“Since there are lots of gray shades in the characters, the look of the film also starts getting lots of shades as the story progresses”, says Karthik Ganesh, the talented cinematographer who debuts with his upcoming release Aurangzeb. In his exclusive interview with Pandolin, this FTII alumnus tells us about his journey as a cinematographer from television to films, making of Aurangzeb and his experience working with director Atul Sabharwal and rest of the team.

Atul KG

Karthik Ganesh

How did your association with Yashraj films happen?

My association with Yashraj Films happened through Atul Sabharwal, the Director of Aurangzeb and it was for YRF TV. Atul once came to watch the Lensight Film Festival, which is the Diploma film screening of FTII, Pune in 2009. He happened to like my work in my diploma film “Raindrops on a tin roof”. After the customary exchanges he asked me whether I would like to be part of a long-term project, and that’s how the TV series Powder started.

How was your journey as a Cinematographer from TV Series Powder to your debut film Aurangzeb?

Well, its been pretty interesting because in a lot of ways Powder was very unlike the usual stuff one gets to see on Indian television. The approach was completely different and we were looking at shooting it like a film. The series was shot on Red One, probably one of the first TV series that was shot on Red One in India. So for us in spite of the medium, we were shooting a feature film in effect – only the total duration of the entire series was almost 20 hours as opposed to a feature, which is usually about 2 hours long.

So, in terms of approach and teamwork we were in sync already. However, the excitement, scale and scope of shooting a feature film on film itself is another thing. I can’t even explain what it means! The primary difference is the vastness of the canvas, but that apart one gets to realize the responsibility of shooting a film in every sense – YRF, great actors, lesser constraints, a great team – overall, a superb experience!

What was your principal approach and understanding as per your discussion with the Director while shooting this film?

After reading the script, the first thing that struck me was that this film has to have an old world charm to it. So somehow we had to get that, and the subsequent discussions with the director made me realize the importance of Gurgaon in the entire plot. Coming from Chennai, I have to admit that I didn’t have too much of an idea about Gurgaon. But Atul gave the entire team documentaries and material on Gurgaon to help us see where he was coming from.

So we spent quite some time in scouting for locations, which fitted our story in the best way possible. Be it the wild fields that are right in the middle of the city or the forests bordering the highways. You will find all of these in the film albeit subtly in the backdrop. So I guess to sum it up, the idea was to bring the old and the new into the same canvas – an interplay between retro and new imagery against the backdrop of a maddeningly nascent and futuristic space!


Since Aurangzeb is an Action thriller film, how did you create the overall look and feel for it? Also what were the camera techniques adopted?

Action thriller is just a way of categorizing the film. For me it’s a very intense film, with well etched out characters playing it out. The beautiful part about the film is that the various shades of the character keep revealing themselves as the film progresses. As there are a lot of gray shades in the characters, the look of the film also starts getting lots of shades while the story progresses.

Then there is haze, lots of haze in Gurgaon, and in the characters. It drove me away from having very sharp images in the film. In fact, we used an older set of lenses to shoot most parts of the film. Deciding to shoot on film was also very helpful in achieving a very organic look. My approach was also to keep it as natural as possible, so that the entire attention goes just towards the story.

Another very critical balance I had to maintain was between the characters and the locations. The locations itself played a very important character in the film. So getting the correct depth of field between the character and the locations became paramount. I wanted to focus on the characters while not losing the background altogether. After doing some tests my team and I decided to peg the exposures at around 2.8 or lesser depending on the situation to get an ideal depth of field. So whether its day exterior or night interior, the aperture was pegged at around 2.8 or less except when using a zoom lens, where again it was full open.

What camera equipment and lenses did you use while shooting?

Since it was a sync shoot, we used the ARRI 535 B as the main camera and ARRI 235 / 435 as our second camera, wherever we could use a second camera without affecting the sound recording. During action sequences we also used an additional ARRI 435 Extreme for slow motions.

The block lens set that I used was a Carl Zeiss Ultra Prime set consisting of 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 85mm and a 135mm. In addition to this, I used an Angenieux  25-250mm HR Zoom lens. After using a Optimo short zoom in the initial days of shoot, I decided against using a zoom lens as I felt it didn’t give the frames a feeling of compactness that was required for the film. Hence, major portion of the film was shot using these block lenses and out of these I found myself loving the 40mm and the 65 mm the most.

What kind of lighting design did you adopt for the film?

As mentioned earlier, we decided on a very natural look and feel for the film and this naturally included the lighting itself. More importantly, I felt, the presence / absence of light shouldn’t be felt until implied or if necessary. In lots of sequences I have mixed lights of different color temperature. Whether it’s the parking lot action sequence or Aryas house, where the practical lights are all tungsten but there is a very subtle blue fill throughout because of the gloom in the house, or in Ravikant’s office, where the desk area is warm but the surrounding area has a day light feel.

For the interiors we have used Kinos / baby’s / softys / chinese lanterns, depending on the situation. For example, we have used Kinos in Ravikant’s house, whereas we have used 1k baby’s bounced on a gold paper stuck on the ceiling to enhance the presence of yellow / gold in Ravikant’s office area.


Is there any particular sequence in the film that you considered most challenging and how did you overcome it?

