June 25, 2006

A Cinematographer, A Film Shoot, A Conversation

It was a quarter past eleven in the night when we packed up and prepared to leave Manori. The scenes scheduled for the day had been canned. The marathi language film was nearing completion and only a day’s shoot remained. It was scheduled for completion the next day at Madh Island. Sanjay and I walked down to where he had parked his bike at the entrance to the Gagangiri Maharaj ashram and called someone on his cellphone while I waited, watching unit members leave the film location in ones and twos, and sometimes threes. They walked slowly, silent, thinking. Two dogs kept a wary eye on them from the side of the road. I listened to their footsteps as they made their way past me, heads loose on their shoulders, chins tilting down a bit. One of them waved out to me. I waved back. We were among the last to leave the place.

The main leads in the film, Rita Bahaduri, and the Marathi actress Aishwarya Narkar had left Manori an hour back after winding up the scene at the temple in the ashram where Aishwarya, on waking up finds her mother-in-law, Rita Bhaduri, missing from her bedside in the room in the ashram where they’d come looking for a cure after Rita Bhaduri was paralysed waist-down in a car accident in the film. Then Aishwarya runs barefeet to the temple and finds Rita Bhaduri praying to Lord Dattatreya, and Gagangiri Maharaj, on finding herself miraculously cured of her ailment. It was the culminating moment in the film telling the story of a family, the divisions within, their faith in Gagangiri Maharaj, and their eventual reunion. The film is named after Gagangiri Maharaj. Back in the temple, Sanjay had quickly set up the lights in preparation for the film sequence. I sat on the floor beside Sanjay while he instructed the unit-hands on where to place the lights. He was looking for a sedate effect. It required him to improvise to fit his equipment in the space available, and there wasn’t much of it to go around. Earlier that day while they were filming the accident scene on the road that led up to the temple, I visited the temple and shared conversation with Satyaprakash Karambelkar, the temple caretaker. He had just finished up with scrubbing the floor when I walked in. Looking up at the statue of Lord Dattatreya now, my eyes almost reached up to the roof. Wires snaked all over the floor, leading to cameras, sound recorders, monitors, and to things I couldn’t quite identify in the jumble. Then the camera rolled. Ashish Ubale okayed the take before calling it a day after twelve straight hours of filming. All along, I watched from the sidelines, turning every once in a while to look at the Manori creek shimmering in the moonlight behind me, setting off the Mumbai skyline on the other side like a Christmas tree resting sideways, all decorated and nowhere to go.

Earlier in the day to get to Manori I took a ferry from Marwe after alighting from the train at Malad where I hired a rickshaw to Marwe, then sprinted across the beach just in time as the ferry pulled out from the beach and set off across the Manori creek that is fed by the Dahisar river draining into it. As I struggled to keep my balance, I remember thinking that beaches are the same everywhere, and that it is never easy running in the sand. Earlier, the train ride on the Western line from Borivali to Malad took me hardly any time. But to get to Borivali I boarded the Thane Muncipal Corporation (TMC) bus from Thane (West), passing through Ghodbunder, Kashimira, Mira Road, and Bhayander, taking me over an hour. I watched as the ferry cut through placid waters and deposited us at Manori fifteen minutes later where rickshaws were lined up to make a killing, charging twenty-five rupees to take me to Manori Talaav bus-stop, barely over a kilometer away. I sat out the time it took a BEST bus to drive over to the ferry point. I got in and sat by a window on the driver’s side of the bus. The bus was fairly empty. A group of Christian women sat in the front. On the ride along the waterfront, I passed fisherfolks, their homes, fishing nets, small fishing boats, and dugouts before getting off at Manori Taalav where the film unit was filming a ‘car scene’. Sanjay was behind the camera, shouting instructions every now and then while Nilesh Shetye scribbled in a notebook, keeping tab over scenes, takes, and the like. I went over to a shop at the intersection of four roads and got myself a cold drink. It was hot in the sun and it had taken me three and half hours of changing buses, trains, rickshaws, and ferry to get here. About then I heard Ashish call over the din, ‘Camera, Action’ as the cameras rolled. Then, ‘CUUUT.’ It was my first time this close at a film shoot.

