Avik Mukhopadhyay fell in love with cinema while growing up in Durgapur in West Bengal. His father was a member of a film society, and Mukhopadhyay had watched his share of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut by the time he was 10 years old. Being friends with the son of the local theatre projectionist also helped. On many afternoons, Mukhopadhyay and his friend collected rejected reels of film and tried to project them on a wall with a makeshift projector.

Mukhopadhyay studied cinematography at the Film and Television Institute of India, and has stacked up an impressive list of credits since he made his debut with Rituparno Ghosh’s Asukh (1999). The three-time National Film Award winner has worked on over 25 Bengali films – a majority of them directed by Ghosh – and Hindi productions such as Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Pink (2016) and the recently released October. Directed by Shoojit Sircar, October traces the relationship between Varun Dhawan’s character, Dan, and his colleague Shiuli (Banita Sandhu), who has become comatose after an accident.

A chunk of Mukhopadhyay’s work involves indoor shooting. In film after film, Mukhopadhyay has devised new ways to light and shoot scenes within confined spaces, something he has done to great effect in October too. The 51-year-old cinematographer spoke to Scroll.in about the challenges of shooting October, working with Rituparno Ghosh and trying to break narrative conventions and expectations.

On shooting Shoojit Sircar’s ‘October’

Most of Shoojit’s films are based in Delhi. This time, he wanted to show a poetic Delhi. He wanted to avoid the typical Chandni Chowk and Daryaganj visuals. Between image A and image B, there should be a relationship beyond the physical, and the visuals should communicate feelings rather than just inform the audience.

October has a different kind of pace, even unlike the other so-called non-Bollywood films, which tend to border on melodrama. The sequences are small and don’t have a definite beginning or end. They are like moments of life captured.

Play
October.

We restricted ourselves so as to not shoot traditionally by taking shots followed by reaction shots, over-the-shoulder shots, and so on. For example, in the scene where Shiuli’s mother asks Dan to leave Delhi and build a future for himself, there is an obvious expectation that we will cut to the door and show Varun [Dhawan]. We purposely did not want to show Varun’s reaction and instead cut to a wide expansive shot of the bus over a stream. The following shots carry Varun’s emotions.

It was a challenge to keep the indoor sequences interesting with so many things happening around Shiuli’s bed for months. We played with certain key elements like light, lensing, point-of-view and the mise-en-scene. For instance, till Shiuli does not move her eyes, we only use artificial light around her. Right after, she shows some physical response, we introduce sunlight into the room like a ray of hope.

Then there was the challenge of differentiating between day and night in a hospital room. It was important to suggest the passing of time inside the hospital because Varun would always be there, and if we do not connect time with his character, his tenacity does not come across.

October was shot between October and the first week of November. We had to get the shots of the shiuli [night jasmine] flowers, but then pollution became a problem. But we were a little safe because we were shooting either inside the hotel or the hospital. Even then, we got throat problems. The hospital would provide us masks and free checkups when we got ill.

We shot October mostly with one camera. Sometimes, three were used in the hospital lobby, so as to not have continuity jerks.

In Pink, we used up to seven cameras for the courtroom scenes. In Indian cinema, courtroom scenes are melodramatic and work in a shot-counter shot mechanism. We broke that. In Pink, we rehearsed the entire day with the actors with multiple cameras in the courtroom and edited on the spot from a live feed. We shot one scene each day for a total of eight days.

Play
Pink (2016).

Early days, and the mad experiment ‘Patalghar’

After graduating from FTII in 1992, I returned to Kolkata and began working in advertisements. I have shot over 1,500 commercials till date. While working on an advertisement for Boroline, I met Rituparno Ghosh, who approached me to shoot his next feature. That became Asukh, my first film and my first of 19 collaborations with Rituparno.

In Mumbai, you can spend money and find all the lighting and equipment you want, but not in Kolkata. That way, the Kolkata film industry is a great place to begin your career, because it pushes you to innovate and find new ways to shoot when there is no infrastructural support. Patalghar is a great example of that. It was a science-fiction fantasy film for which a lot of money was needed but we [director Abhijit Chaudhuri, producer Arjun Gourisaria] gathered money on our own and funded the production.

