Turbanator on a Roll with master cinematographer Aseem Bajaj
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen a film experimentally tries to cleave film traditions and cultures that are completely separate, its camera needs to tread with skill and caution. After all, the camera is one of the pens with which we signature the language of cinema. One crass move, one imperfect slide of its perceptive nib, and the entire script stands crossed. In Aseem Bajaj, Son Of Sardar had the sharp filmmaker who enabled it to achieve the wily miscegenation of perspectives, issues, and styles that conceptually lay miles apart. Pandolin presents to you some scintillating insight from this seasoned artiste into a most interesting episode in contemporary Hindi filmmaking.
What was the principal idea with which you approached the shoot of Son of Sardaar?
Before the shoot, the film’s director, Ashwani Dheer, and Mr. Ajay Devgan explained to me that Son of Sardaar was to be a high-octane comic action film. They emphasised it as a Western meets Bollywood. That was a baffling take-off point for a visual approach to any kind of cinema. I, therefore, asked the director how he expected me to see a Western in Punjab. In response, he asked me to replace the cowboy hats with the Turbans in my imagination. Although I found it very funny, I agreed.
Son Of Sardar also has a feel-good aspect to it. It also bears a sublime message about the triviality of personal and socialised animosities. Looked upon in a more casual way, Son of Sardaar is a total time-pass film whose intense action scenes rouse the hoots of the frontbenchers in a movie hall. On the other hand, its representations of love and romance are mellow and not cheesy and in-your- face. That’s great for audiences like me who are not frontbenchers by any means.
What kind of stylistic elements, perspectives, and camera movements did you consciously employ to underscore your emphases in the frames in the film
The camera movements in Son of Sardar stayed with its characters and action sequences. Classical cinematographic tenets, such as avoiding camera-shake, not moving the camera while shooting, and searching for precise and classical camera angles, were discarded in favour of the overall feel we got as we shot in a mobile, new-age way. We, therefore, kept away from the dolly a lot, shot with the camera handheld, and kept frames characterised by shake and movement. We achieved a good flow during the shoot and that led us to the aesthetic the film has come to achieve.
We always shot for Son of Sardar by looking through a prop. 80 percent of the times, we created frames that were not naked, not immediately right in front of us. It is very difficult to achieve that in a comedy as its frames are usually populated by multiple characters and are therefore kept quite naked. While we stuck to doing it that way sometimes, most of the times we experimented and created frames that had a point of view style. For example, if we needed to shoot a scene in the open with a bullock cart in the frame, we’d foreground the bullock cart and then look through its wheels to get a POV shot. Often, we tried finding multiple options to our shots. Such approaches helped us get objects from our environment and our locations into the film. But very importantly, we limited ourselves to the conventions of Hindi filmmaking. We, therefore, stayed away from depicting things in their punjabiness and used the environment primarily to enhance our shots and sequences.
We also used a lot of footage from GoPro, a kids’ camera that is used for recording footage during skydiving and diving. Even though GoPro is only as big as a cigarette packet, it produces some really interesting and stylised footage. Using it was Mr. Ajay Devgan’s idea. He wanted it used for playing dynamically with perspective in action sequences. Although the footage from GoPro was not of the best visual quality, it added value to the look of and the meaning in the film. We used it sparingly and with discretion and realised that it helped us put content over look and picture quality in some crucial points in the film.
Is the film Hollywoodesque in its look and approach?
No, the film is very Bollywood in its style and content. In fact, it is rural Bollywood. There is nothing Hollywood about it.
How much ambient light did you use? In what ways did you enhance or add light during the shoot?
Most of what we shot in Punjab, seventy-five to eighty percent of the entire film, was shot in available light. Apart from that we employed two 18 kilowatt Arri Macs, two 12 kw lights, and a couple of 6 kw and 4 kw lights. We also made use of 20*20 and 40*40 reflectors that we flew in from Thailand. These helped us manipulate and manage the wavering daylight we worked in as much as we could.
The film seems to retain a sharp and harsh light look. Your comments on this please.
