Camera, Vamera in English, Vinglish
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]onversing in colloquial English has been one of the most obsessive issues staring the upper-middle-and-aspiring-to-be-upper-middle-classes in India in their face for the last fifty years. This impetus is so stiff that it is considered a qualifying hurdle if someone is to be accepted within this community. If you can do it, you’re cool and in, if you cannot, you’re blasé and out, and are an object of prejudiced humour. In English, Vinglish, we finally have a film that mirrors this cruel state-of-mind that represents the Indian upper-middle-class and that targets the assumed logic within this norm especially when it confronts a woman who has difficulty speaking in English. We spoke to the film’s cinematographer, Laxman Utekar, to see how he created a cinematic style that could dovetail with English, Vinglish’s story to aptly express the intense personal drama and the subtle social emphases that this much appreciated film foregrounds.
What was the principal idea that you had for filming English, Vinglish?
English, Vinglish is not a visual-based film. It’s the story of a middle-class homemaker who cannot converse in English and consequently faces stiff challenges while surviving in a world that runs around the language of power that is English. It was important to shoot the film in ways which kept the significance and the focus of the story intact. Making frames beautiful was only a secondary consideration. Primacy was accorded to enhancing character. Emphasis was laid on getting audiences to identify with the protagonist. We, therefore, targeted the gap between an audience and its film and reduced it consciously with our choice of perspective and light.
What conscious styles, frames and perspectives did you use to your end?
I shot the entire film handheld. I used a 50mm lens for capturing the protagonist in close-ups and POV shots. The 50mm lens provides us with a viewing angle that’s close to what the human eye manufactures during the process of sight. In the film it therefore helps us recreate that angle closely and brings the audience closer to the protagonist.
Did your style in this film change from your style in your earlier ventures such as Blue and Khanna and Iyer?
Blue was a different canvas altogether. It was a visual-based film with beautiful locations and underwater scenes. English Vinglish was something else. Even though the entire film was shot in New York for 40 days, the place doesn’t emerge as important in it. What emerge are the characters and the story. New York merely functions as an apt backdrop for them. In English, Vinglish, we show New York to our audiences through the lens of the journey our protagonist takes in the film.
There are lots of exterior shots in the film. What kind of light set-ups did you use for these?
Yes, there are more exteriors in the film than interiors. In the exterior shots in Manhattan, I didn’t use lights at all. I just used poly-boards, skimmers, and bounce-boards. There was a set in Bombay in Yashraj Studios for Shashi’s house in Pune. I lighted it to heighten realism. I designed a light-pattern for it that expressed the changes and shifts in light during the passage of the day. Consequently, we were able to achieve different light intensities for morning, afternoon, 4 o’clock, evening, and night.
Was the Sun your biggest light source?
How did you practice diffusion for the film?
Generally, I used 216 and 250. When I had a significantly bigger light-source to diffuse, I used half GC (Graded Cloth). I also used reading-lights to create softer textures of light. These were used especially for Shashi’s close-ups.
What was the director’s brief to you? What were her instructions?
We did about a month and a half of preproduction before we started our shoot. During this period we attended to things such as colour palette and art design. The film’s director, Gauri Shinde, and I even chose specific costumes for specific scenes. Her brief to me during this period was to conceive of the film in such a way that it created an amalgam of aesthetic appeal and realist story-telling.
How was it working with Sridevi?
Working with Sridevi was superb. She’s truly is a veteran of 400 films. She was fantastic in her acting and extremely comfortable on sets. Being versatile, she also attended to the lighting.
Could you tell us about your gaffers and colourists?
My colourist was Ashirvad from Prime Focus World, Mumbai. He was excellent. My gaffer in Mumbai was Vishwanath from Big Cine Equipment, Bombay. I had another gaffer in New York. Both of them were superb. I used a Technicolor lab in New York.
What were the principal challenges you faced during filming?
Actually, the entire film was a challenge to shoot. Specifically though, the most challenging bit was managing lights and camera movement in cramped spaces on high floors. The classroom I shot in was on the 9th floor and was 9 ft high. It was 12 sq ft in area. 8 students occupied this small space during the shoot. I didn’t have space to put lights or trolleys. There was hardly any space for placing cameras too. Therefore, I took to capturing things handheld. It’s being on the 9th floor meant that we couldn’t put any external light source on the location. So I played with the false ceiling and put lights on it. We had the same issues even in Shashi’s 8ft high and 12 ft X15 ft bedroom. I managed with internal lights there too.
Which is your favorite scene from the film?
It is the one in which Shashi gets insulted in a café, runs out of it, and sits on the bench outside to mull.
What cameras and lenses did you use for English, Vinglish? Did you go digital too?
No, we didn’t use digital equipment. I shot the entire film on Arricam SG with ultra-prime lenses. The entire lens set-up was 10mm to 135 mm. I used Canon 400mm to capture the telephoto shots. While I shot most of my exteriors on Kodak 250D, I shot the interiors on Kodak 500 D. As the colour tones of the film were to remain very natural, we did little VFX. We ensured that no artificial colour tone crept in during DI and took precautions to prevent the film from acquiring the graded look. As keeping skin tones natural was a must, we increased warmth in our footages at night.
How much time did the entire process of filming English, Vinglish take?
We shot for 60 days. Pre-production was a month. DI was 20 days.
Where did the DI take place?
Prime Focus, Mumbai.