Patalghar (2003). Image credit: Black Magic Motion Pictures.
Patalghar (2003). Image credit: Black Magic Motion Pictures.

So, for example, for the villainous Madam’s lair, we used perforated tin sheets collected from scrapyards. We had no lighting source inside the lair, but we poured light through the holes on the tin sheets from outside and played with the shadows. Then, we designed the alien’s spaceship on our own with material collected from metal and electronic scrapyards from all over Kolkata. It was like an art installation in the end.

Patalghar came at a time when there was no visually interesting work being done in Bengali cinema. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen was a reference point on the film. Whatever we had learned till then but could not find a place to apply it to, we put in Patalghar. We had nothing to lose and we did not care if no one watched it. Patalghar was an interesting out-of-the-box work that did not get its due at the time. But today, almost everyone I know in Mumbai knows that film.

Hello, Bollywood

My first Bollywood project was Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli. It is also a significant film in my career for other reasons. We shot in real places instead of creating a small town in Film City in Mumbai. We shot in real trains, real streets, real bars, real gullies with all the actors. [Producer] Aditya Chopra had told us that we couldn’t shoot in Kanpur with Amitabh Bachchan, but we were adamant. Finally, we shot with Abhishek [Bachchan], Amitabh and Rani [Mukerji] at Kanpur station, and it was madness. Fifty thousand people had gathered, the Rajdhani Express was stopped, and no trains could come. That madness seeped into the film. Bunty aur Babli had that typical Indian kitsch, but the realness gave it an edge.

Play
Bunty aur Babli (2005).

I returned to Bollywood with Kill Dil (2014), which Shaad said that he wanted to shoot like an urban Western. Sometimes, I don’t choose films reading their scripts. I work on projects because it involves friends and it is just fun. Rituparno, Shoojit, Shaad, Anik [Dutta] are all friends. The pre-production discussions for October with Shoojit were not discussions as much as they were addas.

Working with Rituparno Ghosh

Most of Rituparno’s films were shot indoors because his primary quality was his interiority. He was a very interior person. He hardly went out. The way relationships unfolded inside the four walls of a house was more interesting to him than how they appeared outside in public. A lot of great directors, like Yasujiro Ozu in his post-war period and Ingmar Bergman in his colour period, shot their films in interior spaces.

Among the films I worked on with Rituparno, Chokher Bali (2003) is particularly significant because it showed what was possible in Bengali cinema at the time, given the budget constraints. There was an interesting use of the colour red in the film. Red symbolised not just blood or sindoor but also rebellion. And the film was set around the time of the October revolution of 1917. The colour and context of red were starting to change. Red slowly became a symbol of rebellion for the widow [played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan].

Chokher Bali (2003). Image credit: SVF.
Chokher Bali (2003). Image credit: SVF.

Shooting in black and white teaches you the basics of photography – how to handle pure light, pure contrast, pure blacks. The first and last time I worked in black-and-white was for Rituparno’s Dosar. We shot it on black and white stock, and our production design was done keeping that in mind. Rituparno wanted to make Dosar in black and white because he said that it was an everyday story of a middle-class life and he wanted to captures its black-and-white reality.

Rituparno was the last filmmaker from Kolkata who had a consistent vision and style that he repeatedly explored and put forward in his films. He created a world of his own through which he investigated a certain set of issues. The rest were and are making films for the sake of it, dealing with whatever is in fashion.

Avik Mukhopadhyay.
Avik Mukhopadhyay.

Right now, I am working on a stop-motion animation film based on Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novel Lubdhak [The Dog Star]. I am the director, animator and cinematographer. It is 15% complete. I have been working on it for the past two-three years.

Stop motion is a fantastic medium, but it involves tedious work. You have to move your clay figures, fix lighting, and shoot frame by frame. What you shoot for a day amounts to three seconds in the final film. The India Foundation for the Arts gave us a grant to experiment, and so far, we have only completed the part based on the funds we had. A lot of work is left.

Lubdhak. Image credit: The India Foundation for the Arts.
Lubdhak. Image credit: The India Foundation for the Arts.

(As told to Devarsi Ghosh.)