The climax of Bajrangi Bhaijaan was very difficult to shoot.
Aseem Mishra, Cinematographer of the mega hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan, talks about his association with Kabir Khan, his visual reading of the scripts and how the debate between digital and film is never-ending.
You have collaborated with Kabir Khan in all his films barring one. Please talk about your association, relationship and understanding.
I’d done Ram Gopal Verma’s Contract in 2007. I don’t think the film did well but people noticed my work. I then received a call from Kabir Khan, who was making a film called New York, and asked me to come on board. I totally loved the script and told him this is my kind of a film. And that’s how the journey began. Kabir and I go back a long way as he was a batch senior to me in college. With New York, we started working together. I love working with Kabir as we share similar sensibilities. Our visual sense, political system, our belief in day-to-day ethics are quite close.
Talk about your recent release Bajrani Bhaijaan.
I think the audience’s response to the film is phenomenal. We were not expecting such a big response as it’s a different kind of a film. It is not like what we have seen Salman do in other films. There is no ‘maar-dhaad’ et al and things like that. Even if some portions have action, it has been handled in a very subtle way. Also the political message for the audience is quite simple and subtle. We are not pushing or say ‘selling’ the message. It comes and goes while people can easily guess the sub-text.
When you are shooting superstars like Salman Khan, what kind of thought goes into making that ‘larger than life’ image?
Salman is a really fine artist. I think I am close to both Salman Sir and Kabir but closer to Kabir because we know each other since our college days. Salman and I have never talked cinema as such, we usually have interactions on ‘life’ and other things. We are quite comfortable with each others working style. He understands how I use my lenses as I have shot three films with him. During the shoot he would come to me, and through actions, would ask if I was taking closeups. He knows exactly what I am shooting, what my angle is, image size and how I am going to shoot his face.
How do you green light a project? What are the deciding factors? Is it only about the association and comfortability?
For me the most important thing is the script. I read the script thoroughly. It’s great that I have been getting interesting scripts one after the other. I feel really good about that because each of them is a special and important film.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan has been shot in real locales all over India. What was the vision in terms of cinematography that Kabir Khan shared with you?
The first stage was reading the script completely. After that we sat and discussed the look and feel of the script. We decided to keep the camera-work very subtle and not aggressive at all in it’s approach. It’s a simple script so I thought that the best way to shoot it was to do it in the simplest way. As a cinematographer, the only thing I kept in mind was that the story is very real and simple so the camera work has to be as simple if not simpler, so that the feel is real and grounded.
It starts from the script level but after a point it’s completely on me as to how I frame and shoot the film. Of course Kabir is there to see and judge if the angle is fine, lighting is good and other things, but still it largely depends on the cinematographer.
The film is shot as if it’s a documentary with extreme close-ups, characters talking to the camera, extreme long shots, travels etc. Comment.
That comes from our documentary background. We have traveled around the world shooting documentaries. We used to do a lot of ‘piece to the camera’ and things like that. And the feel of this film was ‘keeping it as real as possible’ so we stuck to the documentary-like feel.
Please talk about the lighting design of the film.
The biggest lighting we did was when Pawan (Salman Khan) and Munni (Harshali Malhotra) cross the border. We shot that sequence in Jaisalmer. That was a big challenge because we were shooting in a large sand dune. Taking lights and shooting at night was really difficult for the crew. So I hired a helium balloon and we lit the entire scene with just one helium light.
Were the songs in terms of feel, treatment, lenses shot differently than the whole film?
The songs were more saturated in terms of colors. Otherwise, the film had a tone of it’s own. We didn’t give any special tone and kept it as natural as possible so that everything looks real.
What was the most challenging and interesting scene to shoot?
The climax was very difficult to shoot. We were chasing the sun, the rains were chasing us. The play between the sun and the rain kept us on our toes. I found it extremely difficult to light the scenes and keep the continuity intact because it kept changing randomly due to the weather and the mountains. Sometimes it would rain, sometimes it would snow, then there was hard sun light and the next moment it would change it to soft day light. And shooting on such a high altitude with snow around you is really difficult.
Camera and lenses?
