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 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.

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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