Anil Mehta on practicing the nuanced Art of Cinematography and his role as the Director of Photography in Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o keep it simple and make it meaningful are two of the toughest things to accomplish in the complicated art of cinematography. More often than not they are the difference between someone who knows his craft and someone who commands it and understands every nuance of it. Filmmaker par excellence, Anil Mehta, speaks to Pandolin about breathing reel life simply into the new Shahrukh Khan starrer, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and reveals to us how chance dealt him a big hand in the form of his first feature, Khamoshi: The Musical.
What was the principal idea with which you approached the shooting of Jab Tak Hai Jaan?
My first film with the late Mr. Yash Chopra, Veer Zaara, had provided me with a window to the cinematic world of classic Bollywood romance that he inhabited. In as much as its approach to and treatment of its content is concerned, Jab Tak Hai Jaan fits that world perfectly. I went into the JTHJ project with complete knowledge of what would be required of me. As Aditya Chopra had written the story and the screenplay, he wanted to give it a contemporary edge. Therefore, although the film was a classic Bollywood love tale, it assumed newness in its writing, its portrayal of characters, and the narrative development of those characters and their language. Aditya wanted the treatment of contemporary subject matter to be reflected in the style of cinematography too. To a large extent we managed that by going in with available light, hand holding the camera whenever required, and getting into cramped quarters, etc.
Is JTHJ a realistic treatment of its subject matter, or is it a larger-than-life Bollywood romance drama that we have all grown up watching?
I think that JTHJ is within the paradigm of the larger-than-life Bollywood romance drama. Alterations though have been invoked to the ways in which the larger-than-life-romance theme is represented in the film. For example, we have woven in new landscapes with classical romantic settings. One of the love scenes, therefore, goes into an alleyway, and events unfold in the film not only in large havelis and mansions, but also in smaller spaces such as cafes that are emblematic of the new landscape. Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to call its treatment of subject matter realistic.
Did you introduce camera angles, perspectives, and points of view consciously in your frames for JTHJ?
Yes, I did. Aditya’s brief had already set me thinking about how to introduce contemporary stylistics into the film’s frames. But that was, to be very candid, for the most part a push and pull process. Sometimes the staging of scenes was very classical. Sometimes the staging expected you to do a big crane shot. It was important to understand that there were certain given ways in which staging of scenes happened with both Aditya and Yash Ji. At times, we tried to be different, and went beyond the conventions of this kind of filmmaking by treating a scene in one shot, or executing a shot on Steadicam, or shooting with the camera handheld, etc. On many occasions, Aditya and Yash Ji themselves suggested that I employ such methods of capture. Therefore, it would be fair to say that together we gave the film’s visual style a slightly contemporary tweak and feel while retaining the soul and the spirit of the classical Bollywood love tale. We’re waiting for the film’s release to find out if our endeavours have borne fruit.
In spite of numerous critical revisions of it, the Bollywood romance drama has continued to live for more than five decades, albeit as iterations of the same basic theme. What in your opinion are the aesthetic elements and conventions that constitute a larger-than-life Bollywood romance drama? What do you do when you approach such films? How did you approach the filming of JTHJ per se within the context raised by this question?
I’m not qualified to talk about the codes that go into the creation of a larger-than-life Bollywood romance drama. To be completely honest, I don’t get a lot of it. But those who make these films function differently and are differently wired in their convictions as filmmakers. Therefore, things that might seem like formulae to you and I appear organically bound cinematic reality to them. They genuinely believe in the significance of their art and are completely and truly invested in them. This integrity makes these larger-than-life films somehow ring real and true for the people who’ve enjoyed such cinema over the last five decades or so. Their work lives in a shared space in which both the filmmaker and the audience have a deep connect and understanding of each other. You could stand on the outside and make an intellectual position of it, but these films have lives of their own.
