In Highway we have been faithful to the locations: Anil Mehta
National Award winning cinematographer Anil Mehta talks to Pandolin about his picturesque journey to uncharted territories for Highway.
Can you elaborate about your creative partnership with Imtiaz Ali?
Imtiaz and I got together on Rockstar for the first time. Rockstar was a good experience for both us. As a story it was different from his previous films like Love Aaj Kal, and from the cinematographer’s point of view it was going to inhabit very different spaces. The treatment he had in mind was not very conventional. It was spliced in time and was more about the boy’s interior journey; all those things interested me. Once the film was out I think Imtiaz realised that the finished film had achieved more than what was in his head at the start of the project.
I think, that probably gave him the confidence to approach me again for Highway. Imtiaz was originally to make a film with Ranbir Kapoor, which would happen only after a year. So he came up with Highway, but it was still not a fully written screenplay. It was an old idea; he was still grappling with it, trying to give it a new form. When he discussed the idea with me, I realised it was going to be a really interesting material. I was ready to do the film ten minutes into the narration.
What was the brief given to you by Imtiaz Ali about the look of the film? Did you go through any reference material?
Imtiaz is not that kind of director. I remember even during Rockstar he had told me ‘I don’t like giving references’. It fits perfectly with my view that the material should speak for itself. If he gives me something to read and that invokes a certain atmosphere, a certain mood and certain kind of texture, then that’s a great starting point. The next stage is when the locations start to come together, that gives the film a lot of character and I like to be totally invested in that process. With Highway, the location reccee was charted on a map; the journey that the abductors would take in the real world was where we would go to locate scenes. We were going to be faithful to the locations in a big way. So the visual language of the film was already being written.
So how did you go about determining the ‘look’ of the film?
I feel the look of the film is determined by a lot of factors. So while I am going with available light and handheld for most part of the film and the actor wears mascara and rouge, it’s going to be an unhappy marriage. Alia (Bhatt)’s attitude in the film is so in sync with our approach, her make-up, hair, costuming, performance all have such a real ring, likewise for Randeep (Hooda). All these things contribute in a big way to the look of the film. In a location based film one may argue the role and significance of the Production Designer. For me Sumit Basu’s contribution remains very significant. The TATA 407, which plays a big part in the first half of the film, was built from scratch. In the sense that a new vehicle was purchased for the shoot and every single detail on it comes from the design team. I try and stay firmly in the middle of all those conversations. These are things that go a long way in creating a cohesive ‘look’ for the film.
What camera did you use to shoot Highway?
For the first time I used a digital camera to do the principal photography. I used the Sony F 65 and a combination of Master and Ultra-Primes, nothing fancy, just a basic camera kit. The reason for going digital was more than one. We were going to be in remote areas so transporting, storing film stock, sending it back to the lab, getting regular reports was going to be a tricky affair. On all previous films, I was not happy to shoot digital, but with coming of Arri Alexa and Sony F65 cameras I feel the the Digital Image has come very close to having the filmic quality. Also, the world has gone digital in more ways than one. The entire distribution/exhibition chain is digital. All post even in ‘image-making’ is in the digital realm. I feel the ‘bend in the river is upon us. The waters are bound to be turbulent as we negotiate this turn’. If it is any indication; Dhoom 3 was released with around 4,000 prints globally, and in India not a single film print. All were digital deliveries. In a world like this I feel it is time to move on.
What was your approach for lighting for Highway?
Not just this film, it is pretty much my approach to all films, to try and keep it simple. I think this particular film needed a more direct approach. To stay more in immediate contact, just to be out there with the actors in the real spaces and landscapes and getting that right was the challenge. All the technical paraphernalia and fancy toys that go with a film shoot were not my requirement list. I prefer to travel light. I wanted the film to go into inaccessible places with minimal equipment. That’s how we played it.
When we were in interiors, night scenes in remote areas we made do with a portable genny and some household fixtures. For night exterior, I would push the scene to the threshold of twilight. Even to the naked eye it was dark but with these new cameras – they have high sensitivity – I could push them to the edge. There is a night landscape in the film, which is shot with available moonlight.
Tell us about the shooting locations?
The film starts in Delhi then moves to Haryana. The journey moves through Rajasthan, Punjab and then Himachal. In Himachal we did not pick the oft trodden Manali Rohtang circuit. Instead we went up towards Lahaul Spiti Valley. Have you heard of a town called Reckong Peo or Tabo or Kaza? These places are snow bound for most parts of the year, like Ladakh, but different. In Kaza the night temperatures would drop till -5 degrees Celsius. We travelled from -5 to 50 degree Celsius zones. Rajesh Tibrewal, one of Imtiaz’s early associates scouted these locations for us. He was also instrumental in giving the film its ‘Look’.
How long did the shooting schedule last?
We shot between 50 and 60 days, can’t remember exactly,
What were the major challenges you faced while shooting on locations for Highway?
I think challenge and film-making are synonyms. When we were in returning from Kaza, we had shot a small talkie scene on a snow clad mountain side. It started snowing in the middle of the day, dilemma was whether we should continue to shoot or wait till it stops snowing. For obvious reasons we continued filming through the snowing. It turned out that while we shot the dialog scene it continued snowing and stopped just as the scene got over. This could not have been written, timed or planned, it just happened. In Rajasthan we drove straight through a freak dust storm into overcast skies and shot through the drizzle for another short scene. We shot through rain, snow, bright sun, overcast, bitter-cold, oppressive heat, in the hope that something would hold it together in the end. My faith lay in my DI Colorist, Kiran Kumar from Prasad Lab.
Can you elaborate on the post-production process?
Now that post is totally digital, the time and effort spent on the grading process has gone up. I spent three-four weeks in Prasad lab, Mumbai, just finalising the picture. Grading in the Digital Suite is a scary experience. I sometimes feel paralysed by an excess of choice – too many variables, too many buttons, too much information. Again in an attempt to keep it simple, I try and go back to the memory of what I saw as I shot. I try and recreate that tonal and color balance. That takes a lot of work, somehow. We were in really spectacular locations, but we have not shot them for spectacle. We have shot them for the reality of the narrative.
What about VFX?
There is very little of it on the film. There is a day for night conversion which was done in VFX. And some clean-ups that’s it.
Could you briefly describe the workflow?
We shot Sony RAW 4K, the same files came to the Baselight Suite. We worked in P3 Color Space, wrote out the DCP in 2K XYZ. The VFX files went out as 16 bit EXR .
How do you think it’s turned out?
That’s for people to say. When you work on a project for more than 8-10 months you get sucked into it and lose perspective. You regain that perspective when people call back. About Highway, the promos have already created some talk of the way its ‘looking’, so for me if the simplicity becomes expressive, I will consider my job done.
By Rachana Parekh