We are hoping that with Yudh Indian television programming will change: Tribhuvan Babu
Yudh is nothing like what we have seen earlier on Indian television. And keeping that mood of the mini-series in mind, cinematographer Tribhuvan Babu has tried to break norms and formats while shooting it. In an exclusive chat, the DOP talks about the hard work that went into filming Amitabh Bachchan’s first fictional TV show.
How did you get associated with Yudh?
It was a very strange incident. I was just finishing a couple of projects and my friend Maitreye Das Gupta, who is a line producer, told me that one of her close friends, Ribhu Dasgupta (the director of Yudh) is looking for a DOP for a mini-series. I told her that I hadn’t done television before so I wasn’t sure if I suited the medium. But she told me it isn’t a regular TV show and the people are trying to do something different. So I went to the Endemol office (the production house) and met Ribhu. We hit it off from the moment I sat down. We didn’t talk about the project at all. We share a common love for food. So we discussed the food scene in Kolkata (I love the city for its food) and Mumbai. Next thing he told me to meet the production team to discuss the money. And that’s when he told me that Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan was doing the show. I was like how often does one get a chance to work with Mr Bachchan. So I said yes, then and there. Later, he told me that even Anurag (Kashyap) is going to be involved. And he knew of me. In fact he had recommended my name for a Kurdish film (Shirin), which I eventually shot.
What made you say ‘yes’ to the project?
Honestly, three things – Bachchan, Ribhu and Anurag. At that stage they had a broad line story, and it was still being written so there was nothing to discuss.
It’s obvious that Yudh isn’t shot like a typical TV series. What was the director’s brief for the visual treatment?
Yudh is shot with a two camera set-up. The reason being that Anurag and Ribhu told me just one thing – whatever you do, just keep following the actors. They told me not to ask them what camera and lens to use. They left that completely to me. They of course had a vision to it, as to the look, but it was my headache as to how I achieved it. The only thing was that I don’t lose the actors, always keep them in frame and give them freedom, don’t restrict their movements. That was a challenge because shooting Indian skin tones is tough. To give molding to Indian skin it has to be well lit. Indian skin tone can misbehave in different lighting conditions. It’s not like African or Caucasian tones, where black is black and white is white. Indian skin tones are browns, yellows and magentas; it’s a myriad of colours. If you are shooting with one camera one can control it, but it is tough to shoot with two cameras. You have to light for both cameras in a way that it is not in the frame for either angle. But then the brief was to follow the actors so it worked out well. That automatically demanded a design, where my lighting was kept as natural as possible. A lot of times I didn’t light up (spaces). Of course, the channel was shitting bricks and said it’s too dark. In the initial brief, including the channel, they wanted the show to look international and didn’t want it to look like a Balaji TV show. And I was like this is simple. So I decided to approach it the way I would approach my films.
How different is it to shoot a TV show as compared to a film?
The main difference is the medium itself. Cinema is a reflective medium where a projector is throwing an image of a screen, whereas television is the source itself and it is throwing light on to you. So, mathematically and technically it changes how colours – blacks, whites, greys – behave and appear on screen. The contrast, brightness, noise settings also change. So if you light up keeping film in mind, it will not behave the same on television. Also, the tonality of each zone is different – office, house, the mining village and city spaces. Ribhu was very clear that he needed a distinct look for every location. So that decided a lot of colours for the production design and costumes; make up was not an issue because artists were specifically told not to wear make-up. If you notice the office has a distinct corporate look – steel grey, the house is a slightly happier space, and the mining gives a typical Western look where the browns are enhanced, the sun and starkness of that space is highlighted and there are more browns and golden yellows on the skin tone in the mining village. Then there is this hospital which is tube-lit. All this was pre-decided and our production designer, Sunil Nigvekar, was so amazing that he would just transform the space perfectly according to the mood of the scene. Honestly, I just had to place my lights and my camera. I didn’t have to do anything.
Can you elaborate on the camera set-up and lenses used for the series?
