Titli is the toughest film I have done in my career.
Cinematographer Siddharth Diwan who spun magic in Queen and took home several accolades for his ace camera work is back with a dark family drama, unlike one that we’ve ever seen. In his own words, Titli is one of the toughest films of his career. In a chat with Pandolin, Siddharth elaborates on the treatment adopted to give the film a realistic look and how they went about achieving it.
The overall look of the film seems to have a unique tonality. Could you throw some light on it?
We had a colour palette in our mind. We knew that most of the film is going to be in the house where this family lives though there are lot of other locations. But most of the look and tonality that we needed to work on was this particular location. We started seeing a lot of images of places that exist in Delhi and they had a lot of Blue’s and Yellow’s. But when we started the recce, I was fascinated to see the pinks and greens around us because they were so different from the monochromatic tones that we usually see. We noticed that a lot of people started painting their houses in very poppy colors. So the palette was already there in my head.
Even in my lighting I didn’t want to keep very pure hues. I always thought that I wanted to pollute the lights with some color. I would add a little magenta or green to break the pureness of the hue. Nowadays most of these practical lights – tube lights, sodium vapors etc., all have a magenta or green cast which we try to cut it out while shooting a normal film. And we try to make it look clean. For this film I thought it would be nicer to have that kind of a cast in the image. Even though the film is about a family, the state of affairs and chain of events are very dark. We wanted to contrast that with very vibrant colors.
So what were the references that you’ll had in mind while shooting?
The strongest reference point for us was this book about the politics of family that Kanu (Behl, Film Director) had shared with us. It talks about how the politics in a family works. And that became the reference point for us. But we didn’t refer to any film or anything. We shared a lot of reference images for the Production and Costume Design. But there was no strong reference point for the film.
How have you designed the lighting for the various sequences? Tell us about your sources of light?
We had a basic package to light up spaces but more importantly we always kept the mood of the scene in mind. The integrity of the source of light was always intact. For instance, one space had a lot of streetlights. We had logic to the placement of sources and never defied that logic to make things feel very real. It’s a realistic, very source based approach; we never started lighting up just to bring out the faces of the characters. I would normally light up for the space and not the characters.
In a film like this, I just let it play naturally. But we made sure that we always placed the lights from outside, especially during the end of the film. This way we created starker, silhouetted images. For sequences within the house, I had natural light entering parts of the house whereas direct sunlight entered only in patches. So whenever the actors walked in, they never felt like they were walking into a set but their own house. All the actors were so into their characters. Shashank (Arora) and Amit (Sial) had all stayed in that house before the film started. They were made to do things that got them into the character. So it became our responsibility to carry that forward. It was very tough for me to make decisions related to the placement of lights but we found a way to do it.
And what about the approach to the framing and angles for the family conversations?
We did some blocking before we went on shoot. Kanu and I spoke almost every day about each character and by the end of it I knew the characters in and out. Once I understood the characters, the framing came naturally to me. I’ve almost never used extreme wide or telephoto lenses for 90% of the film. Even when the characters were playing out the scenes in the house, the decision of where the father would be, where Titli would be et all, all just came to us naturally. We knew that Titli’s father’s character was always this looming figure in the background. We never really brought him up close in front of the camera. Every time we framed some other character, we made sure that the father is there in the background or he’s crossing in the foreground. He’s the guy who is silently running the show. Before starting the shoot the actors would rehearse on set for about an hour or two and we would block the whole thing and then start shooting.
What locations have you’ll shot in? How did you finalise them?
It was all shot in Delhi. The script had certain requirements, which generally come into play while choosing a location. As we were discussing the film we were looking at houses and making changes in the script, as there were certain layers that Kanu always wanted. He always wanted the house to have a very hemmed in feeling with it taller structures surrounding it. It is one of those houses, which were lesser developed than the rest of the houses in a colony. This also shows their position in society where everyone around them has progressed but they have stayed in the same place. They may have had those aspirations to progress and expand but they were not able to do it. Kanu tried to introduce those kinds of layers in the choice of locations.
