Jonas. In the spoof rom-com universe, the Indian actor plays an “exotic” yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. “That makes sense,” someone says when introduced to her. Later, she’s referred to as a “beautiful creature”, and grand notes and breezy, romantic violins accompany her on-screen. She’s the foil to Natalie’s bumbling, unsure persona. Isabella handles attention and compliments with the grace of someone who’s used to them, and her honeyed voice doesn’t ever falter.

Pitting women against each other as romantic rivals (Isabella gets engaged to the man that Natalie realises she’s in love with) is a long-standing tradition in rom-coms. “Don’t worry, everyone” Isabella snarks when Natalie rushes in to stop the wedding, “it’s, um…. She’s clearly out of breath and her mind.” So, even though Isn’t it Romantic’s goal was to expose the ridiculous gender stereotypes that we’re consistently fed by this genre, its one-dimensional representation of a plus-sized woman and intentional use of fatphobia for laughs end up adding to the problem, and I only had to hear it to believe it.

Watching a movie in a foreign language without subtitles….

Watching foreign films without dubbed audio or subtitles is an exercise people often undertake, usually to hone a language skill. And it works simply because the basic human instincts and emotions – anger, sadness, happiness – remain universal.

When I watch the Spanish dramedy Seventeen (about a troubled teenager who escapes from a juvenile detention centre) in this manner, the dialogue takes a backseat, and audio cues like voice pitch, modulation and tonalities and the highs and lows in the background score become my translators.

My understanding of Spanish is limited, so I try to catch decipherable or familiar words – abuela, muy bien, vamos – and make notes about what the characters “sound” like. For instance, a judge’s stern yet compassionate tone gives away that she is trying to get through to Héctor (the teen protagonist) while his own unagitated demeanour conveys how he seems to choose his battles regardless of his difficult circumstances.

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In spite of the language barrier, I am hooked, and I understand more than I had expected to. The most distinctive progression, for me, is the change in dynamic that I could gauge between Héctor and his older brother, Ismael. As their road trip progresses, so does their relationship. It begins with what seems like heated, exasperated dialogue and moves to moments of understanding, instances of intense discussions where the tones and expressions are less anger and more like concern. I could tell that they were beginning to recognise the other’s point of view and though they might not agree with everything the other said and did, there is an effectual movement in their understanding of each other.   But I do realise that there are sizeable gaps in information that I’m unable to fill, the main one being understanding the film’s name.

I finally had to watch it with subtitles to figure it out and learn that when Héctor runs away from the detention centre, less than two months before his release (to search for the shelter dog he had befriended when he learns it was adopted), it’s right before his 18th birthday. So, if he were to commit a crime and get caught, he would be tried as an adult.

But that wasn’t the only takeaway from watching the movie again. There were some moments of revelation – scenes which I was convinced were portraying a specific thing till I realised I had missed what was being said. And the movie did seem to get funnier too, as I registered the satire through the subtitles. And though I now found myself paying less attention to the audio, I did pick up some words in the track – mostly those which were repeated a few times through the film. The subtitles also divided my attention further – I moved from concentrating on facial expressions, tonality and familiar words, to just reading and watching. I wasn’t as reliant on picking up from the Spanish, and so I subconsciously focussed less on the dialogue that I was hearing and more on the written word. And I think that there was less “listening” the second time around, though there was a lot of learning!

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