Raat Akeli Hai, Haider, Tumbbad: Why Pankaj Kumar is one of India's most talented cinematographers
Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar seems well on his way to joining the pantheon of visual artists whose images last for generations.
If you watched Rahi Anil Barve’s 2018 debut feature Tumbbad on the big screen it’s likely that you felt the incessant rain of the film all around you. (Me, I was drenched to the soul.) Or, if you’re a fan of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, it’s probably because you could palpably sense not just the plight of the average Kashmiri in the 90s, but also the changing seasons in Kashmir while the Shakespearean saga unfolds.
Or, go a little further back, to writer-director Anand Gandhi’s debut feature Ship of Theseus – part-game-changing indie, part-philosophical treatise (from the mind of a former writer on Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, no less). Three separate stories in the film, each with its own look, feel and visual grammar, come together in the end. Apart from Gandhi, Ship of Theseus marked the debut of a rare talent – the point to this piece, the common link between the three films mentioned above (and some other visual delights of the last decade) – cinematographer Pankaj Kumar.
Make no mistake, India has produced its fair share of heavyweight cinematographers so far.
From Subrata Mitra, who formed a long working partnership with Satyajit Ray, and who was responsible for some of the most iconic frames of Indian cinema; to V. K. Murthy, known for creating fluid poetry-in-black-and-white for Guru Dutt, in films such as Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam; to recent artists such as Rajeev Ravi, who has shot some modern-day sensory classics for Anurag Kashyap. (Dev.D and the Gangs of Wasseypur duology are iconic, but what really makes my senses tingle is the imagery of 1969 Bombay in Bombay Velvet.) And now, Pankaj Kumar seems well on his way to joining the pantheon of visual artists whose images last for generations.
Pankaj Kumar and Vishal Bhardwaj's cumulative artistic journey
In the early 2010s, the task of shooting Vishal Bhardwaj’s ambitious Hamlet adaptation, Haider, fell upon Pankaj Kumar. According to Kumar, he didn’t even need to read the script to get on board – the prospect of Bhardwaj’s vision of Hamlet in Kashmir was enticing enough. Haider was only Pankaj Kumar’s second feature, but it immediately showcased what he was capable of.
In a striking sequence in the early part of the film, Shahid Kapoor’s Haider has just returned to Kashmir, and is visiting the wrecked remains of what was once his home. He reminisces about good times with his father, who has since gone missing (because that’s what happens to Kashmiri men.)
While Haider is lost in his high-key memories, we see a wide top angle shot of him in a room with his dad, which then dissolves to the present – the same room matched with the same wide top angle, except now what we see is a past destroyed by unimaginable violence. It is the kind of craft that instantly relays a noteworthy director-cinematographer partnership.
“One of the reasons Vishal Bhardwaj has been able to achieve great visuals with all his films is because he gives total freedom. He respects art and artists. It is liberating to work with a filmmaker who understands your art and gives you complete space to film something the way you want to,” Kumar says, over a phone conversation about his work.
“The way Vishal typically directs is that he explains the scene, and he asks all the players involved – the actors, the cinematographer – to just play it out, the way we feel it. We rehearse the scene on set. We don’t discuss shots prior to the rehearsal. Once we see the actors moving, we just make a few changes in where they can move, and then he asks me to go ahead and capture it. That’s the extent of conversation we’d have, and I would love every moment of it,” he continues.
Elaborating further, he says, “I observe the actors, the way the light is falling on them. I add a few lights, if required. And then, let’s play! This kind of freedom lets me explore my images freely.”
It was no surprise that Haider effortlessly continued the Vishal Bhardwaj tradition of great-looking cinema; but for me it went a step further with their next collaboration, Rangoon.
(Between Haider and Rangoon, Kumar also shot Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, which Bhardwaj co-wrote and co-produced. He also shot about 30 percent of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy – a fine, sophisticated gangster film weighed down primarily by Arjun Rampal’s sincere but sluggish central performance as mob boss Arun Gawli. Scheduling issues led to Kumar joining the project after a majority of it was shot by Canadian cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné.)
It was Rangoon, though, that truly enthralled me. Rangoon has an audacious plot inspired from an oft-forgotten chapter of Indian history. In the midst of World War II, the British Indian Army is busy fighting on the side of its colonisers. But there’s another Indian army that’s waiting in the shadows, in far-flung Japanese-occupied Burma. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s revived Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj, (which would have been a better forerunner for our armed forces than a relic of the Raj) is busy planning its revolt against the British.
A complicated love triangle with a protagonist inspired by Fearless Nadia unfolds in this setting, a truly imaginative, revisionist fantasy. It gave Kumar the chance to produce some of the most stunning big screen cinematography in recent times.
