Article 15 cinematographer Ewan Mulligan on capturing Anubhav Sinha's gaze on caste discrimination
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
Anubhav Sinha's social drama on caste discrimination, Article 15, opened to positive reviews earlier this week on 28 June. One of the most recurrent words of appreciation was for the gaze of the film. Firstpost got in touch with British cinematographer Ewan Mulligan for an exclusive interaction, where he talked about his approach to an unfamiliar subject, how he captured the leading man (Ayushmann Khurrana), and his longstanding creative partnership with filmmaker Anubhav Sinha.
How shocked were you to read the script of Article 15? Were you aware of the discrimination against Dalits in the country?
I wasn’t at all shocked that Anubhav could produce something like this. The voice of this film is so clearly that of the guy I’ve come to know well over the last few years. We visitors, even those who have travelled to India frequently, have very little conception of what it means to be discriminated against in this way, of how deep the roots go. There is discrimination everywhere, of course, but the shape, scale and violence of it varies enormously. I found the screenplay both moving and inspiring actually. It’s a call to arms — this can change if we all call 'bullsh*t'.
The protagonist of Article 15, Ayan Ranjan, is a privileged police officer who has just returned from a first class country. Did you find his reaction to the filth around him similar to yours? Did that seep into your style in any way?
I think what’s most interesting about Ayan is how he reacts to the people around him — he looks into their eyes and sees another human being staring back at him. That’s why his viewpoint is valuable — he doesn’t know the labels so he can’t call people names. He has to work through the world one real-life, flesh-and-blood person at a time. That’s always been my way of trying to understand India — you can look at the physical space and the complex logistics of running a country with so many citizens but that will only tell you so much about people’s stories. For me, India — urban, rural, whatever — is the people you meet there. Overwhelmingly and despite their unfortunate luck at possibly being born in the wrong town, they are open, respectful and welcoming.
I would say that the physical space in India didn’t have much to do with the style of the photography actually. In fact my incredible crew worked so hard — they moved mountains really — trying to portray something you can’t see or touch: what does it feel like to know, in your bones, that the state thinks you’re worth less than the next guy? How does that colour the world for you?
You have shot the film mostly in early hours of morning and evening. Why was that important?
Those 40 minutes before sunrise and after sunset are very mysterious — there’s a sense of unreality about it, of being caught between two worlds. I felt it would be apt to have these characters — who have been told since they were born that they don’t belong in what the rest of us call 'society' — live in a world constantly on the edge of something, in this case daylight always about to drop off into the dark. Conversely, I thought it would be ironic and dramatically useful to have the characters who profit from this system to be bathed in bright sunlight.
There is some striking visual imagery in the film. One that is particularly memorable is a manual scavenger cleaning the gutter. What brief did you get while capturing him?
This fellow was the most extraordinary man! Anubhav came to me and said that we were going to film this guy who does this for a living and that it would be in the main body of the film. I agreed that it was a great notion. Nikhil, our wonderful production designer, built this very clever false sewer so we could film the scene safely and I pointed a camera at it. I think we all knew immediately that there was no need to embellish or dramatise it. If you have someone on screen who is so charismatic, so graceful and centred, what can you do? Just film it and get out of the way, right?
Was there anything unique about the landscape of Uttar Pradesh that you thought lent itself well to cinema?
I had been to UP at various points in the year before, usually when it was roaring hot. But in the winter, it was so green, so lush, and the evenings were so beautiful with the heavy, humid mist sitting over the fields. Water plays a big role in our movie — it’s a constant menace. What lies below the surface? Do you dare to look? UP, at that time of year, perfectly suited what we were trying to do with the colour and tone of the film.
The lead actor, though a police officer, has not been shot flatteringly in slow motion or low angle shots. What stance did you take while shooting Ayushmann Khurrana's character?
Ayushmann is a brave and confident actor and a brave and confident person. There’s a real sense on set with him that we are always trying to find something more true, even if that means showing vulnerability, humility and yes sometimes ugliness, whether around or within us. We were trying to point out a deep truth about the world around us and you can’t make this movie work without a finely attuned sensitivity to things that are not true, like life always being heroic for police officers. We all go through ups and downs. We don’t always feel like we’re shot in low angle, or lit with beautiful face light.
How different was shooting for Mulk as compared to Article 15?
The biggest difference between Article 15 and Mulk was the perspective. Mulk was a real ensemble piece, with multiple principal characters, and moreover the perspective was omniscient. The camera was authoritative: it showed you what happened. This movie is totally subjective. This guy goes to this place and we go inside his head and his heart: what is he feeling right now? What is the colour of that feeling? What is the brightness of that feeling?
What differences have you found in making movies in India, as compared to England?
I love making movies in India. There is such a profound love for film that you find the practicalities of completing a project being made so enjoyable. You are surrounded by people, both inside and outside the production, who want you to make a great movie; so, they can go watch a great movie. I’m always learning new technical solutions to take home with me too. What the lighting crews do here with rope is incredible; they’re artists in their own right.
This is your fourth film with Anubhav Sinha. How has your working equation with him bloomed over the years?
I was very fortunate to meet Anubhav when I did. I was just starting to shoot features and he took a wild swing bringing me into the team. Now, he’s telling these really challenging stories and I get to be a part of it! I think you’re always looking for someone to work with who shares something of your worldview, who values the same things as you. You’re going to do this crazy thing with someone, living in each other’s pockets for half a year, 19 hours a day: you have to be rowing in the same direction. I admire what Anubhav thinks is worthy of examination. Despite all the noise, it isn’t that complicated: equality, fairness, honesty. Pretty simple really.
Updated Date: Jun 30, 2019 09:44:10 IST