Approached Jab Harry Met Sejal like a documentary: K U Mohanan
Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal releases today and, like all his other films, this one also has a high curiosity quotient. The film looks visually stunning, the credit of which goes to noted Cinematographer K U Mohanan ISC. Mohanan, who has lent his virtuosity to a string of successful films, has gone behind the lens for this vibrant rom com, which also happens to be his first in the genre, to merge his brilliance with Imtiaz Ali’s prodigious storytelling.
In a candid chat, the ace Director of Photography talks about the film, what sets it apart from other Imitiaz films and working with Shah Rukh Khan in a totally different space after Raees.
How would you describe the look and feel of this film? What differentiates it from other romantic comedies?
This is the first time that I’ve actually done a rom-com. It’s an Imtiaz Ali film and he is known for his midas touch to this kind of cinema. He is a master when it comes to bringing out the nuances in the relationship of a man and woman. I thought of trying it as it inspired me to explore myself further, since I mostly do noir or very grungy films.
With Jab Harry Met Sejal, I decided to give the film a very realistic treatment and that reflects on the storytelling too. It didn’t involve too much of set-up and I approached it more like a documentary thus, retaining the essence of reality.
Since, you mentioned Imtiaz, what were the discussions with him essentially about? Was this film majorly an improvised output just like Highway?
Imtiaz is constantly thinking about the film even off sets. Hence, improvisations form a major part of his approach to a film. As a filmmaker you have a basic scheme for a film and for that you should have an in-depth knowledge of the location. The recce should add up to bringing finer details. But, all this is on paper and there are surprises waiting for you at the location. And, that’s what happened here too.
When I reached the location everything was completely different from what I had planned. There’s always a moment which fills an artist with some transcendental ideas. So, on a particular day something works better. On the whole, it was an organic process.
I never went into the zone of being over-dramatic or very cinema-like in terms of the cinematography for this film
Was there a colour palette you’ll locked before starting? What colours have you’ll largely worked with?
For this film, we didn’t work around a colour palette. If you look at my other films like Raees or Talaash, the palette there was well planned before the shoot but, in this film, nothing of that sort was decided.
The idea was to shoot the film in many countries all over Europe. So, I didn’t want to go with any colour palette because each city had a different feel and mood and I was consciously trying to capture those variations. Deciding a palette would have resulted in losing out of diversity.
Locations play a key role in the film, what were your deciding factors for the location?
The story is about a tour guide. And for most of the film’s length, it’s not about what he is showing to people, it’s more about his personal life. In fact, the story is told backwards, the film starts where the journey actually ends, and then goes backwards. Both the characters travel to a lot of cities during the course of the film and, all the cities come across as very incidental. That’s precisely the reason that even though we have mainly shown tourist locations, be it Amsterdam, Prague or Lisbon, one connecting link between all of them is that we have tried to keep it very natural.
What was your lighting design for the exterior travel shots? Did you largely work only with natural light?
I usually work with natural light. For this film, I tried to simulate natural light in a way to show how a city would look during the day or at night. I never went into the zone of being over-dramatic or very cinema-like in terms of the cinematography for this film. I used minimum lights, in order to create the required feel. And, this is with every city that we have portrayed in the film.
I generally use references from some of my personal trips and, it has got more to do with my artistic satisfaction
What camera and lens pack did you work with and what determined the choice?
I used the Arri Alexa SXT with the Cooke S5/i series. The reason behind choosing the S5/i series was that they can be used even in the night. As a result, it helped me in getting maximum output from available light. Of course, there were instances where we had to enhance the frame using artificial lights but most of it is derived from the use of available natural light source(s).
Was there a different approach when it came to the songs as each song has a distinct character?
‘Radha’ is actually the first song that we shot and at that point in the film, the two characters are not really sure if they love each other. So, while grading the film, I used a shift in colour temperature from cold to very warm towards the end. And, the songs were held in this bracket of temperature shift.
For ‘Beech Beech Mein’, a song which has been shot in a disco, I used existing lights and only controlled them without introducing another element from my side. On the contrary, ‘Butterfly’ is a full-on Punjabi song and is also the conclusion of the film so, it has been kept very colorful for obvious reasons.
As for the change in colour temperature of the film, I have purposely kept it not easily visible to a normal human eye. If you sit down and concentrate, then only you will get to notice the shift in pattern. The reason behind this is my liking towards subtlety. I generally use references from some of my personal trips and, it has got more to do with my artistic satisfaction. So, if someone catches it (the shift) while watching the movie, then it’s good, otherwise it’s just a personal touch like a painter’s thumb impression at the bottom of an artwork.
I decided to give the film a very realistic treatment and that reflects on the storytelling too
Having shot Shah Rukh Khan in Raees, how different was it in this film, since his characters are so vastly different?
The first film that we did together was Don which was 11-12 years ago and there, his character was highly stylized. With Raees, that tonality of a stylized character was watered down since it needed to establish a connection with the audience. And now, in this film, he has gone completely natural with his performance and the character. And he actually is a natural born actor.