We got a house and tried to make it look like as though it was in the midst of being extended. We almost reconstructed the house to suit our requirements. The courtyard was made smaller and the walls around it slightly taller so that there is less day light that comes in. This gives it a sense of being suppressed. Earlier the house had a very happy vibe and we wanted to kill that vibe and make it look lived-in and neglected. We made the rooms smaller, took out the windows, for example, Titli and Neelu’s room has no natural light that comes in, so it’s always lit by an artificial light. We created a corridor at the entry of the room so it felt like you are entering a den. These little things that you might not even notice in the film contribute to creating the overall effect.
The camera used and the camera set up – handheld/ Steadicam?
We had a single camera, the ARRI 416. We shot the whole film on Super 16 because the kind of characters the film had and the location we were planning to shoot in wouldn’t have had the same impact in digital. It was a very basic camera package and very rarely did we use the Jib or Steadicam. We imagined the film to have a very real, candid feel to it. It’s like you happened to be there when things were happening and you captured it. That’s the feeling we wanted.
I wanted to bring a kind of instability to the whole film, that’s why the choice of handheld came in. Also the Arri 416 is very light and designed for handheld work and worked best for the tiny shooting locations.
Towards the end of the film there is a realization that comes in. Post that we changed the language and started shooting with the Steadicam. So towards the end, the movements become more stable and fluid.
There are certain portions of physical violence in the film. How have they been treated? How have you handled the camera for these shots?
When you are shooting an action sequence for a mass action film, you are trying to create an exaggerated version of what is happening. You use rigs and grips to capture things in a way that has a heightened sense of drama. But we were trying to tell a real story of people who probably exist, so we didn’t want to heighten the drama. We always had to play on a sublime level with a sense of being there and capturing things and not exaggerating it. Even with the lensing through the film, we never exaggerated any perspective. Most of the film is shot on a 16mm lens, which is equivalent to 32 – 35mm on a 35mm camera. It’s a normal lens that is almost looking at things the way a human being sees them. We always wanted the drama to be played out by the characters than the camera work.
How would you describe Kanu as a director? What kind of discussions did you’ll have in terms of the cinematography requirements?
Kanu is an extremely involved director who gets into the skin of every department. He intellectualizes and finds meaning in everything that you are saying. There is a reason for everything. He has a lot of pre thought going on in everything that we are trying to do. And he tries to bring that out in every department – the sense that you really need to think more. He never spoke to me in technical terms, not because he doesn’t know it but because that’s not his way. He leaves the technical aspects to me. His concerns are the hidden layers we need to have when we are telling a story by visuals. He told me everything about the characters, the layers of the film, what is he trying to say, why this house needs to have these elements etc. And he would give me some key moods that need to be reflected like the house had to have a feeling of being suppressed by society. Those things made my work very easy.
What were the challenges faced during the shoot?
It was a very difficult film because it was extremely low budget film so we had limited time to shoot. We were shooting in the worst time possible – April and May in Delhi. We were shooting in Sangam Vihar where there is no electricity most of the time. The sizes of the room were less than 10 X 10 feet. Also because the camera was on my shoulder all the time, it was physically very draining. There were so many characters in the film and this is the first film where at any given time I had at least five people in front of the camera. So if even one of them doesn’t do it right you go in for a retake. There were times when we were doing 15 -20 takes and the camera was always handheld.
It was also a challenge because I decided to shoot on 16mm and as a format, with 16mm you’re always on the edge. The focus pulling is so tough that if you miss it even by a little, you know you’re in trouble. I’ve shot 16mm many times so I knew the limitations. You need to be extra careful while shooting at night because even if half a stop is here and there, the image is going to go for a toss. So we had to be very careful without light. We chose this format to have the grainy effect because our film is about those imperfections. But maintaining all those technical bits with budget constraints and first time actors was a challenge. Titli is the toughest film I have done in my career.
Tell us about your team.
Nikhil Arolkar who is my batch mate from SRFTI was my Chief Assistant. We have worked together several times and have a similar understanding and tastes. He’s a friend and understands my style of working very well. My Gaffer was John and JD from Prasad Labs was my Colourist. He’s a great colourist and I always wanted to work with him.
Though Queen was a commercial success, it was a very unconventional film, much like the other films in your repertoire. What influences your choice of films?
Over the years I have liked films, which have something important to say. I tend to like films about people that can exist around us and stories that have not been explored before. Titli is one of them, so is Peddlers and so was Queen. Nobody is talking about these kinds of people and this kind of life. I just read the script and think that this would be a good story to be part of. And then of course there’s the director. The vibe needs to match with that of the director and the team.