Cinematographer Savita Singh takes us behind the scenes of Hawaizaada and shares her experience of shooting this fairytale-like film which is unlike conventional period films.


Savita Singh

As Hawaizaada is set in another era, how would you describe the look and feel of the film? What color palette and tone have you’ll used?

One of the key element in the film is the period it is set in, i.e. 1895 Mumbai, a period that we had never seen. The film was previously titled Bambai Fairytale and we wanted a dream-like genre, a fantastical world. We wanted a period film, but not the kinds we are used to seeing. Generally period films have warm color tones and earthy colors but we wanted to build a completely different world for Hawaizaada. So we decided to go with a cool color palette of blues and greens. We have also lensed it very differently giving a softer, telephoto lens feel through the film and playing with the focus and depth of field.

The keyword was a ‘fantastical’ world, which celebrates the spirit of this man who thought that he could make a plane and he did. A scientist is always ahead of his time and no one understands them so their vision is almost like a fairytale to people. Hawaizaada is a very saturated film with many colors. We have paid a lot of attention to the set colors, costume colors etc., so nothing in the frame is accidental. We were creating separation, contrast, depth and mood with the colors in the frame. In the post-production stage I told my colorist that I wouldn’t want to lose those colors, the saturation and at the same time create a unique look that has a dream like softness in the images.

The overall look seems to bear resemblance to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films. Was there any inspiration from his works?

No not at all. The comparison could stem from the fact that Vibhu (Director) has previously worked with Mr.Bhansali. So it is inevitable to draw that parallel. But there was no reference or influence at all. The world of Hawaizaada is very different. But if someone says so, I would take it as a compliment as Mr.Bhansali has a great sense of visuals and we hold his work in high regard.

What was the kind of research and preparation involved?

The first thing we did was to research on Shivkar Talpade and the time period. My focus was on getting picture references, old family photos of that era to understand how people would dress, how they would walk and so on. I believe that referencing isn’t some thing that is project oriented, it is something that we have been doing throughout our life. It is a collective collage of the influences and things we have observed over the years through literature, paintings, filmmakers we admire and so on. All these things have added to my growth as an artist and technician. I did not watch any films consciously as part of referencing because I feel that directly or indirectly it seeps in and influences your work.

The film introduces the concept of ‘magical realism’. How have you incorporated this in your visuals?

When I say fantastical, it is close to magical. Magical realism is neither real nor a fantasy, but something in between. It is a very subtle way of showing the reality and it translates in the actor’s costumes, their way of talking, how we lens and frame them and the way we shot the film.


While composing your frames and lensing, what was your overall approach?

Vibhu and I decided that we did not want to show too much in the frames, everything was shot in a controlled fashion. Even if I was taking a long shot, it was taken on a telephoto lens, where the depth of field would be so shallow that everything is not visible. I wanted it to be very masked with the focus showing only what we would like to show because at that point maybe only that thing is important to the story. For instance, I wanted the audience to only notice the boy even if I’m showing an entire street. We wanted to stick to the state of mind of actors, the mood of the story and the rhythm, which is very soft, dreamlike and flows in a poetic fashion. For us Hawaizaada was like poetry that was being said through visuals, dialogs and performances.

The film was shot in Gondal, Gujarat, recreating an entire city. What were the deciding factors while choosing the locations? Has the film been shot only on sets or are real locations involved?

We were working on sets as well as real locations. One of the biggest sets we had was the dilapidated ship where Mithunda’s character stayed. It was broken down into 3 different sets where the interior was shot at one place, a set was erected for the upper deck – the open area and then we had to put up a city square where there were a couple of streets, bridges, market areas etc.

We needed an open-area in the city to shoot. The story is set in Mumbai and the ideal scenario would be to shoot in the old lanes in South Bombay. But the restrictions are too many so we had to eventually build a set. We could have erected a set in an empty ground in Mumbai but we wanted to incorporate some element of reality and then build a set because only a set looks fake. We came across this palace in Gujarat, which has a flavour of old Mumbai with a clock tower, a staircase, a huge façade on one end and it looked apt. We worked around the façade and built our walls and lanes and merged it together. So you couldn’t tell which was real and which side was fake. We had a sense of reality through the sky, the trees and birds. So it was a set but was built inside a real façade and had a sense of magical realism to it.

What was your approach towards lighting ? Please share examples of scenes with elaborate lighting set-ups.

My effort to look at a frame is how a classic Renaissance painter would paint his painting. The approach to compositions in the film was very classic. The quality and texture of the lights is very soft and I’ve worked with big and soft light sources. For me where the light is not falling is more important than where the light falls. So how I control the light to not fall somewhere and fall somewhere else to create shadows and highlights is important. We were shooting on a lot of real locations so I made sure that the harshness of the sunlight didn’t directly fall on the actors and the sets. Molding the natural light was a big task. Since it was not a very big budget film we did not have any pre-light days or equipment or big lighting team. We were always thinking of quicker and faster solutions. I like to spend a lot of time on the location or set before we shoot to observe the place and see how the light reacts at different times so you know the strength and weakness and can play around it.

