“My kind of cinematography is plain and simple” – Sejal Shah
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ommando – One Man Army definitely seems a coming of age action, thriller film of recent times. Pandolin presents to you an exclusive interview with Commando’s cinematographer Sejal Shah who stepped into the film industry after shooting nearly about 250 commercials prior to this film. In this insightful conversation, Sejal talks about his association with Producer Vipul Shah, shooting in the challenging forest locations and creating a palette out of natural light.
What was your principle approach and understanding while shooting this film, Commando?
Vipul and me worked on London Dreams and Action Replay together. And then came a time when Vipul approached me with this enthralling idea about an army man who fights the system and is able to conquer it in bits and pieces. Somewhere down the road, he becomes a victim and gets attacked and followed by his combatants. I found the whole journey pretty intriguing and interesting and decided to go ahead with this project. Now, after going through the script, I had to create a palette for the film since most of the action sequences happen in the deep, dark forest areas surrounded by hills. From a cinematographer’s perspective, I would say that it becomes a lot more important to retain the true flavor of the location in the film. Hence, to make it visually appetizing and enticing, I formulated a palette and technique for the film with natural light.
How did you decide upon the entire look and treatment for Commando?
Since, we were to shoot in the hard-core deep jungles, I didn’t want it to look grungy on screen. However, at the same time, I wanted to retain the beauty of the environment and the entire scenery. Thereby, I devised a plan where I used a lot of smoke to create an element of haze in the mountains. Via this technique, the natural sunlight was made to refract through the smoke that resulted in an unimaginable ambience light. We got absolutely great results by employing this technique. Moreover, the whole process was pretty enjoying and satisfying. I think, the entire palette turned out to be very interesting.
Even, when I look at it today I feel pretty content and happy about it. As far as the jungle sequence is concerned, there is absolutely no light, it’s a lightless film as one would say, but I take immense pride in it. Because when one is able to think beyond the limits of illumination and typical lighting, one brings across a change by his constant experimenting.
How did your association with Director Dilip Ghosh happen? And how was the whole experience different considering his advertising background?
I happen to get in touch with him through Vipul. He called and told me that Dilip is directing this film, so I went to meet him. We both shared what we had in our mind regarding the look of this film and things started shaping up after we exchanged our ideas. He liked what I did and I shared a great working rapport with him. Now, when you talk about advertising, there’s a whole lot of difference between both worlds and Dilip Ghosh is an old warhorse of this field.
Unfortunately, there’s a huge misconception about this industry that advertising is merely a business where you have 30 seconds, 60 seconds or 2 minutes to advertise a product. But, people often fail to recognise that the effort is much more as compared to the film industry. In 30 seconds, you not only have to advertise the product, satisfy your client and agency but also showcase your talent as an advertising director and satisfy your own creative instincts. So at the end of the day, advertising is a creative business, which allows you to exercise your brain within a given span of 30 seconds during which you have to communicate a strong story.
No doubt, Filmmaking is a rigorous process as far as bollywood is concerned considering its large-scale songs and dance sequences. But still advertising stands at a different level as it is more organized and professional where one needs to be a quick thinker and executioner who knows well to balance out the technique.
What Camera equipment did you use for this film? And why?
I primarily used Alexa throughout and Red Epic as the secondary camera for all the fight sequences. Apart from this, I used the Phantom Flex for a song and couple of fight sequences in the film.
What were the locations of the shoot?
The entire film has been shot in Manali except for one song which was filmed in Rann of Kutch. Nothing as such was shot on sets. Every single frame in the film was shot on real location.
What was your major lighting source you relied upon and what was your lighting design?
Natural light played a major and effective role in the total shoot of the film. My kind of cinematography is utterly plain and simple hence I didn’t require too many artificial lights. I don’t prefer artificial illumination unless it adds some sense to the scene. I have kept artificial lighting to minimum employing only basic lights such as Kino Flos , along with couple of 5kw lights and 2kw lights. I ended up using artificial lighting for couple of songs and house scenes but beyond a point, there were hardly any lights in the film because I didn’t feel the need to enhance it artificially.
Is there any particular shot or sequence in Commando that you found pretty challenging and moreover satisfying after you completed it?
The entire film in terms of look is very challenging, particularly the jungle sequences in Manali. They were the most difficult portions to execute, since jungles have their own set of problems where one gets constantly challenged by the sun and its erratic timings. One has to come up with ideas, keep trying and work around ways to bring across a change and novelty. These things really matter when you shoot at remote locations like exteriors of Manali. I would say, every single shot in the jungle was extremely challenging.
The strategy was to not make it look very filmy but stylish. I didn’t want the angles to look like any other film, so that was an effort I had to make from my side all the time. I didn’t want the action or jungle sequences to look substandard in any way so I always made a conscious effort to bring across an angle that was never seen on the silver screen before. I wanted to achieve extraordinary results that would satisfy my own creative instincts.
How was it working with the action director, Franz Spilhaus?
It was quite good. He is pretty efficient in his job. He has been a part of Hollywood films since very long. He always had lots of shots to take in the film, lots of action to shoot and I think he has done a fairly nice job.
Since, the main lead of the film, Vidyut Jamwal is a well-trained martial artist, did this fact help you while executing the action sequences?
Of course, yes because everything he has done is without the use of cables. There are absolutely no cables in the entire film. This actually makes one’s life lot easier and faster. You are able to think a lot quicker because you know that no cables would obstruct you, not too many people would barge in and no cranes would block your path. All that is out of the system and you are dealing with an action that is hard-core reality. It has never been seen before in Indian Cinema. Such a hard core real, hand to hand combat, except that one shot, where he jumps off the valley from a height of approximately 300 feet. It was an extremely dangerous shot and there’s no way anybody on the face of earth could do this without a cable. So, yes it was the only shot in the entire film that employed cables.
How many songs did you shoot for Commando and what technique was adopted to shoot song sequences?
We shot 4 songs in total. There’s a song by the name “Saawan Bairi”, which was shot in Rann of Kutch. It was shot on Phantom flex camera with the speed of 1000 frames/second. That was the idea I discussed with Dilip and Vipul and they also got excited about it. They said, okay if you like it then you should do it. This song will definitely look fantastic on screen. It’s looking incredible and has already been appreciated by the people who have seen it.
How was your working relationship with the Art director?
Narendera was the Art director for this film. I believe, it was his first film yet he managed to deliver pretty good results in his debut project. He is a quick learner, very enthusiastic and alert on sets. So I think, somewhere down the line, this film will win him accolades in future.
Tell us something about the postproduction team? Who all played the key role in setting the final product?
Postproduction was something that was not into my area of operation. As far as I know, it has been handled by Reliance at their production house. But yes, my colorist, Ken Metzker was a great support, he could understand, where I came from and what I had done with the film as far as the colors are concerned. He was able to communicate what I had in my mind to an extent where he got it absolutely 100% correct and I think that comes across and that comes by all the experience that one holds.
As told to Sheetal Kapoor