For Chennai people, Bollywood is Hollywood: N K Ekhambram
Ace cinematographer N K Ekhambram who has earlier worked on successful Tamil films like Iyarkai, Pori and Drona plus big-budget Hindi films such as De Dana Dan, and Zila Ghaziabad, now anticipates the release of his fourth Bollywood film titled Shortcut Romeo. In an insightful conversation with Pandolin, this top-most South-Indian cinematographer shares his working relationship with the director, shooting experience in Kenya and the major challenges faced during the making of this film.
What was your initial understanding and thought process for shooting Shortcut Romeo?
First, I tried to understand the story line and what the director needs. I went through the sequences in the film and preplanned the look set for them. Since, visuals play a very important part in this film, I had to take into account each and every aspect. Whether it was art direction, costume or location setting, I coordinated with all and designed the whole look for the film. As you will see, the film has both glamorous and realistic elements; I accordingly devised the lighting pattern.
How was your collaboration with Susi Ganeshan, the director of the film considering you have worked with him earlier on Tamil films? What was his brief to you for Shortcut Romeo?
I have earlier worked with Susi Ganeshan on a tamil film named Kanthaswamy starring south superstar Vikram. For that film, we traveled around the world and developed a great rapport, which brought us together again for Shortcut Romeo. Its Susi’s first Hindi film and my fourth, so being little more experienced, I was kind of guiding him in terms of handling people and production. We both support each other a lot.
He is a very creative person and a fine-tuned director. As much as he concentrates on the screenplay, he equally concentrates on the look of the film as well. He is always looking for betterment, whether it’s in terms of visuals, costumes, camera angle or some other technical aspect. Since, he was an assistant to Mani Ratnam, he demands perfection in every single shot. He wanted every frame to be visually very big and grandeur and as a cinematographer I tried my best to achieve that level.
Since Shortcut Romeo is a remake of a Tamil film, what elements have you adapted from the original film? How did you decide upon the look and feel for the Hindi version?
The tamil film doesn’t have that kind of visuals, which we designed for Shortcut Romeo. Hence, the look and the feel of this film are totally different from its original version. Since the film has been set in Mumbai, we created a very urban look for it depicting the high-rise buildings, clubs and the Bombay culture.
Also, being a romantic thriller, it entails basically two kinds of visuals. One is the soft fairy tale romance between Neil Nitin Mukesh and Puja Gupta, while the other one is in contrast portraying a cold war situation between Neil and Ameesha patel. Overall, it’s a very subtle film where colors won’t dominate the visuals.
Which camera format and lenses did you employ for the shoot and why?
In this film, first time I have used digital camera i.e. ARRI ALEXA with Master prime lenses including lots of wide angle and optima zoom lens. The film has been shot with ProRes card having 2k resolution. This all was required for the very soft and clean look, which the film needed. Also, shooting on the film format is a little more expensive and extensive process. Hence, from the directorial point of view, we went digital this time in order to be more experimental with no footage restrictions. Besides, digital is easier to work with.
What kind of camera movements and framing have you incorporated for the film?
In this film, we did one complete fight sequence handheld. It’s little shaky but then it was a fight in Kenya with Maasai people and long runners. Also, there was no equipment in Kenya so we took everything plus jimmy jib from India. In climax fight, I used 1000 frames and second camera for 5-10 different motions.
Please tell us about the lighting design you conceived for the film?
Since, this film has been shot on a digital format, we didn’t use frontal light for shooting. Otherwise it would have given a very flat look to the film. So, we always used back light and off light for the scenes. Depending upon the location, we employed ARRI lights, kino flos, drum lights, space lights and HMI 6K power lights. Besides, I put into use available tube lights, wherever possible. In outdoor shooting, I tried using less artificial lights but more of reflectors and skimmers.
How did you approach the action sequences of the film and how was it working with the action director?
There are three action sequences in the film. One was shot in Kenya, another was towards the climax and the third was shot in Madh Island. Now, suppose for one action sequence, we shot for over a period of three days but in the film it will be shown in just one or two minutes. So, every time while shooting action, I have to be careful about the lighting variations and how to manage that. Since, the sunlight changes from day to night, I have to plan the placement of artists and my camera angles accordingly.
I used to have discussions with my action directors about choosing a particular background after a particular time. Hence, in order to maintain one look so that there is no visual jerk, I always tried to follow and match the light. According to me, shooting action is always hectic with two-three cameras and too much cuts.
However, Kanal Kannan who is the main action director of this film made my work quite easier. I have worked with him previously in many Tamil as well as Hindi films and I would say he is India’s no. one action director. He is working with all big stars in all film industries and I thoroughly enjoy working with him.
What was the kind of challenges faced during the shoot and how did you manage to overcome it?
See, what you expect is not always what you get. While shooting, we faced lots of challenges in terms of the timing and the constant weather change. We had many outdoor sequences and sometimes if the artist came late and by then the lighting had changed then I have had to rethink and re-plan the entire thing.
Besides, we wanted a little rustic look for our hero whereas Neil’s skin tone is just like a foreigner. Though, we suggested very dull makeup for him and avoided too much soft light yet it became extremely difficult to match the lighting and skin tone while shooting with black people in Kenya.
But then, to deliver under the given circumstances while tackling the situation is what I was ought to do and it worked out pretty well in the end.
Where did the shooting happen and how many days it took to complete the entire film?
Most of the shooting happened in Mumbai but one sequence of the film was shot in Kenya in Maasai Mara for around 25 days. Also, one climax sequence was shot in Chennai racecourse because we couldn’t get permission to shoot in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi racecourse. It took us total 65-70 days to complete the shoot.
How much portion of the film has been shot on sets and real locations?
Almost all the songs were filmed on sets but everything else was shot on real locations.
How many VFX shots are there in the film and where did the post production take place?
About twenty five percent of the film is VFX. The entire Ameesha’s house is VFX though you cannot figure out it. Besides, one song shot on a helipad set is fully VFX. DI of this film was done at Prime Focus, Mumbai while VFX happened in Chennai. My permanent colorist is Ashirwaad from Prime Focus and he has superbly put life into the colors of this film.
What is the key difference you find between the Tamil and Hindi film industry in terms of sensibilities and working environment?
Tamil films are little more realistic and low in budget while in Hindi film industry one can get more creative because of big budget. Here, things are more glorified and all the producers and directors want visual impact so they are willing to spend according to the project. But in Chennai, there are so many restrictions in terms of camera, lights and budget.
Also, the working style is very different. Here in Bollywood, you have to work according to the artist while in Chennai everybody follows timing and its more controlled there. However, Bollywood is definitely a bigger exposure since Chennai films reach only to a smaller audience. In Bollywood, people are trying to match Hollywood but for Chennai people Bollywood is the Hollywood.