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.
Amit Sharma's sophomore movie Badhaai Ho is getting rave reviews, particularly for its premise of a woman Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) getting pregnant in her 50s, much to the embarrassment of her son Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana). Firstpost got in touch with Sanu Varughese, the cinematographer of the film, for an exclusive interaction. Below are excerpts from the same.
You have cranked the camera for intense thrillers like the Vishwaroopam franchise, Wazir and David. What were the challenges you faced while shooting a lighthearted film like Badhaai Ho?
Badhaai Ho is light hearted at the writing level itself. The effort was to find a subtle approach. For example, there is a scene where the sons meet immediately after the pregnancy news is broken to them. It opens on a close up of Nakul. Then it cuts wider and you realise they are sitting on the ledge of the roof. It looks like they are going to jump down any moment to death. We composed the shot with a lot of space below them than above them. It brings in a smile, without being 'in-your-face'. There is another scene where Nakul is trying to digest the news with the aid of alcohol. It starts with a riot of seagulls flying ominously. Then you realise that he is sitting drinking at the Yamuna ghats in the middle of this cacophony of birds. You can’t miss the connection it makes with Nakul's 'inner voices'. That brings in a smile again. To me, the visual approach to story telling will always come from the story itself . You just have to make sure you know the story well enough, with the cultural nuances and subtexts, and you have to make sure it is in tune with how the director sees it.
Neena Gupta and Ayushmann Khurrana in a still from Badhaai Ho
What was Amit's brief to you that made the approach to this film clearer in your head?
Amit’s briefs are simple - as simple as "bhai picture achhi dikhni chahiye". For someone like me who has done a lot of commercials with him, it means, "Brother please conquer three continents and bring me the loot. But no bloodshed please." He is not the guy who will give you intellectual pointers. He works out of pure instincts. He is also the guy who can turn a scene around to make it work the way you could never imagine. He imparts a certain clarity down the ranks which makes the production process very efficient.
Ayushmann Khurrana has claimed that Badhaai Ho is his cleanest film yet. Given the tricky theme of the film, what tricks did you employ to ensure the gaze is effective yet not icky? The final shot in the Badhaai Ho trailer is quite interesting when the camera focuses on Neena Gupta's baby bump and the reactions of people around it. How did you approach the capturing of the baby bump? Is there any other creative way in which you have shot the 'center of attraction'?
When you see the film, the story takes over the viewer completely. Even if you went ickier, it wouldn’t have mattered. It was predecided to put Priyamvada mostly in body covering costumes. At the cost of sounding wrong, the credit of a convincing pregnancy goes to the costume department. My job was just to make sure the compositions are about the emotional drama than anything else. With an actor like Neena Gupta, just her body language can make you feel the pregnancy, even without the bump.
Majority of the film has been shot in Delhi. How do you see the capital city as your canvas? What does it add to the film?
Delhi’s ambiance changes with seasons. That’s a big tool for someone who is primarily dealing with moods. It is situated in the Northern Plains. The uninterrupted depth you can see in the landscape is endless. I find Lutyen’s Delhi - where we shot mostly - one of the most beautiful cities in the tropics. The canopies of tree branches over the Delhi roads bring in a certain contrast. It makes the outdoor shots pretty in the right light. The architecture around is beautiful . The Meerut house location was a New Delhi colonial building with high roofs and different levels. It lends itself to interesting angles. On a lighter note, the pollution fog in Gurugram can look stunning and and the stench of Yamuna doesn’t hit the audience in the movie halls! Amit, who is a Delhi boy, had incorporated (into the film) many locations which he knew would be visually interesting for the story. He also knew Delhi well enough to get us out of the notorious traffic jams.
What visual qualities did you find fascinating about the star cast of Ayushmann, Sanya Mahotra, Neena, Gajraj Rao and Surekha Sikri?
There is a dilemma I guess every cinematographer faces - the dilemma of lighting for storytelling versus lighting to make the stars look good. Many a times, these two are at loggerheads. A balance has to be found. But then it is also open to your own interpretation of what is more important . This is where the good looking stars help you. Ayushmann is a guy who looks good in any light, any angle. You can even get a little adventurous the way you shoot him. The same is the case with Sania. There is nothing to cover up for. Her skin almost radiates light. The trouble with her is that half the times you are so lost in her performance that you fail to see how light hit her. Ninaji had to look a bit younger for the character, and Surekhaji a bit older. Lighting does a lot of it for me. The rest got handled by the makeup and performances. I am not sure if Gajrajji is the most 'good looking' dad of Hindi cinema. But then how does it matter when you have the most characteristic face and mannerisms, and as a performer you use them to portray the most endearing Kaushik there could ever be!
Ayushmann Khurrana and Sanya Malhotra in a still from Badhaai Ho
Does it take a different muscle to shoot dance songs like 'Morni Banke' than other slow songs like the title track and 'Nain Na Jodeen'?
In my head, ‘Morni Banke’ is the laddoo at the end of the meal. You have seen all of them in all sorts of light and lensing. Now see how they look the best. It is your chance to go away from the visual scheme you have maintained through the film. In spite of being a guy with two left feet, I love shooting dance. It tests my sense of rhythm. It tests my operation skills. To me, it is very close to operating for choreographed fight scenes. The other songs are part of the story. The mood becomes important. When there is a song in the soundtrack, it is your chance to take more liberties with lighting and movement.