Sanjay Khanzode had a lot at stake in this film as did Ashish Ubale. The film also stars Vikram Gokhale, and Asavari Joshi. I missed out on the shoot involving Asavari Joshi. Sanjay was particularly happy about how that sequence turned out. "The lighting went well, and Asavari stands out wonderfully in her short cameo in the film," he told me later, and mailed me the picture above. The film was Sanjay’s first independent charge as a cinematographer after several assignments working in teams, sharing camera duties. Likewise, the film was Ashish’s first directorial venture after several stints as an Assistant Director. They both go back a long way to the same institute in Pune in the early Nineties when they passed out with a Diploma in their respective disciplines. I first met them in 1996 when they were staying at Yari Road in Versova, sharing their apartment with two others, each searching for a toehold in Bombay, like I was. Bombay was still Bombay in those days if you know what I mean. Over the years Sanjay and I kept in touch through M Satish, a mutual friend. By then Sanjay had shifted out of the Yari Road apartment to Thane, got married, kept up with a steady stream of assignments in Hindi, Marathi, and Punjabi television serials, music videos, documentaries, advertising films, and feature films. Jai Jai Gagangiri Maharaj was his first independent assignment as a cinematographer. Interestingly, Randhawa, a Punjabi, was producing the marathi language film, a fact not lost on Sanjay, a Maharashtrian brahmin. “It’s his first foray as a producer,” Sanjay told me.

Outside the room where the unit was filming a dream sequence featuring Gauri Karyekar, Randhawa sat patiently on a sofa in front of a monitor, his large face betraying nothing, while Sanjay passed instructions to the crew outside as they adjusted the cutter in front of the window, controlling the light streaming into the room from a powerful studio light source placed outside the window. Inside the small room, barely measuring eighteen feet by fifteen feet, I sat on a chair between Sanjay and Ashish watching silently while technicians went about their jobs, my camera loaded and ready.

The room was transformed from an ordinary pad with a rustic bed and scattered items of everyday use, into a dark room with black curtains setting up the dream sequence featuring Gauri Karyekar, Rita Bhaduri’s other daughter-in-law in the film. Eventually, the cutter was in place lighting up Gauri to Sanjay’s satisfaction. The room tensed up in anticipation. Then, Ashish called out ‘Camera, ACTION. The camera rolled. Three takes later they canned the shot.

The film unit broke up for a round of poha and chai before getting back into the room to film the scene where Rita Bahaduri sees a vision of Gagangiri Maharaj, feeling his presence heal her of her ailment before hurrying to the door looking for the vision she just saw, a surprised look on her face. Then she heads for the temple, followed a little later by her daughter-in-law, Aishwarya, who comes looking for her on finding her bed empty.

All the film sequences I saw that day were about lights and lighting. Sanjay went about methodically setting them up, displaying an innate ease that only comes from spending time with what you like doing, and doing it well.

When Sanjay left his hometown Akola for Mumbai, his first stint was with Debu Deodhar, the legendary cinematographer who filmed most of Amol Palekar’s films, starting with Ankahee (1984), Bangarwadi (1995), Daayraa (1997), Kairee (1999), to Anaahat (2003).

Speaking of those early days, Sanjay said, “Debuda said to me, ‘Sanjay, pehle backlight seekh lo,’ (Sanjay, first learn to use the backlight). Then he told me, ‘Understand why, for a camera position in a film sequence, the backlight is sourced from position A, and not from B.’ My learning curve took off from there.”

Sanjay started off on the sets of Sukhi Sansarachi Bara Sutra in the mid-nineties, a Satish Films production starring Ashok Saraf, the evergreen comedian from Marathi films, and Sanjay’s favourite actor. Debu Deodhar was the cinematographer, while Sanjay picked up the nuances, watching from a corner. It didn’t come easily. Remembering those early days, Sanjay said, “The first few days after the filming commenced all I did was make notes and diagrams of where the lights were placed for each scene in relation to the camera, and the subjects. I said nothing the whole day nor interfered with their work. Debuda noticed this and one day he called me over to his side and asked me what I was doing standing in a corner and making notes. I showed him the pages. Then he pointed to one of my diagrams and asked me, ‘Do you know why I’ve set up the lights in these positions?’ I replied, ‘No’. Then he said, ‘To know why is important. The day you learn why I’ve set up the lights in a particular way, you’ll have learned lighting. Once you learn lighting, it’ll mean you’re on your way to becoming a cameraman’,” Sanjay narrated, adding, “Tab se main kyun ke peeche lag gaya (Since that day I’ve been pursuing the ‘why’ of things.).”

