Kerala-born cinematographer, Sanu Varghese believes in choosing projects that he can add value to. Over the past 12 years, he’s worked behind the camera on movies like Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Karthik calling Karthik, Vishwaroopam, David and Hasee Toh Phasee. Quite confident about how the movie is made, he is waiting for the release of his new project Wazir, which is a tale of two unlikely friends played by Amitabh Bachchan and Farhan Akhtar.

Pandolin spoke to this talented cinematographer who is quite magnanimous in giving credit to the team that worked with him on Wazir and how there is a great amount of mutual respect he shares with the director Bejoy Nambiar.

Sanu Varghese

Sanu Varghese

Tell us something about the preparation process that you went through for Wazir?

We mainly looked at the script before shooting to figure out where we should pitch the film in terms of drama because we figured that we couldn’t keep it too real. But there is a sense of naturalism in terms of sourcing that we had to maintain, to tell a convincing story. We had planned the colors and laid out a palette to use in terms of costume and art. Before we went on the set, we had a visual pattern of how the film should look.

What were the creative references you’ll had in mind?

I actually don’t believe in references that are cinematic. Whatever I do is on a subliminal level and I don’t have a clear reference for a certain film. Lighting wise, I always had my set of references, from painters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vernier more than anything else. I look at how those guys handled drama. For e.g. Caravaggio is somebody who is a theater, Tableaux director, who sat on a tableaux scene and lit it, painted it, instead of photographing it, which was non-existent in those days. I even look for references from a lot of young painters also. Of course I do study references from movies like Amy, American Beauty or Road to Perdition. So there are films that I keep going back to, to understand how cinematographers handled visuals in them.


Which locations and what factors were considered while looking for the locations?

We wanted locations to have a certain mood about them. For another movie, the same locations would not work because it would be a different mood altogether. And, Bejoy and I gel really well visually. He is very aware of the fact that he needs a certain kind of drama for storytelling and if that drama is not there, he would be the first guy to say that it’s not working. So we have a good sync at how we look at visuals.

How long did it take to finalize these locations?

We did about two-three months of scouting in Bombay and Delhi. I didn’t go for a recce earlier to Kashmir but that worked out the most beautifully for us because we wanted three different moods for whatever we had to shoot in Kashmir. By luck, we got all three exactly the way we wanted in the two-day shoot. The day we landed was a clear day and we shot in the evening as we wanted the overcast. That night it snowed heavily, so we were able to shoot all the snow scenes the next day. We also got a bit of snow in the shot, which we needed in the flashback scene.

Still from Wazir

Still from Wazir

Was there a demarcation in the colour palette for the action scenes versus the romantic scenes?

It’s broadly in the same pattern and mood. But, the way the action is treated is that we have moved the camera in ways that the speed is more, so that was shot in a different manner. But the overall mood of the film is coherent. This film is all about wider lenses and close-ups on 30-40 mm which is something I have never done before, except for David. So it’s an over pitched drama but not as dramatic as how Black is. It’s more real with a higher percentage of drama. The spoken language in the film is also more poetic; people are not talking in real lines. So you have to pitch it accordingly because if it’s too real, the visuals and content will not go together. Also, Bejoy’s storytelling is such that he tells it through the camera. It’s not something that you observe from outside, but he believes in telling the story cinematically through the way you shoot it. He actively tells a story from a director’s side. Very few directors do that. I’ve worked with Kamal Hassan and he also tells a story with the camera.


Talking about Bejoy, tell us how your association started with him and what is the kind of relationship that you share with him.

I am always keen to work with directors who have a very clear visual pattern when they want to tell a story. Otherwise there is not too much for me to do at the end of it. So, I like working with Bejoy for the simple fact that he has a very definite style of storytelling. Once I go into his scheme and even if he is going off the scheme, I will be the first to tell him that this doesn’t work because we are going off the pattern that you want to have. So, it’s an extremely collaborative process and based on mutual respect. We know each others’ spaces very well. That’s how an ideal Director-DoP relationship should be.

Which lenses were used and what was the camera set up like? Was it a multi-camera for the action sequences?

