The making of Mahanati: Cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez talks about recreating the life of Savitri
Dani Sanchez-Lopez, LA-based cinematographer from Spain, was no stranger to Indian cinema after having worked on films like San ‘75 and Tamanchey as a cinematographer, apart from being associated with films like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Dil Dhadakne Do in various capacities.
However, when he received a call from Nag Ashwin in April 2017 to come onboard the team of Mahanati, a biopic of Savitri, little did he know what to expect. In less than a month, he was in Hyderabad to begin shooting the film and trace the journey of an iconic actress who he didn’t know at all until then. “I had less than a month to watch some of Savitri’s famous films and in hindsight, I can’t believe that it all happened so quickly,” Dani says, laughing.
Authenticity was the buzzword that everyone had on their mind while making Mahanati. Whether it was procuring costumes and antiques from the ‘50s and ‘60s, or reconstructing key moments from Savitri’s life, both onscreen and offscreen, the whole team left no stone unturned. In Dani Sanchez’s case, his focus was on cinematographers of the golden era of Telugu and Tamil cinema like Marcus Bartley, cinematographer of Mayabazar and many other epics, to understand how they showcased the actors back then.
“Back in those days, cinematographers and directors had a certain approach to make their actors look larger-than-life. In Savitri’s case, it’s the way her eyes sparkled with dual lighting projected on her. It’s magical,” Dani says, adding, “She was part of several amazing films and we have recreated certain portions in Mahanati as well, and I hope that the current generation will revisit her work after watching our film.”
Dani Sanchez credits Nag Ashwin’s faith in him for some of the bold decisions that were made while shooting the biopic. One of them was to shoot it partly on film stock, using a super 16mm camera to achieve a grainy texture to depict the 80s, where a journalist, Madhuravani, played by Samantha, tries to find out the real story of Mahanati.
“Technicolor was the main format with which films were shot in the ‘80s in India, and the technology came a little late from the West. When you are thinking of a film which was made in that era that’s the look that comes to your mind and we wanted to create that grainy texture. A lot of people who saw the film loved it, but during the shoot, it was really hard for us to get our hands on the film stock and then to get it processed properly,” he explains, adding, “We shot the ‘80s section with hand-held camera and organic lighting.”
The team shot in and around Palakollu, in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, to depict Savitri’s childhood and how she learnt to dance, perform on stage. Tell Dani that Palakollu hasn’t looked this beautiful in any film in a long time, and he laughs. “Most of the outdoor portions were shot around sunset or sunrise to bring that golden tinge to the frame. Moreover, Nag Ashwin and I love travelling and wandering around. He was game to shoot in whatever location that fascinated me. Besides, shooting in such lighting conditions also worked as a metaphor that Savitri was rising up and preparing to face the life that awaited her in showbiz,” Dani reveals.
However, once the story shifts to Madras in the ‘50s, there is a change in the tone of the film as well. It’s not just the way the camera moves, but there’s a distinct change in the colour palette as well. The earthy greens and browns of Savitri’s childhood slowly makes way for warmer pinks, oranges and yellows and reds when she moves to Madras. When she begins to fall in love with Gemini Ganesan, red and maroons start seeping into the frame.
“There’s one moment in the film, before her mother passes away, where Savitri’s face isn’t shown at all, and it’s only when her mother comes closer to her that we begin to get a sense of how sad she is. A lot of directors love placing the lights to highlight the actors’ face, but in Mahanati, we used a lot of backlighting. It was quite challenging, but it also signifies something deeper: that Savitri was always fighting against several challenges in her life. She made a name for herself in a male dominated world, went on to direct a feature film with an all-women crew, tried to fight back her alcoholism, and till the end, she was trying to fight back to regain what she had lost," says Dani.
One of the toughest things to shoot in Mahanati was the 'Mooga Manasulu' song, apart from recreating the Vijaya Vauhini studios set-up using VFX. “Nag Ashwin is well-versed with VFX; however, it was really hard to set up the lighting for Mooga Manasulu song because he wanted the focus to be just on the two leads, and not the background dancers. Another huge challenge was the Vijaya Vauhini studios set-up because all we had was one empty road under a scorching sun (laughs). But the best thing about Nag Ashwin is that he won’t say no. We had a good equation throughout the shoot,” he says.
The cinematographer was on cloud nine when Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, who worked as an assistant director to KV Reddy, complimented his work while they were shooting the Mayabazar segment in Mahanati. “Singeetham was on the sets of Mayabazar when they were shooting it in 1957 and he knows how they got things done back then. When he paid a visit to our sets when we were trying to recreate those segment, he complimented me saying that I did a terrific job. That meant a lot to me,” he recalls.
Ever since the film released, he has been overwhelmed with all the appreciation and messages from all quarters: “People here really understand what cinematographers are trying to do and they don’t hesitate to come discuss it if they get a chance to meet you. It’s really humbling when I think about all the love and affection that I have received ever since I have been associated with Mahanati.”
Updated Date: May 12, 2018 16:09:15 IST