TALKING FILMS

Audiences will respect Sanjay Dutt after watching ‘Sanju’, says cinematographer Ravi Varman

Varman goes behind the scenes of Rajkumar Hirani’s hotly anticipated biopic.

Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju takes on the ambitious task of charting the tumultuous life of actor Sanjay Dutt. The movie traces Dutt’s many love affairs, his drug addiction and his incarceration for the possession of illegal arms in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. The chatter generated by the trailer for the June 29 release has centred on Ranbir Kapoor, who plays Dutt. The cast includes Paresh Rawal as Sunil Dutt, Manisha Koirala as Nargis, Dia Mirza as Maanyata Dutt, Vicky Kaushal as the actor’s friend and Sonam Kapoor as a former lover,

The movie marks the first collaboration between Hirani and Ravi Varman, the cinematographer of Barfi! (2012), Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Tamasha (2015), Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) and Jagga Jasoos (2017). Varman told Scroll.in about his approach to designing the visuals for Sanju.

Rajkumar Hirani is among the best storytellers in India today. His films will almost always have the best actors and a strong, clear narrative arc. What I’ve brought to Sanju therefore, is an aesthetic, a look, that is different from his other films.

I have always followed Sanjay Dutt’s work and watched several of his films – Sadak and Vaastav: The Reality especially come to mind. But Sanju isn’t about Dutt’s films. This is the story of his life, a story that will inspire people who watch it. A lot of it is thrilling, a lot of it is adventurous and a whole lot of it is simply unusual. The only thing that is constant in this tale is this sense of inconsistency. I wanted my cinematography to reflect that tension.

A sense of inconsistency is created when you show something your audience isn’t expecting to see. And that can be beautiful too. For instance, there is a sense of beauty in sudden showers, in rain that unpredictably descends. That’s what I’m talking about and that’s what I’ve tried in principle in Sanju.

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Sanju (2018).

Sanju doesn’t have too many wide shots because a lot of the film is conversational in nature. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t visually strong and loaded with subtle meaning in each frame. It’ll all become clear when you see the film.

Sanju was shot within 70 days. I stuck to the working style I adopt in all my projects. I don’t believe in planning beforehand. Whenever I get on board a project, I ask the director for the script first. I learn the script by-heart like a school student would. Since I don’t understand Hindi, I take the help of a Hindi-Tamil teacher and translate the script to ensure that I grasp the meaning of each word in it.

Then I visit the location and examine the source light there. I think of the scene and the kind of lighting that might work for it. I look at the actors, their acting styles and think about where the light should be placed such that it does justice to the expressions on their faces. I still never have a clear plan. What the final frame should be, I decide only at the last minute. In fact, I usually start with what I call the worst frame. I’m generally thinking, okay this is an ugly frame, so let’s keep the camera there. I then start tuning the lighting.

The image that comes to mind when you think of Dutt is that of a body builder. Ranbir Kapoor, on the other hand, is commonly perceived as a chocolate boy. The task in front of the team was to make the audience believe Kapoor as Dutt. He built up his body. The make-up team has done a phenomenal job too, but camera angles have also played a huge role in this. There’s a certain science and mathematics to it. I’ve used a variety of lensing formats. Even a built-up body can be shown as small and puny. It is all about the right angles.

I’ve drawn from my own observations of Dutt in real life. I also wanted to ensure that my lighting enhances the trademark sunken eyes, the bags under them and that drooped expression of Dutt that Kapoor brilliantly nails.

Sanju (2018).
Sanju (2018).

I’ve also tried to use multiple strategies to visually create a sense of mystery, fear and impending danger that runs through the film. Low-angle shots of Kapoor when he is inside the jail, a top-angle shot of him when he is New York with the entire city behind him, are both examples.

I always love to play with light. If you look at the trailer, there’s a scene in which Sonam Kapoor’s character confronts Dutt asking him where her mangalsutra is. It is a scene full of high drama and flaring emotions and tempers. I noticed the two long bars of light next to the mirror in the bathroom. I decided that we didn’t need any other source of light. If you watch how that scene is shot, you’ll see that the light flares and blares in the background reflecting the intensity of the confrontation in the room.

Then there’s another scene, again in the trailer, when Dutt descends from a plane to see a host of policemen waiting to arrest him. I deliberately kept their faces in the dark because it adds to the mystery. In that scene, Dutt has no idea what is in store for him. I kept the light behind the policemen and ensured that their long shadows fall in front menacingly.

There’s also something overwhelming and blinding about lights on a runway. I’ve always wanted to use that in a film.

The audience, I’m sure, will respect Sanjay Dutt after watching this film. Hirani beautifully shows how circumstances play havoc in a person’s life, how they shove someone into a corner.

For the young audience, especially the under-30 audience, this film will be quite interesting. That audience does not know Sanjay Dutt at all. For them, this experience of watching a mysterious figure’s life will be unpredictable and exciting.

(As told to Archana Nathan.)

Ravi Varman.
Ravi Varman.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.