Cinematographer Sameer Arya and Director Sanjay Gupta last teamed up for Shootout at Wadala where the Mumbai they showed was new to many. With their upcoming release Jazbaa, which is also completely shot in Mumbai, the duo once again try to live up to the challenge of showing the city of dreams in a very ‘unique and unusual’ manner. In a chat with Pandolin, Sameer talks about the experimental color palette adopted in Jazbaa, the experience of shooting with an unconventional cast and the creative freedom provided by Sanjay in every aspect of cinematography.

Cinematographer Sameer Arya

Cinematographer Sameer Arya

What was the vision you had in mind before you started shooting Jazbaa?

Sanjay and I have earlier worked together on Shootout at Wadala that we shot in Mumbai. The big question was how do we once again make Mumbai look different. So we did some extensive recces and have pretty much achieved it. Today when you see Jazbaa you’ll see a different side of Mumbai. Actually it is a simple Mumbai-based film. We have sort of followed each character cinematically as far as Aishwarya, Irrfan or Shabana ji are concerned as it was a fantastic combination.

So from the cinematography point of view, how would you describe the look and feel of Jazbaa?

The film starts on a happy note but later gets into a gritty mode, which is purposely done as the story takes a different turn. So in that mode even the lighting and the camera movements are deliberately changed to enhance the story and show this change.

What was Sanjay Gupta’s brief for the treatment of the film?

Sanjay just told me what he had in mind and how he wanted to approach the film. We had earlier found different locations for Shootout at Wadala but that being a story set in the 70s & 80s, it was challenging to shoot. Sanjay said that Jazbaa is today’s movie based in Mumbai. Hence it had to look completely different from any other film, especially our previous project. We decided to find locations that Mumbaikars have also not seen as yet. We also lit everything in a very stylized manner, especially the indoor sequences so that it looks completely different. Another very important point that Sanjay wanted was that a lot of scenes should have a gloomy feel adding to the drama. So I shot most of the film with an overcast sky, which became extremely difficult to shoot when the sun was shining nice and bright in some scenes. So we made numerous skimmers in different materials and various sizes ranging from 60’*60′ to 100’*100′.


Agreed. The grading of the trailer is also very different from your previous films. Why did you choose to go with this color palette?

Absolutely! It was not only the grading; we were very clear about what we wanted from the look even before we started shooting the film. But there were not too many references. You have an advantage when you are out of the city or country as that brings its own colors. But the story of Jazbaa is intense and high on drama so we couldn’t have made everything pretty or cosmetic. The pretty part of the film is Aishwarya Rai, which was already taken care of. (Smiles) I showed Sanjay some color palettes that went with the mood of the film and we zeroed in on a few. Mostly people rely on the Digital Intermediate (DI) process for the grading but we used it only to enhance our vision. So I lit the scenes exactly the way we wanted and only enhanced them in DI.

A still from the film

A still from the film

What is the kind of reaction that the trailer has received from the audience?

People have loved it and have been very kind. From the very first time that they saw the teaser, people have been telling me that this looks like a really different film. To which I agree. We intentionally wanted to make it look different and have come up with a particular style that will enhance the narrative.

Which camera did you use for Jazbaa?

We’ve shot with the Arri Alexa XT.

Coming to the lighting design. Tell us about the approach you adopted to lighting the scenes?

This is the most detailed lighting design I have ever shot. When Sanjay explained his requirements to me, I did my homework and gave him an entire presentation.  When you see the film, you’ll realize that we have stylized it a bit which makes it a little different from regular films. I have used a lot of colors in Jazbaa.

Please explain the indoor lighting set up used for the courtroom sequences and the other indoor scenes.

We made the courtrooms to look every different by having a unique color palette for them. We have done it because we wanted to stylize it and that has also helped our story.

There are many indoor scenes in the film. I think Jazbaa has exceptionally different looking and the most stylized indoor scenes ever shot in Indian cinema.


That’s a big thing to say.

(smile) Yes I’m pushing it. But you’ll witness it yourself. There were times when I would tell Sanjay that I hope people will like it and not abuse me for what I have done. And he would only motivate me to go for it.

How did you treat the songs in the film? Be it ‘Kahaniya’ or ‘Bandeya’, how and where were they shot?

Sanjay has this superb view for songs. All his films have at least one chartbuster if not more. Jazbaa has a lot of songs in it. There is a party song that has Rapper Badshah singing, which we shot at a lounge. ‘Bandeya’ was shot in a mill in Colaba. ‘Jaane Tere Shehar’ is my favorite song that was shot in a couple of places like Goregoan, Chembur etc. Every frame of this film has been shot in Mumbai and so are the songs. The audience will be amazed to see how the regular streets that they pass almost every day look different in the film.

