Behind The Lens With Aseem Mishra
Post Bajrangi Bhaijaan and now Phantom, noted Cinematographer Aseem Mishra talks about the intricacies of his work, his approach to filming and the view through his lens.
Are you happy with how Phantom has been received?
Yes. I am quite happy with the way Phantom has been received. According to me, Phantom is a really well made film. I’m not talking business-wise but as a film. Working on Phantom was a really enriching experience.
There is a clear – “Hum log” / “woh log” … Us and Them… in the light of policy strains between the two countries. Do you find any sense in the ban on the film in Pakistan?
I think politics and creativity should not be mixed with each other. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ has been created by politicians and not by people like us. Bajrangi Bhaijaan was loved by both countries equally. And mind you; Phantom is not Anti-Pakistan or even against the people of Pakistan. It’s a fictional story on the lines of a rhetorical question – “what if” – based on Hussain Zaidi ‘s “The Mumbai Avengers.”
Did you shoot through Blocks or Zoom? Which lens was most used in Phantom?
I chose to shoot the entire film with the Optimo zoom 24 to 290 mm. Somehow, I love that lens. Also because we were shooting a lot of action, I wanted to give it a documentary feel. For instance, if you notice the action scenes which we shot in Beirut or even the car chase sequence in the Pakistan section which we created in Malerkotla (Punjab), this lens gives me lot of flexibility in terms of composing a frame and also helps save time in terms of changing the lenses etc. So for a film like Phantom the Optimo Zoom was my first choice.
To a lay person’s eye it looked like toned down colors. What was the particular grading used for the film? Why?
I won’t say it was toned down. I selected a certain tone for the overall film and also location-wise tonal gradations in the film. Like the opening with the Chicago chase sequence, the oval cricket ground, the pre-interval scene etc. had the real skin tone and a good amount of colors. That’s how it was shot. Meanwhile, in the prison scenes I gave a little cooler tone. The Beirut/ Syria scenes had a bit of a greenish warm feel.
All the choices in grading the film was inspired by the surrounding colour scheme of the environment where we shot. Much before one has started shooting the film, the tone, texture and colour scheme of the film are decided. But when you shoot at real locations, you tend to get inspired with the visual tonality of the place. But for me, it largely works on a very subconscious level.
If given a chance, what would you redo in Phantom?
Nothing. In my opinion; Phantom is a complete film visually and also content-wise. It’s possible that people didn’t connect to the film as much as they did to Bajrangi Bhaijaan. But on the whole, Phantom is a complete film. There’s no doubt about it.
You have used different visual treatments in Phantom and Bajrangi Bhaijan. Does the budget have anything to do with the choice of the treatment?
Yes and no. When you are shooting in places like Vancouver, London, Beirut your budgets are going to go up as compared to shooting a film in India. For the DOP, treatment wise, a lot depends on the choice of lensing. There’s no point going to Kashmir and shooting with a telephoto lens! You will have to take some wide spectacular frames which also justify the scenes being shot. For example, the opening shots of the mountains in Kashmir in Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
How did you shoot the bomb blast scene where the face contorts and and the cigarette flies from the mouth?
That scene was shot on Phantom on 1000 frames per second. We shot that scene in the studio where we had a controlled lighting situation. A bit of cable rigging was done by the action team. Also a pressurized wind machine was used. So the very high air pressure wind hits his face and in slow motion makes it look distorted. That’s how we achieved the effect.
Shooting in Kashmir has witnessed a rise in recent years. What do you think about it? What was your experience of shooting in Kashmir?
We shot both Phantom and Bajrangi Bhaijaan in Kashmir. Actually if you see earlier Hindi films, a lot of them were filmed in Kashmir. We stopped shooting there after the militancy started around say 1988 or 89. Now that that’s changed, we have started shooting in Kashmir a lot. Kashmir is beautiful.
For Phantom we shot in Gulmarg in waist deep snow in the peak of winters! And In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, we shot in Sonmarg… again in the snow! It was a fantastic experience shooting in Kashmir. The local production was excellent. We got a lot of help from the police. This is also the first time that Salman Khan was shooting in Kashmir. And people in Kashmir absolutely love him. They all welcomed him with open arms. The crowd was extremely patient and disciplined. However while shooting the climax scene of Bajrangi Bhaijaan I had a few lighting issues. The weather was extremely unpredictable; sometimes cloudy, sometimes it would snow, sometimes it would be the harshest mountain light. So it was difficult matching the light in that big climax scene. Otherwise I had no problems as far as shooting in Kashmir was concerned. In all, it was a great experience!
What was the most challenging part of shooting Phantom?
I don’t consider anything challenging as long as one enjoys one’s work. And I absolutely love my job! In fact ‘Interesting’ is a better word. I still find a lot of things amusing and surprising on the sets. There were a lot of interesting moments while shooting Phantom. For instance; we were shooting a refugee camp setup close to the Syrian border. Suddenly, we saw two Israeli fighter aircrafts circling over our heads. The local production told us that they wanted to make sure it’s a shooting crew and not some other suspicious activities happening along the border.
I also loved shooting in Khandak-al-ghami in downtown Beirut. It had such lovely warm people. But it was a shia militia stronghold. And they are the ones who supplied us the guns! Real working guns! – Without bullets of course! Once while shooting an action sequence in downtown Beirut, we heard a gun-shot coming from a roof top. First we thought it was our own actions guys and continued with our work. But within seconds, we heard hundreds of rounds being fired. Reason? Their leader was speaking on the television. So yes, quite a few interesting situations while shooting Phantom. (Smiles)
How did you approach the sea and submarine sequence?
The sea and the submarine sequence were a mixture of real and CG shots. The underwater shots were done in a huge navy safety training institute pool. The interior of the submarine was a set created by Production Designer Rajat Poddar. And the CG of the submarine was done by Prime Focus. I think Keith and his team did a brilliant job at that.
How much pre-production do you do before starting on a film?
I make sure I am involved in most of the pre-production processes be it script reading sessions or location scouting. After all that is done, I sit with my assistants who have been working together with me since my last twelve films. We sit together and I take them through the script. I make the lighting design with my first AC Anil Gaekwad. And then we do another meeting where I involve my gaffer for the film and explain the lighting requirements to him. On every day of the shoot, after the pack up, we meet briefly on location and recheck the lighting placements according to the light design.
How much would you say is your cinematography affected by the amount of things in the frame, which can be handled or solved at the post production stage?
I would say not much. I am still very pure in my approach. I am also not a very DI heavy person. I do as much as possible on location. In fact I don’t touch my compositions or lighting at the DI stage. However, It also depends upon the kind of film that you’re doing. For example Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a very simple story. So I kept the feel tone and mood of the film real. Whereas Phantom was much more location driven, where I gave a very subtle tone to each country inspired by the visual tones of the locations.
What is the new ground you are waiting to break in your field of Art?
I am always looking for good scripts. I go by the feel of the script. For me script is everything. Be it Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Phantom, Band Baajaa Baarat or Paan Singh Tomar. Since I come from the Umatic low band days I’m always willing to experiment with the medium. As Marshall McLuhan said – The medium is the message!