“Do you remember that shot in Mr. India, footprints of the invisible man on sludge?” asked the guy, his face shrouded behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. Though I remember who the guy was, I can’t recall the exact expression on his face, the cocksure smile he must have had.
Some fragments are clear, though. Adarsh Bar. Adarsh Nagar. Andheri. Dim Light. Red zero watt. Smell of smoke and cheap whiskey. There were no cafes for us to meet at. No Baristas. No Costas. No Starbucks. The coffee shops were only at five-star hotels back then. Five stars. Shetty bars.
I nodded in reply to his question.
“Well, do you know how it was done?”
I shook my head. His smile spread a centimetre wide on either side.
“Everybody in the unit had given up on that shot. There were no computers in those days. Production had no budget to go abroad. And Shekhar [Kapur] wanted that shot exactly like that.”
The guy sipped his drink, took his time.
“Veeru Devgan. Fight master. He figured it out. He got a wooden ramp built. Then he asked for some shoe-shaped cuts to be made on the ramp at specific spots. The ramp was then covered with a tarpaulin sheet and the sheet was covered with sludge. Beneath each shoe-shaped cut a thread was hooked to the tarpaulin. Veeru Devgan placed an assistant at each thread. A trolley and camera were mounted on top of the ramp. As the trolley rolled forward, on Veeru Devgan’s cue assistants pulled the thread as per their turn. Sludge got sucked into the cavity. A shoe-shaped impression appeared as if an invisible man was walking on wet ground.”
Depending on who you ask, the narrative changes. Some say the shot was Veeru Devgan’s idea. Some say it was cinematographer Peter Pereira’s. And some say this never happened. Not this way at least.
A year later, I was at Ram Gopal Varma’s office. He had just approved the first short story for Darna Mana Hai, written by me, which would later become one of the six short stories in the film. This first story had a sequence – a wife glimpses her husband’s hand as it drowns into the depths of a swamp.
At some point Varma looked at me, “Have you given some thought as to how this hand-goes-down-the-swamp is supposed to be shot?”
“You must have heard the footprints-in-sludge story from Mr. India?”
“No. What story?”
“A pit. Covered with tarpaulin. Sludge over tarpaulin. Lots of sludge. We place a man inside the dry pit. His hand sticking out through a slit in the tarpaulin. On ‘action’ he starts to pull his hand in slowly.” Tat, tat, tat, I spat it out, regretting why I had even mentioned Mr. India. I could have passed off this cool idea as mine. I was 25.
Every film is a bundle of ideas, good or bad. Ideas milked. Ideas surpassed. Ideas overlooked. Ideas that strike the filmmaker much after the film has released and make him wake up in a cold sweat. Choices he made. People with whom he made those choices.
The idea of the ‘family massacre’ was embedded in the four-line pitch of Sholay. The sequence of events that must have led to its writing and filming is probably known best to the film’s maker and his creative team. We can only take a shot at guessing the pedigree.
Similarities are apparent. Differences probably not somewhat. Let’s dig.
In Once Upon A Time In The West, the sequence sets up the introduction of the villain. It comes within the first 20 minutes. We don’t know whose family it is. The background score is operatic. The camera movements are subjective and definitive.
Sholay: the sequence comes close to the mid-point of the film. The villain is avenging his arrest, his insult by killing the protagonist’s family. Negligible score. Eerie sound of swing. Freeze frames with each gunshot. No camera movements. Cold cut.
Consider a narrower divide.
The Driver: sequence comes half way through the film. Serves to affirm the individuality of the protagonist. Is serious. And dramatic. 1:1.85.
Qurbani: the sequence is almost at the beginning of the film. Hero’s introduction. He is Robin Hood, protector of weak. Is comic. 1:2.35.
Two nuts fitted into two very different engines produce an entirely different impact in each. If this were an outcome of Ramesh Sippy and Salim-Javed having coffee with Sergio Leone or if Feroz Khan had sat down with Walter Hill at a dingy bar for a drink, with Hill’s face shrouded behind a cloud of his cigar smoke, then the whole narrative, this 'reverse-engineering', would have evoked a sense of marvel and romance.
Romance. Music. A bridge of violin. A sad song. And a peppy dance number. Different emotions.
Caution. We do not live in times of romance, marvel and wonder. These are times of information and knowledge. Any individual with an internet connection knows and opines about other fields as much as he does about his own. There is little that evokes a sense of wonder these days. No more mysteries. Only conspiracies. As DVDs, Blu-rays, torrents make people informed about cinema, such occurrences break the illusion that the maker is trying to create.
