Before you made a foray into feature films, you had shot a lot of ads / commercials. How was the shift from shooting a 30 second ad to filming a 3 hour feature film?
Well, simply put, when you are shooting an ad, it is like shooting 1 scene in a film. A movie is like shooting multiple such scenes and putting them together. For me, shooting commercials has been like an everyday job. As in, you go to work and come back home in the evening. But, with a film, it is like staying in the office for a very long time, and getting the job done. Being on the job for days together was new for me. My approach initially was like, we shoot one ad today and then go back to the sets and shoot another the next day. While the tools to make both are the same, the canvas is completely different
Having worked with Shoojit on a lot of ads / projects earlier, what was your initial reaction when he offered Vicky Donor to you?
I had not been taking up any feature films, when they were offered to me earlier. Something about those projects did not feel right. When I was told about Vicky Donor, it was very normal and easy for both of us to proceed with it, as we had worked on a lot of projects in the past. For me, it was like, “wow, let’s shoot a film!” . It was a natural progression for both of us. The general perception is that, you are not a complete cinematographer until you shoot a movie. So, I thought of taking this up right away. For me, it was and has been a privilege.
How was the Vicky Donor experience?
For starters, it was a beautiful script. I couldn’t pass on this project. While, it was not a heavy movie in terms of content, style or CGI, the biggest challenge was in keeping the movie clean. Considering that the subject was taboo. We did not want people to find the movie repulsive, or feel bad. It took time to get used to the ways of shooting a lengthy script, but it was fun and highly rewarding.
In terms of involvement, how involved were you with other aspects of filmmaking?
Both in terms of time and commitment, the intensity is high. You keep shooting. Shot after shot after shot. One needs to be keyed in to the director to put these shots and scenes together. You need to keep revisiting every shot or scene, in context of the movie. Consistency is key. You need to keep all elements like color treatment, frames, pace constant throughout. The interaction with various teams like the direction unit, production units, lighting department goes up and is at an all time high throughout the filming. For me, it the script that determines everything. You need to adapt with all the teams working.
Obviously, in terms of scale, treatment, stars, Madras Café was a larger movie. How easy or difficult was it to make a switch? How did the movie pan out?
Shoojit discussed Madras Café with me during the shoot of Vicky Donor. It sounded very good to me. In fact, right after my film school days, when I wanted to shoot a film, I wanted to do a movie in the lines of Madras Café. I have always found thrillers very exciting. So when Shoojit offered it to me, I jumped right into it. For one, it is certainly a larger film, in every sense. You might have seen a lot of action thrillers in the past, but the approach that we have taken is a lot more different. Right from the choice of actors to the choice of locations, it was very different. Shoojit has handled the actors brilliantly. It was a treat to shoot the movie. I was on the ball, all the time.
Any particular anecdote from Madras Café that worth sharing?
I do recall something that is quite funny. We were shooting in a forest called Athirapally (Kerala) for a long time and everybody in the unit were complaining that they had not sighted any wild animals. One day, when we were shooting with John in the thick of the forest, I was setting up my shot inside a tent and was waiting for Shoojit to shout action and John to walk in. I was ready and asked if we can proceed… There was no response at all. I was getting frustrated, as it was evening and the light was going down. No one was responding, but there was a lot of noise. When I stepped out to check, I turned and saw everyone running away. Then I realized that there were about 6 to 7 elephants. It was very funny. As in, everyone was just waiting to sight animals, but when the opportunity came, everyone started running for their lives. They did come quite close, but they drank water and left.
What next? What are your plans?
Just going to take it as it comes. I’m not a person who plans a lot. I’m very instinctive. That is how I have always approached projects. I might go back to shooting commercials for a while before the next movie comes up.
You started your career as a reporter. As premature as it sounds, any thoughts on taking on any other assignment like writing or direction?
I think that it is only natural for anybody to move onto doing different things. I have always had directorial tendencies. Of course, it doesn’t mean that everyone can become a good director. I think, as a cinematographer, you do your side of direction. I have contributed to the movie in my own way. As of now, I feel that there is a lot more I need to do and learn as a cinematographer. I have not thought of anything else now. It is easy to think of sitting on a chair and calling all the shots, but it is very difficult to string together a movie. I guess, it will happen sometime. It does look like a long shot now.
Madras Cafe is releasing on 23rd August 2013 and we at MAM wish everyone associated with this film a huge success.