Madras Cafe is a mainstream film with an independent spirit – Kamaljeet Negi
[dropcap]”T[/dropcap]he whole strategy was to capture movements as they happened, to be inside the events that we were capturing,” says cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi about the making of the upcoming film Madras Cafe. He was the man behind the appealing yet realistic cinematography of Vicky Donor and is now all set to showcase his skilled camera work with this political thriller.
Kamaljeet speaks to Pandolin about his experience with this genre which is close to his heart, his collaboration with Shoojit Sircar, the organic treatment of the film, the challenges faced and much more.
After a light-hearted film like Vicky Donor what prompted you to take up a political thriller like Madras Cafe?
There was nothing like prompting because I had always felt that I would start my filmmaking career with a thriller as I felt close to that genre to start with. But Vicky Donor happened first and it was a very good move. The script was great and I was there at the right time. Shoojit and I have been working together on commercials since a long time. And one day he said that he wanted me to shoot his film and I agreed. In a way it becomes easy to move on in the process with the same person as you have been working together for a long time and you know the language they speak. Also the team is very important, it’s like a family and the other departments also know what you as a cinematographer can manage and do. So Madras Cafe was another step in this process.
What was the essential treatment towards the film?
I had my own way of seeing it and it so happened that Shoojit was also seeing it in the same way, so we were on the same wavelength. He had earlier done a thriller of sorts – Yahaan, it was not an out and out thriller but more of a romance set against the backdrop of a war. Madras Cafe is certainly different than Yahaan but Shoojit had the experience of shooting a war like situation with the army around and so on. We decided that the nature of the film had to be quite unnerving as well as pacy. Shoot wise also we wanted to be moving all the time with the camera doing its own moves.
[pullquote_left]For me I tried not to watch a lot of war films because then you tend to, consciously or unconsciously, emulate it. My fundamentals had to be strong rather than me going into something that I am not aware of.[/pullquote_left]
Normally I avoid a zoom lens but on this film we decided to shoot the entire film on a zoom lens. The whole strategy was to capture movements as they happened, to be inside the events that we were capturing. It was very instinctive for me to apply that for the shoot. And then from there on we built up little by little. I also had in mind, when and how the edit is going to work because Shekhar is one of the finest editors. It becomes slightly easier when you know the kind of edit pattern we are going to be in. Shekhar understands the scenes, looks at the footage and turns it into a film. It gives you the confidence to try things when you are working with people you know as it’s all about team work and collaboration.
What is the kind of research that you have done prior to starting the shoot?
Most of the research was meant for the production design. For me, I tried not to watch a lot of war films because then you tend to, consciously or unconsciously, emulate it. My fundamentals had to be strong rather than me going into something that I am not aware of. The other research, in terms of cameras, how we are going to do certain scenes and so on is something that is ongoing.
Also we were shooting digital for the first time, so we did do all the related study. I was quite confident of shooting with Alexa and Red Epic but at the same time I was missing film because I feel that the kind of imagery you capture with film is totally unbelievable. But for the kind of movie we were doing and the time and budget that we had, digital was the right choice. We tried various cameras but primarily shot on Alexa and used Red Epic for high speed shots. Since it is a thriller we were more into capturing the moments as against a drama, so Red Epic was quite useful.
How did you go about scouting for locations for the film? What locations have you’ll essentially shot in? What were the challenges of shooting on real locations?
We were looking at locations that were as close as possible to what Jaffna in Sri Lanka is. So the greenery, the aqua, the feel of the region, everything had to be appropriate and that we found in Kerala. We wanted to shoot in live locations where there were people because that has a different energy to it. The film is supposed to be set in the early and mid-nineties but we were not making a period film as far as the genre is concerned. But at the same time since we were talking about a period, we had to be close to it. We have tried our best to keep it neutral so that people don’t feel that it is present day.
While shooting, the locations have to be shooting-friendly as well. You can’t go and shoot in a place which is very close to what you want but there is no proper access, takes a long time to commute and so on. So we chose places that were accessible and things were easier. Shooting on real locations did make my life difficult because you have to capture the reality of that space and at the same time you have to maintain the kind of period you are talking about. It’s a little difficult shooting on such locations but it’s worth it because you can’t always have perfect situations and its upto the cinematographer to take up the challenge and get the best out of the situation we are in. That is my way of working. And Shoojit also has the same kind of personality wherein if we go to a place and the arrangements are not there we make up from what we have, adapt to it and move on.[pullquote_right]The film is supposed to be set in the early and mid-nineties but we were not making a period film as far as the genre is concerned. But at the same time since we were talking about a period, we had to be close to it. We have tried our best to keep it neutral.[/pullquote_right]
There were no sets constructed as such. We had to put up tents, make these camps etc. but they were on real locations in a forest in the periphery of Athirappilly or within Athirappilly. So whatever was built was within the limitations of nature. Most of the indoors were in Kochi where we had few bungalows and yards. While shooting in Delhi we went into a corporate house and made it into the RAW office. The whole filmmaking process is about creating a space into a believable space because we are taking people through an experience. The cabinet offices were done in a 5 star hotel in Delhi as we couldn’t shoot in the Parliament nor did we have budgets to create those kind of interiors.
