Tuesday, February 11, 2014

United we shoot - quotes from a few good men in movies

[This is a piece I did for Elle magazine last year. It was done to a clearly specified brief: here’s a list of eight men who are doing interesting, behind-the-scenes work in Hindi cinema, and whom we have gathered for a photo shoot; speak to them and weave their quotes into an essay. As such, it wasn’t much of a challenge writing-wise – apart from the fact that there were a disproportionate number of cinematographers in the list, which made it tricky to divided up the quotes – but the conversations were nice. I have other bytes that I hope to use in a column sometime]

“There is usually a sound in my head when I am writing a scene,” says director Bejoy Nambiar, “and when the time comes to score the film, I look for musical possibilities to match that sound.” In one of the best scenes in Nambiar’s stylish film Shaitan, a brilliantly reworked, trippy version of the old romantic song “Khoya Khoya Chand” plays during a violent action sequence shot partly in slow motion. This is a conceit that might not have made sense on paper, but on screen it perfectly fits the film’s hallucinatory mood.

It also suggests a couple of things about contemporary movie-making: that a director with a strong vision can bring his stamp to every aspect of the process (“My films must have me in them,” Nambiar says, “they have to be expressions of my personal tastes and interests”), and that there is a greater willingness to experiment, to do things that would once have been considered very radical. Music producer and composer Mikey McCleary, who reworked “Khoya Khoya Chand”, points out that filmmakers are no longer hung up on having a single composer doing the music for their movies, and that they often choose pre-existing tunes from the independent scene, rather than commissioning scores from a familiar set of insiders. “This brings in more variety and opens up fresh possibilities for a film.”

More generally too, today’s Hindi cinema has shown a willingness to step outside traditional comfort zones. Thanks to a combination of the Internet, the DVD culture and greater dissemination of information, a generation of young writers and directors have been absorbing the best of other cinemas and bringing their own sensibilities to them. There are offbeat stories, newer settings, more realism in language, and greater emphasis on background detailing and production design – things that are vital for capturing a sense of place and time. The industry’s newfound confidence about being part of a larger filmic universe is also reflected in the growing participation of non-Indians – such as McCleary or the cinematographers Nikos Andritzakis and Carlos Catalan – who are now key contributors to major films.

“Earlier, our films were largely about escapism, such as showing Switzerland to an audience who would never go there,” lensman Kartik Vijay points out, “but today directors are making films about things they have firsthand experience of.” Naturally, to realise their visions, these directors need high standards of craftsmanship in every field. Speaking with some of our leading technicians, one is reminded that the best films represent a smooth synthesis of different elements, aimed at maintaining the reality of the world depicted in the movie. Vijay – who has worked with such major directors as Vishal Bhardwaj and Dibakar Banerjee – relates how he used bright colours to capture the vibrancy of the West Delhi Punjabi culture in Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, and how subtle alterations in lighting can signal a narrative shift from a warm, happy mood to something more hard-edged.
For Bhardwaj’s Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola, he tried to reflect the character Mandola’s darker shades by gradually letting the colours go out as the story progresses. While shooting Banerjee’s Shanghai, the Greek-born Andritzakis converted his first-time impressions (as a foreigner) of Mumbai busy street-life into images that matched the grim mood of the story, and also worked closely with the art designers to get the right look. McCleary, who did the soundtrack for the same film, embellished the sound of Mumbai street-drums with dark, ambient music to achieve an effect that would be familiar and sinister at the same time.

“The entire team needs to work in tandem from the very beginning – you can’t have a situation where two departments don’t know what the other is doing,” says costume designer Kunal Rawal, pointing out that a well-conceptualised wardrobe can help an actor get into the skin of a character long before shooting begins. Rawal recalls once designing a shirt with subtle off-white stripes that he thought would work very well for a scene, but then the lighting rendered the stripes invisible. On another occasion, carefully chosen shoes were wasted in a scene that only had close-ups and medium-shots. Little wonder then that he now wants to be present even at a DoP meeting, to understand the shot breakdown and the quality of light for a particular scene.

