Gour Hari Dastaan is a story that could bring change to the country
Ace Cinematographer Alphonse Roy known for hard-hitting films like Aamir and Gulab Gang has now lent his expertise to the period biopic Gour Hari Dastaan – The Freedom File. In a candid chat with Pandolin, he talks about his interest in biopics, association with Director Ananth Mahadevan, the challenges of shooting a period film and more.
How did you come on board Gour Hari Dastaan – The Freedom File?
I’ve always been interested in biopics. Since this is a true story inspired from a newspaper article post which Ananth (Mahadevan) made the effort to go and meet Mr.Das, it made a lot more sense rather than most Bollywood films that are pirated stories and not original screenplays. That gave me the liking towards it. Also, I’ve worked with Ananth before on his short film called Life is Good. We established a very good rapport and he makes a sincere effort to make films differently, away from the regular formula. He has a great command over the pace of the film and what the story needs because the overall pace of the film has to suit the story. Gour Hari Dastaan – The Freedom File is such a wonderful story that needs to be told, needs to reach a wide audience because it could bring change to the country. It’s not just about me making a living or shooting a film, it’s also the whole feeling about doing something good for the country. I come from a documentary background and sincerely believe that cinema is a very powerful medium that can be used to bring a social change as well. I am not saying that you can completely change society through films but a percentage of it could be used for creating a social change.
Was there a particular brief from Mr.Mahadevan? What was the visual treatment that you’ll chose for the film?
Ananth trusts me and a cinematographer’s role is to act as the eyes of the director. I saw that he is following the story as truly as possible; not taking dramatic liberties and turning the story around. My role was to come in and add to it so that the film looks 100 per cent real.
Since the story is a biopic, certain parameters were set. One is that the film will have a realistic look; that the lighting will be very real. Then we had the challenge of the period, so we made sure that the period looks real, which meant reproducing true color tones and true skin tones so that the Indian actors looks Indian. Extreme care was taken on true color reproduction. Also normally films are shot with a lot of HMIs but I completely avoided them. I used only Tungsten lights so that I could achieve true color reproduction. We shot on Film to get that grainy effect which goes with the period. I owe a huge thanks to my colorist Aashirwad Hadkar from Prime Focus, one of the renowned colorists in India who does all the big films. He is very comfortable with such films.
So you chose to shoot on Film to achieve the period look? Which camera and lens have you used?
Yes, we wanted to have a period look. And we take inspiration from the period we are talking about. I had to make a time statement through the visuals in the film. It’s much easier to make a time statement of the era through Film because film has those grains and the way it gets projected is not clinically clean like digital with high resolution. It was necessary to do that so we shot it with Kodak film. Kodak set up an international standard lab and Mr. Solemn, who managed the lab, greatly helped us. He took extra care to get the picture quality to the utmost and they did a great job. My background is basically from wildlife cinematography. I used to shoot films for Nat Geo and my films would be processed in Technicolor in Washington or in UK. The labs there are highly standardized. So I’m used to that style of working. Solemn gave me that same quality of results in Bombay.
We used ARRI Master Prime lenses and ARRIFLEX ST cameras.
Since the film is largely shot indoors, what was your lighting design?
Most of the story happens within one apartment, which in itself is not too big. So we couldn’t put up lights inside and had to light it all from side so we could have free working space within the apartment. We shot with natural light wherever feasible. Otherwise we recreated natural looking lighting. To put it in other words, we were not afraid about darkness. If you look at our mainstream films you have to keep the actors well lit, bright and beautiful all the time. We didn’t have that kind of a pressure from Vinay (Pathak) or Konkana (Sen Sharma) or anyone because they were all playing characters. I was lighting for the situation, not lighting faces to make them look beautiful. Every decision was made towards storytelling. There are two types of cinematography – one is a very loud kind that communicates the presence of the camera and camera person, you feel it when you watch the film. The other kind is when you stay back and take a third party view into the story. The story is most important, my cinematography is only to document it and bring it to screen. It’s not in making my presence felt. You need to be a confident and secure cameraman to stay back and let the story take over.
Being a dialogue and performance based film, what was your approach to framing and angles? What was the camera set up like?
It is more of a classical composition. There is a belief that if you use extreme wide-angle lenses they distort the image. Since it’s a true story, we wanted to present it the way it is to the public, in an undistorted way. So I avoided the ultra wide-angle lenses. Everything was kept with no distortion, even in the image form. All these things work at a subtle level but when you watch the film you realize that there is something different to it. Also, there has to be great harmony in films. People should not come back and say, “wow the music was good,” or “the camera work was good.” No. They all together need to have harmony – the story, acting, music etc. That is something that rarely happens. But it happened in this film.
