“Hasee Toh Phasee was probably one of the toughest films I have been on in terms of the working environment. We were constantly racing against time and shooting with two cameras,” says cinematographer Sanu John Varughese about his recently released film. Known for his realistic style of lighting and impeccable camerawork, Sanu John Varughese had a special and different experience while working on his first out-and-out romantic comedy Hasee Toh Phasee. He speaks to Pandolin about the making of this light-hearted film, his shooting style, lighting design and the problems faced at the locations.

IMG_3144What was the essential brief given to you from the director Vinil Mathew? Also, mention the references you looked at?

There was a very clear brief for what it should look and feel like. Vinil Mathew has 10 years of advertising experience so he was pretty sure about the visuals, sound and the kind of emotions he wanted to portray on screen. He has got a very good sense about what kind of visual will go with a particular kind of music. The major look of the film was Vinil’s call at the end of the day. His storytelling is not only visual-based but also sound- and acting-based. I have worked with Vinil since the start of his career and shot all his first projects such as his first corporate film, music video, short film and even the first commercial.

We scouted for locations together and knew what we were getting at. We looked at a lot of romantic comedies too, especially Jerry Maguire. It was not a reference in terms of looks but to understand how the film was shot in terms of cinematography. Jerry Maguire is shot with lot of dramatic lighting and with lots of jumps in terms of conventional continuity in lighting.

How is this film different from any other romantic comedy shot in India? What was your primary approach towards it?

If you look at the romantic comedies shot in India, most of them fall into the sitcom kind of drama in terms of lighting. It would either be light-hearted on the flatter side or high key, so we wanted to do something about it. We wanted to shoot a film with a lot of contrast but finally what we ended up doing is different. We actually shot it with contrast but pulled the contrast out of the film for the DCP (Digital Cinema Package).

IMG_2707Tell us about the shooting locations and number of days taken to complete this film?  

We shot a major portion of the film at locations in Mumbai and few scenes were shot on sets. We were shooting with multiple cameras constantly and it’s something which I learnt while shooting for Vishwaroopam. We shot in Heerabagh chawl, Powai, streets of Film City, but the main house, where most of the stuff happens, was a set. We shot all the scenes in 52 days and three song sequences were shot over a period of nine days.

What was your choice for the camera and lenses in the film?

We shot with Red Epic and Panavision Primo lenses. We tested few lenses such as Ultra Primes and Master Primes but Primos turned out to be the best on skin. And that is something we really wanted for our actors — to look good on screen. Now, these lenses were much softer on the skin but a little too flary on the highlights, so we thought we could use it to our advantage. Hence, if you look at the film, there is lot of flares, which is shot deliberately. This makes it feel real at one end and prettier at the other. It actually goes with the mood of the film.

As far as the camera is concerned, Sony F65 was turning out to be more expensive so I didn’t even test it. Then the choice was between Alexa and Red Epic. For me, the advantage with Red Epic is that it’s a really small piece of equipment, which just fits into any corner of any room.

IMG_5813What was the shooting style executed by you for Hasee Toh Phasee? Did you see any special equipment for any particular sequence in the film?

There is a certain amount of drama in lighting but the camera angles and the movements are the least dramatic. It is something that Vinil has done effectively in lots of commercials and it has now become a part of his shooting language. It’s almost non-dramatic in terms of how we would compose and frame and some even look like it’s not well composed. Vinil always banks on the camera for a definite kind of realism, and there was hardly any money for special equipment, so we shot with steady cams, handheld and brought jimmy jib for only shooting songs.

Please elaborate on the lighting design adopted?

There is a space of visuals in terms of lighting, which I have been exploring since I started with cinematography. I am trying to create a zone, which is realistic as well as pretty. It is very basic, for instance, if somebody is inside a house, then the light would come from the windows and not from the rooftop just because it’s shot in a studio. It’s real in terms of source i.e. it will always feel like that light is coming from a real source but we always tweak it.

For the interior sets, we used lots of space lights and ARRI 6K par. For one song we used various LED par and panels, which was quite interesting. Rest, it was the regular stuff such as HMIs because I don’t use large tungsten fixtures. For exteriors we worked with minimal lights. I keep my lighting really simple, as the light in nature is not complicated at all; it’s just one sun and a huge fill called sky.

IMG_7834How do you like shooting songs in a film while collaborating with a choreographer?

There’s a Punjabi wedding song in the film choreographed by Ahmed Khan, and Vinil wanted a really high key look for it. Now, when you go to somebody such as Ahmed Khan, you just surrender and see what he does. There may be things, which I probably don’t like about his work but it’s amazing to look at his working style. Then, there was another song shot with Remo where we put in those LED lights that could just change colours from a panel. We designed lots of attractive colour schemes for that one song. And then, there was another crazy song shot with Bosco. I actually enjoy shooting songs because choreographers are really creative people to work with. They work with such clarity and their craft is also very interesting to look at. I can’t dance, so it’s exciting for me to observe people designing a dance.

Talk about the major difficulties faced while working on this film?

It was physically challenging and extremely stressful, primarily because of the amount of work we wanted to finish off every day. It was probably one of the toughest films I have been on in terms of the working environment. We were constantly racing against time and shooting two cameras. Now, when you shoot multiple cameras, you need to get your thoughts right for those two angles, otherwise those two shots would cut in a weird way.

We did face lot of trouble at the locations too. Heerabagh was tough because we were trying to shoot our sequence in the middle of the road on a market day and people were abusing at us. However, when you see the film, it comes across as if we made a set and shot it.

IMG_5893What was the most challenging sequence to shoot in Hasee Toh Phasee?

Most challenging was the sequence we shot at Bhuleshwar i.e. a crowded street near Bhendi Bazaar in town. We were shooting with two cameras and there was no way Vinil and me could get next to each other or know what is going on at the other end. I  simply trusted Vinil’s sensibility to pull off the shoot while I was filming something else somewhere. Besides, we had to shoot and finish it off in a limited time. I think, the number of years that we’ve spent together working helped us do the job.

How was the experience working on Hasee Toh Phasee different from your earlier projects?

This was the first time I was shooting an out-and-out romantic comedy. I am not a great fan of the format that cinematographers apply in India because you don’t really get to push the limits. It’s always a tried-and-tested thing, which everybody follows shooting a particular film in a particular way. There’s a set thinking about how to shoot a romantic comedy but I have never really gotten into it.

Hasee Toh Phasee was shot at a different dramatic level but we pulled it down later because our underlying sense was a light-hearted humour. At the end of the day, you have to see what works for the film rather than what works for you as a cinematographer.

IMG_9998Please talk about the VFX in the film and your team?

There was minimal VFX in the film with about 10–12 shots at the most. DI happened at Prasad Labs and Sameer Pandit was my colourist. My assistant was Srinivas Reddy — a fantastic guy, who is great with handling people and we have have been working together for seven years. There were so many things, which he independently lit and handled on the sets. For two days, when I couldn’t go on the shoot, my efficient team of assistants pulled off the job beautifully.