camera chronicles

Shooting ‘Sacred Games’: The show’s three cinematographers reveal how they created a united vision

The Netflix series, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, has been lensed by Swapnil Sonawane, Sylvester Fonseca and Aseem Bajaj.

Netflix’s first original Indian series Sacred Games is a gargantuan team effort, tying together the efforts of two directors (Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap), three writers (Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath), an army of actors (including Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Jitendra Joshi, Neeraj Kabi, Kubbra Sait and Luke Kenny) and production designers Shazia Iqbal and Vintee Bansal. The eight-episode first season, adapted from the Vikram Chandra novel of the same name, was streamed on Netflix on July 6. While Motwane handled the track of Mumbai police inspector Sartaj Singh (Khan), which takes place in the present, Kashyap directed the sequences featuring gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Siddiqui), who dies just before warning Sartaj that Mumbai is in danger of being destroyed.

Motwane’s sections, which constitute the bulk of the series, were shot by Swapnil S Sonwane, who has previously shot Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and Newton (2017). Kashyap’s portions were lensed by Aseem Bajaj (Chameli, Shabd, Son of Sardaar) and Sylvester Fonseca (Island City, Kashyap’s contribution to Lust Stories, the upcoming Manmarziyan). The cinematographers told Scroll.in about how they pooled their different styles to create one of the most visually arresting Indian television productions in recent times.

Swapnil Sonawane: ‘We shot the episodes like a feature’

I was initially approached to shoot Anurag Kashyap’s portions. Later, it was decided that I would shoot with Vikramaditya. I had read the episodes, but a lot of changes happened on the shoot. A lot of it came from the director. Vikram is very thorough with his homework, and there were times when he was the only one who knew what was going on across the eight episodes.

We didn’t shoot the episodes like a web series, but like a feature. We never thought of how it would look on TV. I am among the intended audience for Netflix. I don’t know what’s happening on Indian television, but I am a Netflix person, so even if I had been told that Sacred Games was going to be shown only in India, nothing could have changed.

The bits featuring Saif as Sartaj and Nawazuddin as Ganesh Gaitonde were shot in completely different schedules. All the Saif bits are in the present, including when he meets Nawaz in the beginning. I have shot all the scenes with Saif, Radhika Apte, Jitendra Joshi, Neeraj Kabir, Girish Kulkarni and Luke Kenny.

The one thing I insisted on knowing is when we would be cutting from Sartaj’s world and moving to Gaitonde’s world. The first time we see Ganesh Gaitonde as a kid, it’s a top-angle shot. This was written in the script. So we made sure that we had a top-angle shot of Gaitonde in his bunker so that we could cut from one world to another.

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Sacred Games.

We had to find a way of distinguishing between the two worlds because they are decades apart. The usual way is to use old anamorphic lenses for the old parts. I thought of turning it on its head and shooting Sartaj’s story with these old, worn-out but very warm lenses that reflect how nothing is working out in Sartaj’s life.

Sartaj’s world is as gritty and real as possible. There are many close-ups, and they are all emotional.

In terms of the colour palette, there are a lot of yellows in Gaitonde’s scenes because of the guru that he has begun to follow. His den is not so modern, it has a jukebox and a chandelier.

Swapnil S Sonawane.
Swapnil S Sonawane.

The camera movements very strictly followed the emotions. So we never used a shot just because it looked good or cool, but because it was what was needed for the story. The only time we went berserk is after Katekar [Jitendra Joshi] has died and Sartaj is chasing the boy who killed him. Vikram’s technical knowledge is gorgeous, and it’s great to work with a director whose technique is so good.

Sylvester Fonseca: ‘A lot happened instinctively’

Aseem Bajaj started off shooting the Ganesh Gaitonde bits, but then he had to move on to another project.

I have never done a project in which another director of photography is involved. Swapnil and I had a conversation. He told me that he was using the script as a reference, and that we should do our best as per the script.

A lot of the shooting in my portions happened instinctively. Anurag doesn’t work with too much pre-production, but he has a unique way of working and always has very clear ideas. There were some things we did instinctively, like the choice of lenses and the use of certain colours and tones in the art direction.