As the film is shot indoors, was it all real locations or sets?
We didn’t create any sets, it was all real places. We put in enough time in the prep. Ananth and myself went around checking locations, taking stills. Bombay luckily has those kinds of period locations. You go to Wilson College, Elphinstone etc. We wanted an old flat and luckily there was a flat that was about to go into redevelopment, so people had vacated it. We delayed the redevelopment and went in and shot there. We then wanted another flat to show that he (Das) shifts into a new house. There was a flat under construction, we walked in there, stopped further construction, shaped the flat to our needs and then shot there.
In addition to the location hunt, was there any kind of research that you did in the pre production phase? Did you also meet Mr. Gour Hari Das?
I met Mr.Das several times. I would observe the way he talks, his house and so on, because all that influences the style we adapt. With Vinay we shaved his head, tried various hair set-ups because you shave it one day and it’s clean, but how do you sustain it because the hair keeps growing. So we worked on that. We did a lot of test pictures, what kind of cotton he (Vinay) should be wearing as he wears only one costume through out. Also it had to have the texture of a particular kind of khadi and you had to capture that in the shot. All those things were important. Also there were only certain colours used in that period in the 70s; we didn’t have very synthetic colours. So we restricted our colour palette and gave that to our art director who did a great job. In fact we had a problem during our train shot because the trains have blue and green coaches. But those days we had the brownish red colored coaches. So we had to repaint the whole coach before the shoot and then wash the paint off after the shoot was done. Railways charge you as per time and the track is only free for x number of hours. So within that we had to do all of it. And we didn’t have a super big budget, so we had to work without comprising on quality.
Was the train sequence the most challenging in the entire film? Any other complex shots?
I think two of the scenes were challenging. One is definitely the train sequence where you have Gour Hari Das running with the train at night and then being taken as prisoner in the train. Another sequence was the mass procession outside the state assembly that comes towards the end of the film. I don’t think I have seen it in any other film. We had to put this whole crowd there and that is when Das finally gets his certificate. The procession is going on and he joins it. It was challenging to shoot there and the cops were constantly behind our back.
The film has a talented ensemble cast. How was the experience of working with them? Were there any creative inputs from Vinay or any of the cast members?
Not Vinay; he is not that kind of an interfering actor. But it was amazing to see him get into that role. One minute he would be sitting with us in the caravan and chatting. But the moment the shot was called, he would get into the mode of the character. That dedication to get into the character and remain in it through the film was commendable. Ranvir (Shorey) is a fun loving guy who can jump into the character just when the camera is rolling and once the shot is done he would go back to joking and making fun. The other actors were struggling hard to sustain the somber mood with Ranvir on set (laughs). He is such a fun loving guy.
Please tell us about your team.
I did this whole film with just two girls Archana Borhade and Seema Menon. I always want to help girls come up in cinema especially cinematography as we don’t have many Indian women cinematographers. Archana was my prime associate and did a great job. My focus puller Deepak, who is from Kerala, also did a fantastic job. We had a very small team. Special credit goes to two people who helped me achieve this look, Aashirwad and Archana. I’d also like to mention another vital contributor to this film, Resul Pookutty who brought in the sensibilities of international cinema. When he mixes sound he brings in that sensibility strongly. And Sreekar Prasad, the editor, who is a multiple National Award winner. He contributed to the film right from the beginning. We had a meeting before the film started and he suggested corrections, what should be brought down, what needs to be dropped, much before shooting and told us how the screenplay should go.
Be it Aamir, Gulaab Gang or Gour Hari Dastan, what is it that motivate you to take up a project?
I would like to do films, which will have a long shelf life. Films like Kaagaz Ke Phool or Pather Panchali that have stayed on. It’s not that I don’t want to do box office hits but something ‘hatke’, something one step above, would be nice. I give my 100 per cent when I shoot a film and when all the people put in their 100 per cent you are making a massive film which can be much larger than your life. I look forward to Indian cinema going and ruling the world, that’s the day I’m dreaming of. In the area of cinema I sincerely believe that Indians should get into making films that go beyond Indian audiences, towards world audience.
Could you throw some light on your upcoming projects?
Right now we are working on a couple of scripts. Gulab Gang was my last film followed by Ashutosh Gowariker’s Everest (TV series), which was nearly a year long project. I’m currently working on two projects – a Tamil film and a Marathi film that is with Ananth itself. It’s called Rukma Bai and is a period biopic. On India’s first woman to qualify as a doctor, a Marathi woman who went to London to study and all that she went through in life. It’s a challenging story set in 1854 and goes up to 1955 and I’m looking forward to it.