We shot with the Phantom camera. We used Helicams for the aerial shots and several scenes including the opening of the film, the Rajasthan schedule, travel shots etc.
I shot the film with Optimo zoom lenses. I haven’t used much of block lenses in this film. Neither did I use too many filters.
How was it shooting in Kashmir?
The film’s climax was shot in Kashmir. It was normal, nothing like ‘surprising’ or different. People in Kashmir were absolutely fantastic and warm. Also we didn’t have any problem with having crowd around as that was the requirement of the scene. We did have police support and protection. But otherwise also I don’t think it was difficult at all. We had done our research, seen images of PoK. I think it was difficult for the Production Designer to create the gate and everything in snow. But it was a joint effort. We all sat together, discussed, planned the location, figured out how we can execute it, what are my requirements, what are his requirements etc.
Please talk about your camera team. Do you have a dedicated team that works with you in all projects or the team members change as per the project?
My camera team basically consists of 3 people, who have been with me since New York. I have shot almost 11 films with the same crew. Before I go for a location recce or a shoot, I do a small meeting at home where I tell my team what to expect, how and what we are going to shoot, we talk about the lighting, the look of the film, how I am going to play with the light in DI, whether we need gels, whether we need to put tungsten light in the background, how we will need to mix lights and such things. So we do this basic meeting to understand the film, location, requirements and application of the plan.
What are your upcoming films? Can you talk about Phantom?
Phantom is going to be completely different in terms of look, camerawork and script. It is different and interesting. Right now I am not working on anything else other than Phantom. My post production work for the film will start soon, so I will get busy with that.
You have also shot Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Sahib Biwi aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar. How has the experience been?
My actual journey of shooting films started with Paan SIngh Tomar. By the time I came back from New York after shooting New York, I was already on Paan Singh Tomar. It was a complete film for me and I consider it my best work. It was also very interesting to shoot because I was just back from a long schedule in New York. New York has a lot of reflection, skyscrapers, whereas here I suddenly found myself in a barren landscape, exactly opposite of what I had shot earlier.
Also Sahib Biwi aur gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are different from the other films that I have shot mainly due to budget constraints. You can’t hire a helium light to light up a scene. It’s as simple as that. So it was challenging but I have always loved challenges. I look out for them, winning over them is more satisfying than anything else.
Which are the films that you admire for their camerawork?
There are a lot of films. I would say Autumn Sonata is brilliantly shot by Sven Nykvist. Then there are films like Godfather, Gandhi, Charulata, Sholay, all very well shot.
Which is the one film you would have loved to shoot?
Gandhi. I would have loved to shoot it. I think it is my favourite film.
The debate between shooting on film and digital cameras. Comment.
When we passed out from Jamia we were trained in U-matic Low Band, there wasn’t even a high band available then. Later we had digibeta cameras, followed by Alexa. For me the change has not been that bad because I came from a video background. I feel if you know the basics of cinematography which is your lighting, aperture, etc. then working on any kind of camera is not a big deal. The debate has always been there. But now I think because of the kind of lenses we have, the kind of cameras and quality that is emerging is pretty close to film. Of course, digital is digital and celluloid is celluloid, but they are good in their own spaces. Why compare at all!
Do you shoot with mixed camera setups? Which lenses do you prefer?
We certainly use mixed cameras. Like in Gunday, some shots were taken on Phantom while some on 5D. Nowadays the digital camera mixture happens quite a lot compared to how it was shot earlier. Basically, when you are designing, visualizing your film, you decide beforehand about the cameras according to the scenes. In Gunday, we had decided to shoot certain action scenes using Phantom. Thus the lighting and requirement for each camera is different. It totally depends on the scenes of the film and which is the other camera involved. Phantom cuts very well with a camera like Arri Alexa, so it becomes easy.
I shoot a lot on Optimo 24-290. It’s a pretty heavy lens but I love shooting on it. I shot Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan using this lens. Gunday was completely shot on block lenses. It’s time consuming to change lenses. You have a zoom so you can frame easily without any changes. Also digital gives me the feel that I like – the edges of the subject are little diffused which gives it a molded kind of feel. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s the feel of the lens rather than the technicality involved.