I wouldn’t really call this the most challenging sequence in the film, but this certainly was one of the sequences where I was under immense pressure but ended up having lots of fun. There was this scene in Gurgaon, which had to be shot within two nights. But due to lack of time, we had to finish the entire scene in just one night. The scene talks about the ever-expanding city and so the background was very important. In the background, we had to light up at least three under construction buildings along with an under construction road and huge construction equipment’s and machinery. The foreground where the action happens was a balcony in Arya’s house. All this had to be ready by sun down, as we had to do a magic hour shot.

The problem was I couldn’t see the relative brightness of the background, the sky and the main characters in the foreground until the sun went down and in case I had to correct something, it just might get too late to take the shot. On top of this, my team had not yet settled down with the Delhi lighting team, because these were the initial days of shoot in Gurgaon. But thankfully the lighting team from Flamingo along with my team performed admirably and even the minor corrections with regard to the brightness levels were carried out with clockwork precision and we got our shots just as we wanted.

How would you describe your collaboration with Atul Sabharwal, the director of Aurangzeb considering it’s also his debut film? 

Having worked together on Powder both of us were clear on how each of us work. So there was a lot of understanding and comfort level between us. I had a rough idea about what he might want and was pretty clear on what he doesn’t want. Atul during the subsequent discussions explained how he sees the film, and he also showed some references to explain the mood that he wanted to create and the elements that he wanted. This really helped us during the shoot and both of us could keep pushing the boundaries to explore what might work and what might not.

How was it working with the Production Designer of the film?

It was a very enriching experience working with Mustafa Stationwala. The distance he would travel to get something that works for the film was just amazing. For example I was looking for a particular tint of film to be used for the glass doors in Yashwardan’s office. What I wanted was working out to be very expensive since 2 out of the 4 walls were plain glass, but Mustafa managed to find a vendor who could supply the same tint well within the budget. His attention to details was also splendid, be it the use of cacti in Yashwardan’s office or the use of miniatures in Ajay’s room. More importantly he could think on his feet. There was this situation where we realized that the wall color was not really working. Mustafa immediately made the walls darker without actually painting it and that really worked out well for the film. Needless to say, we both had to be in absolute sync to get the desired look for Aurangzeb and I am happy that it has worked out well.


Where all did you shoot the film?

The film has been shot extensively in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Nainital and some portions in Mumbai.

How many VFX shots have been employed in it? What was your technique of shooting it?

Being an action drama, we have quite a bit of VFX work in the film. But what was exciting and away from the ordinary was shooting for the double role. Here high levels of precision and discipline were required. Quite a few times we had to do stop blocks with at least an hour between the two shots, because of the time it took for two different make up and hair do’s for the double roles. We had to record all the camera details, like the lenses used, to the focusing distance, to the height of the camera from the ground, just about everything, in case we had to repeat a shot. It was a time consuming process but absolutely worth it. For the Chroma shots, we took great care in shooting the plates. The plates were shot using similar lensing, aperture and focusing points as the original shots. So invariably we had to shoot the same plate multiple times to ensure uniformity.

Where has the postproduction of the film happened and who all were in your team of gaffers, assistants and colorist?

The negative development was done at Kodak labs, the Print in Adlabs, the DI was done by Makrand Surte at Adlabs and VFX was taken care of by TATA Elxsi. My team consisted of Abhimanyu Dange, Shreya Gupta and Aditya. Akash Agrawal came in place of Abhimanyu for the last ten days. Sunny Devkar was my focus puller. Mangesh was the gaffer provided by YRF throughout the shoot, Anil was the gaffer from Visual Lights for the Mumbai sequence and Deepu for Flamingo Lights in Gurgaon. Hetal had come in as the gaffer for the song shoot in Mumbai.


Karthik’s shares his experience working with the actors of the film

Coming from Chennai, where there is a very strong local industry, there were very few Hindi films that I got to watch in theatres. Incidentally two of the earliest films I watched were Hero and Sagar. Honestly, I was star struck when I met Rishi ji and Jackie da for the first time. As the DOP of the film, I had the privilege of watching them perform from the best place possible, i.e. the camera. And I couldn’t have asked for more. What came through was the knowledge that they have accumulated over the years.

What I liked most about working with Arjun was that he is an actor who constantly works on improving himself and his energy is just infectious. He knows his dialogues inside out and that enables him to try out variations easily. He doesn’t stop until he gets it right and Atul being the perfectionist he just welcomed it.

There was this scene where during the take, Prithvi exactly knew what the frame would be and walked into the frame in such a manner that we got an interesting end frame. Though this scene didn’t make it to the final cut, what was amazing was the knowledge of lensing that Prithvi had. Personally I love unplanned things unfolding in front of the camera. These things make cinema the magic that it is.

It was brilliant watching Amrita Ma’am switch over from being all villainous during the filming and once it got over being her friendly self and reproaching me for not making her the filter coffee that I had promised her.

One of the scenes that are close to my heart is between Dipti Ma’am and Rishi ji. Dipti Ma’ams intensity and conviction in this scene is something that will stay with me.

I couldn’t believe that this was Sasha’s debut film. She was extremely comfortable in front of the camera. You can say that she has taken to acting like a fish takes to the water.

Apart from them, there was a whole bunch of younger actors like –  Sikander Kher, Swara Bhaskar, Kavi Shastri, Rasika Duggal, Sumit, who are not just superb performers but are great people to work with and great energy levels.