If you are a filmmaker, there is a high chance that when you land into cinemas, your film clutched to your heart, you will run into an army of critics, colleagues and other knowledgeable people who will raise a wary brow at you and ask, “Do you have anything to declare?”
You may do either of the two:
a) Name some obscure sources – art house, pulp, horror, grindhouse, banned poetry, vernacular poets, B-grade, C-grade, Z-grade. Know this stuff like the back of your hand. Learn to talk about it. Learn from Quentin Tarantino. Read his interviews. Or:
b) Stay quiet. The army will catch some bottles of imported liquor and perfumes in your case for sure. The things on the surface. But the finer diamonds hidden within the seams of your film will pass the check. It’s a busy port. A dozen like me and you land every Friday. No one has the time to dig deeper in your package. Never mind a bit of beating, shoving, manhandling.
When I made my first film, Aurangzeb, I was reviewed to have borrowed from Trishul, both the Don movies, Deewar, Yalgaar, The Devil’s Double, Skyfall to name a few (I by the way take offense only at the last two mentions for personal reasons).
There, however, were things that we snuck through. Time to acknowledge those debts, talk about some of the finest engines and their makers.
1) Page 74 of the script – Arya’s car is following Vishal’s car.
I fret over geography a lot. Who is where in the scene, who is coming from what direction, things like that, to make them clear to the audience. So every shot, every cut in this sequence had to tie the two vehicles together. A day before the shoot, in a discussion, my cinematographer suggested that we could use rear-views and side-views of the cars. We had done a lot of those shots on the television series I directed, Powder. But there was nothing espionage-ish about Aurangzeb. It was a family drama. At such a moment, in the heat of the location, when a sequence strikes you it’s as joyous as coming up with a right quote or a prompt repartee at the right moment in a conversation – Parinda.
To tie the two vehicles together by a train that is running in the opposite direction.
In the edit, my editor fondly named this ‘the Renu Saluja cut’. He was thrilled that he could manipulate the distance between the two cars by manipulating the entry of the train in Arya’s frame.
2) Page 137 of the script – Parting sun is casting long, gloomy shadows. Suman’s eyes are fixated at the door. She walks towards it. The gate looks haunting. Her hope waning.
My other preoccupation, apart from geography, is to come up with an idea that conveys the emotion at hand in the least number of shots. To reach from point A to B in a scene with the least amount of cuts. This sequence called for cutting between Suman and the empty door frame. But then, the night before the shoot, I showed this opening shot from The Searchers to my cinematographer.
We follow Suman, her image juxtaposed against the door. She reaches it. The camera crosses her, looks at the landscape that she is looking at. It’s bare. No sign of any arrival. The land offers no hope, no assurances.
3) Page 88 of the script – BANG echoes through the walls of the tiny cabin. Vishnu does not even get the time for a reaction. The hole in his temple bleeds. He falls.
Acting as my own writer, I never wrote the words “Ravikant pulls his gun out.” It was a small reminder-to-self that if you show the gun here before the gunshot, then the moment is gone. The surprise of character’s turnaround may still work, but the cinematic shock of the BANG will be lost.
Searching my head at that point led me to the shocking gunshot that killed Bhikhu Mhatre in Satya. If my memory of hearsay is correct, then the gunshot in Satya was inspired by the gunshot that killed Maakhan Mallah in Bandit Queen.
Ram Gopal Varma had once recounted the filming of Bhikhu Mhatre’s killing to an informal gathering:
“I kept two cameras running. Gave Manoj (Bajpai) a long dialogue to speak. And told Govind (Namdev) to fire whenever he felt like. So I also did not know when the gun was going to get fired.”
That scene in Satya had five characters – Bhau, Bhau’s henchman, Bhikhu, Kallu Mama and lawyer Mulay - enough to disguise the surprise of the gunshot and keep the talking going until the BANG.
I had only two characters and one of them was supposed to pull the trigger. Then I spotted the man whom I could use as the third character – the stuntman who was going to detonate a condom full of fake blood by joining two electric wires.
I gave Sumeet Vyas a long dialogue to speak. Told Rishi Kapoor to walk a bit away, towards his desk. And told the stuntman to join the wires whenever he damn well pleased. Even I did not know when the shot was going to come.
The big BANG theory and practice. Feel blessed when you run into a great engine or its engineer. Feel happy digging, stealing, reverse-engineering, transforming and, most importantly, spreading.