Sanjay believes that many cinematographers in the film industry belong to the ‘Old School’, ‘Old’ as in their approach to lighting. “It has to do with the lack of adequate equipment, technology, and assistive tools like Video Assist in those days, limiting their scope, and forcing them to improvise, eventually shaping their approach. It’s not easy to change later.” Video Assist is mounted onto a movie camera (inside the viewfinder) to optically tap what the camera ‘sees’ and to transfer it to a monitor, usually placed away from the scene, where the director gets to see what the cinematographer is filming to ensure that the sequence is being shot exactly how he visualized and planned it. Video Assist came to be used widely in the Indian film industry in the Nineties. “But the advertising people got hold of it first,” Sanjay said. “Eventually the filmwallahs latched on to it.”

Abhi aapko director kis tarah ka shot bataya, aur cameraman usko kis tarah se ley raha hai .... aapko monitor pe dikhta hai aaj, Video Assist hai (Today, the director can get to see how a cameraman executes his scene requirement on the monitor while he is filming it.),” Sanjay explained, continuing, “In the days before the monitor came to be widely used, when the Director described the scene to the cameraman, nobody except the cameraman knew what he was filming.”

Things were no different when Sanjay started off with Debu Deodhar. “I used to take permission from Debuda to peer through the viewfinder to see his frame compositions, querying him on his choice of lens for a given scene. It helped me to understand the role of lenses. Later, I tried predicting to myself the lens Debuda would use for each scene, to see if I’m getting the thinking right. Over a period of time I began to get my predictions correct most times. It was a step forward. I did the same with the lights,” he said.

Kisi bhi shot mein lens ka selection important hai (In any film scene, the selection of the proper lens is important),” Sanjay said, adding, “Lens ka selection ke baad hee agey ka sab hoga, lighting hoga, trolley shot istemaal hogo, job hi baki ka techniques woh lens lagne ke baad hee hoga. Sab se pehla selection hai lens ka. Tho woh Director ko kya chahiye, aapko kis tarah ka scene establish karna hai, scene kis tarah se aagey progress hoga, woh isaab se lens ka selection hota hai. Shot actually choreograph hota hai. Tho ek scene ko kayee shot mein divide kartey hai apne requirement ke isaab se. Tho woh sabse important hai . . . lens ka selection.” As I listened to him, his words shook free in the night air and floated past, their passion powering them past me.

By then I was beginning to feeling thirsty. Back in the temple while they were filming the last sequence for the day, I had emptied the bottle of water I found on the window shelf. I suspect it belonged to the temple caretaker. Now I was feeling thirsty again. “Come over for the shoot at Madh tomorrow,” Sanjay said to me, tilting his face sideways so I could hear him over the rush of night air, and the phut-phutting of his bike. “Sure, I will try,” I replied.

The night air enveloped us as he took the left turn and headed out of Manori, towards Gorai. It was nearing midnight, and the roads were still. The wheels churned up the road as Sanjay picked up speed, slowing down as we came upon groups of people walking ahead, holding plastic chairs. It perplexed me to see so many people out on the road this late in the night. I wondered aloud to Sanjay if the Manori-Gorai stretch was readying for a film show out in the night, under open skies. Up ahead, over hundred people milled around a makeshift screen strung across the road, and held down by stones dangling from strings tied to corners of the screen to keep it from swaying in the stiff breeze blowing in from the west. People were gathered on either side of the screen, watching a black and white film. As we slowed down looking for a way past the open air film show, Sharmila Tagore made an entrance on the screen. Sanjay couldn’t help smiling. I held his suitcase tight while he negotiated the bike past people scattered all over the road. The stones brushed my leg as we squeezed past.

After we got to the other side of the screen I turned back to see the scene as it steadily receded behind us before disappearing after we took a right turn, slowing down at a speed-breaker. I doubt if I’ve ever ridden over the number of speed-breakers I did that night on the Manori-Gorai stretch. We had a long ride home, through Gorai, Mira Road, Ghodbunder, stopping over at a roadside stall for a cup of ice-cream.

