He started at FTII, worked with some of the biggest names in the industry and went on to become one of the most sought after Cinematographers in the world of Advertising. With several captivating commercials and noted accolades to his credit, multiple award-winning cinematographer Tapan Basu made his debut in Bollywood with Kahaani 2. 

Basu describes his journey from ads to films as organic, adventurous and exciting. In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, he talks about his love for thrillers, the approach to shooting his debut film, working with Sujoy Ghosh and more.

Tapan Basu

How did Kahaani 2 happen for you?

Sometime during 2013, Sujoy Ghosh had sent me a script which he wanted to produce, so I wrote back to him saying that although it’s an interesting script, I somehow always had a feeling that my first feature should be a thriller. As a cinematographer, I would love to explore different genres where I can do different kinds of moods but I would want my first feature to be a thriller like Kahaani or Kaminey.

Around the end of 2015, I was planning to travel and my trip got cancelled and around the same time I got a call from Sujoy to meet him in Kolkata. He narrated a script to me and said, “You kept saying you want to do a thriller, now show me what you can do!”. I felt it was destiny that I had once mentioned I would like to do a film like Kahaani and I landed up doing Kahaani 2! 

Why did you wish to make your debut with a thriller?

I do want to shoot different genres of films but somehow thrillers have always attracted me. This film’s script gave me scope to create a certain mood which would compliment the story and help the narrative move forward. I guess am just fond of dark stuff!

What was the brief given to you by Sujoy regarding the treatment of the film?

From the beginning I was free to do whatever I wanted to do, keeping in mind the story and the characters. The brief was to stick to the emotion of the characters at all times. The mood and the scene of the film had to always depict the emotion of the actor. There was no exact reference point or starting point. You feel what the actors are going through and then you figure out the process in terms of lighting as well as movement of camera.

If you look at the flashback sequences, which took place at Kalimpong, we played with the texture, framing and lenses. It was shot anamorphic on Alexa XT. The whole sequence is very distinctive in Kalimpong. The character has gone through sexual abuse; so when you are showing something that is not nice, but keeping in mind that it has to communicate the right emotion to the audience, as well as not look disturbing to your eye, it’s challenging and we had to be very careful. The flashback sequences were treated in a certain way as Arjun was reading her diary. When you read something about a character, you will tend to keep that character in the center of your frame. I tried to play with that idea and kept the characters in the flashback, center framed and also kept the camera closer to them. To achieve that with anamorphic I mostly used a single lens throughout this sequence.

In terms of the colour palette and tone, Chandan Nagar was a little more saturated, had more contrast and the mood is a bit colourful.  There was also a distinctive style of shooting like it’s more handheld in Kolkata and Chandan Nagar while in Kalimpong there is a steady camera movement . At times we transitioned from a steady cam to handheld, depending on scenes. But it always remained with the character. Chandan Nagar and Kolkata were shot on RED Weapon with spherical lenses. The whole movie was handheld or on steady cam. We were constantly cutting from Anamorphic Alexa to Red Weapon spherical lenses in this film between Kalimpong (past) and Chandan Nagar, Kolkata (present time)

Could you talk more about different sequences and their treatment?

Everything was happening very intuitively from reading the script to seeing the performance and then designing it. Everything boiled down to what we felt about the characters. I knew exactly what format I wanted and the zone I wanted to take the film to with the look and feel. After I read the script, I felt Kalimpomg should be shot anamorphic on Alexa and for Kolkata and Chandan Nagar RED Weapon with spherical lenses. I studied in Darjeeling and I understand the environment of living in the hills. For me hills have a certain kind of romanticism attached to it. They also have a lot of grey. Even though we had just one wide shot of the hills in the film, you still feel the essence of the place. We started shooting in Kalimpong and then went on to Chandan Nagar and by the time we were in Chandan Nagar, it was super hot. We wanted the colours to be a bit more saturated and have a bit of contrast as we felt the present situation where Durga was in her life demanded it. The reason for choosing RED Weapon was because I was shooting in an extremely small space and also we didn’t have Alexa MINI at that time and the RED Weapon gave me different contrast and colours which worked well for the script.

Different sequences had different filtration and the camera movement was different. If you look at it, it’s much more stable in Kalimpong and it becomes frantic only during action sequences. Durga post her escape from hospital was framed differently than pre accident .

When the movie starts off, you see her writing. The camera is there but it’s slightly breathing. Then you start the day, go up and follow the character. The camera movement is a little frantic when she is late for office, cut to steady cam movement and again handheld. We were constantly cutting from steady cam to handheld as we went along with the character’s  journey.  The actions of the character drove the camera movement throughout the film. I felt we should be very close to the central character throughout the film.

When Arun is leaving for London and you see him knocking on the door, while she’s sitting against the wall, that for me was one the most powerful images even though you may call it a flat image because there is no depth in that shot. The darkness in the image made it impactful as it only highlighted her eyes and you can see the tears and the fear in her.

In terms of lighting, we have done subtle changes and honestly I don’t know if anyone notices that because whoever went to see the film came back saying that they were engrossed with the characters and the story, which I think is great for the cinematographer. Also lot of time people have told us about great use of available light but in reality nothing was really available .

