PK was about capturing what is happening – C K Muraleedharan
Replete with vibrant colors and stunning visuals, Rajkumar Hirani’s PK is undoubtedly one of the most awaited films of 2014. Ahead of its release, ace cinematographer C K Muraleedharan talks about the making of this Aamir Khan starrer that has aroused the curiosity of audiences.
From locations to costumes, PK is vibrant & colorful. How have you treated this film? Did you’ll work with any references?
This film is very simple in its storytelling. It is about a guy asking simple questions and trying to find answers about very basic things. Raju (Hirani) wanted it to be treated without any complications in the narrative and structure that we would normally build for a film. Unlike my other films where we start with a scheme on how we want to picturise things, this film was more about capturing what is happening. It does have its own grammar and language but apart from that there is nothing additional. The colors came naturally because of the landscape and the kind of characters, they were colorful in the writing itself.
In 3 Idiots, I had pushed a lot of things and sat with almost all departments – costume department, art etc., on the color of everything we were working with. For PK I didn’t have a meeting with any department, it was more about letting things happen the way they are and capturing them in the way that I think is right. There are certain inclusions from my side like the way I look at lensing, the short breakdown that I get involved in, in a big way. But that’s about it. Normally I keep a diary with reference points, treatment notes for scenes etc. but for this film, I didn’t have that.
You have a long-standing collaboration with Mr. Hirani. What was his brief to you for visuals, storytelling etc.?
Raju’s demand normally is to make the film look vibrant, colourful and bright, without too much darkness in the frames. But I have always had this contention that his films are not merely comedies. They are human dramas with all kinds of emotions. People go through a plethora of emotions when they see the film, they don’t just come, laugh and go. So I do put in a lot of things to create those moods. I believe that visuals play a very important role. Even PK has such elements that have been treated in a different manner.
Once during the very early stages of the film, we decided to sit down and talk about how the film should be. We merely commented on things like characterisation, the elements we should capture to get into the mood of the character and so on. We didn’t push those factors aggressively, you realise that when you see the film. It has very mundane incidents that are happening which are extremely hilarious and humorous. Hence there was no scope for a scheme to be pushed into this.
What were the creative inputs from Aamir Khan?
His inputs are tremendous. Every actor that I have worked with does interact with us in terms of how to do a scene, what can be done etc. But with Aamir, there is a difference. He is very well prepared, has gone through the script many times and knows the dialogs by heart. When he asks questions you have to be prepared to answer them. When we don’t have answers, then a healthy discussion starts as to why we don’t have that answer or why haven’t we thought about that particular element. It is an open discussion which involves me too and the comments are received very well. Aamir is not an actor who comes, does something, goes home and forgets about it. It’s an amazing experience to work with him. When he is on the set he is with you and nothing else bothers him but the film.
How have you incorporated the beauty of Rajasthan in your scenes?
It was a conscious decision to select these locations in Rajasthan because we knew that they would look stunning. There were a lot of issues in one of the location in Rajasthan as it was quite far. We had to reach very early in the morning and shoot the entire day when the sun is travelling from east to west, taking care of the continuity without the audience realising it. So the shots had to be planned accordingly. At the same time capturing the beauty of the place was vital. While taking a long shot we had to be very careful about the time of the day we were taking the shot to get the space at its best, whether it was a desert or salt lands or Europe where we shot a song. We spent a tremendous amount of time in these places before hand. Raju and I would do a thorough recce and decide the places where we would be shooting and go through each and every scene in detail (where the actor is coming from, what time of the day it is etc.). Shooting in the middle of old Delhi was a nightmare, considering the kind of spaces we shot in but we managed it.
In terms of lighting, what was the approach and design you went with and why?
I had a good team with me. We had gone to all the locations before hand to figure how we could get power, how far the generators had to be parked, which areas would come into frame and so on. I knew that we would be shooting the entire day and the traveling sun would be an issue. Also Aamir likes things in detail; it’s an actor’s way of working. When you’re doing emotional scenes it is very difficult to take a break and then come back and take it ahead, acting has a natural progression that has to be allowed. So taking all these things into consideration, we would make a breakdown stating the shots that would be taken and during what time slot. In that way we had a breakdown of what exactly I am looking at without breaking the emotional graph of the actor, the light movement that is happening and the side of the location we would be shooting in, because we have to give certain space for make up vans, generators etc. Everything is planned in detail.
In addition to natural light I also used HMI’s like 6K, with a generator that was parked a little far away, because in an open landscape you cannot have any sound coming in. I always had a power or light with me at all times to change the way the shot looks and keep the continuity intact.