“That is what I call spirit,” Sanjay said of those people enjoying an old hindi classic in the middle of a quiet road late in the night, opening the visor of his helmet so that I could hear him in the nip of night air rushing past.

“Yes,” I replied, rewinding to my memories of similar settings for films I saw under the open skies back in Goa. I particularly enjoyed Amitabh Bacchan’s Zanjeer in the backyard of an Electricity Sub-station long ago. It’s not an experience one easily forgets.

“They’ll never enjoy a film at Inox the way they’ll enjoy it out there in the open, under the night sky,” Sanjay said, “And that’s how a film should be seen.” His time back in Akola where he grew up aspiring of films were not very different from the rustic setting of Manori where people bring their chairs along for a film show on a road, or for that matter of my own memories of traveling theatres back in Almel, in North Karnataka, where they put up tents, advertised the film from a hand held loudspeaker and mounted on a bicycle, screened daily shows before moving on to the next village, repeating the same cycle all over again. I missed none of them on my vacations from school.

I went quiet for a while, lost in thought, and reflecting ‘Oh, to watch stars parade their talent on screen while stars ‘ride’ in the night sky many, many light-years away.’

Note 1 : The two pictures showing Sanjay Khanzode behind the camera filming Asavari Joshi (in red sari), and the scene in the balcony were passed on to me by Sanjay, the rest of the pictures I took during my time on the sets .

Note 2 : I got a sms from Sanjay today that said: 'Chandigarh me hu, punjabi film ka shooting chalu hai. Sab sardaronke sath me full timepass ho raha hai. 30th ko vapas . . .'


Anonymous said...

writing - isnt that also akin to choosing a lense? the way one chooses to 'see' what happens before them..isnt that what this piece you've written about? how many of us would not have seen a shooting in our lifetime.. yet,reading it through the author's lense, the flavour, the feel, is altogether different.

the shot in the dark, its particularly amazing.

Anil P said...

To Anon: Very much so. What you write in not as important as what you choose to leave out. For, what is left after the 'draining' is what is worth keeping. Nowhere is this more true than when you're telling a story. Trying to get it right is an unending process, because the knowledge that it takes just one thread to unravel the piece helps keep one on the toes, and that tightness often shows in the writing.

Anonymous said...

true..reminds me of the time i went to the himalayas the first time. i got back and was desperate to write about it, so i never forget that feeling, but till date, i havent got a word down.. simply couldnt 'just' write about it. there was so much..those mountains, they have so many many stories to tell..it was all so..infinite. just couldn't figure which 'thread' to use, to leave out.

but there's a certain silent lucidity to your writing which doesnt reveal the 'tightness', to the reader at least. you'd mentioned earlier about wanting to go to the himalayas. maybe when you do, you'd able to write about it..

Madhuri Shinde said...

Ur writing is simple and direct and that is really appreciable.

Just to add on to what anonymous said, the shot in dark is a good piece of art.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Anil!!! Some of the pics are really amazing. Have used one of them as my desktop image :-D And of course.... shall not give you copyright dues ;-))

Anil P said...

To Anon: I suppose it happens because we find our experience so enriching that we often tend to put off writing until we feel we can do it full justice, like waiting to get into the right frame of mind, uninterrupted stretch of time, uncluttered mind and the like. As a result we don't come around to doing the writing. And in time we'll have 'lost' the details, and the piece remains unwritten. The trick is to write it straightaway or makes notes which one can expand on at a later date.

To Madhuri: Thank you. What the dark cannot hide, it reveals more powerfully than what the light ever can.

To Poornima: Thank you. You're welcome to use it on your desktop, which one did you pick? :)

Anonymous said...

absolutely right on that one.. but this place is honestly something more..

travel plaza said...

Anil, wow! Love the way you write. And the pictures are awesome too.

Thnaks for visiting my blog and for your kind comment. Hope you'll visit again:)

Kusum Rohra said...

I had commented earlier asking if there is a longest post competition going on of which I am not aware of :( you didn't publish my comment kya? *sobbing*

Anil P said...