Normally they use regular HD cameras – Sony PMW 900 or Panasonic P2 – for television. Because of the smaller sensor the depth of field is very wide. Both your character and background are in focus and it’s very sharp. But as we wanted our series to look different the choice was pretty simple. Due to limited budget we couldn’t afford a Red Epic, Red MX or an Alexa. So the next best thing was either Sony S5 or Canon C300 because it has super 35 sensor. You can use film lenses on these cameras and get the same depth of field, look and feel of a film. We tested both cameras and zeroed in on Canon C300. It had the inherent film look. Sony still rendered a bit of television, plastic look, which we consciously avoided. And it was a smaller camera so we could hide it anywhere. A lot of times Mr Bachchan and other actors would ask where the camera was.
My lens package was pretty simple. I had one Arri Ultra Prime set with 16 mm to 85 mm. I insisted on the production to buy me a Canon 30-300 zoom, which is a beautiful lens to have on any production set. It is very smooth, has amazing variation in term of lenses, plus it works beautifully with the Canon C300. That gave us amazing freedom to be as far away from the actors, not intruding into their spaces and giving them the freedom to move. The only downside was that our production designer was upset as we weren’t showing his beautifully done up locations. Unfortunately, we never show the entire set. The traditional way to start (a scene) is to get a wide shot and cut to close but it’s not fun anymore.
What about the lighting design?
Lighting was kept at a bare minimum and as natural as possible. When we had window sources we pumped light only through the window. That took care of the rest of the room and the practical lights would act as the fill light. A couple of times in the office I have used laptop as the fill light. Idea was to keep it as real as possible and nothing glamourous. But having said that, I did make a conscious attempt to light up the women a bit more than others and make them look good. I am always biased towards them.
What were the shooting locations for the show?
There are 120 on locations, barring three places (the hospital, the police commissioner’s office and the doctor’s clinic) that were readymade sets. Anurag and Ribhu are completely against sets. They believe, no matter what, a set will always look like a set. So we were specifically told to look for actual locations and dress it up, of course, and modify it to suit our needs. It was imperative to use real locations. Almost two months went into finalising locations. Meanwhile, all the outdoor shots, the vehicles passing shots and establishing shots were filmed in Ghaziabad, Noida and places like that. Since the series deals with a construction magnet we used buildings as an identity. All the interiors were recreated on real locations in Bombay (Mumbai). For the mining estate we went to Virar, where there are a lot of stone quarries. Bonnie Jain, the COO of Endemol, has friends over there so he suggested the place. We immediately fell in love with that space. They aren’t coal mines but it could be made to look like it. Thankfully in the story we didn’t have to shoot inside the coal mine. So we could get away with it.
How many days did the shoot last?
We shot for 147 days. We started shooting on June 17, 2013, and wrapped up last month (June 2014).
Did you have any concerns while filming in the makeshift mining estate?
My main concern was the sun because in India we get top sun in the afternoon. Actors look horrible in that light. And since we had two cameras there are only one or two places where I could control lighting. So lot of times I had to shoot with top light. I had to use a lot of fill lights to negate the horrible shadows cast under the actors’ eyes. Most of the times, between 11.30 am and 3.30/4 pm, I insisted to shoot indoors. But it wasn’t always possible. Thankfully though we got only two days of bright sun and rest of the days were cloudy. During the morning and evening shifts the sunlight is at an angle, so I just shot it as is, without lights. There was enough light reflecting from over the ground and rocks, which acted as my fill lights.
Given that Yudh stars Amitabh Bachchan, were there any considerations kept in mind on how to shoot to match the superstar’s grand personality?
Ya, ya absolutely! The lensing was very conscious especially in the office and mining estate. He is The Man, right? So, even if it was a close-up scene, we never kept the camera at Mr Bachchan’s eye level. It was always kept slightly lower than his eye-level. That made him slightly larger-than-life. It is at a very subtle level but works psychologically. Then we shot him a bit with tele-lenses to isolate him from everyone else. It enhances his position of authority. The rest of the gang we shot with a bit wider lens.
Did you employ any innovative camera or lighting set-up for Yudh?
