Ace cinematographer PC Sreeram is known for his remarkable body of films including his latest work, the visually grandiose and the quirky drama Shamitabh. The maestro talks about shooting these two distinct films and the treatment adopted for each of them.

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PC Sreeram on the sets of ‘I’

How did you treat a grand-scale film like I?

It is the first time that I’m doing a film with an elaborate and commercial canvas. Earlier I have worked on selective films such as Cheeni Kum that were not shot on this scale and were more about relationships. The story of I is visual; there is a paranormal kind of look because of the hunchback character — a dark area, a bright area, a local commercial area and a high-end commercial area. When the story includes shooting in so many areas, it becomes cinematic. With Vikram’s prosthetics and make up, I was able to take it to a different visual level.

What was the approach to shooting a performance-oriented film like Shamitabh?

I have treated Shamitabh in a realistic way. Balki and I discussed that we should shoot things as they are. I shot the Mumbai film studios in the rawest form because those are real spaces and not like picture postcards of the film industry. I wanted the film to look more like a documentary. Even in Igatpuri, everything is choreographed like a documentary and I shot it continuously to get a different feel. It wasn’t something I had planned. I took this route to tell the story because it suits the film. The visuals are represented through the storytelling. For instance, in the graveyard scene, the way they talk is more of a louder, angry language; it’s like a Shakespearean drama. When I had to portray showbiz, I took another approach and shot the song with Dhanush using many jimmy jibs. That’s the way cameras are fighting to get attention today. It was interesting and even Balki liked the idea to shoot in this manner.

Did you work with any references or sources of inspiration for Shamitabh or I?

The style evolves with the script as I shoot. My films should be a reference for others. We are living in a visual world, seeing too many things, reading, talking through our eyes, etc. So our eyes are overworked. Hence, for sometime, I’ve reduced the number of films I watch. Earlier, I would watch all of them. These days, everything looks like it has already been done. So my thought process was to see something that I have not seen and that is how I went about shooting.

The camera movements in Shamitabh seem to be more handheld and shaky. Please tell us the thought behind it.

The film had wide area to be covered. There are certain scenes that had to be more realistic such as theatre crowds. They couldn’t have a static look, as it doesn’t look right for the drama. It had to blend into the story. For example, when Akshara comes in the theatre the camera was handheld because if it would have been static, the progression of the story wouldn’t have had the same energy. I have consciously used lot of movements in the film, something that I haven’t done earlier.

I has controlled camera movements, possibly more use of a Steadicam. What factors determined the framing and movements?

The set ups in I were grand. So the camera movement was consciously done with the Steadicam. I designed the camera movements that were followed by the Steadicam operator to achieve the desired look.


Which cameras have you worked with for Shamitabh and I?

I was shot on film using ARRIFLEX 435 and ARRIFLEX 235. For Shamitabh, I used ARRI ALEXA. I’ve always shot on film. There was a time when everyone was shooting only on film. Even ads were shot on film, but no one thought that Kodak would shut shop so fast. The transition to digital was taking place simultaneously. The first schedule of Shamitabh was shot on film but then the labs closed. Film was available only in the open market and could not be trusted.

Please take us through the lighting design of Shamitabh.

I’ve worked with available light since I adopted a documentary style for shooting the film. We also shot a scene in the night (where the camera pans from the vanity van to the people sitting) using just available light. There were two songs in the film that I wanted to shoot as regular, Hindi film songs. One of them was Stereophonic Sanaata. My aim was for it to look like a typical Hindi film song. In the story, it’s a parody of how we have been doing the same story for hundreds of years. These days all the songs look the same. Although it was difficult to shoot a typical song, we couldn’t go away from it because then it wouldn’t look like a Hindi film song. We put in various lighting effects to create the mood of a typical song.

What lighting scheme did you adopt for I?

We have used an elaborate lighting scheme for I. I had to give it a sci-fi feel when they take Vikram and inject him. Then in the sequence where he’s abducting the girl, I had to go into low-key lighting and move into darkness. I deliberately brought in a lot of grey in the shots, to give it an extra paranormal feel; to show the world from the hunchback character’s point of view. For most of the shots with the hunchback, I felt that eye contact with camera was the best way to go. Agony has to look beautiful and if you light it any other way, it looks repulsive. For this film it couldn’t be repulsive because of the story. I felt that with the entire prosthetic make up, I needed more eye contact and softer light on the character’s face.

How was the association with director S.Shankar for I like?

I think Shankar approached me with a purpose. The film had prosthetics and a lot of commercials in it and he must’ve thought that I was best suited for the project. I was supposed to work with him on Indian and then on another film but both times, I couldn’t do it. I wanted to work with him for a long time. So this time, when he gave me the script, I directly said yes to the project.

You have worked with R. Balki since his first film. How was the experience during Shamitabh?

I’ve been working with Balki for a long time and our relationship continues to be the same. I met him during the shoot of a commercial where he was an agency person and I was shooting, so our relationship was distant. But slowly that relationship progressed and he asked me to shoot Cheeni Kum. His films focus on human relationships and we connect well with each other. We mutually wanted to work with each other and that is how Shamitabh also happened.