A lot happens in the hospital room but every time we cut to it, it’s slightly different even at night. There was a small window next to Durga’s bed and the only time you see it bright is when she wakes up and tries to get up, at that moment the light from the window flares the lens and although it sounds clichéd, it worked in terms of visual narrative. I love flares but didn’t want to shoot the frames just for it. The flares were motivated by the action and if we got it, it was great. I don’t know how many people noticed it, in Kalimpong, little Mini’s room never had sunlight pouring in whereas her uncle’s room had sunrays sweeping in and plays a important role in the very first revelation between Durga and Mohit over the origami. We had many more little details when it came to creating a certain mood for each scene .

We had a two camera set up at times. One was on a steady cam which was operated by Lenny who was great and the other one was always with me. The police station was actually a set in one of the studios in Kolkata. That was all controlled with bounce sources coming in from the windows and we had to do it by matching it with the exterior shots in Chandan Nagar.

My favourite scene is when she runs away from the hospital and enters the house, searching and changing. Another interesting scene for me was when she’s throwing kerosene over the house, which was the last sequence; there’s a strange craziness in that whole sequence and I think that when we shot it, it was more actor-driven and the camera moves with the character. It’s not that I am letting the actor do something for the camera. The whole approach was to let them do what they want to do and if there’s an issue, we would talk about it and sort it out.

There was an amazing contrast of colours in terms of warm and cool for night exterior shots. I loved how you had lit the exterior night sequence on the road. Could you elaborate on the lighting? 

All the artisans come from Chandan Nagar during the Durga Pooja, so all the pandal lighting that you see in West Bengal are basically present all throughout the year. I took the liberty with production designer Kaushik and Barik who were extremely good to create an environment where the neon lighting and the environment becomes a part of the film naturally. If you look at it, Chandan Nagar always has a wet down feel to it. I wanted to keep the natural low luminance going throughout those sequences so the wet down was necessary to get me the specular highlights! The only part which is brightly lit was the main crossing at Chandan Nagar. Dugra’s by lanes were relatively darker which is a reality in small towns. We had access to some street lamps, so we stood by them and then we used 12 Bank Dinos, which were put up on the roof of the surrounding buildings. In terms of framing you will notice that when Vidya is running on the streets at night there is a lot of negative framing as the situation demanded me to push her in the corner of the frame. That made it more impactful.

Could you elaborate on the kind of lights and equipments that youve used for different set ups – both big and tiny spaces?

I always had a package of mix of HMI Daylights and Tungsten lights with me. For the houses, we used practicals and some sources were lit from the outside to emulate light coming from a street lamp at night or during day the daylight. We used tube lights both in Kalimpong and Chandan Nagar but of different colour temperature in Durga’s room. We had a lot of sources hidden behind during the shoot as we were open to let the characters move around and according to the movement we would switch on the source or keep it off.

Vidya’s house in Chandan Nagar, it has a warm palette with warm hues in comparison to the space in Kalimpong, which has a cool grey palette with a bit of warm light from the overhead lamp, which art provided and I loved the shadows it created on the faces and wall. We had cut the roof and put a green asbestos so I could get a green day light spill in from top. When I was scouting in the hills, I saw that in one of the houses and really liked it.

When you see the action sequence, there is a green light spilling in from the top, which are the little elements that I wanted to add to give a break to the whole space.

Please tell us a little bit about your team.

My first assistant, Rajesh Nare whom I have known over 9 years was just excellent! While pulling focus, most of the times we worked with a shallow depth of field, keeping our T-stop at 2 and at times even open. Most of the times it was anamorphic, which can be a nightmare for any focus puller! I usually don’t like giving any focus marks, even if I gave him the focus mark, I used to just change my operation quite often because of the performance. We just got used to this whole dynamic together (Laughs). My Gaffer Mehmud Ali Hasan Ali Shah known as Papu who has worked with me as best boy was handpicked from Mulchand’s team with whom I have always worked and this being in a different city I didn’t have his team. This was his first movie as a gaffer and did a great job too along with the team from Kolkata. I must mention Abhijeet and Sanjay from the Lighting Company in Kolkata. My second assistant was Mahesh Deshmukh who had worked on previous jobs with the production. The second camera focus puller was Pandey. In the US section my first AC was Eric Kandefer who had worked with me earlier. Post shoot I used to sit down with my DIT Vinayak and try to create certain looks which became a base to work on. My colourist was Navin Shetty with whom I collaborated since my assistant days with my mentor Tassaduq Hussain. I think he did a great job.

Describe Sujoy as a director and the experience with the actors.

I think I am super lucky to have had him as my director. He is a wonderful person who gives loads of freedom, is totally crazy and full of energy. It was lovely working with Vidya Balan and Arjun Rampal. Both were superb and easy to work with.

How would you describe this journey from Advertising to Films?

It’s been a very organic, adventurous and exciting journey. After my film school in FTII,  I started assisting Tassaduq Hussain and worked with him on numerous commercials and the feature film Kaminey. In 2012, I became independent and since then I’ve been shooting numerous commercials. Kahaani 2 will always remain special to me as it’s been my first feature and I have wonderful memories associated with it .