DOPs Santosh Sivan and Anil Mehta share insightful experiences whilst filming Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Sui Dhaaga respectively
By Anisha Gakhar
When one comes across a cinematographer, who possesses paramount prowess, along with a never-dying zeal to imbibe learning like it is an everyday regimen; it instills a lesson in us: cinematography is more an art form, than a mere 9-to-5 drill. Our glorious film industry is flanked by exceptional cinematographers and Directors of Photography (DOPs); two such names that command respect globally, are Anil Mehta and Santosh Sivan.
Anil Mehta adorns umpteen hats: a veteran cinematographer, a passionate writer and a respectable director. He studied cinematography at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune; and has never looked back since. He has shot some of the most enchanting Bollywood movies including, Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), Lagaan (2001), Saathiya (2002),Veer-Zaara (2004) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) amongst other blockbuster hits.
Mehta’s first feature film, Aaja Nachle, starring Madhuri Dixit, Konkana Sen, Akshaye Khanna and Kunla KApoor, was produced by Yash Raj Films, and was released in 2007. He was conferred the National Film Award for Best Cinematography, for his work in the cult hit, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).
Santosh Sivan is an Indian cinematographer, film director, producer and actor, well respected for his breakthrough works in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi cinema. Sivan also shares the same alma mater as Mehta: FTII. Sivan has completed 45 feature films, 41 documentaries, and is a founding member of the Indian Society of Cinematographers (ISC).
Sivan became the first cinematographer in the Asia-Pacific region, to be honoured with the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) membership. He has won five National Film Awards – including four for Best Feature Film Cinematography. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to Indian cinema in 2014.
In 2008, Santosh Sivan Films was conceived as a Pvt ltd concern, and has not only handled film ventures successfully, but also has to its credit many hit commercials, documentaries and music videos.
Sivan’s recent work in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Mehta’s in Sui Dhaaga, is exemplary in their own unique ways, owing to the finesse and professionalism they are characterised by.
SUI DHAAGA – MADE IN INDIA
As much as we can rave about Mehta’s unparalleled contribution to Indian cinema, his latest work in the 2018 smash hit, Sui Dhaaga (which means – needle and thread), only deepens our belief in him as a DOP. Sui Dhaaga is a Hindi comedy-drama film directed by Sharat Katariya and produced by Maneesh Sharma, under the Yash Raj Films banner. It stars Varun Dhawan as Mauji: a tailor, and Anushka Sharma as Mamta: an embroiderer. The story revolves around Mauji and Mamta as a young couple in rural India, who venture into a family-run small-scale clothing business.
Principal photography for the movie began in the town of Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh, in late 2017, and the film was theatrically released on 28th September, 2018. “Sharat shared with me the finished script and talked to me at length, about what he wanted to communicate through the film. The respect that the film portrays towards common man working hard to earn their bread, along with bearing the pressures of living on the fringes of a big city, is what drew me in to undertake this project,” said Mehta.
The film was mainly set inside a small house, in contrast to the backdrop of the hustle-bustle of a metropolitan city. Sharat was clear about the fact that he wanted to shoot the entire film on-location. Mehta commented, “I feel shooting on-location brings a lot of integrity to the film. The fact that we were going to be on location with star actors was of some concern, but we were willing to brave it. We found solutions as we went along.”
The actors humbly bought traditional Chanderi sarees from local weavers in the town, to get a feel of the business, and garner inspiration owing to the hard work that went into making the sarees. Sharat had his production designer, Meenal Agarwal, and costume designer, Darshan Jalan, on board the Sui Dhaaga voyage. “They were a big asset on the Location Scout, and formed a great core team,” affirmed Mehta.
Jalan was keen on visiting Chanderi for the actual weaving tradition, and when the team visited the place, it automatically translated into being the the location for Mauji and Mamta’s house. “Agarwal was then responsible for all the specific locations and contributed hugely to the look of the film,” asserted Mehta.
THE INSIDE STORY
Mehta was particular about zeroing-in on the camera and equipment he would use for the filming of Sui Dhaaga. Being in the business for years together, he was accustomed to using multitudinous cameras of varied makes. Since this movie was shot in a rural ladscape, he wanted the emotions to be captured with utmost precision and mood. After all, cinematography is all about the lighting, the mood and the expressions, they say; rightly.
Mehta had previously used the Panasonic VariCam Pure whilst shooting another film, and was quite happy with its on-location performance. Commenting on the equipment, Mehta stated, “We shot for fifty days on-location without a single hitch and with a flawless execution. Panasonic was a natural choice for me. I usually test and measure cameras before use, so I can gauge the performance and make sure they are conducive to the location, setup and weather conditions. When I tested the Panasonic cameras, I learnt that they had a faithful colour rendition, which held up well across the under-exposure and over-exposure bandwidths.”
Filming a sequence is not a cakewalk. The umpteen factors that have to be taken into consideration, contribute to making a film look like a director’s dream. “The reproduction of Indian skin tones was also particularly pleasing, with the Panasonic camera. The Dual ISO setting on the Varicam proved to be trustworthy while testing, I was able to use that function quite effectively while shooting night exteriors in small town India. There are shots in Sui Dhaaga that had to be filmed the dark during the night, in natural available light. The noise at high ISO settings was also in control. All in all, shooting with Panasonic was a trouble free and a pleasant experience,” commented Mehta.