Those of us on the outside make simple distinctions between “commercial” and “art” cinema, or grumble that financial considerations always undermine artistic integrity, but things aren’t so cut-and-dried – big production houses are more open to fresh, edgy films. Director Shakun Batra, who is a big fan of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson and has a taste for quirky, character-driven stories himself, speaks of his producer Karan Johar being happy to finance the kinds of films that most viewers would never associate him with. “He is very supportive, never interferes or pushes you to do things in a particular way.” As Batra points out, the film world today is more balanced, allowing creative helmsmen with an indie sensibility to get the budgets for what they want to do. “You have to be good enough to win your producers’ confidence and trust.”

But as Andritzakis points out, even mainstream films are becoming better crafted, and there is less self-consciousness now about categories. Cinematographer Ayananka Bose, who has worked on a number of very high-profile, big-budget movies, says every film presents its own special challenge: for instance, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom required a flamboyant, colourful, big-musical feel, but Kites had to be suffused with the heat of the desert and the Las Vegas setting. “I don’t think much about the ‘big-budget’ or ‘glamorous’ tags,” he says, “What matters is quality of execution. The camera is the same, the lens is the same – you are in control of your craft.”

Speaking of which, changes in technology have been levelling the playing field and making filmmaking much more democratic than it once was. “Technology has put a movie camera in the hands of anyone who has a smart-phone,” says Vijay, and this means young talents have an early outlet for their imagination. Simultaneously, social media has made filmmakers more accessible: Nambiar speaks of musicians sending him their tunes online, which he can listen to instantly. Naturally this can cause clutter, but the best work does tend to stand out; as Bose points out, ultimately, the mind behind the equipment is what matters. “You can always identify someone who is a pseudo-intellectual imitator of Godard or Truffaut vs someone who has originality.”

Communication can flow in the opposite direction too. There have been cases of directors and writers getting their films financed by reaching out to like-minded people on Facebook or Twitter: one such film, Onir’s I Am, even went on to win a National Award. Meanwhile, viewers too are more aware and sophisticated than before, which means they are open to new forms and idioms. “Audiences are exposed to more, and willing to accept more,” Rawal says, “Animation for grown-ups is a field that I am very excited about – I think Indian cinema is going to go places in it.”

What all this adds up to is a scenario where people with a passion for cinema are pulling each other up, showing a collaborative generosity that represents the opposite of the crabs-in- a-well mentality. It comes out of a genuine sense that everyone can be part of the change. No wonder the enthusiastic statements made by these young talents don’t seem glib or facile. When Batra says “It is the beginning of a golden age in Hindi cinema”, or Andritzakis says “I’m very lucky to have arrived at a time when things are starting to explode”, it sounds like an accurate response to working in an increasingly vibrant industry. “Every time I am at a film festival,” says Carlos Catalan, “I realise that there is a talented wave of Indian directors telling different stories in different ways. World audiences are hungry to watch those films.” With these good men working away behind the scenes, that appetite should increase.

[A related piece: short profiles of 10 trailblazers of the new Indian cinema, across categories]


  1. The black and white photographs are beautiful, could I ask who has shot them?

  2. Anon: I can't read the photographer's byline in the larger version of the first pic - it's blurred. Will see if I can find the print copy of the magazine.

  3. That sequence in Shaitan with Khoya Khoya Chand nicely done it is. But isnt the whole sequence done for the heck of it. Its also a case of using music to de sensitise audience about the violence.

    1. Pessimist Fool: if a sequence is well done and if it fits the overall mood and purpose of the film (in this case giving us a direct feel of the drug-addled, fever-dream world of the protagonists and their situation), how can it be "for the heck of it"?

      Its also a case of using music to de sensitise audience about the violence.

      Possible to a degree, but I don't find that problematic. In any case there is often a fine line between "desensitising" a viewer to violence and finding a way to make the violence a little more tolerable as it happens, so the viewer doesn't just get up and walk away. This is often done in works that do ultimately expect an evolved viewer to see violence for what it is - take the use of Beethoven in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (and for that matter, the Burgess book, which uses an invented, difficult-to-understand language to "shield" the reader from the ugly content - because we are constantly in the process of consciously interpreting what each sentence means).

    2. Yeah, you are right. There was drug element in the film. I had forgotten that. I thought it was simply a chase sequence with stylish music and stunts while a criminal faces the most violent death.