The Style – Bender
Master cinematographer, KU Mohanan, speaks to Pandolin about creating a unique aesthetic in Reema Kagti’s Talaash by blending different kinds of shooting styles to produce an innovative narrative imperative that weaves the paranormal, the suspense thriller, and the socially realist film together.
What were your principal ideas for shooting Talaash?
The principal idea of any film depends on the script and the kind of film one is creating. Talaash is a thriller. Its script scrutinises the underbelly of Mumbai and emphasises the city’s backward areas, red-light districts, and politics ridden police stations. We discussed the style and the look we wanted to create in the film and decided to play with darkness. But we also stopped short of going intensely film noir.
You seem to be working with lots of tight spaces in Talaash. The film also seems laden with a natural, grungy feel. What were the challenges while lighting the film to achieve this effect?
The director, the production designer, and I together decided to shoot everything in Talaash in real locations. Therefore, there were to be no sets in the film. Our agendum was to light and set-up adequately even the tiniest of spaces that we were using. Real locations lend their flavour and texture to a film and make it more gripping. It is impossible to recreate these flavours and textures on a set. Moreover, the realism that one contrives on a set is always limited in its scope and appearance. The drawback of working on real locations is a distinct lack of control on ambient light and limited lighting opportunities. In my book of cinematography that limitation translates into an advantage as I use it as an expressive tool to enhance a film’s style and colour quotients.
It seems that you don’t really get this kind of lighting in Indian cinema. What were your references in terms of getting the kind of imagery you wanted?
I don’t really do too much referencing. I don’t believe in the process of taking inspiration from other films.
Could you please talk about your evolution as a cinematographer? What are the things that have contributed to your style?
After my degree in film, I worked as a documentary cinematographer for almost 10-12 years. You typically do not have much time or equipment at your disposal while making documentaries and have to learn to manage and do expressive work with whatever’s available. You go though the documentary’s script in all reality and literality, and capture everything that’s there with only ambient light at your disposal. Such experiences have helped me understand the workings of light in real spaces a lot. They have made working for feature films much easier. Now, simply by looking at lights, I can tell if I’d fare well using light from windows, from wall fixtures, or from other orifices and sources on location. I can also easily read the behaviour of light in any space now. Even if I have that space lit up, I try to simulate the natural behaviour of light in it.
The production designer and I made some clear creative decisions about the colour palette of Talaash. Reema had an old photographic book which had some colour photographs of the erstwhile Bombay. Those pictures told us that Bombay’s brothels were 1) generally of warm colours, 2) lit with small light bulbs, and 3) bedecked with torn wallpapers. They lacked cold colours like blue. We took a leaf out of that and kept colours warm in the film. The entire production and costume design was done accordingly. Even the exterior night shots in the film were kept warm in colour. This was done in abeyance of the general way of making nights look colder in film. I used the sodium vapour streetlight feel for the nights and gave them an amber tint.
There are two accident scenes in the film—one at the beginning and the other at the end—that were shot at night. In the first one, a car jumps a barricade, dives into the sea, and the camera ends up with the capture of a large splash of water. Reema wanted an angle in slow motion in it. Shooting at night generally requires the use of a lot of artificial lights. These lights make it apparent that the scene is lit artificially. Moreover, when you shoot at higher frame rates, you need much more light than when you shoot at the regular film-speed of 24 fps. I needed to shoot the above-mentioned accident scene at 150 fps. That’s real slow-motion! As I was simulating the look of street lit nights, and I didn’t want this particular scene to look artificially lit and be the odd one out, I created a huge moon ball which had the same light temperature and colour as my other scenes. We installed it atop a huge crane and suspended it over the place of action. This was a big challenge indeed.
Shooting in real locations in Bombay and filming with very big, contemporary film-stars was also quite challenging.
Where all was the film shot?
Talaash is a film on Bombay. Most of it, therefore, is shot in Bombay. The flashback sequences that ground Amir Khan’s character, Mr. Shekhawat, were shot outside Bombay. We shot some portions of them in Pondicherry, especially the portion that has the car accident. As it was a big accident that we were depicting, we found it impossible to either create or find roads suitable enough for filming it in Bombay. After scouting and researching a lot, we found a suitable place next to the sea in Pondicherry that had the appearance of a spot in Bombay.
Ninad Nayampally was all praises about you. He told us that he really liked working with you. He described how you set-up for the accident scene. Could you please enlighten us about the same?
Yeah, that’s correct. You see, when we did the accident sequence we had three really huge cranes in the middle of the road for ten days at a go. One crane held the huge moon box that we had created. Another held the camera as it lay suspended over the sea. We went about 300 ft over water to find an angle for the car to come in, strike the surface of the water, land in front of the camera, and splash water at it. This scene was a big challenge for our grip team. Ninad was working with us as our key grip then.
