Pratik’s romance with the lens
[dropcap]The[/dropcap] challenge of standing by the premise of the script and controlling the scope of creativity over a piece of 120 minutes is what Pratik Deora finds intensely alluring. Pandolin chats with cinematographer, Pratik Deora who talks about his period film, Shudra – The Rising and how he’s tried to capture a rare moment in time on celluloid..
What was the director’s brief to you for shooting Shudra?
The director and the cinematographer need to have an aligned vision with respect to the film. Fortunately, I’ve worked with directors who believe in collaborative work and have been receptive to ideas. I’ve worked very closely with Sanjiv Jaiswal during Shudra –The Rising and together we have nurtured a vision. He had a set vision since he has lived the script and I treated the subject adhering to my aesthetic. The final look would not have been possible without the collaborative effort.
Have you worked with tight spaces in Shudra? If so, how did you manage the lights for it?
The film was shot at various locations,each having its share of constraints. Although we had constructed massive outdoor sets, we always intended to shoot with the method and technique of shooting on-location. We wanted to depict the actual size of the houses/huts. Just for the comfort of getting big lights in and making it easier to shoot, we did not want the interiors to be too spacious as this would deviate from the purpose and the look that we needed to create. So, to work in these tighter spaces, I constructed my own set of lights made with household bulbs of 60/100/250 watts. One of such lighting was made by screwing bulbs of various intensities in a concentric circle on a circular plywood. The bulbs were then connected through different flicker generators to mimic the (fire) source of light. The whole light was wrapped with colour gels and light diffusion papers, held together by a wire mesh to ensure a very soft quality of light. The whole setup resembled a balloon and was refereed to as the Gola light amongst the lighting crew. These lights could just be hung on a ceiling or with ropes in an open space. Some other such lights comprised bulbs affixed at the end of a long stick or a fire-lit torch. These were used in places where we could not manage much space or if the generator was unavailable.
Open spaces did pose some challenges. There is a scene in the film that is shot near a lake and we needed a slight, warm glow of the setting sun to fall on the actor’s faces from the opposite side of the lake. The lake being about 100 metres wide, it was difficult to place a light on the opposite bank and get an exposure. We constructed a platform in the middle of lake, 10 feet deep. Not only did we mount lights on the platform but also managed to get some nice shots.
Did you strive to create a specific stylistic imperative in the film?
Visually, I wanted the film to have a slightly warmer tone and texture as seen in Indian villages. I opted for a pretty much soft light approach towards lighting for this film unless a scene required the contrary. Shadow plays a key role in films; it keeps the mystery going and helps each shot convey a story. It helps us filmmakers control what we want the audience to see or not to see, and so the position and the intensity of a shadow is important to me. We have used it to define spaces, set the tone of a scene and also hide and reveal information.
It would be difficult to give a definitive description on the look of Shudra. People who watch it may describe it as a period look but I would describe it as realistic. Throughout the film I have used lights that were motivated by real sources. When I started blocking the shots with the director, my first objective was to place the sources of light in the scene, which could be something as small as a lamp or as big as the Sun. I would then supplement the source with film light.
Jaiswal and I looked at a lot of paintings as a reference for the look of the film. We also got an artist to make colour sketches to see the look on paper before we started shooting. This then became a reference point for the art, costume, make-up and cinematography departments.
How did you manage setting-up locations for the film?
About 75 per cent of the film is shot on sets created on the outskirts of Lucknow and the rest at locations around the place. We scouted and finalized the locations a month prior to the principal photography. We also finalized the design of the sets by then. A week before the shoot, we did a mock shoot of the key scenes in the film and kept adding elements to the sets. When the sets were ready, the main issue we thought was that it looked too beautiful. The place did not have a lived-in look so we added few things and even got some workers to live there for a few days. Thankfully, it was during the monsoons and the occasional showers helped create an aged look. Simultaneously, we made minute changes to the set and location as per the requirement of the scene.
The two sets that had a major part to play in the film were the village where the shudras lived and the village where the others lived. As a part of the narrative, we needed both the locations to look starkly different. The village of the shudras had to look dry, dusty, sad and almost monochromatic. We had to make sure not much of colours were used in this area. We planted some dead trees and plants with thorns and also lit some up to imbue the setting with a burnt out look. Even their cooking pots were burnt to make them look used and old. This set was constructed adjacent to a dirty lake, which the shudras use. The other village was given a more cleaner and slightly lively feel. There we planted plants and tied fresh leaves onto the trees to make it look healthy. We did not use a lot of saturated colours as that would not depict the era. Most of the shots in this area have animals either tied up or roaming around in the background. This was done to make the village livelier. Some other scenes, like an action scene where the shudras attack the thakur’s son in a forest, required additional setups. Since we needed the scene to look grungy and raw, we had the long road in the middle of the forest layered with black mud. The shudras camouflage themselves in the mud and attack when the victim nears them.