The first schedule of the filming wrapped up in March, 2018. Filming continued in the same month in Bhopal, and moved on to Delhi for the latter part. The second schedule was completed in April, 2018. The final fragment of shooting begun in June, and wound up in July, 2018.
Mehta concluded that the entire experience of shooting Sui Dhaaga was a pleasant one. He said, “Shooting with a close knit crew and being on-location for most days, was a catalyst in establishing an easy rapport between the crew and actors. Varun would fly kites on the terrace of the house and Anushka started doing embroidery even in her time-off. Raghuvir Yadav would often sing to entertain us over drinks and dinner sessions that were held to discuss the next day’s work.”
CHEKKA CHIVANTHA VAANAM
A recent feather on Santosh Sivan’s hat, is the 2018 Tamilian movie, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam ( crimson red sky), which is a crime thriller and is jointly produced by Mani Ratnam and Subaskaran under their banners Madras Talkies and Lyca Productions. This is Sivan’s sixth film with Mani Ratnam since the Rajnikanth starrer, Thalapathi. Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a revenge saga, which revolves around the rivalry of brothers belonging to a powerful business family. The music is composed by the veteran A. R. Rahman; and casts Arvind Swami, Silambarasan, Aditi Rao Hydari, Dayana Erappa, Prakash Raj, Mansoor Ali Khan amongst others, in pivotal roles.
SETTING THE STAGE
The filming of the movie took place in interesting locations like Chennai, Andhra Pradesh, Serbia and Dubai. Principal photography began on 12th February, 2018 on the outskirts of Chennai, with scenes filmed on the East Coast Road and the Apollo Hospital in Vanagaram during the first schedule. A second schedule began on 26th February, with all members of the cast sporadically featuring in the shoot. As the second schedule progressed, cinematographer Sivan released images of the various actors on the sets of the film. The shoot continued in Chennai until mid-March, with a wedding scene also shot in the schedule.
“We had to shoot in various different ambiences and lighting, with interesting interiors and outdoor backdrops. The shooting involved a lot of rig shots and difficult-to-capture scenes. Since the movie is a crime thriller, it involved a lot of action scenes too. We planned it all quite well, and finished before schedule as always. The credit goes to everyone including the director and producer, the production designer, art director, costume designer, myself as the cinematographer, and the entire crew. It is always the team’s effort that helps make a successful movie,” explained Sivan.
According to Sivan, the filming involved a lot planning in terms of the action sequences, colour palettes, costumes, art décor, the characters and the cast. A lot of preparation went into ensuring a seamless execution once the crew was on the floor.
BACKING IT STRONG
Some scenes during the making of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, involved deploying extra equipment, for instance, a larger than usual circular trolley. Extra illumination and lighting effects were used especially for the rig shots which involved shooting inside moving cars, affirmed Sivan. “Whenever there was a special requirement for extra equipment or lighting, we always made sure to foresee the need that might arise during filming, to avoid chaos later,” added Sivan.
The movie demanded Visual Effects (VFX), which was planned and executed well in advance, with concerned teams brought in early during the planning stages for brainstorming, to ensure a smooth experience while on set. The complex shots which involved undertaking utmost safety measures, were meticulously executed after rigorous safety compliance testing. “Cinematography now, is done in a more interesting manner, as compared to that in olden times, with the plethora of technological innovations backing it,” commented Sivan.
The climax sequence of the crime thriller was shot inside a car at a very rapid and energetic pace. This Sivan recalled, was one of the most challenging yet interesting shots in the movie. The shot sparked many debates within the crew members, as to whether they should use a blue screen or they should portray a raw action sequence. Sivan recalled planning the entire climax sequence from within a car! “It worked out very well for us, since we realised that had it been a green screen or a VFX shot, it would have lost its realness. To see it raw, to feel the energy in the car, works immensely to make the shot believable. It is exciting to note that we brought out that level of spirit using basic technology by relying on our own way of unfolding the climax!” exclaimed Sivan.
The market is swarmed by camera equipment from various brands, and choosing the right camera for a movie, is not a facile task. It involves foresight and the ability to gauge the value addition a camera will bring to the project. “I love using all kinds of cameras, because each comes with its own host of advantages and disadvantages. For Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, I tested a lot of cameras and I actually liked the feel of the Panasonic 5000 ASA, Panasonic 4K and Panasonic VariCam Pure camera. These are ideal not just for their colour sense but also because of the dual sensor. I used the Panasonic 5000 ASA camera for most of the shots, to light up the interiors and set it to high exposures. This helped me to easily use depth of field, since we had a lot of scenes where we had characters right in front of the camera, as well as in the background. It eventually led to a very realistic feel with every character in focus,” said Sivan. A few scenes were shot in low-light, which is why Sivan chose the Panasonic 4K camera which facilitated shooting 120 frames at 4K.
“For Chekka Chevantha Vanam, I tested lot of cameras and I actually liked the feel of Panasonic Varicam especially for its 5000 ASA. Varicam Pure and Varicam LT Models are ideal not just for their dual sensitivity but also the Color science was unique,” concluded Sivan.