A still from Bandeya song

A still from Bandeya song

The film also has a lot of chase sequences through narrow lanes. How did you shoot these scenes?

Most of it was Handheld as there was hardly any place for even cars to pass. So when we had the actors running, I would sit on a motorcycle with the camera in my hand. Of course, it was more dangerous but that’s why it was more challenging and outstanding to achieve in a film.

It must have been really thrilling.

It was fantastic. And then we had people like Irrfan who is very good. This is the first time that I’m working with him and now I know what he is made of. He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t even rehearse much. So he would come up to me and say “Sam, honestly I can’t tell you what I’m going to do in that take because even I don’t know.” He said let’s try this once, bas pakad lena yaar. And I was like don’t worry, jahan bhi jaoge main pakad loonga. He is so naturally talented that once the camera rolls, he is on a different planet. It was a pleasure to shoot him and all the more challenging too. Every time we shot he would ask me how much space he had on the left or right side. I once asked him the reason behind these questions and he said, “Like in theatre, I use the space to the fullest.” He understands the technicalities of working in a film. We created this superb rapport that was great fun.


When working with actors like Aishwarya Rai, Shabana Azmi and Irrfan Khan, what goes on in your mind?

The first thing that goes through your mind is complete pleasure and awe. It is so inspiring because it’s not every day that you come across a mix of such talented people. That sort of inspiration is quite unimaginable. Though I always knew that when these people come together, there will be some kind of magic but when they actually did, it was unimaginable. At the end of the first day when we shot all three of them together, it was a different game. It was a huge setup, there was a bit of tension because of the nature of the job and we were shooting in all kinds of weather. But it was fun. With Aishwarya, Irrfan and Shabana ji, there was talent oozing out of every frame. And of course, Jackie Shroff is a pleasure to work with. Once he walks on the set, he is a people’s person. He has that personal connect with everyone present on the sets. He is such a senior man and when you work with him you understand why he is so respected. There are so many contemporaries of his but everyone doesn’t command or demand the same respect that he does. Jackie da is one of the most down-to-earth people I have seen on the planet.


When it comes to Sanjay Gupta, since you’ve worked with him earlier too, how was the experience this time?

Sanjay is so rich in his experiences. He has done such a vast body of work and is such a visionary. Besides sharing his experience with you, he gives you the freedom to come up with whatever you want. He has no ego at all. He took all my suggestions. There were times when he disagreed with something but would always explain the reason behind it. He is so clear in his mind and it was such a pleasure working with him as he gave me a freehand. There were times when I needed to use some filters or equipment at the last moment which could potentially shake Sanjay’s budget a bit. But he would always agree for it because he knew that it will make the film look good.

What kind of expectations do you have from Jazbaa?

I have very high expectations from it. I really hope people understand the kind of effort we have put into it and agree to it after they see it. The change is very evident in the film. Though like every other film, it is also very special and important for all of us. We are giving the audience something new – right from the star cast whom they have never seen together to how it has been treated.

You are constantly terming it to be ‘new’ but were there any reference points, may be some film from some other part of the world?

Though I have seen a lot of cinema, it doesn’t mean that I’ve picked up the exact same things from there in Jazbaa. One travels so much that you pick up things in your subconscious mind. When Sanjay was narrating the film to me, I had started visualizing it. So you see the colors in your mind and tell that to your director. I then gave my presentation to Sanjay which was followed by creating different sketches and trying a lot of color combinations with the Production Designer. When we were working on the set, we would have the next set’s color combinations painted on some of the walls as an experiment to know what color would work best in the other scene. We would even make 3D models. It is not a difficult thing to do but the problem is that not everyone does it.

Where there any technical challenges that you faced while shooting the film?

Not really because I got whatever I wanted.  I got every piece of equipment that I asked for. I made the production spend a lot of money on filters, which they must not have spent on any filters in any of their past films. But once I showed Sanjay a couple of scenes he told me to go for it.

Are you happy with how Jazbaa has shaped up, most importantly your work?  

I’m happy because my director is happy which is the first victory for me. It was a great experience and the experience is what is important. Because we’ll always make movies – some will do well and some may not, which is not in our hands. So while making the film I have to understand that for the next six months I’m going to have a lot of fun on the set. That’s what keeps me ticking.

What are your upcoming projects?

My next release is a film called Sanam Re which is directed by Divya Khosla Kumar. I’m then going to start something by the end of October.