We had to design shots in a way that the camera was almost invisible – Kamaljeet Negi
Noted Cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi takes us behind the scenes of Shoojit Sircar’s Piku and shares interesting details of all that went into the making of this much-awaited film.
You team up with Shoojit Sircar once again after Madras Café. What excited you to take up Piku?
The excitement was more in the challenges because Piku is a totally different film. In the past also I’ve done films like Vicky Donor, Madras Café & Bhoothnath Returns that belong to different genres involving different kind of camera work. Piku too was offering me something different than a normal film would. And I think every cinematographer has to find those challenges in a film that he takes up.
The film is set in a Bengali house in Delhi. One day the family decides to take a trip to Kolkata. So overall it is a normal family living in a house, almost mundane but one has to make it look like a lively, lived-in space that is exciting for the audience. That is what Shoojit (Sircar) wanted in the film. There are three to four key characters in the film and they are always around, talking and interacting. How we make all of it interesting is what was exciting about the film.
What was the approach adopted to make the entire set up interesting? Which camera and lens pack have you used?
We decided to have a multi-camera set up so there were at least two cameras rolling at any given time. The performances of the characters were like they are performing on a stage, completely on their own without any disturbance. We had to design shots in such a way that the camera never came in between or interrupted their performance, it was almost invisible. Almost 80 per cent of the film is shot handheld.
The house was a studio set created in Mumbai. We shot the film on Sony F65 and Alexa XT along with Ultraprime and Hawk Anamorphic lens sets respectively. The cameras were placed at different angles so that everything looked dynamic. But the performances are so natural that when you watch the film you will not feel the presence of the camera. Even when we were driving from Delhi to Kolkata, we had three cameras and would shoot the whole scene in one go. We would get shots from different angles without having to move. It was easier in a way but also challenging because when you are shooting in a multi-camera set up, it becomes difficult lighting wise. We had to be very careful with the angle of the sun, the angle of the light and how the characters are facing the light. But we took up the challenge and pulled it off.
Since it is a dialogue and performance oriented film, what kind of framing and camera angles have you adopted?
There are two main characters in the film, Amitabh Bachchan who plays Bhaskar and Deepika Padukone, that is Piku. Bhaskar is a widower who is always in the house with his servant who is Yes-Man, always with him. Deepika is a busy working woman who is successful in her professional life but not quite so in her personal life because she is taking care of her father, her house and so on. So the shots in the house were designed to be quite tight, almost claustrophobic. We didn’t go wide and were always within this world of Bhaskar who is a selfish man that always talks about himself. In the house we were always with the character and have used mid shots most of the time.
But in the car, the shots open up and that’s when we start seeing the world differently. That is when Piku starts coming out of her shell. Bhaskar is also in a different zone because he is not in his house and someone else is driving them to Kolkata. And this someone else is not a driver but the owner of a cab company, so the dynamics have changed and it’s very liberating for the two main characters. Also when the third character Rana (Irrfan) comes into play, it is very interesting because he is seeing these two main characters in a very different way. He has not seen this kind of a relationship between a father and daughter. His relationship with his own family is not very cordial. As we reach Kolkata, we open up into landscapes, the canvas becomes wider and quite liberating. The colors we have chosen to show Kolkata are also very fresh. So the visuals basically move from a closed, Bhaskar-centric world to a place where the characters experience freedom. In Kolkata, you see Bhaskar going out on the streets, the situations change and the camera supports this changing graph in the film. It was difficult to decide how we would go about visually showing this change but we worked it out by defining the characters.
Though Piku is a lighthearted family drama, it is not strikingly bright and has more of a fresh tone. What color palette did you’ll work with?
The approach was to keep it natural. Piku is not the usual kind of cinema that we are used to seeing, coming from Mumbai. It’s a very Eric Rohmer (French filmmaker) kind of film and his films are all very simple about normal people. Our film is about common people, about us, our neighbors. You can identify with the characters you see in Piku and will find them all around you. The story is not about a hero that we generally see, this is the kind of cinema which is very different than Bollywood. We are used to seeing so much of color and contrast. But Piku looks different because we have tried to make it natural and very easy on the eyes as it’s a light movie. When we start from Delhi, it is a slightly warm palette, it is the beginning of winter but not the cool winters. As we move on to the road, there is a subtle coolness and when we reach Kolkata it becomes quite cooler, more fresh and open. In Kolkata the camera moves around, it is free, while in Delhi, it is more static, with more cuts.