As I wasn’t born into this specific type of filmmaking, in each such project of mine I first and foremost try to understand how the director is thinking. I’m curious about what’s going on in his descriptions of the story and the screenplay and how he’s pitching the story. Unless and until I get a sense of where and how the story is pitched, I cannot visualise how’s it is going to translate into performance. Once that happens, things start materialising. They become even clearer when I go on reccees of locations. Once you start seeing, relating to, and discussing the spaces you’d be filming in, you start finding out if one thing or another would successfully play out in a given space. On our reccees in London, it became clear to me that we were going to inhabit real spaces, that I was going to let natural light run its course in my frames, and that I was not going to force things onto locations. In keeping with these convictions, I shot extensively on the streets of London, tried to get by with a hidden camera, did some candid stuff, avoided staging everything, and let the crowds play out at the back.
You must have added lights in shots of interiors and in the night. How did you manage those?
Yes, I did add light for shots of interiors and the night, but my principle even in those shots was to supplement what is there rather than to recreate everything from the scratch. That’s where I come from. I think that unless and until a scene is asking specifically for something, there’s no need to introduce that element to it.
We did a night-interior-exterior song in a tunnel and a warehouse in London. Although it was a set, we didn’t use it to represent a real warehouse, but let it serve as an exotic location for the song. Therefore, we heightened the lighting while shooting it. As I wanted to use elements from the cityscape in it, I pitched it at a level from where I could see the city in the background, have ambient light playing in the frame, and yet create the heightened experience of a full-fledged Bollywood dance number with approximately 150 artistes. Those are the kind of manoeuvres that you carry out if you have to be on location for a song of that kind.
How is JTHJ divided between locations and sets?
Most of JTHJ is based on location, and not situated in studios. We had three principal locations in the film: Kashmir, Ladakh, and London. Yash Chopra had a nostalgic connection with Kashmir. So while it was new in terms of it being an active location, which is the trend of the day, it was also old because of Yash Chopra’s undying love for it. Apart from these, there were some sets for interiors of a room and a hospital.
Even in 2008, when Aditya Chopra made Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, his films largely used to be studio-based. For Rab Ne, Aditya had to build streets, a township, houses, gymnasium etc. in Film City. On the contrary, 90 percent of Jab Tak Hai Jaan was shot on location. That is a big step forward and shows the difference in approach between the two films and the times they were made in. That also is probably representative of the shift in emphasis when I think of JTHJ being more real and in sync with the times.
The visuals of the songs of JTHJ have a very spacious feel to them. Their frames are never cluttered, have fixed subjects, and are gilded with large exteriors as background defining these subjects. Why did you choose to give this specific look to these songs?
If you don’t let the beautiful landscape of Kashmir and Ladakh play a part in your frames when you shoot there, you defeat the purpose of being there. Therefore, I used a lot of open lensing (or wide-angle shots) when I shot in Ladakh and Kashmir. Yash Chopra also suggested a lot of it, as he wanted to exploit the concepts of landscape and beauty. These were two of his most favourite words while filming JTHJ. In fact, he was driven by them. On the JTHJ shoot, he was clear about having landscapes in his frames. He was quite vocal about wanting more than just the actor’s faces in the frames when we shot in scenic locales.
Could you please speak about your on-set relationship with JTHJ’s director, the late Mr. Yash Chopra?
For a man of Yash Chopra’s stature, age, experience, and body of work to be open and receptive to all kinds of suggestions from a relatively young cameraman like me was, in my view, a very big thing. The fact that he could trust me and look up to me for approval of shots, performances, locations, camera placements, etc. was itself special. Everything that transpired between the two of us was a give and take experience. That gesture is emblematic of a very special relationship between a director and his cameraman during the process of film production, and I feel that I am fortunate to have been a part of it. On this film he was more like a friend, cracking jokes, sharing meals and many stories from his past movies. It was like a fun history lesson for me. His leaving suddenly before the release of his film was just bad timing, I’ll miss his crackling wit and warm affection.
Could you please speak about your experiences with Shahrukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, and Anushka Sharma, the actors of the JTHJ?
Although all of JTHJ’s actors were big stars in their own right, they were extremely professional on set. I never had any issues with any of them. Even though they were temperamentally very different from each other, each of them contributed to the movie both in his or her capacity and as part of a hardworking unit. There were hardly any stand-offs or hang-ups about the work at hand. And I think that that translates into the joy of making movies.
