The narrative of Breathe, an Amazon Prime Original, has a universal flair with a gritty, realistic visual appeal
By Vinita Bhatia and Adrian Pennington
The trailer of Breathe, an Amazon Prime Original opens with a scene where actor R Madhavan (Danny Mascarenhas) is submerged in a water-filled bathtub with his eyes open. A voiceover claims that the only rule when it comes to saving a loved one’s life is that there are no rules.
The camera captures his motionless body from above. And when Madhavan emerges gasping for breath, every water droplet dripping from his head in the yellow-lit luminous bathroom lends a sense of the ominous action and drama set to follow in the web series that released on 26th January, 2018 on Amazon Prime Video.
Welcome to the digital debut of director Mayank Sharma, who gave viewers edge-of-the-seat cinematic thrillers like Airlift and Baby. Breathe, the web series, is Amazon’s second Indian Original after last year’s cricket-themed Inside Edge and has cinematographer S Bharathwaj capturing the action for the digital audience.
The eight-episode drama also follows maverick and depressive Mumbai cop Kabir Sawant (Amit Sadh), who is dealing with his inner demons caused by his daughter’s accidental death, while tracking a series of deaths connected to organ donors in Mumbai. His investigation leads him to Madhavan, a soccer coach trying valiantly to save his son, Josh, from the life-threatening cystic fibrosis.
Amazon has smartly packaged this series as a multi-lingual one – it is available in English, Tamil and Telugu. This will further its reach outside the urban cities to South Indian towns, where Madhavan has a substantial fan following.
“The success of our first Original Inside Edge, showed us how much our customers value content that is created especially for them,” said Vijay Subramaniam, director, content, Amazon Prime Video India. “We remain committed to creating more high-quality original content for our customers to enjoy, and are pushing boundaries of content creation by exploring new genres and unique content themes. We are thrilled to start the New Year with the launch of our second Amazon Prime Original, Breathe.”
In fact, Amazon has commissioned 17 Indian series, including Bodhidharma: Master of Shaolin; Gursimran Khamba’s The Ministry starring Irrfan Khan, Mirzapur by Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar, Stardust and Vishpuri by Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena, Anurag Kashyap and Vikas Bahl, The Family Man by DK Krishna and Raj Nidimoru, and Made in Heaven by Ritesh Sidhwani, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti.
Breathe is an interesting premise for a thriller movie, but capturing it for the digital medium does present intrinsic challenges. Especially, since Indian audiences are just beginning to appreciate the nuances of digital entertainment. Hence, keeping them hooked to a turn of events at the end of every episode, so that they look forward to the release of the next one every Friday, is a creative task.
“With TV, and especially digital TV, the bond between ourselves as storytellers and the audience is very strong,” said Sharma, who conceptualised and co-wrote the series for Abundantia Entertainment and Amazon Prime. “This gives us even more incentive to create stories and characters that are compelling for the viewer.”
Vikram Malhotra, CEO, Abundantia Entertainment noted, “Abundantia has been at the forefront of creating genre-breaking and impactful content and we are excited to collaborate with Amazon Prime Video to produce our first Original series, Breathe. With this, Abundantia extends its content and story-telling prowess to a new platform with a show that I believe will excite not just Indian viewers but also appeal to a global audience. Breathe’s talented crew has done a fine job of bringing to life a thrilling yet emotionally anchored story.”
Sharma, whose credits as chief assistant director include Chashme Baddoor and Table No. 21, had previously worked with Bharathwaj, but Breathe is by far their biggest project to date. The executive producer is Vikram Malhotra who produced Chashme Baddoor as well as the Bollywood features Chef, Airlift, Baby, and Bombay Talkies.
Aware that Amazon planned to release the series in India and in more than 200 territories worldwide they decided to compliment what they felt was the story’s universal appeal with a gritty, realistic style.
“My biggest challenge was to make this story, which is set in Mumbai, appear real and believable,” recalled Sharma. “We were very sure that the performances of the actors had to be very naturalistic and the same applied to locations, production design, background music and sound design. Being a psychological drama, we needed a different approach blocking and lighting by creating an intriguing atmosphere for the story,” he explained. “We worked very closely together to achieve it.”
That began with an elaborate recce of locations in Mumbai, prioritising 53, which had rarely, if ever, been seen on film or TV before. For example, Kabir’s police station is a 140-year-old building in the south of the city “which took us a lot of time to acquire permission to shoot there,” reported Bharathwaj, given the stringent heritage rules. “We tried to retain some of the aesthetics popular with the genre while experimenting with style and colours when it demanded.”
The story’s two central protagonists have parallel storylines until a point where they merge. On one hand is Danny, a single devoted dad, whose young son, Josh, suffers from a congenital lung disease that can be cured with an urgent lung transplant. Unfortunately, for the child, he is fourth on donor list of organ recipients, so, Danny decides that the only way he can save his son is by killing the other recipients and push Josh up that list.
