Konkana Sensharma’s directorial debut ‘A Death in the Gunj’ is a tale set in McCluskieganj (Jharkhand) in the late 70s. The film based in the era of raw stock has been recreated on digital by noted cinematographer Sirsha Ray. Pandolin speaks with Ray to understand his approach for this project.

Sirsha Ray

Cinematographer Sirsha Ray

How did your association with Konkana Sensharma happen? How different was it working with a debutante actor-director?

My association with Konkana goes back a long way. The first film that she acted in was shot by me, that’s about seventeen years back! After that, I worked with her a number of times in Bengali films. I have also shot her mother, Aparna Sen’s last three films. So Konkana and I are well-acquainted with each other.

It is needless to say that she’s one of the finest actresses of the country. I’ve always known her to be very inquisitive about all aspects of filmmaking. I think this came naturally to her since her mother was also an actress before becoming a director of such stature. The story of the film is also related to her family. It was written by her father Mukul (Sharma). The narrative was so close to her that it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it was completely inside her. She knew what she wanted. Since we have worked together in so many films in the past, so we already had an understanding. I never felt that I was working with a debutante director. And we gelled quite well.

Read: Cast Chat – A Death in the Gunj

What went into the research and prep for this film?

Firstly, it’s a film based in 1979. I remember a bit of McCluskieganj of 1979. Being a Bengali, I was already aware of the place as time and again it has been referred to in various Bangla literature. It is close to Bengal and has a British aura. Many Bengalis have their houses there. I already had a certain level of romanticism for the place. But it was during the recce that I went to the place for the first time.

When we went there, we found exactly what the script was about. Although, the place is completely dilapidated now, but still there was a relief that after a few minor changes we could achieve the desired image. We had found our skeleton and had to just build upon it.

I’ve always known Konkana to be very inquisitive about all aspects of filmmaking

The film is set in 1979 and the house shown has a colonial feel to it, apart from the production design, how did you achieve it through camera work?

I’ve shot more than fifty films. Over the years I have developed a particular style of lighting. It is mostly naturalistic as I believe that less is more. It is the most beautiful thing. I have refrained from using huge set of lights. We kept in mind the amount of power cuts the place would have had back then, so there wouldn’t be many sources of light. I have tried to keep this feel intact.

Most of the times my focus was on ‘Not lighting’ rather than ‘Lighting’. I have let the backgrounds gradually go dark and blend into blackness. For the interiors, I have used oil lamps and candles. A number of scenes are just lit with candles. I have tried to achieve the scheme without lighting and tried to be as naturalistic as possible. To the extent of keeping the image as real as we see through a naked eye.

READ: As a cinematographer you have to serve the story- Aseem Bajaj

A Death in the Gunj

A Death in the Gunj shot in McCluskieganj 

Though the lighting was minimal, what did your lighting equipment comprise of?

I had two big lights with me – one 18K light and one mole beam. Apart from that I had 2-3 kino flos, some Chinese lanterns and different types of fabrics such as silk and muslin. I had a few drum lights which were used mainly for the night sequences. It was not a huge lighting setup that we were carrying. One of the scenes, which was a candle-lit sequence was shot using a 500 photoflood. It has come out very natural and feels as though only candles were used. Through the film I have used a lot of practicals (lights that are props) for illumination as well for achieving desired contrast.

READ: My lensing and lighting was a reaction to the performances: Avinash

And what was your lighting scheme?

Except for a jungle sequence where the protagonist falls into a hole, there wasn’t much of lighting. For that particular sequence, ideally I would have loved to have a balloon light hung hundred feet up. But then we had some limitations. We couldn’t hang lights too high also because there we had mango trees which aren’t tall. So, we just managed. The focus was to keep minimalistic lighting.

I like to shoot much later than ‘magic hour’. I prefer shooting night scenes at that particular time. The shots at that time are stunningly beautiful. That’s a time of two-three minutes and gives six-seven shots. When these shots get intercut with the night shots where I have used artificial light, they blend in beautifully. Nobody can tell the difference between the two.

For day sequences, we’d scheduled various shots according to the time of the day. I have not used light at all in the day scenes. Since we were shooting in late winters, the light wasn’t very harsh. I bounced the natural light using silk. If there was enough sun, I’d soften it and try not to break the fill by lighting it up and making the visual flat.