What kind of lights have your worked with in this film?
I used both natural and artificial lights extensively. In the night sequences, lights were mostly used to simulate fire light sources and a faint moonlight. The lights were moved or flickered depending on the space available and the kind of fire light it had to mimick. For an action sequence in the night, we had to light up a wide area with only fire light and I used a gold tinted reflector by bouncing heavy light on the reflector, shaking it to simulate the feel of a bonfire. For smaller spaces, I sometimes worked with household bulbs or fire light torches as the light source. Lighting huge areas only with soft light was one of the challenges, especially in the scene where the village gets burnt down.
Natural light plays an important role in the film –many scenes in the film were designed keeping the Sun and ambient daylight in mind. The opening scene was shot within a few minutes after sunrise. We designed the frame and rehearsed the scene by using artificial lights at night. As soon as the sun rose, we switched off the lights and took the shots. Similarly for the action scene in the forest where the shudras attack the thakur’s son while he passes by in a chariot, we did the shoot at dawn without using any artificial light and merely exposing for the available light. This scene was shot for an hour everyday at dawn for eight days.
Another scene that involved a combination of natural and artificial light was one where Charna has an emotional conversation with his pregnant wife, Sandhli, just before she was abducted by the thakur’s men. As this scene occurs just after sunset, we had to convey the natural light fading away gradually and the fire lights coming up. We designed the shots in such a way that every consecutive shot had lesser natural and more fire light. The last leg of the scene has Charna and Sandhli sitting next to a wood burning stove and talk. The only source of light here is the stove, so I replaced the burning wood with a par bulb and added colour gels to simulate it. The colour gels in front of the light soon started burning due to the heat of the light and the smoke coming out of the stove made it look like a real one. The ambient light naturally fading away also worked as a motif for the scene.
Shudra is based on quite a sensitive issue: caste. As its DOP, what was your contribution to the vision on the issue of caste?
As a cinematographer, my job is sort of independent from the issue of caste that the film portrays. The only force that drives or influences my work is the story and the script. My aim is to try and work towards getting a reaction from the viewer and this will eventually affect the way the film conveys a message on the subject. After reading the script and hearing a narration from the direction team, I made notes on how I intended the film to look and the way I was going to make the audience react to a scene by using various techniques like the pace of camera movements, texture, direction, type and source of light, colours, material etc. I had long discussions with the director and together we worked on amalgamating our visions for the film.
What camera equipment and lenses did you use for the film? How did you practice diffusion in the film?
We used Kodak super-16mm stock. The camera used was Arriflex SR3 HS with 9.5mm, 12mm, 16mm, 25mm Zeiss Distagon block lenses and a 11-110mm Zeiss zoom lens.
The type and nature of diffusion used in this film was different for different scenes and formed a crucial part of the lighting scheme. Often, we bounced light off different cloth materials such as bleached/unbleached muslin, satin, soft silver and soft gold reflector. When the space did not allow bouncing, I used direct light with various Rosco diffusion papers or a Chimera cloth. We made many small frames of muslin by sticking them onto poly boards and bounced in some fill especially in tighter spaces.
What was your biggest light source in the film and why?
Biggest light source would be my 12 and 9 bank Dinos,they provide a huge amount of light ideal for bouncing off. We also used direct light as per the situation.
How was it working with the actors of the film?
It was a great experience as they were all very passionate about their work and the film. They were so dedicated to the characters they were portraying that they did not wash their hair for at least a month during the shoot of the film. They had to perform in some of the most difficult conditions and they did well. We bonded over games of badminton everyday post the shoot. I am good friends with them.
Who were your gaffers, assistants and colourist? How was it working with them?
My gaffer and associate cinematographer on this film was Tanveer Mir, while Utkrisht Singh was the chief assistant and focus puller. Not only are they highly spirited technicians but also have great aesthetics in filmmaking.
Prashant Dhotre from Prasad Labs worked as a colourist on Shudra – The Rising. He picked up the exact look that I had envisioned for this film and also contributed a lot to the visuals. He knows his machine well and it helped us work faster and get the maximum out of the negative.
How long did the filming take?
It took us around 35 days to film Shudra.