I wanted to focus more on the character than the geography
After pursuing engineering from Madras University, this Chennai-born went to Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute to pursue his passion for cinematography. He then got a chance to assist noted cinematographer P.C. Sreeram on R Balki’s Paa and later went on to film his first individual project, the Tamil film Vidiyum Munn. We spoke to Sivakumar Vijayan, the man behind the cinematography of the Saala Khadoos, to understand his approach towards filming this boxing movie.
What was the brief given to you by Director Sudha Kongara?
I met Sudha Kongara after completing Vidiyum Munn in November 2013. She sent me the script (of Saala Khadoos) and we met a couple of times after that. She briefed me very precisely that the film should look very natural and the fact that since it’s a boxing film, it should be technically strong. We studied a lot of films around the theme of boxing from 1909 to 2010. I happened to share a photography book with Sudha post which we discussed the tone and colours. With that we came to the conclusion that the tone and colours used should be very earthy.
Tell us more about the earthy color palette chosen for the film.
We chose natural and mineral colours for it. There was no DI for 90% of the film and corrections were done in only 10% of it. Basically, we went for a neutral tone for the clothes and didn’t use very bright colours. We wanted the tone to be very subtle and subliminal so it doesn’t overtake the characters, story or even the photography. Accordingly we had brainstorming sessions for costumes. We stuck to very natural and realistic tones, which could be seen from the naked eye and that’s how the coloring was done.
What was your approach towards the camera movements for the film?
90 percent of the film is handheld because the story needed a rugged look and some vibration and movement in the static shots so that every frame could emit life. I also thought that the scenes should be very mise-en-scène. We planned it in two-three different cuts so that we could get a lot of scenes to play with. We had to move according to the characters, story and in the right angles.
And what was the lighting design like?
The outdoor lighting was completely natural. We also used different flares on different characters. In a lot of the fight scenes and dance sequences, we used a lot of flares so that it brings out the energy and also gives a halo kind of effect to the character in the frame. We actually travelled according to the sun path. The character of the lens manipulated the flares, so we had to control the flare in a certain way so that it didn’t overpower a particular shot. It had to match perfectly with the colours and framing and look very realistic. The lighting was mostly 360 degree lighting with a contrast because once I lit up the place, we didn’t do any lighting later.
We did this so that I could move around very quickly as the boxers could perform only for eight minutes. They get very tired after that so we had to be very quick in shooting the scenes, so that the energy of the fight could be captured in the first movement itself. The virginity of the first movement is always the purest. So, we had to plan the sequences accordingly. Boxing is a very cruel sport and it needs an animal instinct. When you see the characters in context with the aggression of an animal, you like to shoot them in such a way. I didn’t do much rehearsal for the take, I just believed in my instincts and went on with the takes to capture the story from two-three different angles so that we got shots for two independent different films in two different languages. (Saala Khadoos also released in Tamil with the name Irudhi Suttru). It was actually tough for me to get the light right for both the shots and both the languages.
Did you have any creative references in mind?
I went through a lot of boxing books like ‘100 years of boxing’, and a lot of pictorial boxing books too. I went through documentaries of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson to know about the world of boxing. I also went to a lot of boxing fights that happened in my state and other states. I would observe the matches from different angles to see which angles looked more impactful. I went through more of pictorial books than films where I was able to see pictures of the ’10s and ’30s outdoor boxing matches. If you see Saala Khadoos, a couple of the fights are shot outside because historically boxing is a poor man’s sport and most of the fights used to happen outside. Reading these books actually helped me figure out which angles worked for the impact. This slow study happened for almost eight months for me.
How long did it take you’ll to finalise the locations and which locations were considered for the shoot?
We started scouting for locations from mid December 2013 and it went on till June. Most of the film has actually been shot in Chennai. Even the portions of Hisar and Delhi were shot in Chennai. We went to Delhi and Hisar, took pictures and then hunted for locations in Chennai that resembled the architecture from these places. It was to make sure that everything happens in the same place so that the boxing training could also happen at the same location. The boxing match in the climax was shot in the indoor stadium of the Vilupuram Engineering College in Tamil Nadu.
Which camera and lenses have you worked with?
I used Red Epic with Master Prime lenses. As I mentioned earlier, I worked with natural light and didn’t pump any light artificially most of the times. And the consistency was kept in a way that nothing looked different. Master Prime lenses have that kind of quality, sharpness and latitude which other lenses could not give me. Another reason why I used Master Prime was because I wanted to shoot the film in a very shallow focus. Since the story is about an underdog who is trained and made a champion, I wanted to focus more on the character than the geography. The geography could be a metaphor for the character so it could be in shallow focus but I still needed sharpness of the characters. This lens helped me in getting a shallowness in the background and sharpness in the foreground where the characters played and performed.
What kind of obstacles did you face while filming?
The shoot, I would say, was more like an enjoyment for me than a challenge. But since I had to move around really fast to capture the movements, I had no margin of making errors in lighting or focus or movements. The climax sequence was a mise-en-scène because they would fight for four minutes and I had to capture it with my handheld camera. The focus became very critical because the characters moved from one place to another in the ring and that I think was a big challenge for me. My focus puller did an excellent job by keeping the focus sharp in every movement. Another big challenge was that it’s a bilingual film, so, every shot had to be taken twice, but we managed to shoot it in 44 days. It’s very rare that a bilingual film is shot in such less number of days. Besides this, keeping the consistency of the light also posed a big challenge as we were shooting in natural light so we had to move according to the movements of the sunlight.
How was it working with the writer and director Sudha Kongara?
It was quite a thrilling journey to work with Sudha because she is very particular about things. She would brief me very clearly about her requirements and she was very clear about what she wanted from this film. The script was like a Bible for us. Whenever we got time, Sudha and I would chat a lot about boxing and other movies. And that’s the reason we’ve been able to make this movie. It was a brilliant journey with her.
Who are your favourite directors that you’d like to work with in the future?
I would like to work with whoever calls me and trusts my work. But I would love to work with Vishal Bhardwaj. He is a director with a high level of visual sensibility. He takes the story to the screen in a very poetic way. And I admire his work a lot. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is another director I would love to work with as he wants his movies to look visually beautiful. Also, I want to work with a lot of newcomers.
Would you like to talk about your upcoming projects?
I have shot a Tamil film called Iraivi that is directed by Karthik Subbaraj who made Jigarthanda. The shooting is done and the DI is on and we are now waiting for the release. I’m also working on another film with Sathya Jyothi Films that is directed by S. R. Prabhakaran and is currently being shot.