You have shot on Alexa and Red Epic. What was your camera set up like? What are the kind of lenses and rigs you used in the film?
Primarily we used a single-camera setup for the initial weeks. Post that when we started shooting the action scenes we got the Red Epic which was then used along with the Alexa. We initially had a schedule of 60 days and we started feeling that it was very less for the kind of film we were making. Things are different on paper but when you start actually executing them, that is when you confront the reality. And the reality was that we were running short of time and hence we decided to have the Red Epic also running on the side. At times the second unit was running the Red Epic to get some footage while we did the principal photography. It was all done in an organic manner.
For lenses we used one big zoom (Optimo 24-290) and one short zoom of Optimo. There were times when we felt that the zoom lenses were not working because there were scenes that were static with very few movements. But it was an instinctive decision. I also feel that with the new generation, zooms have not been used so much. It’s quite an old technique, earlier people shot a lot in zoom, and it works really well.
I like to use very simple things while shooting. Most of the film is shot handheld and even on zoom lens. Sometimes to add energy to the images I would have the zoom on the tripod and just track around. We also used steadicam which I thought was required a lot of times. We also used the helicam which was made by the steadicam operator Nishant who was experimenting with the helicam at home. We were looking for something like that to do aerial photography and Nishant said that he could help. But he also said that he will not be able to use the helicam in high range which worked fine for me and we got the kind of footage we were looking at. We did use jib and other general stuff but nothing very complicated.
You’ll have recreated the civil war like situation in the film. Can you tell us about the elements involved in creating and shooting such a sequence? What kind of difficulties did you have to overcome? What was the lighting set up for this sequence like?
When we were shooting in Kerala it was very hot and humid. So our aim was to get done with the sequences in the morning or in the evening which would give us the right kind of lights to make those scenes look believable. For the action scenes we had help from the action director Manohar Verma and Shoojit himself was very involved in the action. It was all about making it happen there to capture it in a real way.
It is created in a very real sense, the kind of people we were using like the kind of actors who were doing stunts; we made sure that they didn’t look like stunt people. Sometimes the team had to train them and we also asked the NCC to help in getting the right posture, right movements etc. because the NCC kids are trained to shoot, learn the exercises etc. We also had people with an army background, NCC training etc. on the shoot, so it was all done under their guidance. Also Shoojit himself has seen all this in Yahaan so he would point out finer details like their look, how they should walk and other things. All these things have been combined to make it what it is in the film.
[pullquote_left]There were many scenes that we shot without letting people know that we were shooting while in old Kochi. We would just go there, place our actors, put on one bulb and that would light the scene.[/pullquote_left]
How have you used lights to depict and support various situations in the film? Tell us about your key sources of light.
I don’t like to overlight scenes unnecessarily and prefer shooting in available light. Production had provided me with a lighting kit but that was mainly for emergencies and when there was nothing available. So my deal with the director was that I would shoot till the time there is light. Plus in the forests we were not allowed to put lights or shoot post 6 or 7 pm.
Indoors we had to keep the locations lit but that too was done with a minimalist approach. My philosophy is to give actors more space to act but if it is not lit properly it will not be registered. We have to light according to the scene and the location. Sometimes I’ve just used bulbs, tube lights and other sources that were around. For example, when we were shooting on the streets, we would just put on a bulb in a shop and it would light the face, the cars passing by would light up in a certain way and these were my sources. We would also make our own cars run around so that we could catch light on the face at some point of time. There were many scenes that we shot without letting people know that we were shooting while in old Kochi. We would just go there, place our actors, put on one bulb and that would light the scene. So we lit it according to the demand of the scene and also depending on what would make it look real and beautiful. The loop of running cars with headlights provided light in the background and in the foreground we used a bulb.
There are scenes that have been shot in the sea as well. Please take us through the making of these scenes and the challenges you faced.