Shahrukh is an impeccable professional. I really like working with him. I find him to be a cinema technician first and then an actor. The understanding of a shot’s lensing and focus points comes like background information to him. As a collaborator in the filmmaking experience, Shahrukh is there more than a hundred percent with you at all times. He has an extremely clear hold of the entire process of filmmaking. He knows how a shot ought to be taken, what the mechanics of it are going to be, and whether it will require him to make critical focus marks. None of it has to be given to him as information. It comes naturally to him because he’s deeply engrossed in every process of filmmaking that surrounds him. What’s best is that all this assimilated knowledge and experience does not overburden him or hamper his performance as an actor at all. That continues to remain at 110 percent. It was a breeze working with him for JTHJ because he was as efficient as he was proficient.
Katrina is a relatively younger, more inexperienced actor who doesn’t pay much attention to things that are going on behind the camera and with sound. She’s doesn’t inhabit that space, but is on her own. As a person to deal with on set, she was fabulous. She never fussed about anything. We shared a good, equal working relationship with each other.
Anushka is another mindset altogether. She is much younger and much more intuitive as a person. She’s very vibrant. Even her approach to acting is riddled with these qualities. You cannot lock her in your ideas or pin her down with them. As vivaciousness and freedom are her strengths, you keep away from throwing a barrage of directions at her. You let her have her space because that’s how she can contribute her best. As she’s young, keen, and eager to have a go, it pays to have such an approach.
Who were your gaffers, assistants, focus-pullers, and colourists for JTHJ?
When in London, we worked with a completely local team. We did take some light-men from India to London, but not gaffers. We had an English gaffer on set there. As he brought in an English crew to work with, and helped us tide over obstacles, such as cultural difference, language barrier and the difference in the work-cultures of the two units, he was extremely critical for me. I discussed the lighting plan with him and left it to him to execute it on the day of the shoot.
In Ladakh and Kashmir, we didn’t really have a gaffer because almost ninety-nine percent of our shoot was in the exteriors, and in those, I worked principally with natural light. But I did have a focus puller who’s worked with me over the years: Lalit Sahoo. I had a colourist called Tushar Yadav, who’d worked with me earlier in Rockstar. He is from Reliance. And then, of course, there was Ken, who too has been there with me from the Rockstar days. He came in as a senior colourist and supervised and perfected what we’d done.
In Sayak Bhattacharya, a former student of filmmaking at SRFTI, Kolkata, I had my first assistant and second unit cameraman. If I were doing B-camera or second unit work for coverage or songs, I’d let Sayak and Lalit go off and do it. I had faith in them and they knew how I worked. Therefore, eventually, everything came together well.
These were my key people during the JTHJ shoot. We made a pretty compact, cohesive team.
What were the principal challenges that you encountered during the filming of JTHJ?
London is a city where you get four seasons every day. Therefore, when Aditya told me that we were going to London in two separate seasons, it felt like a bit of a laugh. After all, what difference did it make anyway? The only thing that really changes in London as its seasons advance is the clothing of its people. When it gets overcast in London, it stays overcast for a long time. It is the worst in summers as then overcast conditions can stretch up to two weeks at a go. Yet, on a heavily overcast day, the sun can break through in the afternoon, and the haze can clear out, only for a shower to come rolling back at five in the evening. You can have cold, windy days too.
The principal problem with shooting on real locations in such places is that you are forced to work with changing light all the time and have to comply with the time stipulated for finishing a scene at the same time. So what did I do to stick to my precious little schedule? I shot pretty much everything in mixed lighting conditions. I didn’t add layers of artificial light at all because it’s very difficult to fight or simulate natural light in a landscape situation. You can never do it perfectly. If you are shooting in Hyde Park and the sun disappears for the entire afternoon, there is no way you can simulate specifically that missing sunlight unless and until you’re some hotshot, Hollywood biggie. And I am not one (Laughs). After finalising the shoot, I did my best in matching it in post during grading and colouring.
