Pankaj Kumar made a stunning feature film debut with Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus in 2013, but it is his collaboration with Vishal Bhardwaj that has made him one of the most talked-about cinematographers in contemporary Hindi cinema. Kumar has shot Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) and the upcoming Rangoon, apart from working on Bhardwaj’s co-production Talvar (2015), directed by Meghna Gulzar. The period romance Rangoon, which will be released on February 24, boasts of spectacular visuals and a spectacle worthy of its subject. Set during World War II, Rangoon is the story of movie star Julia (Kangana Ranaut), who is torn between a film producer (Saif Ali Khan) and a soldier (Shahid Kapoor). Julia is loosely modelled on Fearless Nadia, the stunt star from the 1930s and ’40s.
While Ship of Theseus, a metaphysical triptych on disability, death and rejuvenation, and the under-production Tumbaad are both independent features, Rangoon transports the 41-year-old Film and Television Institute of India graduate into a whole new zone – the Bollywood dream factory. The experience has been challenging but worthwhile, Kumar told Scroll.in.
What was the experience of shooting ‘Rangoon’?
I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a very tough film to shoot. From shooting at difficult locations in Arunachal Pradesh to war sequences and fight scenes, all of it was challenging and exciting.
There was eight months of pre-production work before we began filming. It was hectic because I had shot Haider with director Vishal Bhardwaj and I almost immediately returned for Rangoon. I did get a small break in between, but then I shot Talvar during that time and also Tumbad, which I had been shooting for even before Haider.
Rangoon was written for a cinematic experience, so everything had to be grand. We chose to shoot in Arunachal Pradesh because it was still untouched and unseen and that is why it looks so beautiful on-screen. Vishal had said to me that everything must look majestic, so I went in with the idea that we are creating an epic spectacle. The experience was hugely adventurous.
Many films in the 1930s were also stunt and fantasy spectacles.
Yes, you can say Rangoon is an all singing, all dancing, all fighting spectacle. Rangoon does allude to that period too, when Alam Ara was made. Things used to be flashy in those films. We have a lot of kitsch elements in Rangoon. There is a lot of play with colours, textures and lighting. We looked at a lot of classic Hollywood films of that era and also Guru Dutt films for reference.
We also watched films starring Fearless Nadia. These films were mainly reference points for the production design and costumes. In terms of the look of Rangoon, we had to create a certain colour palette and we decided to go with very bold colours. We made sure we did not desaturate or retain a milky black tint, which is a very contemporary look. So basically, if you take old black and white films and convert them into colour, the contrast of images will be really high.
Did you also look at ‘Casablanca’, the Hollywood film that is said to have inspired ‘Rangoon’?
Yes, I think Vishal did. I am yet to see Casablanca. I think there are some stylistic references to the film. I think Saif Ali Khan’s look is taken a bit from Casablanca.
What about Kangana Ranaut and Shahid Kapoor’s characters?
For their characters, we looked at their geographical placement. Shahid is from a background of war and violence, so in his scenes, the colour tone and the landscape are raw and gritty. Kangana comes from a glamourous time in Bombay cinema, so her portions are lit up and colourful.
How did you get signed on by Vishal Bhardwaj for ‘Haider’ and ‘Rangoon’?
He liked Ship of Theseus and he also saw a bit of Tumbad. I think Tumbad was the main reason why he hired me for Haider. Tumbad has a desaturated and gritty palette that attracted him, and which you can also see in Haider.
When did you first work with Anand Gandhi?
It was for a short film, Continuum. I shot a part of it. I met Anand Gandhi when he was preparing for it. It was in 2006, such a long time ago, I don’t even remember most of it.
I had finished my photography diploma from FTII. I came to Mumbai in 2004 and for a couple of years, I was making corporate films, music videos and television commercials. That’s when I met Anand and we connected. We made the short film and then we kept talking and meeting and at one point, he practically lodged himself in my house. Among the many ideas we discussed, the script of Ship of Theseus was born.
How do you approach cinematography?
When we made Ship of Theseus, we had a small budget, but we tried to make it look as cinematic as possible by shooting on real locations with small cameras. Cinematography cannot just be pretty pictures. The visuals have to psychologically convey the mindset of the characters inhabiting that space. That’s something I am always trying to capture.
All that I know about cinematography has come from studying it. I did not have a mentor. I did not work in the field. It came from literature, painting, cinema and being observant.
Was it easy to switch from an independent film to a commercial set-up?
I had more creative control with Ship of Theseus. With Haider and Rangoon, the set-up was so big that obviously some of that freedom was not there to shoot whatever I wanted to or make last-minute additions. The constraint is natural because a lot more people are involved, and everything has to be taken into consideration. I learnt to adapt.
Talvar was a very good experience, the writing was very strong. The script was very much on paper, and so we were shooting everything that was written. We did not have the flexibility to change what was in the script as it is a fact-based film.
Strangely, although I was apprehensive of working in a commercial set-up with stars, working with Vishal was a pleasure because he made the process very simple by allowing me to pitch my ideas.
Between Anand Gandhi and Vishal Bhardwaj, who was better on the film set?
With Anand Gandhi, I fought a lot. I never had any arguments with Vishal Bhardwaj.
Is that why ‘Ship of Theseus’ is as much your cinematic vision as it is Gandhi’s?
Yes, I would say so too. I was way more creatively involved in that film and Tumbad than in other films. I have taken part in the writing process of Ship of Theseus and Tumbad, and it helps to understand the characters better and think deeply about them and not just about the frames.
Why is ‘Tumbad’ taking so long to be completed?
It requires a lot of post-production special effects work, and that takes time.
What are you working on now?
I am still waiting for a good script. I would love to do a comedy – fun but not frivolous. I would love to direct and am working on a script that might materialise this year.