Moving away from a typical masala entertainer, Ruchika Oberoi’s debut film, Island City has something dark, yet humorous to offer. With an extremely impressive cast, great content along with cinematic appeal, the film blends three stories with beautiful intricacy.

But a lot goes behind creating something so appealing and disturbing at the same time. From the casting to the cinematography every nuance has to be perfect. Giving us more insights into the making of this film are Cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca, Casting Director Mansi Multani and Music Composer Sagar Desai. While Fonseca throws light on the varying color palettes that enhance the narrative of each story and other facets of the film, Multani talks about the importance of establishing a connect between the actor and character and Sagar elaborates on the ‘unusual’ music of the film.

Cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca

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Sylvester Fonseca

Island City has three stories in one film, what was your approach towards the cinematography of each story? Also, does the colour palette vary with the different stories or there is a continuity in that sense?

During the initial round of meetings we tried to get beneath the layers of each of the stories. We made a conscious decision to give each one its own distinct flavor to best serve that story and to evoke a certain mood through shot design, palette and storytelling style.

For example, in the first story, ‘Fun Committee’ we chose to keep the initial part of the film monochromatic with cooler hues. This helped create a world of characters leading drab lives and also served to build contrast to the later segment which showed vivid imagery. We primarily used wide-angle lenses in our shot taking and often took close up shots with really wide-angle lenses. The way wide-angle lenses distort space and create depth aided the visual styling of this story.

In the second story, ‘Ghost in the Machine’ we kept the colours muted and very natural initially. While the Purushottam sequence (which is a television series) had loud colours and textures. As the film progresses, we gradually introduced colours and tones, almost giving the feeling that the Television is encroaching into this space. Towards the end, the demarcation blurs and both these worlds look similar.

In the third story ‘Contact’, the camera is very voyeuristic; always trying to steal a glance or peek into their lives. We shot the entire story handheld and with telephoto lenses, which gives the feeling that she is always being watched and followed. We chose ‘Rust’ as our primary hue to evoke a sense of decay and entrapment.


Since Mumbai plays a crucial role in the film, what were the factors that you had in mind while looking for locations? 

Although the film is set in Mumbai, I feel that it is universal in nature. It speaks about urban life and modern times and is not necessarily restricted to one city. We chose settings which are reflective of any urban city – sleek workspaces, low income housing, malls, public transport etc.

The film speaks about urban life and modern times and is not necessarily restricted to one city

Can you give us an insight on your choice of camera, lens and filters for this film?

We used the ARRI Alexa camera with Ultra prime lenses for the film. For the portions of Purshottam in the story ‘Ghost in the Machine’, we deliberately chose to use a Panasonic P2HD camera instead of the Arri Alexa to be truer to the form of that story. It also helped us to authentically replicate the images that we are accustomed to seeing in the daily soap operas.

What was the most challenging part of shooting the movie?  

Due to various factors we had to shoot the first and the third story in the same schedule. Often, we would shoot a portion of one story for a couple of days and then switch to the other and then back. Since the treatment of both of these stories was so different from each other, we had to work hard to maintain the integrity of each.


The movie has an element of dark comedy, how have you tried to bring that out through visuals?

It is not often that the script is so good that you let the content take center-stage and everything else takes a backseat. I worked hard to keep the camera work subtle, to exercise restraint so as to serve the content. The genre of black comedy was very challenging and interesting.

I worked hard to keep the camera work subtle, to exercise restraint so as to serve the content

Casting Director Mansi Multani

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Mansi Multani

What was the brief given to you regarding the casting and how did you meet the requirements?

I think Ruchika (Oberoi) trusted the fact that I am an actor, and through conversations you realize how much you can trust a colleague. Because, as soon as you see that you are on the same page, you realize that there isn’t that much of a brief that you really need to give this person. In that sense, this energy between me and Ruchika was pretty great. I understood the core of the film along with the core of the performances that she was looking for, and how real, naked and raw her characters needed to be.

Since I am an actor and have auditioned for several different things, I looked at all the processes and chose something a little bit more interesting. I do a lot of theater, so I did a lot of improvisation. Ruchika and I had spoken about this, and I’d told her that I was keen on making the actors improvise a scene that I give them, before giving them a scene from the film. I would give every actor, not just the lead, a random situation where they would have to be on their feet and think spontaneously, and that would help them loosen up a lot. The situation that I would give them had a lot to do with an interesting character trait from the scene that I was going to give them from the film’s script. This helped them realize that they are open to improvisation. I wanted them to have fun with it and make the character their own.

I would give every actor, not just the lead, a random situation where they would have to be on their feet and think spontaneously

How did Vinay Pathak and Tannishtha Chatterjee come on board, or were they pre-decided by Ruchika?

Vinay and Tannishtha were the only two people who had been cast before I came on board. Tannishtha had already been signed by Ruchika before the film even went into pre – production. Vinay too had been signed on earlier because this film was part of the Screenwriters’ Lab at Goa Film Bazaar. Ruchika had also approached a couple of other people for Amruta (Subhash)’s part as well, but that had not worked out. So out of the three lead protagonists, the one I cast was Amruta.


What was Amruta’s casting process like and what made her apt for the role?

We had looked at quite a few actresses for the part of Sarita Joshi. This was interesting for me as well because I mainly do Hindi or English theater, so this film was a great opportunity for me to get into the regional scene and find out more about Marathi theatre and cinema actors.