On the other hand, is a guilt-wracked inspector Kabir Sawant, who lost his daughter to a gunshot wound from his own gun after he forgot to lock it. In grief, he turns to alcohol in a bid to battle his demons.
“We decided to approach each of their parallel tracks differently. Danny’s character and his world was shot with static blocks, showing the stillness he is going through in his life while Kabir’s world is depicted with fluid, handheld shots to keep the uneasiness and unpredictability. The overall intent was to immerse an audience into their worlds,” Sharma explained.
And the actors enjoyed working with Sharma too. Talking about her experience, Neena Kulkarni (Juliet Mascarenhas, Danny’s mother), said, “I really enjoyed working with Sharma because he got so involved in Breathe.” Madhavan was similarly impressed. “The way Sharma got our nuances, the way he set our acting styles, the way he set our pitch – that was right on spot and international,” he elaborated.
Amit Sadh (Kabir Sawant) claimed that he was grateful to Sharma for directing him so well and guiding him to be able to achieve what was required from this character. Hrishikesh Joshi, who essayed the role of Prakash Kamble, Sawant’s subordinate, went so far to say that if the audience liked this series, then the entire credit should go to Sharma.
Amazon has strict delivery specifications that required a 4K resolution master (technically: recorded in ProRes 422 HQ codec, 3840 x 2160, 23.98fps with 5.1 audio and 16:9 aspect ratio). Hence, for Bharathwaj the RED WEAPON with HELIUM 8K S35 sensor was the format of choice for this deliverable, as the filmmakers were interested in the camera’s creative flexibility.
“The way Sharma had conceived the story and set it up in the realistic environs of Mumbai demanded a very raw, gritty approach as far as cinematography was concerned,” said the cinematographer who hired the camera for a test on the city’s streets after viewing demos on social media. “Compared to all the other cameras we tested during pre-shoot, the HELIUM sensor stood out for its sharp picture quality and it performs exceedingly well under low light conditions.”
“We were amazed with the result of the test shoot,” added Sharma. “The black levels, the support to natural available light, and the latitude it gave was tremendous.”
Breathe was entirely shot on the RED WEAPON and might well be the first major Indian series to do so. In fact, it was a two-camera set up for which Bharathwaj selected Ultra Prime Lenses F1.9 (16, 24, 32, 50, 85, 135) along with an Alura Zoom. He shot the entire series at 8K resolution, “which gave some really sharp images that heightened the realism required for the story.”
In keeping with the script, the lighting package was also kept to a minimum, which meant playing with natural light available at various Mumbai locations. The dominant lighting units on the production were ARRI Sky Panel S60 C colour tuneable LED fixtures. “I wanted to use the Skypanel’s as much as possible, so we could precisely control the colour,” explained Bharathwaj. “We also used ARRI 6Kw, 4Kw, 1.2Kw and Par 8ft and 4ft Flo bank fluorescent units.
“Different lighting styles were used for the two main characters,” he continued. “For Kabir’s house we used contrast lighting with no fill lights, while Danny’s featured a more sombre lighting design.”
ROLLING WITH EMOTIONS
Bharathwaj employed a lot of handheld work, especially for scenes with Kabir to depict the character’s inner turmoil. “The RED camera is very comfortable for handheld shooting,” he said. “The investigation scenes needed to retain a lot of docu-drama aesthetics, so shooting handheld and Steadicam were the obvious natural choices. For the action chase sequences, he employed Jimmy Jibs and the scenes featuring Danny’s house were mostly shot using the lightweight Panther jib.
Future Work Studios in Mumbai managed the post-production on the series, with the grading being done by colorist Andreas Bruckl overseen by the DOP. “I approach colour correction in a very technical way,” noted Bharathwaj. “Bruckl and I are right at home together talking about colour science and how light reacts inside a camera.”
The DOP added, “For managing RAW data, REDCODE compression (available with all RED cameras) was very efficient. It’s a long web series and to save drive space and data management we did the recommended compression of 8:1 mostly.”
Available to an international audience in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu languages, along with English subtitles, the show was released online in January and has received favourable reviews from the pundits and audiences alike.
“Working for an online video medium definitely gives you the independence to think radically and not restrict yourself,” said Sharma. “There is no pressure to meet a certain screen running time or to maximise box office receipts on an opening weekend. This medium gives content creators a great shelf life. The audience can explore your content at any time for year after year. It also allows a writer and director to explore the depth of a story, dwell deeper inside the minds of the characters and it allows you to see the narrative from different points of view. All of this is possible so long as you have a compelling story to tell.”
He stated, “I just hope that with Breathe, audiences in India and across every other country realise that Indian content can give them an equivalent experience which they get from watching any international series. The story, narrative style and the technical finesse are similar – or we hope might even be better – if put against any international show.”
With the advent of digital platforms in India, and their increasing popularity, especially in urban cities, a huge space opened up for players like Amazon. Local web series like will only Breathe fresh air into what was earlier considered a more English-dominated content domain.