The road trip forms a large chunk of the story. How did you’ll go about filming the journey in terms of camera placement, lighting etc.?
Nowadays it’s quite easy to shoot such scenes because of the progress in technology. Earlier we thought of shooting this on a green screen in Mumbai as it would have been easier for the actors, the production and so on. But Shoojit wanted to drive down on the road, capture the characters in the real space and he wanted the characters to feel that they are on a journey. That really works for the film. We shot the journey on a highway with a low loader with three cameras that were tied around the car and were running all the time. So when we start the journey, before Rana becomes friendly with Bhaskar, the camera is placed outside the car and we have used the windscreen in between. But as soon as the barrier of being a stranger breaks and he comes to know more of them, the camera goes inside and is shooting them from the sides. It’s a subtle way of defining the changing relationship between these characters using the camera. It made more sense to use this technique rather than keep the camera in the same place throughout. For every scene we devised a way to shoot basis the content of the scene, what they are talking about and at what level they have reached in their relationship with each other. We shot the journey for about 10 days. Every day had a different approach depending on the time of the day, the place we have reached, be it Agra, Allahabad, Benaras, as we had to think about the terrain, the lighting and so on. I shot the journey with the Hawk Anamorphic lens while the rest of the film was non-anamorphic lens.
What was the lighting set up used for interior shots of Piku’s house in Delhi?
The set was created in a rundown hotel in Mumbai and not in a studio. So I didn’t have the luxury of shooting with catwalks overhead or gantries. We had a ceiling that was about 10 – 12 feet high. There were limitations of everything. So we decided to do scenes in the mornings, late afternoons or nights. But we had to do some afternoon scenes too. The set of the house was built in such a way that we had enough windows on the East side and the West side so that we could work around the direction of the light. Most of the times we used Dinos and 5ks. Once we pre-lit the whole place then it was easy to figure the time of the day. At times we have also used smoke to get the right mood inside the house. I didn’t use any HMIs because it was all indoors and we had control on the colors of the light. We have largely worked with tungsten lights.
Could you throw some light on the visual treatment adopted for the songs in the film?
There are no lip sync songs in the film. None of us in the film crew believe in those songs. Vicky Donor had one such song but that was also largely for the promos. For Piku we have not shot for the songs in particular. The songs were made after the shoot. We have shot things and they happen to be in the appropriate mood of the song. Shoojit understands the mood of the story so depending on the situation we see if a song can fit in. That’s how it works.
How was the experience of working with talents like Amitabh Bachchan, Irrfan Khan and Deepika Padukone?
I’ve worked with Mr. Bachchan earlier too. No matter what you’re shooting, a small commercial or a feature, it is always a delight to see him on the set. He is always fresh, always has experiences to share and suggests things. He has that persona that is always open to ideas. I was working with Irrfan and Deepika for the first time and it was great fun. Irrfan is amazing as an actor and a person. Deepika has done a great job in this film, which is unlike her role in any other film. People will really appreciate her performance. Moushumiji (Chatterjee) was so versatile and was the life of the set.
What was the most challenging aspect of filming?
Shooting in the car was very challenging as we had restricted number of days. Managing crowd on the road was a huge challenge as people were coming from all directions. On the first day of the highway schedule, the truck that was towing the main car developed some issues so we couldn’t continue and it was like losing an entire day. We had to wait till the next day for the truck’s part to come from Hyderabad. You think that everything is in your control but it goes out of control and you just need to go with it. The whole idea of shooting in the car was amazing but the schedule we had was quite challenging.
Shoojit is always clear about what he wants so it worked for all of us. We were always working with each other and he has always been on the same page. It’s not easy to shoot with three cameras in the car while maintaining light and shooting all the characters all the time. But we wanted to get that dynamism with the characters through camera work, which I think we have achieved. Also while shooting in Kolkata on the street with Mr.Bachchan riding a bicycle, was tough. Managing all the fans and the media was extremely difficult. We improvised it most of the time, by changing the course of the route so we could avoid the crowd & chaos.
How long did the entire shoot take?
We shot for 52 days.
- Post Production – Prasad EFX
- Colorist – Kiran Kota
- 2nd Unit DoP – Susheel Gautam
- 1st Assistant – Shaharbin Aboobackar
- 2nd Assistant – Janki Kathayat
- Focus pullers – Ravi Kiran & Soju Mon
- Gaffer – Tajjudin (Fox Lights)
- Grip – Ninand Nayampally (Zoo Grips) Sunil Majhi (Kolkata Grip)