To Anon: True. There is always more to mountains for, one never knows what they hide in their bellies so to say. I particularly remember a trip to Mansar, near Ramtek where they were excavating a hill for a Buddhist Stupa, and ended up finding evidence of pre-historic man from 80,000 years ago, with evidence of inhabitation that stretched forward to 30,000 years. That's one long period of 'stability' one might say. The place became famous as a Buddhist and Brahmanical centre spanning the Mauryan and Wakataka eras. After finding my way through the ruins, as I stood on the hill, its sides exposing the ruins within, I felt a strange sense of excitement, and calm, and peace, a feeling I cannot quite explain. I could never forget it, ever. Talk of mountains, and hills :)

To Travel Plaza: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

To Kusum: Oh, it must have taken off to someplace more interesting than be condemned to stillness on this blog :)

Anonymous said...

u got loads of comments to say everything.....

Anil P said...

To Anan: More are welcome :)

Dusty said...

What can I say to this post? WOW seems so inadequate.
Awesome, fabulous, fantastic?

Emma said...

I love the way you write - there is a certain lucidity and honesty about your posts. I haven't read all to be honest - but intend to. I agree with you on what you have to say about putting down your thoughts - so many times ideas/thoughts/feelings (?) run through my head, and I put off writing about the same till I feel more sure what I want to put down. Result - I never get down to it.

Also wanted to let you know I have posted photographs of my trek here

Mridula said...

I am truly stunned by the beauty of the picture in the dark! How I wish I could take pictures like that.

A very interesting write up and I particularly enjoyed the conversation about the camera work.

Anil P said...

To Frida: Anymore and my face will find out that it is capable of turning colour to shades of red, God alone knows it has been a long time :) Thank you. Good to know that you enjoyed reading the post.

To Emma: Thank you. I'll look forward to you reading the whole lot. Sure, will check out your pictures.

To Mridula: You too can take those kind of pictures. The credit for the lighting goes to Sanjay Khanzode. He spent quite a bit of time getting the lighting spot on, and transformed an ordinary room into what you see in the picture. All I did was frame the actress and click. It helps to click these pictures on 400 ASA film. It'll allow you two extra stops that help minimise camera shake, else a low shutter speed when using a 100 ASA film can ruin the picture.

To Anon: What was the smile about? :)

Kusum Rohra said...

Anil, you have been tagged. Please check my blog for details. I am really hoping you will do it.

Anil P said...

To Kusum: Yeah, sure. I'll check it. :)

Anonymous said...

actually i suppose the smile's for a no. of things, all of which i cant quite explain. but let me try..
its amazing, the repertoire of your stories and travels.and the way u find out about all there is to know about things u see. then, u've always got something to say for everything!thats definitely "smile evoking"! in general,its just nice to have these "conversations" and i suppose on reading your reply i just got preoccupied with all these thoughts and instead of replying to what u'd said, i just smiled :D

"What the dark cannot hide, it reveals more powerfully than what the light ever can." - this is SO well said, so so true..is it paraphrased from somewhere or original???

Anil P said...

To Anon: It's original :) It struck me on reading Madhuri's comment, as to how often we miss the power of an image, or a situation because there are distractions around, unless of course the 'dark' hides them.

It's true of everything including non-visual things. When exploring the Bhaat Bazar in Masjid, near VT, there was this old building that I climbed up to get a feel of what it is like. It was surely over 100 years old, and had lost its balcony in the 1944 explosion at Bombay Docks when the British ship exploded, killing and injuring thousands.

I went up the wooden steps in the dark, a little unsure on what I might come across in an unknown building, feeling my way up when I came upon rows of electricity meters on the landing, each flickering red like a continuous train of small waves dipping and rising. I've seen such meters in daylight but only noticed them after darkness made them come alive in that dank stairway. I suppose even our senses respond more actively in the dark.

It brings to my mind a trip to a Gond tribal village for checking out fossils in Central India. But that is another story :)

Anonymous said...

tell me, are you truly in technology? as in your bread and butter? you see, i had this theory about people who get into I.T..for no fault of theirs, they simply cant think descriptively or appreciate the little little things. if you are really into IT, I stand corrected, and very humbly so!

one of the reasons train journeys appeal to me is for this only..i sit on the steps by the door sometime in the evening and just watch the day fade into the darkness and then the night come alive.its not only a visual treat.. it unfolds a whole new world. the glow worms, so insignificant during the day, now buzz around like millions of miniature bulbs floating in the air, the lights from a lone house, now attracts all the attention which went to the sky and the fields in the day.. you've summed it all up pretty neatly there. :)

Anonymous said...

