A Sunlit Sonnet- A Clinical Insight into the Art of Naturalist Cinematography in Sameer Sharma’s Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana
What was the principal idea that you and your team had for shooting Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana?
When I first got the film’s script, I wanted to go through it on my own. I didn’t want the director, Sameer Sharma, to tell me anything. After the reading was over, I discussed my notes and ideas with Sameer. We concurred that the film needed to evoke a natural feel of Punjab as it really was. Hindi film audiences are generally conditioned to seeing an exaggerated image of Punjab as a land of bright green landscapes. In order to break free of that stereotype, we adopted a naturalistic aesthetic in our depiction of Punjab and everything Punjabi in the film.
What do you think playing with overexposure and contrast let you do in the dream sequences in Chicken Khurana?
(Laughs) Yes, we went a little crazy with the flashback sequences in the dream scenes in the film, stylising them quirkily. These sequences were given an overexposed and a high-contrast look to convey the lack of certainty, the indeterminacy, and the floating in the unconscious and the imagination that characterises dreaming in human beings. Being unevenly darker and brighter in different areas, these scenes convey the sense of dreams being wobbly representations of realities that someone has lived. As we wanted our audiences to attend primarily to the actors and their actions in these sequences, we overexposed everything and made the actors the points of focus. It could be said that these dream sequences provide the film with a pinhole camera vision that looks secretly into the myriad, dark, and dingy goings on in the alleys of its characters’ minds.
What kind of stylistics, perspectives, frames, and camera movements did you employ in Chicken Khurana?
I’m not a huge fan of exaggerated, shoo-shah camera movements for achieving dramatic effects. I like capturing with simple tracks of a camera. I love a camera that speaks without moving much. This can easily be seen in the large number of still frames that recreate the simple and slow pace of life in Punjab in Chicken Khurana.
As the dialogues and the script of Chicken Khurana were really intense and strong, I wanted the audiences to attend to them rather than be bothered with some spectacular but disconnected cinematography. So I decided not to disorient my audiences with perspective-distorting, super-wide-angle, comically tinted shots. In order to complement its naturalistically lit set, the film’s footage too needed to be shot realistically. Therefore, I used the 35mm pretty much for the entire film. On a number of occasions, I shot even my wide shots with it. For close-ups too, instead of changing lenses, I moved the camera with the 35mm closer to the subject. I used an Alura zoom a couple of times on my Arri Alexa too. But most of the time it was just my favourite, the 35mm, and some other master-prime lenses.
To heighten the film’s sense of naturalism, I ensured that characters moved in their frames only when they really needed to. Most of the times, the decision to either move in for a character, or to move a character in a frame, was taken on the spot. We did do a small story-shot breakdown before the start of the shoot to figure out all that we needed to do in terms of successive scenes. To begin with, I knew the basics of how I needed to go about shooting to make the scenes work. I generally employed just the basic, conventional camera movements for most of the film. We didn’t use a jig or a Steadicam. We used a Panther Dolly to stabilise our frames and eliminate any harsh movement in them. We also got a crane twice.
Chicken Khurana is a slapstick film, a laugh riot. Cinematographically speaking, how exactly is the slapstick element emphasised?
There are two prominent ways of emphasising the slapstick element in a film. You could either choose to be really close to characters with a wide-angle or super-wide-angle lens and distort perspective to make them look comic, or you could use a 35 mm lens and let the characters be and act in the resulting frames. While the first process creates humour principally through the camera, the second process depends exclusively upon the strength of comic points, perspectives and emphases in the dialogues, the juxtaposition of characters on set, and the action in a script. While the first is more aggressive cinematographically, the second makes of cinematography a nourishing accompaniment to the story and its nuances.
How much of the film did you shoot in available light? How much extraneous lighting did you add?
I shot about 60 percent of the film in natural light. I loved the sun in Punjab. It was my best friend there. On a few occasions, while shooting at daytime, I used some poly to punch in some fill. As I really like the look of daylight flooding in, I used it in Chicken Khurana, producing footage that was dark on one side and bright on the other. Such a look gelled with the feel of light you got when you walked under the daytime sun in Punjab. For close-ups, I did punch in some light though. For the footage that was shot at night, we used regular light sources. For the interiors, I always pre-punched in soft light to achieve diffused lighting and also bounced lights a lot. You cannot shoot indoors without added lights, as they are too dark on their own.
Did you do extensive location scout?
Well, yes, indeed. We did a 10-day reccee before the shoot began and locked every location. Our main locations were to be the house and the dhaba. As soon as we had locked the house in Ludhiyana, we started finding all kinds of amazing locations around it. We didn’t have to travel anywhere else. We stayed in Ludhiana and had every location we needed in an hour’s radius.
What was the director’s brief to you before you started the shoot?