There is a sequence in the film, a dramatic point, where the boy betrays his mentor. It’s a long sequence that travels through many characters and was interesting because from a pitch-black frame, you see the overexposed light on the character and surrounding and then again it moves to pitch-black. So we were playing with extremes. We shot that sequence through the film from day 1 to day 85 over one and a half year so it was challenging to match the same intensity. But my lighting Continuity Supervisor did a great job and we had exact specs and elaborate lighting diagrams for reference.

Lighting up sets was interesting. There was an exterior set of Mithunda’s ship and it was not feasible to shoot it on the real sea so we had to put a huge Chroma set of 120 feet X 80 feet which has the upper deck of the ship and everything around is a green cloth. It was challenging because we had to create the sense of a skylight and make it look real, like it has been shot on a beach. We didn’t want any harsh sun situations so it was shot during late evenings and early mornings. Overall my light requirement was very small and we were playing with basic light sources. We would add a lot of lights and make a big source rather than put small lights everywhere. In the film, the spaces are very artsy and the emotion is massy. So I used light to mix two worlds to create the right mood and at the same time keep my actors well lit to create a sense of gloss and glamour. Unless there was a requirement where the actors have to look harsh or to not show their faces.

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Tell us about the camera and lenses used. 

When we started the shoot, a year and a half back, film was fading out and digital had caught up. But since this film was like a painting for us, it had to have the texture of the film negative. I’m very glad that Vibhu as a director supported me to shoot on film. We have shot on ARRI 435 as it was a non-sync film, using Cooke s5/i lenses. I like this lens as it has a soft and seamless quality to it also the 1.4 f-stop opening helped me as I tend to shoot a lot of shallow depth of field. We largely used a single camera except for few days when we were shooting action or flying bits where the actors were on harness. In such scenes it is inconvenient to repeat the same action many times, so we used a two-camera set up. Since the approach was classic there is no Handheld or Steadicam as the film needed track like movements. So we used Panther to get lyrical and poetic movements with a rhythm. Sometimes we used Jimmy Jib too.

How have you treated the songs in the film?

The film has a very interesting mélange of songs and this kind of music has come after a long time. A song only comes to take the story forward in a more poetic way. Vibhu is a lyricist himself and is very involved in the music. It’s very interesting because I’ve seen that he shoots his songs like scenes and scenes like songs. There are very few dancing songs but the songs are feel-good and transport you to the state of mind of the character. So there is a song like ‘Daak Ticket’ where they are celebrating the idea that they are going to start making a plane. Then there is ‘Dil Todne Ki Machine’, which is a Lavani song, almost in the zone of an item number but we wanted to approach it with dignity. ‘Udd jayega’ is the key song of the film that takes the story forward a lot of times – whenever the character talks about his journey, his defeats, victories, all that is translated in this song.

Describe your collaboration with the director and your husband Vibhu Puri?

The good thing is that we have similar references in life – the literature, films, images and our general take on life. So it is very easy for me to understand his worldview and vice versa. Also since we studied together, our basics are the same and it’s easy to gel. Working with him was very interesting. He is a very visual director and gives a lot of space. I’m always the first person to hear what he’s written so my attachment to the story and screenplay is also a lot. Vibhu always like a healthy discussion with his team and invites inputs so it is an interesting collaboration.


Tell us about the VFX employed in the film. Please take us through the making of the scene where Ayushmann is flying.

It is a VFX heavy film in that we had a lot of Chroma key replacement for the ship. As far as the flying bits go, we stayed away from too much CG. Chroma replacement was a huge task because we didn’t want it to look fake. Our VFX supervisor, Prasad Sutar, one of the finest in the industry and a very aesthetical man and VFX supervisor Sanjeev Naik were equally involved with the vision of the film and have done a great job. My assistants Pushkar and Devu were also closely involved in the VFX and shot the water and sky plates for the sequence. We just had 25 days of post for 30 minutes of VFX, which normally needs three months at least.

Ayushmann was made to swing on harnesses and we shot it at different angles, with a Chroma around. That sequence is shot over two sets and the plates were shot separately. All these things happened in different layers and were finally put together.

What was the most challenging sequence to shoot?

The biggest challenge was to execute a certain level of visual finesse in a limited time. Shooting the first flight sequence was most challenging. It happened in complete outdoors, where we had absolutely no control over the sun and weather. We were shooting on the onset of monsoon but luckily the weather supported us.

How would you describe the experience of shooting Hawaizaada, which is completely different from your previous films?

I think it’s a life changing film for me where all of us were closely involved and attached. We were evolving with the film and the crew. Hawaizaada is not a story that audiences are used to seeing. We challenged our limits every day to do something new, create a new language and give something new to our audiences.

The Team:

VFX – Reliance MediaWorks

VFX Head- Prasad Sutar

VFX Supervisor – Sanjiv Naik

Post Production – Prime Focus

Colorist- Ashirwad Hadkar

Chief Assistant – Shantanu Dasmahapatra

Second Assistant – Pushkar Singh

Continuity Assistant – Devu Narayanan

Lights – Mona Lisa Lights