Yes the film does retain a sharp look. But a lot of the film was shot in the winters too—in November- December—when the sunlight wasn’t really harsh. At rare points in the film’s love-bound scenes involving Mr. Devgan and Sonakshi, we’ve kept the light slightly soft and diffused in order to do away with the effects of fear and uncertainty that characterise most of lighting in the film. You see, 70 percent of the movie takes place in and around the haveli in which the atrocious character played by Mr. Sanjay Dutt lives. At all points of time, the other characters that inhabit that haveli are uncertain about what Mr. Dutt’s character is going to do or who he is going to kill in the following moment. In keeping with this atmosphere of insecurity and scare, we stuck to a harsh light pattern. As the film’s action sequences were also rough in texture and feel, we shot them under the stark sunlight of March and April. You can, therefore, feel a change in light in the film, a change that corresponds with the way the intensity of light changes as it moves from winter to summer. Although some might view it as away from the norm, I feel it works in the film’s favour.
How was your experience with Ajay Devgan, Sanjay Dutt, and Sonakshi Sinha, the actors of Son Of Sardar?
Simply amazing. This is my seventh film With Mr. Ajay Devgan. He has been quite an anchor in mylife. He is also an expert at designing shots. We therefore asked him to be, one could say in a manner of speaking, the technical director of the film (laughs). He added value to the film tremendously as a shot designer. He gets happy like a child designing shots and scenes. Having been exposed to film culture and technology from a very early age, Mr. Devgan understands the camera very well. He’s been an assistant director in his youth and has made nothing short of 50 short films. It was sheer pleasure to see him work with all his incisive acumen.
It’s probably my tenth film with Mr. Dutt in all capacities put together. He’s seen me work when I was an intern on Trimurti’s set. I was an intern with the late Ashok Mehta then. I’m very close to both of these people, love them, and cannot be objective about them. Working with Sonakshi for the first time was great too. She’s a sweet girl and supremely sanskaari as a woman.
Does Son Of Sardar’s cinematography somehow stick close to the cinematography of Maryada Ramanna, the film whose remake it is supposed to be?
I have no clue of that because I have not seen Maryada Ramanna. I was told that although the project started as a remake of Maryada Ramanna, it had become a vastly different script by the time the decision to shoot was taken. When I asked my director if we needed to include scenes in the film to refer to Maryada Ramanna, he told me that I should emphasise my own vision of the story. I think that Son of Sardaar has an identity of its own.
Who are your gaffers, colourist, VFX guys, etc.? Could you please share a word on your team?
I always work in a big team and manage to get the work done fast. Anshuman Singh Thakur was my gaffer as well as my second unit DOP on the project. He’s an amazing chap. Prashant Bednekar, who I’ve called Pandit Ji for the last eleven years, was my focus puller. He’s really good with his work and most amazing as a person. In Rafiq Bhai I had my second unit focus puller. Then there was Tiger, my second unit gaffer. He was the one handling the second unit and all other cameras. He was instrumental in helping me manage the nine cameras we had on set for Son Of Sardar.
My colourist on the project was Makrand Surte. We called him Mac. Surte is very experienced, very calm, and a fun guy to work with. It is very important for your colourist to be fun-loving. Otherwise, you could end up dead during the colour correcting process (laughs). Imagine colour-correcting for a month in a dark room with a stranger who is stuck-up (laughs)! You’d be screwed. Surte is also my Marathi teacher. It’s my twentieth year in Mumbai and for the first time someone has been successful in initiating me into learning Marathi. The range of films that Surte has worked on is pretty varied. From Shanghai to Singham, Three Idiots to Agneepath, and Bol Bachhan to Son of Sardar, he has it all under his belt.
All my other films have been colour-corrected at Pixion. The colourist who attended to them was called Paul Burns. He is an Irish genius. Burns is my favourite colourist in the world. He always refreshed the subject as he dived into it, listened to descriptions of the script, and read the script in detail many times over. He’s now moved to LA. I did seven films with him.