The sequence where the spark of romance between Miss Julia and Jamadar Nawab Malik – Kangana Ranaut and Shahid Kapoor – is slowly turning into a raging fire while rolling in mud, a captive Japanese soldier inside a nearby hut trying his best to escape by lighting his own little fire, is a thing of beauty. The scene goes from wet mud outside to the blaze within the hut, culminating in a scathing indictment of what war does to the mind of the ordinary soldier; someone who usually walks into battle not out of choice, but compulsion. The decisions are taken elsewhere.
Perhaps the trailer of the film couldn’t excite audiences enough to pull them into the theatres, and the ones who did were turned off by poor visual effects in some key scenes in the film; whatever the reason, the film failed to excite audiences.
“It did hurt me a lot, when I was grading the film,” Kumar says, when asked if the below-average quality of VFX in Rangoon affected him, particularly when the rest of it looked so good.
“It made me cringe so much, especially the climax shots. We kept struggling to get the VFX right one way or the other. There was a constant back-and-forth. Even Vishal was so troubled by the way it was turning out. But in the end, it went out of his hands because of the scheduling problems. It had to release on a particular day, and he had to live with it once they couldn’t work on it further. Eventually, we just had to move on.” he rues.
Still, the Vishal Bhardwaj-Pankaj Kumar partnership is on its way to becoming a seminal one in Hindi cinema.
“Working with Vishal has always been extremely exciting. He keeps throwing challenges at you, shooting at distant locations that aren’t easy, the scheduling is never easy, you’re always on your feet, and that keeps your mind going. It is taxing, challenging and rewarding,” Kumar says.
Tumbadd, Raat Akeli Hai and how cinematography can be a character unto its own
He doesn’t recall a single instance where Bhardwaj and he didn’t find themselves on the same page while filming a scene, a stark contrast to his next release, Tumbbad – a film that he had been shooting all along, while the ones mentioned above were being shot, wrapped and released. It was the film that he has had the most disagreements with his collaborators on, primarily because his collaborators on it were a bunch of his friends, most of whom he had already worked with on Ship of Theseus.
Tumbbad was shot over four monsoons, mostly in artificial rain created during production – a decision born out of the fact that over the course of its making, the rain evolved to become another character in the film.
Despite the time, effort and creative conflict that went into the making of Tumbbad, it was a film that Kumar still maintains is his most rewarding work yet. (No surprise, then, that the film had an atmosphere unlike anything else in Hindi cinema, as it went on to receive accolades and love from across the globe.)
The atmosphere also became a hallmark of his most recent release, the Netflix film Raat Akeli Hai - prolific casting director Honey Trehan’s first directorial venture. With half of the film set at night, it was classic, gorgeous noir. (Before that came the slick, quirky Judgementall Hai Kya, which drew mixed reactions overall, but was universally appreciated for its look, even earning him a Filmfare nomination for Best Cinematography; that’s just trivia, not a metric of anything at all, I must add.)
If rain was like another character in Tumbbad, darkness became a character in Raat Akeli Hai. “I let the scripts speak out to me. When I read the script of Raat Akeli Hai, it had a certain atmosphere built into the writing. I picked up all my cues from the writing, something I do with all my films. The atmosphere in a film is very important to me. Even in Tumbbad, while the script really didn’t mention the rain, it evolved because of the atmosphere in the writing.”
“In Raat Akeli Hai, there’s a mystery that pervades through the film. There was a lot of darkness in the characters. We had to enhance that. The look of the film became more concrete when we did a recce and I visited the locations. As we started filming, I released that I didn’t need as much ambient light as a normal drama does. So we kept reducing the ambient light lower and lower throughout filming. I started enjoying the darkness,” he responds, when asked about how he’s able to create such atmospheric visuals. It’s a pity that Raat Akeli Hai will never be seen on the big screen, because it has a feel that – again – few Hindi films have managed to achieve.
Directing ambitions and upcoming projects
Kumar mentions the work of legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky as one of his early inspirations. It would explain the strong visual language that is apparent in his own work - Tarkovsky’s cinema pushed every image, every frame for depth, meaning and nuance like few other filmmakers managed.
He reveals that he also cares as much about the overall impact of a film, apart from merely how it looks. When he has concerns, he voices them to the director and looks for a way to overcome them. This revelation led to an obvious question – does he intend to turn director in the future? The answer was short and came quick; he indeed does. He’s working on something right now, which he hopes to direct next year. Obviously, he intends to shoot it himself, because creating images for the big screen is his one true passion.
In the meantime, there’s Ayan Mukerji’s much-anticipated, much-delayed magnum opus Brahmastra, in which he’s one of six cinematographers – again something that so happened because of the length of time the film has been in production. There’s also Tumbbad co-producer Aanand L Rai’s next directorial venture, Atrangi Re, in the pipeline.
With seven solo features shot by him, and a couple of others where he was one of several cinematographers involved, Pankaj Kumar has already established himself as one of the most talented cinematographers of our times. Indelible images, yet to be formed, are in the offing.