Cinematographer Aseem Mishra gives Pandolin the inside dope on his recently released film Gunday.

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How would you describe your association with Director Ali Abbas Zafar?

Ali is an intelligent filmmaker with a profound aesthetic sensibility who understands the language of cinema and blocking very well. We have seen each other work over the last 6-7 years and share a wonderful rapport. I had worked with him on New York when he assisted Kabir Khan and while I was shooting Ek Tha Tiger, he gave me a script and said that only I could execute it. I was curious to know why and when I heard the story, I realised it was because I could intrinsically relate to it. I got excited because I too was searching for a shooting and lighting style that I had never used. We instantly bonded over the concept and I connected deeply with my visualization of the scenes and imagery of the film. It was like a beam of sunlight breaking through an overcast sky and just like a character in a movie with an epiphany there was a glint in my eyes!

Why do you think that Gunday was the most appropriate film for you?

I was born in Dhanbad, one of India’s largest coal mining areas; so I had a relationship with coal throughout my childhood. My father, Mr. L.M. Mishra, retired as the Deputy Director General of Mine Safety. I clearly remember seeing footprints of the coal-encrusted boots when coming home. I still remember the coal dust left on the floor, the cap-lamps, and the helmets. We lived in a huge English bungalow where every room had a fireplace and it was our duty to fill them with coal during the winters. The smell of burning coal, the black footprints on the white marble, coal miners going to work on their cycles with their lunch boxes…it’s all deeply ingrained. I have a vivid memory of those images and capitalized on them while shooting Gunday.

I directed a short film called Seventh Seam in 2007, which opened in New York, travelled to Toronto and many other festivals. It’s a story about a coal miner who is trapped inside a mine for a week. It deals with his anxiety and near death experiences. I also have a memory of a coalmining accident from childhood that left a strong impression.

As a kid, wherever I saw charcoal, I would pick up a piece and start sketching on a drawing board. I loved the texture it left on the white sheet of paper…the crumbling charcoal. The first shot of the film with the charcoal on paper was influenced by my childhood experience. All the images that Ali spoke about came naturally to me because of my innate familiarity. I can speak and understand Bengali, and so for me, interacting with the crew and the line producer in Kolkata was easy. Nothing could have been closer to me than this film and I felt absolutely at home shooting it. And the Bengali food! Oh, I just love it!

Tell us about the locations used for shooting

The coal mines, the cabaret song, the warehouse action, the Bikram-Bala office and the bathroom sequence where we introduce Priyanka Chopra were all shot on a set. The opening of the film, i.e. the Geneva refugee camp was created in a place called Bantala while the rest of the film was shot on location in Kolkata at Phool ghat and the Maniktala fish market. The climax, when the coalmine explodes, was shot in Raniganj, which is close to Dhanbad.


How did you decide the camera format and the lensing employed for this film? What was your strategy for camera movements?

When Ali was narrating the story, my mind was already switching between film and digital. I had the option of using both, but I decided on 35 mm, largely because shooting coal or a face that is smeared with coal dust and sweat comes alive on film – not a hard and fast rule but a preference. So, in order to capture the right texture and mood, I chose film instead of digital. We used smoke machines and lobans to get the misty effect in the background. I was clear about using lots of smoke, dust, and shooting on Kodak film. It was an aesthetic requirement more than a technical one.

I had a great conversation with Ali regarding the look and lensing of the film. I also did a breakdown of lensing according to the scenes. I specifically decided that this film needed to be shot on 14 mm, 32 mm, 50 mm and 135 mm primes. For action scenes, we used zoom lenses such as the Optimo 24 – 290 and 15- 40 short zoom on the Steadicam. When the boys grew older, we wanted them to look stronger and so we used low angles a touch below the chin level and big frames, which is why their childhood sequences have tighter lensing.

We were consciously moving the camera throughout the film. Every scene and shot was on dolly and the camera was moving incredibly slowly. I think subconsciously we were trying to pull the audience’s attention towards the scene and this became a style in itself. It is subtle but certainly has an impact on the viewers.

How did you shoot moving coal trains and stunt scenes? Tell us about the special equipment used for it.

We were supposed to shoot the train sequence near Shanti Niketan but because we didn’t get the permits, we had to shoot it near Satara in Maharashtra and Raniganj. Moving train sequences are always difficult to execute because you need to stop, reverse and forward the train for retakes. The Executive Producer, Mr. Arindam Sil from the production house, Nothing Beyond Cinema in Kolkata, was very helpful. We pulled off the whole action sequence without any error. Credit goes to our action director, Mr Shyam Kaushal, and his team.

We used phantom cameras shooting 1,000 frames per second and an Arri 435 shooting 150 frames per second. We mounted the jib on the train and created a separate bogie, which gave us space to shoot. We shot most of the film with natural light except for high-speed shots, where we used 6K HMIs. A good amount of planning done by Ali, Mr Sham Kaushal, and me, enabled us to keep everything under control.

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Tell us about the lighting treatment of the film.

My lighting aesthetic is a reflection of my personality — very simple. Keeping the lighting simple gives the actors a lot of freedom to move. I used some beam lights, moving heads, and par cans for shooting the cabaret sequence but I tried to keep it realistic. Having said that, the quality and nature of light was important especially in a period film like Gunday.