A true beauty... Will definitely refer others to read it...
A brilliant piece of work

Anil P said...

To Anon: Yes, I'm very much into technology :)

No. you don't have to change your opinion yet, 'coz most IT folks are usually not into art of any kind, much less display any patience for reading non-IT subjects. I see far, far fewer people in IT today who're inclined toward literature, partly because they have no aptitude or ability, or because they find it of no 'use' which again could be due to lack of artistic aesthetics, unless they've no time for it which I doubt is the case even if it is presented as a reason :)

It wasn't the case in the early years of IT in India, but once the floodgates opened, with any and everyone getting into IT to meet the demand for workers, the character of the IT workforce changed somewhat, actually by quite a bit. It is a given that anything that is mass-based will lack the distinct character of smaller groups, and will generally be devoid of uniqueness.

But yes, every once in a while one does come across people in IT who step off the beaten track, displaying brilliant artistic abilities. The seniors who 'stepped' into IT years ago are usually a fine blend of technology and humanities, though not all. I can't say the same of the current mix.

If you were to look at it from another point of view, I would say that a lack of individuality at an individual level actually transforms into the individuality of the group, and hence becomes subservient to the basic common denominators of the group, which obviously are nothing significant to write home about.

Then it is upto the individual to make an effort, but if there is no need felt, then the effort will not come, unless the need comes from within.

To Pravisha: Thank you. Sanjay did a good job with the lights. I find his ability with lights at night better than that at daytime. He enjoys the challenge of getting the lighting spot-on.

Anonymous said...

your response was a relief..after i wrote that about IT folks, was wondering whether it was offensive. its also a relief that it dint send u on the defensive :)

what i've found most discomforting is their absolute disdain for books. there are 2 kinds, one who simply does not understand why one should sit and read a book when its not "necessary", as in its got nothing to do with exam/work. the other is the category which actually scoffs at you for reading or even suggesting that they might do so themselves! dont know which is worse!

Anil P said...

To Anon: Why relief? :) What is, is, and my not acknowledging it won't change it one bit. So I might as well acknowledge it. :)

You make a valid point, and it is mostly true, but it is the exceptions whom I met in my time in IT that I cherish the most, and they were amazing characters, otherwise I've stopped expecting much from the lot now. To each his own :)

Maybe I'll write about a few of those 'exceptions' in the time to come :)

And yes, financial self sufficiency, and financial excess, can make one disdainful of the Arts though not necessarily, more so if productivity is strictly measured in monetary terms. It's an age-old trap, isn't it? :)

After all, money would cease to 'satisfy' if everyone else earned the same amount as anybody else. It is the difference that titillates, and 'satisfies'. Sad but true :)

Anonymous said...

hell! this time you're the one smiling all over!!! :)on this post as well as the one above it!

relief cos for a moment after writing that i was wondering if i'd crossed a line somewhere.. after all truth isnt the easiest thing to accept, is it?

more than titillation, my problem is with the false sense of smug satisfaction that it gives.. its just such a waste of what appears to be good brains :) but then again, its not something one has to worry about with you is it? :)

Anil P said...

To Anon: Well, I couldn't help smiling :) That's a valid angle you look from. Brains guarantee nothing :)

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Aah! I want to be a photographer!
It seems quite apparent that I would need Mister Sanjay Khanzode's aide to carry any hopes of actualisation.
You are correct Author. Truly, "Brain(s) guarantee nothing :) ".

The third-of-the-six picture reminds me of page 95 in The Imperial Way By Rail from Peshawar to Chittagong by Paul Theroux and Steve McCurry [1985 Edition].

Thank You for sharing your Camera specifications, Anilji.

Anil P said...

To Anon: :)

To Kizzy: You're welcome. Steve McCurry sees India in high contrasts, very high contrasts. He is driven to making his pictures freeze the viewer to the frame. I would like to see his pictures 'talk' rather than 'freeze' each time. He's done enough of the latter, and for a long time. He sure has done a lot though, great stuff. But it's time he picked another angle to his India pictures.

Anonymous said...

your work is as good as sanjay's lense
Gajanan Khanzode

Anil P said...

To Gajanan: Thank you :)