Cinematographer Anuj Dhawan

Cinematographer Anuj Dhawan

Hansal Mehta’s Shahid won appreciation from the audience as well as critics. The cinematography of the film is as realistic as the film’s story. Shahid‘s Cinematographer, Anuj Dhawan came on board quite late, yet he managed to finish off the film with finesse. As the cinematographer says, the journey of shooting Shahid has been really smooth with a few bumps here and there on the way. Anuj Dhawan speaks about his journey of translating visuals for the film onto the big screen with Pandolin.

When did the shooting for Shahid commence?

We began shooting in July, 2012, initially aiming to finish by August, 2012 but it took us 7-8 months to wrap. The key reasons to it were the non availability of the locations and the budgets, which most Indie films have to face. Shahid is a very credible film so Hansal wanted to shoot it at the real locations.

This is your first film as a cinematographer. So how did you get associated with Shahid?

Initially, they began shooting with some other cinematographer, and shot for two days but later they had something else in mind. Jay Mehta, chief AD for Shahid invited me to discuss the approach for Shahid after he saw my work and found it to be closer to what they needed for their venture. Mehta was introduced to my work through Zeishan Quadri, one of  the writers of Gangs of Wasseypur, who is also a close friend to Mehta.

What is your background with the industry?

I did my Electronics Cinematography from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) 2008 batch. As an assistant, my first project was under cinematographer Surjodeep Ghosh for Ram Gopal Varma’s film Agyaat- The Unknown. But initially for first 3-4 years, I mostly assisted Anay Goswami and Siddharth Diwan and after that went independent. I consider Anay Goswami as my mentor.

Anuj Dhawan

What was the brief from Hansal to you on Shahid?

We wanted the film to look real and make audience feel like a part of the incidents. I wanted people to connect with Shahid (Raj Kumar Yadav) and other characters and hence decided not to light up their faces. Our average shooting location was 10 feet by 8 feet, so we decided to use 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Lighting the characters was extremely challenging because of  the limited space. Hansal had asked me to give enough liberty to Raj Kumar Yadav, the actor, to let him do whatever he wanted as the locations were real and the available space to move was limited. The major brief to shoot Shahid’s (Raj Kumar Yadav) training in the terror group scene was to let it go as documentary as possible.

Could you please tell us about the tone and the color adopted for the film?

The film has a green tone and I personally like it for my films. Green tone according to me can be quite depressing but it is actually ironical sometimes as it is also a color of hope. The courtroom scenes of Shahid have a greenish tone and to achieve that tone we have created flicker free tube lights for lighting up the faces. Technically speaking, tube lights have a green cast onto them. Also if you visit any real courtrooms, the atmosphere there is very depressing but ironically that Shahid is fighting for hope, green tone fits in very smoothly. Shahid in his personal life was struggling, so I also thought the color would add to the feel. and 80 percent of the film is shot using these bank of flicker free tube lights. Also, in the first courtroom scene, we used 4K par light for the ambiance and joker bug lights for some jail sequences.

Please elaborate on the lighting design. 

We didn’t use much of artificial lights and instead used the natural light or available tube lights. There were occasions where we could not light up as we had only a couple of hours to shoot, so I adapted a design, where I could make the most of the available natural light and prepare a composition and the visual design in a way that it creates its own drama. For example in the interrogation scene, we have lit up the faces using one flicker free tube light, while in the house I have played with the natural light. For the interrogation scene, I kept the eye socket of the convict dark so as to prevent the creation of any kind of emotional connect between the convict and the audience and I remember Raj Kumar Yadav, the actor, having apprehensions about the lighting, whether it would turn out well or not.

Anuj Dhawan What was your choice of camera and lenses for this film and why?

We started shooting with Canon 5D Mark II because of the budget constraint but later I realized that this film could not be shot on 5D because I needed to give too much liberty to the actor to move around. Since Canon 5D is a full frame camera with a very shallow depth of field, I had to be very particular of the focus marks, which would not give Raj Kumar Yadav the space to act freely.  About seven to eight minutes of the film was shot on 5D. Canon 5D is not a camera meant for shooting a feature film. It is difficult to pull focus correctly while following a character. Also, because its a light-weight camera, it has weird jerkiness in it, which is visually not pleasant to see on the big screen. Hence we shifted to RED MX, through which the major part of the film was shot.

To shift from 5D to RED was my decision and later moving on from RED to Arri Alexa was a deliberate choice because we wanted a shift in Shahid’s look while he was in jail and later in Mumbai. Since we could not do much with the lighting, we thought of just changing the format and see how it would turn out as it definitely gives the film a different texture. We always wanted the image to be ironical of what it’s supposed to be. For instance, when you talk about or see visual of jail, it is usually very depressing but we wanted to convey hope through the visuals of Shahid in the jail hence kept the texture of the scenes very smooth. I also wanted to have a better latitude in the outdoor scenes in jail, which was only possible through Alexa. Similarly in Himachal Pradesh, we wanted to shoot it as beautifully and real as possible even though it was a jihadi camp.

Again due to budget, we had to choose the cheapest lenses i.e. Ultra Prime lenses. Also, I did not feel the need for any other lenses. Our basic lens setup was from 14mm to 135 mm.

There were no rigs used.  95 per cent of the film was shot hand held.

What were the locations of the film?

Major part of the film was shot in Mumbai, Taximen’s colony, the jail sequence was shot in the Juvenile Reform in Matunga, and the terrorist training sequences where shot in Himachal Pradesh.

What was the most interesting sequence while shooting?

Actually there were many. But I loved one sequence when Shahid is being tortured in the jail. The kind of lighting used worked really well for the sequence. More or less, Raj was nearly nude in the scene, so we shot it in a way that it does not look vulgar and had to maintain that thin line between showing him nude or creating just a sense of nudity.

Where did the DI take place and who was your colorist?

The DI was done in Prasad Lab, Mumbai. Martin Sansom was the first colorist who set the basic look but later colorist, Venu replaced him and matched the rest of the sequences in the film.

What are your future projects?

Pan Nalin’s docu feature Faith Connections and also I am currently shooting a film in Goa on Charles Shobhraj.