Though we haven’t done any major innovations in lighting, there was one night sequence where I had to shoot with a Moon Box. It was happening in old Delhi, it’s a place that people haven’t seen, it is an old Mughal period structure. The problem was to pull the moon box with an industrial crane because getting the crane in the area was a big job. We had to procure several permissions and that took months. It was a tough location to light up. There are areas where we have shot with very little light, like just one tube light. In one of the Rajasthan interiors, there is a brothel kind of area that was lit up with small lights in a unique way.
How would you define the shot breakdowns and framing method adopted in PK? What kind of frames does Mr.Hirani like to work with?
I normally do the shot breakdown with Raju. He is very conscious about what comes into the frame, what is the backdrop and things like that. His way of framing and breaking down a scene is very classical, mostly comprising over the shoulder shots, long shots etc. Camera movement is also very limited. We barely use a crane except in songs where there is a Jimmy Jib moving in. He is very precise about his length of shots, knows exactly how much portion he will use and the pace of the film is very clear. His films are dialog-bound, so you’re cutting from one dialog to another; there is no scope for anything else because the story flows through dialogs and the visuals just support this.
There is a lot of brainstorming that happens and we look at 3-4 shot breakdown variations before locking one. A detailed floor plan is created stating the shots, the angles and it is also written in detail with supporting stills. So you have a storyboard, a floor plan and narration of the whole thing completely ready. We stick to this 90 per cent of the time but on a few occasions there are some changes but that affects only 20 per cent of our planning. In the morning when the crew comes on location they have a copy of the papers and know exactly what is going to happen.
What camera and lenses have you used? Also what was the camera set up like?
We shot with ARRICAM LT with Master Prime lenses. In 2012 when we started planning this film, we decided to shoot it on film. We had a single camera set up but since we were shooting in places very far away from the city, we always had two camera bodies with us, just as stand by. 99 per cent of the film was shot with a single film camera. However there is one song, which comes at a crucial time in the film, that was shot all over India. We had a second unit shooting that song and it was covered on RED because of easy accessibility. It was a small unit moving around and shooting with DoP Hiru Keswani heading it.
We shoot mostly on tripod. We had a panther and grip that I would normally use for heights, as it’s easier to shoot. If we needed camera movement, we made use of tracks. We did use Steadicam at a lot of places as and when it was required.
Where was ‘Char Kadam’ shot? Since it is largely an outdoor song, how did you approach the lighting?
This song is completely shot in Bruges in Europe. It’s a love song that had to look like a classic romantic number with a boy meeting girl and falling in love and whatever happens after that. That’s why we went to Europe. And the story was also happening there so it made sense. The song has a soft, pastel look and is shot more in shadows. I wanted the audience to feel the cold in the air and hence we stuck to cooler tones giving it a typical European kind of feel.
It is a beautiful place but the only problem that I faced was the constant change of clouds, the sun coming in and so on. So there is no continuity at all, all day, which is a typical European situation. It becomes very difficult to plan the lighting. There are a couple of scenes happening in the song, in an interior location and an exterior space which was in town square. There again, the moving sun was an issue. But when I have the shot breakdown, I can plan which part of the song can be shot at what time of the day, so that it doesn’t mismatch with the other shots. The camera is then placed accordingly and certain portions are lit up in a particular way.
Take us through the making of ‘Tharki Chokro’.
This song was completely red; the 40-60 background dancers were all wearing bright red costumes with blue pagdis, the landscape was yellowish- brownish and the sky is deep blue. It was all about the colors. While grading it I told my colourist that we should keep this song in its entity, let the colors explode in the scene. It is a vibrant song and I am very happy with it. It captures the vibrancy of Rajasthan. For this song we used both the cameras. Ganesh Acharya choreographed it. Mostly one camera was on the Jimmy Jib while the other one was either on the track or Steadicam.
How extensively has VFX been used in the film? If it has, how have you approached the shooting of those scenes?
There are a lot of VFX elements in this film. I can’t elaborate much but one of the songs, the beginning and the end of the film have quite a bit of VFX. When you see the film you know the contributions from the VFX department, which has been done very well. It is not a VFX heavy film but VFX has a role to play and contributes to the film. I was associated with the conceptualization in the beginning after which the VFX team took over. We used the green screen in a few places as well.
What was the shooting schedule like?
We shot 101 days in total.
Colorist: Makarand Surte
VFX: Riva Digital Studio & Pixion. Biju D (Referred to as pioneer of the Indian VFX industry) was involved in the planning and conceptualization in the beginning.
Gaffer: Kamlesh from Mulchand
Grip: Dharam Burji
Associate Cameraman: Ramani
1st Assistant: Shreya Gupta
Focus Puller: Satish