I am not a technician; I am a dream capturer – Ravi Varman
He insisted I watched the film before we actually closed the conversation and I am so glad I did. Here’s decoding, deconstructing the ‘Tamasha’ with the man who witnessed and captured it all through those multiple lenses. Cinematographer Ravi Varman talks to Pandolin about why he loves grains, flares and believes in consistency of the story.
First of all, Tamasha was a treat to watch. If I may take the liberty to say so, considering the fact that there was no linear narrative, you were the true storyteller of the film. What are you happiest about?
I think every one can connect with the film. Usually, people do not tell such stories. Tamasha is a very personal account, which takes you through the thought process of a character. That is one thing that made me do the film. Secondly, I was very clear that I didn’t want the film to travel with the cinematography. The film had to travel with the story, which we have achieved.
Is there anything you feel you could have done better?
To be honest, that is a never-ending process. Most of the times I see my work and don’t end up liking it. I always feel I could have done it some other way. But one has to end somewhere or we will never be able to move forward. Also, when I hear a story, I take the location, budgets, time and other conditions into account and figure out what best I can do within that. I always put in 200% in whatever I do keeping in mind the limitation of duration or economics.
The film has a non-linear edit. I wonder how Imtiaz Ali visualized it. It is almost like different cinematic expressions came together to make one story. How easy or difficult was it for you?
It was not difficult at all. He told me exactly how he wanted it to flow. I knew the brief before I shot and I knew exactly where we were going next. Imtiaz had defined all the backtracking when he narrated the story itself. I knew that when the childhood scenes came I had to do something different, or when the storyteller portions came, I had to do something else. And when we snap back to reality, I had to do it another way and so on. Everything you see in the film was visualized in a certain way. I knew how I wanted it to look. After a point Imtiaz trusted me and gave me the freedom to handle it my way.
How was it working with Imtiaz Ali?
He understands English and I understand Hindi well so communication was never a problem. The best part was that we understood each other’s cinematic language, which is all that mattered here.
Have you experimented with any techniques in the film?
The first scene of the film is grainy. Usually people reject grainy images or footage. I wanted to make grainy stylish, inspired by fashion photography. When the kid is dreaming, I thought I could make it all grainy rather than shoot it like any other dream sequence. I wanted a canvas painting kind of feel. I have also used a lot of street art inspirations. In Corsica we had beautiful locations and I decided to keep wider frames and golden tones rather than enhance the blues and greens that were already dominant there.
The silences in the film say a lot. In this case, the visual backdrop played a major role in taking the narrative forward. Especially the scene after the song ‘Agar Tum Saath Ho’, where Deepika comes back to notice Ranbir standing amidst the street art, was phenomenal.
Like I said, I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. If you notice, the entire movie is about two characters – Ved and Tara. We did not want the other characters to be seen. Yes they were in the frame, helping the story to move forward but we wanted to focus on just two points of view – Ved and Tara’s. Even if they were sitting at a restaurant, you know it’s a busy backdrop but you can’t see who is around. The stroke I used was more to keep the main character in focus and let everything else be blurred. That was how we wanted to tell the story – through two people who would connect with the audience.
I loved the way the first half was all wide shots, beautiful yet real locations, rosy pictures to depict how love makes you feel. The second half is a complete contrast, which gets much darker and you go closer to the characters, into their minds.
Very rightly said. When you take the audience through the story the first half is like we want our lives to be – very bright, very colorful, no sadness, only celebration. The audience has no clue what is coming up right? I wanted every frame to be like their frame of mind, very vibrant, romantic and yet urban. When the characters introduce their real selves to each other is when reality begins. After this point I stopped playing with the light. It was all the actor and contrast lighting.
From a cinematographer’s point of view, how different is shooting songs from the rest of the film?
Fortunately for me, all the films that I have done have had songs which took the story forward. I didn’t need to treat a song separately.
You had two good-looking people and some even more beautiful locations. Does that leave little for you to do?
With so much beauty around, there is a risk of making it look unreal or plastic. I didn’t want that. I wanted it all to look like we actually went to those locations and the actors were really there.
Can’t not mention Barfi here. Much has been spoken about this. But how did you work on that film? We’ve heard there was no bound script. Could you visualize Anurag’s vision before?
It is not that there is no script. There are only one to nine hues right? If you want 10 you need to begin from zero. If you want eleven you need to use one twice. Similarly with Anurag’s screenplay, it is just about the placement of scenes. There are two ways of doing it – either you write your story and then look for locations or the vice versa. Anurag chooses his textures, backdrop, locations and characters first and then weaves a story around them. That is why each frame looks like a painting. Very rarely do you come across directors like this. Anurag is my brother. I cannot put in words what he is to me. He treats me as a brother and friend. I feel very secured and safe when I work with him.
Many a times people say, ‘Cut the glare.’ I ask why cut the glare? There are times when we see light making its way through a little crack and it looks beautiful. Who cuts the glare in real life? I have used this a lot in Barfi.
This is one of the few Hindi movies you have done. Do you find it different from working in a South Indian film considering you know the language better?
There are different cultures in both industries. For me, as a cameraman, the only language we need is lighting, camera and lens. Things are pretty much the same for me anywhere. For the last six years I have been in Mumbai working here.
A lot happens in the post-production these days. With shooting times going down, corporates tracking shoot days and the tremendous pressure on every film, does that leave little for a cinematographer to do?
I do not consider myself a technician. I am a dream capturer. That’s what I do. It is true that a lot is left for post these days but I think we are way behind when it comes to technology here in India. For my films, I only work on enhancing the image and no more. Seventy percent of Tamasha was shot on film, which hardly anyone uses these days. I shot on Super 35 in film and digital. I also used cinemascope. The black and white portions were shot on Ranbir’s Leica, which is an old and very expensive black and white camera. Normally a lot of people crib about consistency. I do not follow consistency of lighting. I believe in maintaining the consistency of the story. That is what makes a film organic and it is in the least disturbing. I want my films to look fresh even if you watch them after ten years. That’s what I strive to do. I try to capture small rare moments which may seem unbelievable but do happen. It is a combination of science and mathematics.
If you see Ram Leela, it is very colourful and there is a lot of clutter. That is how Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanted it. It was a violent love story inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Violent is never classic. There is always clutter. I take from real life and show it real.