Son of Sardar was my first film with Surte, and I have to say that I’m pretty satisfied with what he has produced.
Did Son Of Sardar use a lot of VFX?
About twenty percent of the film has VFX. The action sequences required it. My VFX guy, Naveen Paul, is the best VFX producer in India. He was like a mother to us on set. Whenever we had a problem and brought it up to him, he would tell us that he’d take care of it in post. And surprisingly, he really did take complete care of it. He meant business, he talked business, and he delivered. He has worked with various studios including Pixion.
Where all did the film get post-processed?
In terms of its post-end, Son Of Sardar was a collaborative enterprise of both Pixion and Reliance. While the film’s VFX was done at Pixion, its DI and its colour correction were done at Reliance Media Works. We used Ad Labs to develop the film.
What were the principal challenges that you encountered during the shoot of Son Of Sardar?
Action. Sometimes the action sequences took days to complete. Sometimes, a single action shot took an entire day.
For example, after being asked if you’d want to shoot an action sequence, you look at the light, find it good, and decide to carry out a shoot. Then those who are expected to do the rigging go away. When they come back ready for the shoot after six hours, you realise that the light from the sun has shifted and altered, leaving you with no option other than to either not shot or to shoot in the light that you never wanted in your frame. Those are the kind of challenges that you face on a day to day level while shooting action films in India. While you sometimes manage such situations by turning things around a bit, at other times you decide to go with the flow and change your shooting style and perspectives. You invent alternatives because you don’t want to have issues with actors’ dates, or have problems with logistics and production. After all, filmmaking is not cheap by any means. Every day, our production team had to manage a unit of six hundred people. I don’t think Punjab ever saw such a big filmmaking crew before us.
As we were shooting in November-December, the winter sun kept playing hide and seek at will and threw severe lighting challenges at us. Till 11.30 a.m.-12.00 noon, it just wouldn’t come out. Even after it did, there would be a lot of haze and fog. We’d start shooting by 12.30 p.m.-1.00 p.m., and it would be time for lunch. Then the crew would disperse for lunch for an hour and come back by 2.30 p.m. We’d hardly have shot for a few minutes when it would be 3.00 p.m. By 3.30, the light would start dwindling and we’d have to wrap up. This unproductive routine went on for 2-3 days in the shoot, after which I approached Mr. Devgan and asked him to devise a way out. I wanted at least 4 dedicated hours every day when everybody focussed on the task at hand. As a solution, we decided to have no breaks for food between the time the sun came out and set. Once that policy was implemented, it worked handsomely.
The saddest thing for me during the shoot was that one of our very good lightmen, Bala, got electrocuted with overhead high-tension wires of the State Electricity board on the film’s set. Ironically, we were not using electricity at all on that day. It was a freaky accident. We couldn’t shoot for two days because we were all very depressed. We didn’t know what had struck us. Whatever we may say or feel, the loss to Bala’s family is the greatest. He was a young boy of 25 years. No one deserves a death like that.
Which cameras and lenses did you use for the shoot?
We used Panavision cameras and lenses in the shoot of Son Of Sardar. We also employed a Phantom Flex for capturing high speed action sequences. We did one song on Arri Alexa Raw. We had three Panavision cameras capturing action at all points of time. For the most part of the film, we had two Arri 435 cameras too. In addition to these, we used four GoPro cameras.
We used all kind of lenses depending upon what was required. They ranged from 10mm to 150mm block lenses to close-focus lenses like the 35mm, the 27mm, and the 100mm macro. In all, we had fourteen block lenses and three zooms.
How did you guys manage your locations?
We went around scouting a lot of villages near Chandigarh and Patiala. Finally we locked this particular place whose name I fail to remember. It was a thirty-five minute drive from Patiala. We stayed in Patiala and shot in that village. The haveli was surrounded by approximately two hundred acres of agricultural land. It was very comfortable.
How long did the entire filmmaking process take?
We went on the floor in November last year, started shooting on 3rd of December, and released on the 13th of November 2012. So all in all, it’s taken about a year.