How was it working with the film’s production designer? How essential was she to the lighting?
Our production designer, Sharmishtha Roy, was very good and efficient. Upon my request, she and her team lit up brothels, police stations, and almost everything else, with adequate dimmer controls. Most of the lighting in the film was done by its art director. She set up a police station in a real space that worked very well for the film. I supplied her team with instructions about what kind of ambient light sources they needed to use and where they needed to install them. All in all, the light set-up executed by Sharmishtha and team was quite practical and to my preferences. It was really easy for me from there. I just picked up my camera and shot. For lighting shots in the streets, I used some fill.
Indian film-stars are used to being lit very glamorously. How was it working with them and understanding how they should be lit?
It’s quite simple. I had to create trust in actors. As I had worked with Kareena earlier, we managed together pretty well.
I would like to quickly underscore that I do not make my shots too gritty even when I am using darkness creatively in commercial films. In Miss Lovely, an earlier film of mine, I had used very gritty lighting and capture to reveal different aspect of the underbelly of Mumbai’s porn-film industry. Sometimes, you couldn’t even see the actors’ faces as they came by and went in flashes without giving the audience as much as a chance at clear comprehension of their identities. Miss Lovely required that kind of treatment to highlight pure mood, gritty realism, and suspense.
The essentials of how to shoot change a little when you work in a major commercial film that has big and established stars. It ushers in some restrictions to your creativity. You are expected to make the stars look such that people see them for their star-value. But that doesn’t mean that you have to light them flatly and make them look lacking in perspective in a boringly lit place. With time, you understand how you need to work in commercial cinema.
For Talaash, I spoke to Aamir before we started the shoot. I told him that I would mostly be using light from an angle above to capture his scenes because that would fittingly bring to life his insomniac, traumatised, and exhausted character of Mr. Shekhawat, and give him those much required under-eye dark circles. It was a demand exerted by the proprieties of accurate cinematic realism and Aamir was comfortable with it. Being a superstar, he understood the technical and thematic importance of my emphases.
With Rani too, it was almost the same story. She did the entire film without any facial make-up so that the realism of her character and the film was bolstered and stood out. The whole approach was acutely realistic.
Within this clearly realist space, therefore, we made things look not too gritty as that was the demand of the film.
Were your camera movements really planned in advance?
There were specific parts in the film where the camera movement was planned well in advance. In other places, we improvised a lot with the actors. I did a lot of handheld work. My work is also largely governed by my impulses. Unless and until I have a certain kind of treatment planned well in advance for a scene, which happens occasionally, it’s my impulses and reactions I depend upon.
Were there Steadicam shots too in the film?
Yes, there were a few Steadicam shots. They were shot by Nitin Rao and Sunil Khandpur. They both are really good Steadicam operators.
How many underwater sequences are there in the film?
There are two underwater sequences in the film: one, in a lake, and another one showing an accident with a police jeep diving into a lake.
Were these scenes shot in real water-bodies or were they staged in a large pool?
It’s almost impossible to shoot an underwater action scene in the real sea and a real lake in India. The lake we tried using in Pondicherry was very murky. There was hardly any clarity in its waters. Therefore, we decided to shoot in a swimming pool in Tripoli, a scenic place close to Mumbai. Priya Seth shot for us at there. Although we have some trained underwater cinematographers now in India, the infrastructure is still not good enough.
The underwater scene in the climax was shot in London. We tried to shooting it in Tripoli, but failed. The filtration system of the swimming pools in India is quite inefficient. Swimming pools become dirty and murky when an entire crew spends a day with all kinds of equipment in its waters. It needs to be filtered overnight so that the crew could have crystal clear water for continuing their shoot the next day. As the filtration system at the pool in Tripoli was bad, we chose to use the underwater shooting facilities at Pinewoods Studio (that lies on the outskirts of London) for our shoot. Pinewoods had temperature controlled water. It also had an underwater stage and lots of good, needed infrastructure. We worked there with a Mike Valentine, a very good underwater cinematographer with a lot of Hollywood experience.
What kind of camera equipment did you use?
We shot completely on film. We had Arricam cameras with Kodak 500 for night shots and Kodak 250 for daylight shots.
How was it working with Reema?
It was very collaborative. We gave each other lots of inputs and discussed many significant things. We also discussed the look and the feel of the film at great length.
Is there a scene or shot in the film that’s your favourite?
I’m quite happy with the overall look and feel of the film. Especially interesting are the outdoor night sequences and the accident shots.
Where did the DI of the film take place? Who were your colourist and gaffers?
The DI was done at Reliance. My colourist was Ken. His sense of colour timing is amazing. My gaffer was Ramesh Sadrani.[box_info]
Stills of Mr. K.U. Mohanan
Photo Courtesy : Excel Entertainment
Photographer : Toto Nandy[/box_info]