Most of the times my focus was on ‘Not lighting’ rather than ‘Lighting’

What camera did you shoot the film on? Was it a multi-camera setup?

I’ve shot on Alexa XR with Master Prime lenses and zoom lens for big close-ups (BCU). I quite prefer the HR zoom lens over Optimo as I find the latter a bit bulky.  I got a lens from Gaurishankar ji (Lens supplier) and took it to a person called Kamal in Mumbai. My focus puller and he reassembled the lens. When we saw the results, they were the same as a Master Prime. So one couldn’t tell when we’ve cut from a Master Prime to a zoom lens. The texture, sharpness, contrast and everything else was the same. I was very happy with the zoom and used it quite a number of times. Sometimes, I would not use a 100 Master Prime and use a zoom instead.

As for the number of cameras, there was a kabaddi sequence and it’s only there that I’ve used two cameras. Otherwise there was only a single camera setup (throughout the film).

A Death in the Gunj

Vikrant Massey in A Death in the Gunj

And what about rigs?

We had very few Steadicam shots in the film. We had rigged an ambassador for a shot. It’s where you see the protagonist Shutu (Vikrant Massey) sitting on the back seat of the car. We rigged the car for me to sit in front on the bonnet. The idea of the shot was to begin with a three shot and slowly move to Shutu. Again, I used a zoom for this scene. As the car was moving, I was slowly zooming to his face.

I’d also suggested to Konkana that we take another option of the shot against a Chroma background. It was becoming difficult for her to watch and guide the actor while the car was moving because she wasn’t along. So, we did it again. I lit the car exactly like the original shot where the car was moving. Finally, we used the Chroma shot in the film. It’s because Konkana felt that the actors’ performance in the Chroma shot was far superior to that in the first shot with the moving car (One with the rig).

READ: The slow movement of the camera brings thrill to a scene: Manoj Soni

How much time did the complete shooting process take? Was it done linearly?

We shot for thirty days. It was a single schedule. It wasn’t shot linearly at all. I remember, the first shot that we rolled was that of the protagonist peddling a cycle. It was a close up of the pedal. While on the last day of the shoot we shot the planchet.

McCluskieganj has negative infrastructure when it comes to a film shoot

What was the process of taking a shot? Were there rehearsals before takes?

It was an interesting and highly effective four-step process. The first step would be for actors to come to set and rehearse for lines and emotions. In the second step, I would come in and see the movement of the characters and their actions. After the second step, the actors would go for their makeup and I would work out the camera with Konkana and have my lighting done. And the final step would be the actors coming in after their makeup and we would go for action. It was also a delight to work with such fine actors. The film has Tanuja ji and the Late Om Puri ji. Vikrant, Gulshan (Devaiah), Ranvir (Shorey) and the others were also a treat to watch.

A Death in the Gunj

Tanuja, Late Om Puri, Jim Sarbh and Arya Sharma in a still from the film

Talking from the point of production, were there any challenges you faced?

Having Honey Trehan and Abhishek Chaubey as producers was a big blessing for the project. They are quite experienced and have worked with greats like Vishal Bhardwaj. I must also name our Executive Producers Gaurav and Smriti. They’ve done a fantastic job as McCluskieganj has negative infrastructure when it comes to a film shoot. There isn’t any infrastructure to support even a day of shoot. Let alone a feature film with a 30-day schedule with so many actors involved. But they were so efficient at their job that I felt as if I was shooting in Mumbai. The production team did a fairly smooth job.

I have tried to achieve the scheme without lighting and tried to be as naturalistic as possible

Lastly, how big was your camera team? Was it a new team or an old association?

I had two assistants. Sanjay Ghosh was my first A.C.  We’ve been collaborating with each other for the last twenty years. My Focus Puller Madhav Rao has worked with me in over thirty films.  Madhav has done a great job because we have done most of the scenes with a full open (specially night scenes). It is very tough to pull focus in such a scenario. Having said that, there was hardly any retake because of a focus issue. The lighting team was a new team. In terms of number of the crew, it was a modest bunch.