Do you have a favourite shot or scene in JTHJ?
I usually don’t have favourite shots or scenes in the films I do. I look at film as a whole. JTHJ pretty much has a certain look that I like. Of course, locations such as Ladakh and Kashmir were very enjoyable.
Which cameras, lenses and perforations did you use for the shoot of JTHJ? What were the digital components to the film?
I’ve used 35mm film from Kodak for the entire project. The digital component came in only after we’d shot the film, scanned the negatives, and done the DI. That’s the only part of the film that’s digital. I shot three perf with spherical lenses. I used a basic set of master primes. Our A-camera was an Arricam Lite (LT). The B-camera, which was used mainly for songs and coverage, was an Arri 435.
How long did the filmmaking process of JTHJ last?
JTHJ was made quite efficiently. Actors’ dates get consolidated with Yash Chopra quite well. So we were able to shoot at a clip. I think we took a total of 80 days for the shoot. We finished the film within a calendar year. We started in January this year. Prep and shoot happened at the beginning of the years.
Your career is laced with variety in filmmaking and quality films. If one just thinks about Rockstar, Saathiya, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Khamoshi, Kal Ho Na Ho, Lagaan, Wake Up Sid, and now JTHJ, one can see you moving between narratives that are intensely personal to those which are modern and interpersonal to those which have political undercurrents to those which are the folklore of popular, blockbuster Hindi cinema. Would you like to comment on that?
Doing different types of films is what a filmmaker aspires for. But you also end up doing 3-4 films that look similar and inhabit similar creative spaces. For example, I did Kal Ho Na Ho and Kabhi Alwida Na Kehna back to back. These are merely coincidences. They’re circumstances that you meet and fall in. All of it depends upon factors such as the people one is in touch with at a particular point of time, the people who have approached one, and the material that is falling into one’s plate as his next project. That is how it works.
Do you strategise for handling filmmaking projects of different kinds?
I don’t strategise because strategizing and overthinking is not my cup of tea. I have never strategized for anything in my career. From the very beginning, things have always found me. I have never gone out and sought them.
My first feature film, Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), too came to me out of the blue. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who lived in the same neighbourhood, walked across the street, said that he had a script and a producer, and asked me if I’d be interested in shooting it. After reading the script, I agreed. It’s as coincidental as that. Before that break, I wasn’t doing features. I wasn’t even thinking of doing any. Why Sanjay chose me, why I accepted to do a feature when I was quite settled in advertising, are all questions that I sometimes ask myself but with no clear answers.
How would you articulate the aesthetic that you bring into your work?
See, it’s very difficult to talk about or articulate my work from this perspective. Firstly, it’s not correct for me to do that, and secondly I am not the best guy for that role. However, I do recall something that Salman Khan once told me. After having watched the first copy or the first release of either Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Khamoshi: The Musical, he came up to me, and said, “I like your work…. It’s very simple.” So in a sense, my approach is: “keep it simple, silly.”
But Rockstar was not simple by any means.
It was actually. Even though it looks like a very complex film, the approach to shooting it was very simple and direct to the extent of being in your face. As a cinematographer, you get up close with actors and directors who allow you to do such things with a script and with them. During the shoot of Rockstar, I could stick anything in Ranbir’s face without the risk of him getting fazed. I was all over and all around him. He never had any issues with it. His role in Rockstar was of a kind that required the creation of an intense, personal point of view.
To break it up, I’d have to say that fundamentally there are two important things that inform a cinematographer’s aesthetic: a) the material, the subject-matter at hand, and b) the director’s insights and visual ideas on the treatment of the subject matter. These things are absolutely clear in my approach. Once a cinematographer has assimilated and interpreted them, he or she starts churning it around in his or her mind and processes it. Then, certain lived, observed, acquired ideas translate into a specific kind of work and a particular cinematic look. It’s as a consequence of this gradual, differentiating approach that a film like JTHJ looks drastically different from a film like Rockstar which again looks completely different from a film like Cocktail.