(April 14, 2022) Kunal Rajan is of “sound” mind! What we mean is that he lets his imagination run riot on creating unique sound tracks. Be it gunfire, noisy drones, chopping whirrs of helicopters – they all converge with great effect in the spy thriller Vishwaroopam. That’s Kunal’s metier. His eerie sound effects in web series Fear Clinic chill the spine — the gifted sound designer’s supremely high-impact background score in Melody — a silent movie – lingers on. Straddling Kollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood with ease, the sound designer, sound producer and editor, Kunal Rajan, tells Global Indian, “Sound in western cinema is subtler compared to Indian cinema which is a bit over the top. Indian dialogues sound louder too, as Indians tend to speak a little louder than people from the west.”
Making sound matter
Rajan’s scratches, mixes and editing turn seemingly ordinary scenes into real experiences. The techie, who has worked on 150 films including 50 horror movies in a career spanning 15 years, continues to be on top of his game. His next is an untitled project with director Atlee under Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment – his first feature film in Hindi as a sound designer. It is slated for release in the second half of 2022.
For Kunal, sound was always intriguing. Growing up in Pondicherry, he was amazed by the surround sounds in a theatre. “My friends and I would discuss how good the sound system of a theatre was, and the sound effects in a movie,” recalls Kunal.
When he chanced upon sound design and sound mixing, he decided to pursue a career in it, enrolled for a bachelor’s in sound design in Chennai. Slowly, he transitioned to post-production sound in 2007. That was when he moved to Singapore, and to the US for an advanced course in sound design. “My love for cinema compelled me to join the industry. I was lucky to get opportunities to assist and shadow some experienced sound designers in Hollywood,” says the 37-year-old Indian sound engineer.
#JagameThandhiram finally out on Netflix! I did all the Sound Design from my living room during Covid… who knew everyone would be watching it in their living room on opening day!!!
So proud of this movie❤❤
— Kunal Rajan (@kunal_rajan) June 18, 2021
His experiences taught Kunal that styles in the west compared to India were extremely different – he them immersed himself into sound designing, recording, and production.
Working with stalwarts
“Vishwaroopam was my first collaboration with the amazing Kamal Haasan. It was the first Asian movie to be mixed in 11.1 Auro 3D sound format. We got over 15 theatres in Tamil Nadu to install 11.1 Auro 3D — which was an unforgettable experience,” smiles Kunal, who received huge appreciation for a seven minute-long battle sequence in the movie. With massive research on drones and different guns, it took form.
The enthusiastic Indian sound engineer has worked with directors like Jon M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, Now you See Me 2), F Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen). He most cherishes working with Indian legends like AR Rahman, Resul Pookutty, Vijay Sethupati, Atlee Kumar and Karthik Subbaraj.
The process of elevating a film
He likes his creative process to start at conception. “There are some projects where the sound designer is involved at an early stage. This is the ideal way,” feels the Los Angeles-based Kunal, who gets to read the script before they go into production. “I have an early discussion with the director about his or her vision for the film. We exchange ideas, and once filming is complete, I start work with my team,” informs Kunal, whose most renowned works also include Race to the Witch Mountain, Jonas Brothers 3D concert experience, The Last Hour, Fantastic Four, Ghajini, Endhiran, Thoongavanam among others. In the 2009 movie Blue, Kunal worked with Resul, while the music was by AR Rahman.
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The most challenging is to find the right sound for a film. “The right sounds have the power to elevate a film. Sometimes, we end up exaggerating a few sounds compared to reality to make a scene more exciting,” explains the Indian sound engineer whose team of editors and mixers are from the Indian film industry and Hollywood. “We have to create something new and memorable,” says Kunal, revealing that he probably has 50-60 versions of the sound effects before zeroing in on one.
His work in Mercury (2018) — a film with no dialogues won accolades. “It had only sound effects and music, a rare phenomenon. It was a dream project for a sound designer,” says a beaming Kunal, who is super elated at his upcoming Mahaan, directed by Karthik Subbarao. The Tamil film is likely to be released soon.
He lets us in on a secret – that all movies record live sync sound in the west compared to Indian films that are predominantly dubbed. “There is something special and natural about live sync,” he explains, though he admits that there is no right or wrong, “It’s just what you as a sound designer feels is best for a movie.”
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His personal favourites? “I enjoyed working on Fear Clinic, Uttama Villain and Vishwaroopam. Frankly, all my films are different, and special. However, I have been extremely lucky to be able to work with some of the finest Indian musicians,” smiles Kunal, describing working with his idol AR Rahman a dream come true. “Having grown up listening to his music, working with him has been truly unforgettable. Working with Anirudh on Petta was a memorable experience. Both Anirudh and I had less than three weeks during post-production of Petta,” says the recipient of best sound design award for Fear Clinic.