Basically, the package we had was Cooke S5i Prime lenses and Angenieux Optimo Zoom lenses. A Cooke S5i handles a lot of flare really well. We had a lot of places where we had a heavy patch of light in the frame and the bounce from that becomes your light. So to handle that flare of light, you really need that kind of lens. It’s a very sharp lens and is a tougher thing to handle for a lot of guys in my team, but that’s the equipment we needed to stick with. Also, we were shooting on Red Dragon. So, mostly there was a two camera set-up constantly. I have been trying to perfect the lighting for 360 degrees where you light a location once and don’t really go around lighting again. That is the way I am trying to work in most of my films. I am trying to liberate myself from my own lighting. So, multi-camera is also part of that deal because if you want to put two or three cameras in a scene, you have to light it in a way that things are not in the frame. I have a great team of guys who worked with me on this film including Reddy, who has been my associate for seven years. My team is multitasking all the time.

What was the lighting design adopted for the various scenes like? Elaborate on the sources of light you worked with.

In addition to direct sunlight I’ve mostly used bounces or light which we make with Kino tubes for larger light source. A majority of it is not conventional movie lighting. We’ve also used filaments and real bulbs. I am trying to move away from real lighting because when you light like that it doesn’t look real to me.

Making of Wazir

Making of Wazir

How did you go about capturing the action sequences? Was there any specific equipment used?

The running sequences were shot with a ‘stab head’ that stabilizes a shot to a great level. So we were able to shoot a 135 mm shot of a guy running without the camera shaking too much. It’s a beautiful piece of equipment. And we had Kumar Mohapatra, who is a fantastic operator, on the joystick of all these shots. He has also worked with me on Vishwaroopam. He is also a friend of Bejoy’s from Mani Ratnam days. We were using GFM (Grip Factory Munich) dollys and had Jaaved and Shankar who are exceptionally good dolly grips. These are the guys who know how to move, where to stop, understand the mood of the scene etc. I can never pull of a film on my own if not for my team.

How much of VFX has been used in the film?

The blasts were all shot, there is only 20-30% of enhancement in terms of VFX. But one thing which is very good is the way VFX was handled by Riva Animation. They have done a fantastic job. After Vishwaroopam, this has been my best experience of VFX. There is one scene in the film which was shot as a day scene but they painted it back into a night scene.

You’ve done various films which have high power action sequences. What is it that draws you towards such genres?

I actually enjoy shooting action for a simple reason that it makes me work like a sports person. I don’t believe in taking a wide shot to cover the action, instead, I move with the way the action is going. It’s the stuff I really love doing. If you have a good action director, shooting action is the greatest fun.


How was it working with Vidhu Vinod Chopra on the movie?

I had a great time working with him. We had similar tastes, I guess. He wanted to see things I had shot earlier, so I showed him some bits of David because I thought that it’s a closer reference to how Wazir should be shot. He was looking at a certain kind of consistency that a cinematographer would have. And he liked my work. He also kept on seeing what I was shooting because at the end of it a guy like Vidhu Vinod Chopra would never compromise on a DoP. If he didn’t like my work, he would have been the first one to bring a DoP from his side. If you see Munnabhai MBBS was shot by his friend Binod Pradhan but Rajkumar Hirani shot the rest of the films with C.K. Muraleedharan.

I think he liked my previous jobs so he got me in. He also came to see how the stuff is looking on the grading table. He appreciates a lot of things, which are things only I would know. It’s quite inspiring to work with people like that.

What are your upcoming projects?

I haven’t taken up anything as of now. I am getting back to advertising which has been my bread and butter for 15 years now. I want to do movies that make me proud when I look at my filmography. I practice my craft in advertising so that’s like writing a short story than a novel and I have a lot of fun doing it. I will keep doing that until I get something which I can make a difference to. One should be able to explore an area which one hasn’t done before. I will probably do a Tamil film if Kamal Hassan is starting a film and he calls me back.

Jointly produced by Rajkumar Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra and directed by Bejoy Nambiar, Wazir releases on 8th January, 2016.