When we were going on sea, we had to be careful with the tides. We had two huge trawlers on which we shot a scene. With the trawlers it was not very difficult but it was very windy so it was difficult to get the sound right. Shooting one of the scenes where you have John sitting in a boat, as seen in the trailer, was quite risky. The boat was very small and it had me, Shoojit, John, my focus puller and two people running the boat. We went quite deep into the sea and the boat started rocking but I had to keep rolling. We made John sit in the center and it was scary for him too.
We shot once and came back to the shore and realized that there was some problem with the water having splashed on the lens. So we had to go back and it took some time to convince John but then he agreed; he’s quite adventurous in that sense. There was one instance when I stood up in the boat and was holding the camera when a huge wave just shook us and I fell on my knees. Luckily nothing happened to the camera as I always keep a harness below it during my handheld shots. We have also shot big trawlers from a small boat and shot a few things towards twilight which we managed quite well.
What was the thought process involved in the making of the songs like ‘Maula Sun Le Re’ and ‘Jaise Mile Ajnabi’?
The songs are not really in the film, they are for the film. Madras Cafe is not a very Bollywood film; the genre is very international in a sense. It doesn’t deal with your regular song and dance routine and there is no song which just pops up in the middle of a scene. This film is a mainstream film with an independent spirit. In Vicky Donor also the songs were incidental and though we had ‘Paani Da Rang’ which was lip-synced, it just fit in. But for this film we didn’t have any such thing in mind. Even when we were shooting I had no idea about making them into a montage of songs. It is incidental that the scenes are working for the song and that to quite well.
How have you treated and captured the action sequences in the film? Have the blasts and gun shots been done in reality or were they supported by VFX? What is the role of VFX in the film?
It is actually easier to capture those sequences because you get only one chance. So you have to set it right, see if everything is going to work fine which is where the stunt director brings in his team and expertise and finally go for it. The stunt crew has different kinds of tools to do these explosions. So they suggested a lot of things but Shoojit was very particular about the kind of explosions he wanted. For instance he said the he didn’t need a petrol bomb but a small dynamite bomb or something like that would work. There were explosions that we were not allowed to do in certain places so we had to be very careful about the kind of explosions we were doing and the kind of damages it could do to the location. We had to do things that were in legal limits and looked believable too.[pullquote_right]All the gunshots, blasts, everything is done in actuality. Since you cannot use real bullets in India to shoot a film we had to go to Bangkok and shot in a forest with real bullets using rifles, pistols, AK 56 etc., to give it that feel of reality.[/pullquote_right]
All the gunshots, blasts, everything is done in actuality. Since you cannot use real bullets in India to shoot a film we had to go to Bangkok and shot in a forest with real bullets using rifles, pistols, AK 56 etc., to give it that feel of reality. VFX effects do happen but they are also merged in. So it could be that the fire coming through the pistols wasn’t enough so we have enhanced it with VFX. I wouldn’t say that it is completely a VFX job but it is used to make it look better. The VFX is almost invisible and that is where its victory lies.
Which was the toughest scene to shoot in the entire film and why?
Every day was very tough to shoot. It was a tough film to shoot but exciting at the same time. We were doing things instinctively and not with our experiences because this is something that was new to us as well. Shoojit had a bit of experience but I did not and it was just our skills, understanding of the medium and our fundamentals that we worked with. So we knew how to use things and were also aware that it had to look good on screen or else it would not be liked by the audiences. The main thing was to be sensitive with the scenes and concentrate on the finer details.
How was the experience of shooting with the cast?
We were shooting on locations outside Mumbai and so the bonding was very easy. Nargis was very easy to get along with, she would crack jokes but while shooting she was totally focused and would also give her suggestions. With John initially it was like, here is John the celebrity, but at the end of the day he was very much like any other person in the crew. He kept narrating his experiences and that broke the ice. He was genuine and was there whenever we wanted him. Rashi too was very nice to work with, so overall it was a good experience.
Where did the post production of Madras Cafe happen? Who was your team?
The editing is done by Shekhar Prajapati. The DI and VFX is done at Prasad Labs. My colorist was Kiran Kota. I would like to also mention and thank Shoojit who has operated the second camera at many places. Other than that, my team included two steadicam operators, one in Cochin and one in Hyderabad. The steadicam operator from Delhi was Nishant Purohit whom I have worked with on Vicky Donor as well. My second unit photography was done by Milind Jog. My associate who also did a lot of the additional photography and helped me with the lighting was Sushil Gautam who was again with me on Vicky Donor. My lights down south were from Fox Lights – Mumbai. In Delhi and Kausali we had lights from Flamingo. We had a fantastic line producer in Bangkok called Priscillia who arranged everything during our shoot there.