Initially I used to consciously light up the space more as we were shooting with Mr Bachchan. But Anurag would come and make me reduce it. The best part was that Mr Bachchan himself would ask me to make it dark like international shows. So after two days, I decided to go all out in the visual treatment. Then onwards I didn’t even light him up. In one sequence in the first episode the doctor’s discussing about the Huntington’s disease with Mr Bachchan. If you remember in the scene he was completely in the dark and was only back lit. That was a happy accident. I think it was the second or third day of shoot so the cast and crew were trying to figure each other and there were lots of discussions. As a result we continued working beyond the shift time. So the Union guys landed up on the location and asked us to shut stop. We had to abide by it. But by then more than half the scene was done so Mr Bachchan insisted we finish it as the mood was right. Sadly, the Union guys asked the light guys to leave, switched off the lights, etc. Thankfully my practical lights, which were connected to the main source of electricity of the bungalow, were on. So I decided to shoot it with the existing bulbs. I removed lamp shades of lights that there were not in the frame and asked my assistants, assistant directors, focus pullers to hold bulbs for Mr Bachchan. And that’s how we shot the entire scene. Initially he was doubtful about shooting it that way, but after seeing the results he was amazed. After that schedule everybody understood the kind of space we were in terms of lighting design, production design. In fact even the actors understood where the cameras are going to be or not going to be. For the actors it was an unlearning of sorts. They were doing everything that they were not supposed to do. In turn they were freer and, thankfully, it has translated into amazing performances from each actor.
What were the major challenges you faced while shooting for the series?
Nothing extreme, just minor production problems like the union thing. Once we had to shoot in couple of flats that were 10-12 storeys high. You can’t take up lights. So you have to make do with smaller lights. So we would shoot the location as per the limitation. Because there was a huge budget constraint we had to work around it. I could not ask for any fancy stuff, except for the climax. The climax is going to be the highlight of the series. I have used bigger sources like the 12k and 18k for it. As we were shooting at a construction site where the background was open and being a sunny day I needed big lights to balance my characters. The production was gracious enough to give me those. That was the only time I indulged, so to speak, in lighting. Otherwise it was all managed with smaller lights. After a point the production would say: ‘Give Babu two bulbs and he will manage it’. (Laughingly) Unfortunately, it has backfired on me. I have become the production friendly DOP.
You have worked on documentaries, ad-films, Indian and international movies, and now a TV series. Is it a conscious effort to do projects for different mediums?
Absolutely. There are so many things to do and so little time. I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. I am probably just a snowflake on it. The good thing is a lot of people see me as a guy who is willing to experiment, I am really thankful for that and I love it. But people label you so all my promos and commercials have also been experiments. I have failed in some and I have succeeded in most of them. The thing is I have nothing to lose. I don’t claim to know everything. If people are putting trust in me, I am more than thankful to them. Responsibility makes you more careful and answerable. But that’s also fun.
Would you like to work on a mainstream commercial film?
I want to do Salman-starrer, boss.
What do you look for in a project?
Mainly, it’s the story. Then second is the crew. There have been a couple of projects where I didn’t get along with the people so I walked out even after starting it. So it’s very important for me to gel with people; only then something nice will happen. A little bit of negative energy on the set can spoil the whole thing. It starts reflecting on your work.
What feedback have you got from peers, family and friends for Yudh?
Actually it’s been a mixed bag. I am completely humbled ‘coz I am getting positive messages in the middle of the night from people I don’t even know. They have liked that we have tried to create something different on television. Then, there are a lot of fraternity people who have appreciated it and many who have said that it doesn’t work for television. I respect both. It’s the first time I have done an entire project for television, so I have learnt here. Now if at all I do another mini-series, which is as interesting as Yudh, I will know what not to do. People have given me good and bad responses. My mother-in-law loves the series, the only thing is that when the joker comes she gets scared and leaves the room. My family and friends are completely enjoying it. They have given nice critique. The thing about this series is that you have to be attentive. We are hoping that with 24 and Yudh Indian television programming will change. Of course it will take time and the initial projects will face the brunt of it. I foresee for the next two-three years a season of mini-series across channels. Ashutosoh Gowariker’s show, Everest, is coming out on Star Plus soon. I am really looking forward to it. You can expect fireworks.
Were you nervous to shoot with Amitabh Bachchan, one of the best actors in our country?
On the first day I was really nervous. He is a chalta-phirta film school and has more experience than my age. So I didn’t know how I would tell him to do a particular thing. But on set he is like a student. He will never throw his weight around and call you sir. After the ice broke he would joke around. He saw rushes and was happy.
– Rachana Parekh