It was pure luck that we clicked as we met. He too wanted the film to have a naturalist aesthetic and asked me to avoid flashy shots completely. He didn’t want the film to have a commercial film look at all. He liked the idea of adding extra contrast to certain frames and specific things. He too wanted the story and the characters to be the mainstay of the film and the cinematography to take a backseat.
How was your engagement with the film’s actors? Any special experiences, which you’d want to share?
Kunal Kapoor and Huma Qureishi are both fantastic in the film. The supporting cast too has done a phenomenal job. It was great fun to film each of them. They all brought in tremendous amounts of energy to the film. I couldn’t single any of them out as they were all fabulous.
Being both one of the producers of the film and an avant-garde filmmaker producing New Cinema in India, did Anurag Kashyap contribute creatively during the filmmaking process of Chicken Khurana?
No, he didn’t. Anurag Kashyap wasn’t even on set during filming. He left us completely to our own so that we could create our own slice of cinematic magic. A big reason—apart from his genius, off course—why Sameer really likes working with Anurag is that he understands the importance of an auteur’s creative independence. In keeping with his own desire for artistic licence when he authors and directs films, he lets his directors have all ideational and practical autonomy when they direct theirs.
Who were your gaffers, colourist, and assistants? What roles did they play during the shoot of Chicken Khurana?
I have had my team for some time now. They are just fantastic. My assistant, Sudeep, is a great contributor. He was a great help to me even before the shoot. He and I together decided the kind of look I needed to go with in Chicken Khurana. My gaffer is the same as the one Rajeev Ravi works with. He was fantastic too. These guys know my preferences and thoughts as if by instinct. As soon as I look somewhere, they know what’s missing in the light and produce what is required instantaneously. Their efficiency and dedication can be gauged by the fact that in spite of being a small crew of just 8 people, they managed the entire lighting process amazingly well.
My colourist, Rob Lang from Pixion, also was a great contributor. He gave me pretty much what I wanted. After briefing him about the look I wanted for the film, I went out-of-town. Upon returning, I found that he had set things up so well that I hardly needed to change anything.
Where did the DI of the film happen? How long did it take?
The DI happened at Pixion and took about 15 to 18 days. The personal in-charge of it was Mr. Ramana, a line producer at Pixion.
What were the principal challenges that you encountered during filming?
While Punjab is best for shoots in winters, it is also the worst then. Sometimes, when the sun goes crazy and disappears for hours, you have to take a call and call off a shoot. One day at around 2.30 pm, it disappeared. The atmosphere became hazy and took away all light and life from the frames. Because of such incidents, I tried managing light differently while shooting for Chicken Khurana. I tried balancing light between exteriors, interiors, and change in time. Because of this balancing act, you can see a morning to evening shift in the film. You feel as if certain shots have been shot in the morning, certain in the evening, and certain in the magic hour. It’s interesting as a tactic and I think it has worked for the film.
Do you have a favourite shot or scene in the film?
I really like the film as a whole, but there is one sequence in the beginning of the film that I admire greatly for the effects of light it creates and its art-direction. It’s also my favourite light set-up in the film. It’s a longer, period-sequence that’s been shot in an atmosphere with gas lanterns around. Just about everything about it, whether it is the costumes, or the actors, or the emotions in play, sticks together perfectly.
The cinematography of a film has a lot to do not only with light, but also with art direction, costume design, etc. In your experience in filmmaking what have been the kind of engagements you’ve had with art directors and other creative heads?
I generally have a group meeting with the art director and the costume designer (sometimes, the director too is present) of a film and try to create a colour palette to work with. In these meets, we discuss what I am thinking cinematographically and what the costume designer and the art director are thinking in terms of portraying characters and producing ambience. We also contribute ideas to understand how we want our set (or anything else in the film) to look in terms of props. As I like to use lots of practical and easy lighting equipment such as lamps, I ask my art directors to figure out ways to have them on set. On the sets of Chicken Khurana, we realised that small towns in Punjab didn’t generally have the lamps I wanted. So it was my art director’s job to figure out what he needed to do to get them or to get that lamp-lit look. Everyone on set contributed creatively in his own capacities and helped others too. If I didn’t know the solution to a question during the shoot, I’d throw it open to the art director, the costume designer, and the director, and look to them for answers.
How much time did the entire shoot of Chicken Khurana take?
We shot the film for 41 days in Punjab, 3 days in London, and 2 days in Mumbai.
Could you speak a bit about how Chicken Khurana was different from your other filmmaking ventures?
I did the yet unreleased Marathi film, Vakratunda Mahakaya (2012), before attempting Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. The approach I had for my earlier feature was very different, grander, and more aggressive cinematographically. Chicken Khurana’s was a more small-town-in-Punjab approach in which my cinematography had to step back and let the actors take centre-stage.