With Amruta, I had seen and enjoyed her previous work, so I knew that she was one of the good contenders. And she looked the part. At that point I had converted my house into the office because this was a small film so there wasn’t much of a budget and I was invested in this project. So she came to my house and we had a nice conversation and already felt an easy connect. She dove into the impromptu process very easily. I remember this one scene that she did for me. She is playing this Maharashtrian wife where she is falling in love with a TV actor (Purshottam) who is played by Sameer Kochhar. So I gave her a scene where there is a conversation on the television between Purshottam and his wife, and she is just watching. She is watching it and feeling this longing and pain as a woman who hasn’t been loved the way she wanted to be. She is watching this man on TV romancing his wife in a way that she wants to be romanced in real life. There were no dialogues and I kept the camera on her and told her to just watch the TV and feel the scene. I think for me personally it was that scene that did it because it was just so vulnerable and raw.

Her role is about a woman who hasn’t been touched in a long time, how she would feel by just watching an Indian TV serial where the guy might just be touching his wife’s pallu; but how much would that excite a woman who has never had that connect with her own husband. That is why that story is so beautiful. It showcases a fantasy that a lot of Indian men and women have and I don’t mean sexually, it could be basic human connect. It also shows how television has become a member of our daily life. Therefore, for me it was that one scene that made me realize that Amruta would be perfect for the part.

It was just one scene that made me realize that Amruta would be perfect for the part

Besides the three main leads, tell us about casting the other cast members. Were there any challenging characters to cast for?

It was very interesting to cast even the minor characters. When I saw the film at MAMI last year, I realized that even the smallest character that I had cast, had been given their due. You will remember every face once you leave the theater. It is such a simple film and there aren’t so many characters in it, so, every face has a lasting impression in some way. For instance, for the children in the film I went to a school in Dadar that does theater classes. We sourced child actors from the workshops that we did there. So there was a lot of work that went into getting the cast together.

If I had to pick one (character), I would say that Sameer Kochhar is one of the most memorable ones. He was quite hilarious, I called him because he is a gorgeous looking man, he’s got those typical Indian features and I thought that this might be a really interesting cast. Sameer is known to be a cricket commentator so nobody would think of him as Purshottam and so I wanted to try that. Sameer came for the audition, he improvised and he had so much fun. TV serial actors are usually over the top and in some way caricaturish, so I told Sameer to explore that slightly dramatic quotient and once it came on, it was difficult to stop him. Sameer was an interesting win for me and I am glad that Ruchika felt the same way because he is not a typical choice for this role at all. He looks the part, but you would never imagine this charismatic English speaking anchor playing this Indian quintessential man.

Also, Sana Sheikh who is playing his wife is a hard core serial actress. I found out about her through a friend and she nailed Vaidehi because it was something that she was extremely familiar with. She came to my house dressed in the perfect manner and looking the part; she was wearing that sari and the junk jewelry, it almost looked like she had come from the set itself (laughs). She really knew what I wanted.


How do you make the connection with the actor and character and decide that they are perfect for the role?

There is no technical answer for this at all. I think when you see something that moves you and touches your heart; you know that you want to see it again. With performances you can’t analyze so much. The most important thing (for the actor) is that whether or not they can do the job earnestly, and can they be vulnerable and show that to me. That is all I am looking for. That is the only connect you want because as an audience member I don’t want to leave the film thinking that the lighting was bad or the editing had some issues. Even though I am from the industry, the most important thing for me is the intention of the film and content and more importantly, what are the emotions that I am left with, which actor made me want to cry or made me feel helpless. The look definitely matters, you don’t call somebody who doesn’t fit the look, but at the end it is just about the performance and if you have the ability to move me and become what the film needs you to be.

Music Composer Sagar Desai

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How would describe the music of the film, how does it vary in the three stories or was there a common connecting factor throughout the film?

The music of Island City is unusual because there are three very distinct stories which are dramatically, thematically and qualitatively very different.

The three sections of music are extremely different from each other and are designed specifically for each piece of drama. Though there is a connection with a certain harmonic progression, it will be difficult for the viewers to discern this. I do make subtle connections of themes in all my film scores.

The three sections of music are extremely different from each other and are designed specifically for each piece of drama

Did Ruchika want something specific from the music or were you given the liberty to experiment?

There was nothing specific given to me, as an example, by the director. This is the best method as it allows the composer to make his own interpretations. In fact, it is the best method for any director of any film, be it an ad film or feature film or any project, never give references and examples to a composer, it will always work against the film.


Since the movie is a dark comedy, do we see that reflecting in the music as well?

Yes, there are places where the music runs entirely against the actions onscreen, or against the grain, as I like to say. The best example is when Suyash’s character is making the machine gun by following the instructions from diagrams. There the situation is dark, scary and foreboding, but the music I chose to score is upbeat, comic, and fun. This enhances the message in the story.

There are places where the music runs entirely against the actions onscreen

What instruments have you worked with to convey the emotions in each of the stories?

In the first story, there are a lot of circus type sounds, like accordions, clarinets, and other sounds that are associated with fun. In the second story, the slow and subtle piano takes over. In the last story, the combination of synthesizers with nylon string guitar enhances the mood of Tannishtha Chatterjee’s character. Finally all three come together briefly at the end titles.

Are there factors that differentiate the music of Island City from say, a typical commercial movie?

I never ‘try’ to differentiate, I always compose from a purely creative standpoint. Naturally, all my work is very different from anything else in Bollywood.