We used spherical lenses to demarcate our world. Our bits had a sense of mystery built into them, but they also had to be realistic since Ganesh is narrating his story. We thought that we should treat Gaitonde’s bits in an ultra-real style since audiences should feel that they are watching this unfold right in front of them. There weren’t too many scenes for subjectivity, expect in some like the one in which the leopard appears before Gaitonde.

I did know that the series would mostly be watched on smaller screens, especially smartphones. I kept that in mind in terms of the compositions, since on smaller screens, even an interestingly done wide shot will lose its detail. So I opted for interesting close-ups, and made sure that the detail wasn’t lost even in the wide shot.

Nawazuddin Sidduqui in Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Nawazuddin Sidduqui in Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

For Gaitonde’s portions, we used a lot of reds, oranges, yellows, and the amber of the night. At the end of eight episodes, the lives of the characters start to intersect, and you can even draw parallels in terms of the camerawork.

One of the most interesting sequences was the one when Gaitonde is in prison and later in solitary confinement. The contributions of the production designer, Shazia Iqbal, were immense, and helped in creating the imagery. She created a prison from scratch. It was a very dark sequence. We wanted to show a world that is oppressive and without hope, in which Gaitonde is trapped. We created the effects through the art direction and the lighting.

Also interesting was the club scene where Cuckoo [Kubbra Sait] is dancing. I had never done anything like this before. It had to be sensual but classy, not sleazy.

Sylvester Fonseca.
Sylvester Fonseca.

Aseem Bajaj: ‘I was over the moon’

I have known Anurag for as many years as I have been in Bombay, but we never got a chance to work together. The first thing he told me was, should we do it together? Teri jaan lene waala hoon (I will squeeze the life out of you). I said, jaan de doonga bhaiya (I will give my life willingly). Anurag didn’t take my life but instead sparked the life in me. I had a great deal of fun after a very long time.

Anurag told me to go through the eight scripts. I said I had read the book, but he said, I still want you to read the scripts. I started at around six in the evening, and I remember getting up only at around 8.30am. This has never happened to me.

And then there is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is a brilliant actor who doesn’t need my vote. Netflix’s first Indian original series, a brilliant novel, a brilliant adaptation, working with Anurag and Nawaz – I was over the moon.

I shot for 27 days with Anurag, after which I had to leave from Delhi. There were breaks in the schedule, and I could not accommodate more dates since I was producing my own movie, Rajma Chawal.

I have watched all the eight episodes. The other two cinematographers have done such beautiful work. There are bits of us in all the episodes, which is why all three of us have been credited. Our work doesn’t show any seniority or juniorness, and that is because of the two directors, who made sure that their respective portions gelled together.

I don’t care about the lighting as much as I do about the actors. The face is the biggest landscape for me. Among the challenging scenes were the childhood bits, featuring Sunny Pawar as the young Gaitonde, and the sequence outside the restaurant where Gaitonde is being hit. Nawaz’s eyes were always absolutely still but also full of life. Everything was like a dream for him, with death being the only reality.

Sunny Pawar in Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Sunny Pawar in Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

The sequence where people get slaughtered at Gaitonde’s house and where Bunty loses his legs was shot at three different locations. Our production designer, Shazia Iqbal, gave us the tools to match the sequences. Anurag wanted long takes on a Steadicam and hand-held shots moving from one room to the other. I always want more light, but Anurag said, make it darker, it is too brightly lit.

The camera keeps moving in Gaitonde’s scenes. Anurag said, let’s keep moving, let’s keep the energy up.

We used a lot of reds in Gaitonde’s scenes – it’s a world full of blood, and there is no shying away from it. It is beautiful and scary at the same time. There was also a lot of tungsten yellow, since we were talking about a time when such light was used a lot.

Aseem Bajaj.
Aseem Bajaj.

Anurag improvises a lot, and I love it. Vikram was a bit worried at the first meeting. Anurag said, I don’t worry about storyboarding, and I said I was fine with that. Vikram said, don’t encourage him.

We didn’t have the shots planned in advance, but we always found them. Cinema is a collaborative process. It is not one person’s world.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath).

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