Ask anyone who hasn’t been to Punjab to imagine what it’s like and they are likely to paint a picture of garrulous men and women wearing bright flowing clothes and running through endless stretches of mustard fields. This is the popular perception of the state in our minds, etched, no doubt, by the incessant bombardment of such images over the years in our films. The images are not incorrect, but they do not do justice to the diversity that Punjab, like any other part of the world, possesses.
Abhishek Chaubey’s recently released Udta Punjab was an expose of the prevalence of the drug trade in the state. Gurvinder Singh’s much-feted Chauthi Koot, which will be released on August 5, goes further back in time, into the 1980s, when Punjab was at the peak of militancy.
The landscapes that we have come to identify with the good times in popular Hindi and Punjabi cinema are used to ominous effect in Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction). Based on two stories by Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu, the movie has been shot by Film and Television Institute of India-trained cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul, whose previous collaboration with Singh on his debut feature, Anhey Ghore Da Daan (2012) fetched him a National Film Award. Chauthi Koot was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 in the Un Certain Regard section, and it also bagged the National Film Award for the Best Punjabi Film in 2016.
Nagpaul’s projects over the last few years include the children’s film Gattu (2011), the Pakistani feature Zinda Bhaag (2013) and the gay-themed drama Aligarh (2015). He chooses to work selectively with filmmakers, who, in his words, “understand and value a cinematographer’s work and create the framework for the cinematographer to deliver”. Excerpts from an interview.
The camerawork in ‘Chauthi Koot’ creates an enduring mood of suspense and tension. What was Gurvinder Singh’s brief?
Gurvinder and I have not had the need to discuss much with regards to the look of Chauthi Koot. When a minimum common referential pool exists between a director and a cinematographer, this can be possible. Of course you say to each other, let’s see this film, let’s see that one; but unlike advertising, a feature film demands its own unique look. And when the real work begins during the lighting, there is a constant checking with each other, especially the first few days when you are setting the tonalities for the film, to arrive as close as is possible, to our collective imaginations.
‘Chauthi Koot’, much like ‘Anhey Ghore Da Daan’, shows a side of Punjab that’s rarely seen in Indian cinema. The same fields that signal a vibrant Punjab in Hindi films create a gloomy atmosphere in ‘Chauthi Koot’.
Unlike the populist idiom of elaborately choreographed camerawork over the mustard fields of Punjab, films like Chauthi Koot and Anhey Ghore Da Daan demand an approach consistent with their own idioms. This entails some specific things for the cinematographer who is largely then working within ‘realism’. For eg, in shooting such scenes as the coming of the storm, one has to move very spontaneously and quickly and be driven by leads from what’s happening, both in front of oneself, as well as those coming from other members of the crew. We photographed those storm shots in less than one hour!
In ‘Aligarh’, the camera stays on lead actor Manoj Bajpayee’s face as he hums an old Hindi song. In ‘Chauthi Koot’ too, you stay on the actors’ faces for longer than one does in today’s fast-paced cinema, letting their characters seep through.
The question of ‘staying on something’ is part of the larger time and related schema/s of a film. The first time this can take some concrete form is in the screenplay. A lot of screenplays do not take this as part of their task, but when they do, it greatly enhances the cinematographer’s work (as that of the other collaborators). This was the case with Chauthi Koot.
But like with almost everything else in cinema, things change at every stage of production. This is especially true when an actor interprets the character, the scene, the graph of their performance beyond the original writing and that is what Manoj Bajpayee did brilliantly in Aligarh.
Your filmography includes ‘Aligarh’, ‘Zinda Bhaag’ and the short film ‘Newborns’. Along with ‘Anhey Ghore Da Daan’ and ‘Chauthi Koot’, these films concern themselves with the marginalised and the oppressed. Do you naturally gravitate towards such films?
Human struggle is the stuff of cinema. Irrespective of genres, could there be a worthwhile cinema without that at its centre?
What are your cinematic influences? What informs your work outside of cinema?
When I truly think about it, my cinematic influences don’t lie within cinema. They come from my deep-seated childhood memories of the house I have grown up in. It was a house designed by my father, an architect, which had a brilliant play of space and light. My experience of the passage of time clearly came from how light changed in that house across the length of a day and across the various seasons in Delhi and set an internal clock within me. When projects like Chauthi Koot come along and give you the opportunity to do extensive night work with a certain rhythm to the mise-en-scene, it’s a realisation how much of one’s imagination and rhythm comes from so way back.
What are you currently working on? Are there filmmakers you haven’t worked with but would want to?
I haven’t been excited with any of the recent scripts that I have been offered. A cinematographer thrives with a producer/director who understands and values a cinematographer’s work, creates the framework for the cinematographer to deliver. Without that support, a cinematographer is totally handicapped. I am always on the lookout for such a producer/director.
Arun Fulara is a writer and the editor of Jamuura.com, a film blog on filmmaking and independent Indian cinema.