This was the first time I was shooting with Priyanka Chopra, so I did a test shoot with a still camera to see how she catches light from various angles. There are some people who catch the top light really well and some look nice in angular light. One needs to have a good understanding of what kind of lighting works on actors. For instance, Irrfan’s strongest suit is his eyes and I always light to pronounce that quality. Ranveer may not look good in a top light situation. He may need a bit of fill from the front whereas Arjun will look really good in top or angular light!

By nature, I don’t go by references or watch too many films, so whatever I have seen or imagined is reflected in my work. For example, I have not seen what Chambal was like in the 1960s and never met Paan Singh Tomar but I visualised all those things based on my imagination. I believe there is no right or wrong because all my knowledge has originated from experimentation and observation.

When Ali told me about the Geneva refugee camp, I recalled my childhood days in Dhanbad (which borders West Bengal) when we’d hear sirens and announcements. The Bangladeshi war happened a few years before I was born but I saw the images in magazines that my father collected. I distinctly remember asking people why the car headlights were covered with black patches. A big war had taken place and everybody was always talking about it! The creation of this country called Bangladesh…. Hence, shooting this film for me was like going back in time…a nostalgic and deeply fulfilling experience.

A major portion of the film entails brilliantly shot Durga Puja sequences. How did you achieve that level of magnificence in terms of cinematography?

For the Durga Puja sequence, we had some 20 guys playing the drums and around 6–7 murtis (statues of Durga) created by Rajat Poddar (Production Designer). Since Rajat is Bengali, the statues were forged in authenticity. They were so well done that you couldn’t tell the difference between the studio shots and the real location shots. We were in sync because of our similar backgrounds.

There are certain aspects that are part of the visarjan procedure, which were discussed in order to recreate them. There is a scene in the film where Priyanka is waiting for Ranveer in a Durga Puja pandaal. I have seen more than one lakh pandaals through my 18 years in Dhanbad. I knew how to light it. I used simple halogen bulbs used in wedding ceremonies to create a sense of warmth. I could have used any kind of soft light but I had to make it look like a period film and therefore used halogen.

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What was it like collaborating with action director Sham Kaushal?

Shamji and I have worked together on New York and many other projects. For Gunday, we tried to do something different. Gunday portrays real and organic action. There is nothing artificial in it except for a few slow motion and ramping shots. One terrific thing about Shamji is that he is very instinctive and that, of course, comes from a lot of experience. I really liked the action sequence in the warehouse between Bikram and Bala. It’s conceptualised, lit, shot, and edited in a very poetic way and I just love its background score!

Tell us about the costumes in Gunday since they are a significant part of any period film.

Subarna Ray Chaudhuri, the costume designer, did a fantastic job! We decided not to use any bright colours that would distract the audience and chose muted tones and subdued shades. However, for the song Tune maari entriyaan, we added some colour to the frame. She made it look vibrant. The costumes in every scene were consciously and delicately chosen and we went through lots of options in terms of colour, fabric, and cuts.  The style, colours, and tones were in complete sync with the story and my requirements.

What were your most challenging moments?

I think Gunday was a tough film to shoot. Every department worked extremely hard. However, the biggest challenge in my opinion was shooting the coalmine sequence. Though I had digitally shot my short film inside a real coalmine, shooting it on 35 mm was intensely challenging. It was tricky to conceive the lighting because the faces need to be toned down, the costumes need to be dirty, everything is black and you can’t just throw light. It had to be controlled so it didn’t look like a limestone mine. Even though coal is black, at certain angles it reflects light. So we had to be very careful. For coal to look like coal and faces to look like they are in the coalmine, lighting became a crucial aspect of the sequence.


Rajat and I worked closely while designing this intricate set because there is no natural light inside a deep coalmine. All the wires need to be insulated, as any kind of spark could be catastrophic, potentially igniting the entire mine! We used small bulbs, multi twenties, etc., which were skimmed so that the background stood out.  We cut as much spill as possible from the background. Rajat created these small patches on the roof of the tunnel through which I could hide my lights simulating those dim bulbs.


Tell us about your camera crew and the process that you went through while shooting.

I don’t differentiate between a gaffer and a first or a second assistant. I don’t employ a hierarchical system. I have three guys who work with me and we are a team. Sanjay is the focus puller and the other two guys, Anil and Montu (Yudhisthira), do the metering and light placement according to my requirements. My assistants and I do a script reading well before the shoot begins. It’s a sincere and classroom kind of situation where we discuss what we need to do in order to achieve the desired look. Before we go to the location, I sketch a plan and communicate the tech requirements and placement of each and every light. I don’t like too many discussions on set so we do most of it before. We communicate effectively and so when we are filming things work on autopilot.

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Tell us about the VFX and the postproduction phase of the film?

There is not much VFX apart from a few shots of the Howrah Bridge, which were created to reinforce Kolkata and some action shots involving kids where CG was used. The postproduction happened at Prime Focus and I shared a good equation with my colourist, Manoj. We wanted a certain kind of tone to the film and he picked it really well. The film opens with black and white images and then goes slightly monochrome. The colour tone changes again when these guys come to Kolkata. As the film progresses, the skin tone becomes clearer and finally towards the end, we go back to the monochromatic zone. We created a colour graph for the entire film.

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Your forthcoming films.

Currently I am working on Kabir Khan’s film called Phantom, which happens to be my third film with Kabir Khan and Katrina Kaif and the first one with Saif Ali Khan. Its going really well.

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