Frame and fortune

In acclaimed film 'Court', cameraman Mrinal Desai's view adds a vital edge

The trick is to be close to the action but also far enough to be able to see it for what it is, says the cinematographer.

Chaitanya Tamhane’s highly praised Court, about the trial of a radical poet accused of abetting a suicide, derives some of its impact from Mrinal Desai’s camerawork. The 43 year-old Film and Television Institute of India graduate has shot several acclaimed independent documentaries, including Unlimited Girls, The House on Gulmohar Avenue, A Few Things I Know about Her, and The World Before Her. He hasn’t worked on many features, but that is bound to change after Court’s release on April 17.

Court’s visual palate includes faithfully realistic production design, lengthy shots and location shooting. Its most striking feature is a middle-row perspective from which director, cinematographer and viewer witness the trial and the people it impacts. By placing the camera at a half-way point that is neither too close nor too far away from the central action, Tamhane and Desai strike a careful balance between involvement and detachment. Desai explained his stylistic approach on Court and his previous projects in an interview.

"Chaitanya was clear that he wanted the camera to be a dispassionate observer that was not involved with the process and not expressionistic in any way. We would be watching as neutral observers, and this approach dictated all the choices in the positioning of the camera. Sometimes, if you go too close, it feels too close.

The decision-making process began at the script level. Line producer Kishor Sawant had started looking for locations, and the vetting happened over a long period of time. They had to fit in with the veracity in the script. It wasn’t about being ornate. There was no emphasis, no drama, and no making an obvious point of anything.

When you shoot a lot of documentaries, you quickly get used to the dynamics of a certain space. You are also looking a lot more closely. You look at what the architecture conveys, for instance, and so you can feel a location and see if it works for you or not.

The courtroom itself was an interesting thing. It was created from scratch. I realised how difficult it was to do that kind of work, to create a feeling of reality. One false note could spoil the whole thing. If the set design had not been done properly, it would have been difficult to create that look.

Chaitanya’s instinct for what is not right is very strong, which is important because not everything falls into place the way you want it to. He is comfortable coming from a position of, 'I don’t know,' but he is also very methodical and works in a painstaking way.

In documentary, on the other hand, you have to rely a great deal on instinct, so there was some push and pull between us. Sometimes he had to tell me to slow down. Because he is very clear in his thinking, it became easy to tune into that. It is what a cameraman does, after all – tune into the director."

Building a relationship with subjects
"The approach was different in The World Before Her. [Directed by Nisha Pahuja, to whom Desai is married, The World Before Her contrasts female Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh followers with Miss India contestants.] It was very traditional, observational, verite filmmaking, about being with the person and going with the flow. Most of the beauty pageant bits were shot by a Canadian cameraman."

"Different directors have different ways of doing things. Good directors have a strong and genuine relationship with their subjects. As they talk to them, things unfold. As a cinematographer, you are present and you let the director guide the flow of the subject. A cameraman is trying to tune into where the director wants. Everything has its own position and its own vibration, and you find the right thing that satisfies that. Your presence makes a difference, of course, so if you have a calm demeanour that is not threatening in any way, it helps. I am very quiet. Once in a while, I do pipe up and say my little piece if it supplements the situation.

Basically, your job as a cameraman is to capture the thing that the director has set up. The relationship between the director and subject has developed over time. The sound recordist and you are very late entrants.

In The World Before Her the shoot at the Durga Vahini training camp was sensitive. The camp organisers got cold feet after giving us permission and wanted to chuck us out. But then Nisha spoke to them at length. She has a very genuine relationship with the people at the Durga Vahini camp. She still speaks to them and is still in touch with them. There is empathy towards each other’s positions, and that probably comes out in the film.

The atmosphere there was hardly threatening, it was like a summer camp! It was a happy and friendly scene. The cause and effect that leads to a certain kind of political system… I didn’t see that there."

Intellect versus ideology
"When you choose a project, you look to work with a director and understand his or her formal arrangement. All directors want is purity, some kind of truth. You have to delete yourself from the picture. You become a tube, a pipeline between the director and the project."

"I feel that the best cameramen are those who don’t have an intellectual position on things. This can become a barrier, since you start filtering things in a very intellectual way and you miss the humanness of the person in that moment. Over time, I have been able to let go of my political predilections and I feel that my work has become purer.

I was all over the place for the first few years of shooting after I graduated from the FTII. Five people would tell me, wow this is so nice, and five others would say, this is shit! The first time I started feeling comfortable in my own skin was in 2008 or 2009.

Nobody has really asked me to shoot features – perhaps it has to do with the kind of films I have been working on. The people I work with are important. You need to gel with the director, get what is going on, and not have a kind of anti-reaction to something. If I feel that something is crass at some level and not right, I don’t take up a project. I would like to work on features, but it will happen when it does."

Mrinal Desai.

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