Cinematographer Ewan Mulligan is a big believer in showing the audience less. This is reflected in the latest film he’s shot, the Anubhav Sinha-directed Article 15. For a scene in which Bramhdutt Singh (Manoj Pahwa) lunges at Jatav (Kumud Mishra), drags him to the back of the jeep and begins berating him, the camera lingers behind for a bit before following them there, effectively building up dread. Another, of Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) investigating the school bus in which two girls were abducted, doesn’t fill in the gruesome details of what happened there, relying instead on tight closeups of the upholstery to unsettle viewers.
“Showing the audience less is by far the best gift you can give them. They will feel like they’re in such good hands and that they’re part of the storytelling. People get to pour their own fear and dread into the scene,” says Mulligan, over the phone from London. It’s a practice he’s picked up from years of shooting horror films and shorts.
The New York-born DoP completed his Masters in Filmmaking from London Film School. The initial plan was to be a director but something about being at the centre of the filmmakng universe unnerved him, he says. He found his calling when a friend asked him to serve as DoP on his graduation project. “It was all of the stuff I loved about directing, but none of the stuff that made me feel ill and lonely.”
His association with India came about through “pure blind luck”. Looking for someone in Edinburgh who could shoot on 35mm film, the line producer of Pankaj Kapur’s Mausam (2011) approached him to be film’s assistant cinematographer (AC). Fresh out of film school, Mulligan had no idea what an ‘AC’ was, but agreed. Working under DoP Binod Pradhan proved to be an education in itself, he says. “I learned from him the need to impose yourself on the rushes. He has such enormous control over where he’s placing the lights, the camera. I think that’s what we mean by ‘mastery’; he makes the art work for him.”
He happened to be visiting family friends in Mumbai, by “fate or good fortune” a few years later, when the line producer of Tum Bin 2 introduced him to Anubhav Sinha. The two have since made three films together – Tum Bin 2, Mulk and Article 15. He spoke about their equation, shooting a film about caste with sensitivity and how some of the most striking frames came about:
You and Anubhav have worked together on three films
It’s definitely been the most incredible working relationship of my professional life in terms of trust from a director. He’s someone who looks for people to throw ideas into the pot and I like that. I like to stamp my work with my personality and he enjoys that. We value the same things. Once we’d made one film together, we knew who each other were. We were able to really trust each other and be honest about the problems each film would throw up and solve them honestly instead of pretending that they didn’t exist. We admit that something isn’t solved yet and work towards fixing it.
I wanted these people to live in a place where there was no sunlight. I was trying to manifest this feeling of a people who always live on the edge of something, on the edge of society, on the edge of achieving something
Between Tum Bin 2 and Mulk, Anubhav became a very different filmmaker. Did you also have to change the way you approached his films?
Tum Bin 2 was the first Indian film I had shot as a DoP. But it’s also a very commercial, conventional film, now that I know Indian cinema better. Maybe he needed to work through that to get to the place where he is now. There was always a little bit of a disconnect between the man and the films he was producing, if you ask me. Now, for these last two movies, there’s no more of that. I don’t know if that comes with confidence. Maybe he switched up his team, I’m not sure. It’s mysterious. But he’s decided to be so honest about his view of the world and it’s really exciting that I get to work with him during this part of his career.
I guess I approached Mulk and Article 15 purely from the point of view of servicing the story and the characters, with almost-total disregard for the commercial aspect of what I was doing. I tried to be true to the material. If it becomes commercial, great. If it doesn’t, that’s great too because we told the truth. And we were all given permission by Anubhav to do that over these past two movies. The result is that they’re good movies.
That wide shot of the tree was a really important one because showing that people have come out to see this – there’s some element of spectacle in it. There are people in this place who are used to death. That life is cheap in some places in the world is a statement that’s important to say out loud so we can stop making it cheap there
Anubhav said you had a long debate about whether Ayushmann’s character was the equivalent of the ‘white saviour’ in Hollywood films…
Right from the beginning, I voiced this question – is the right person solving the problem here? Is the agency of the protagonist in the right hands? But having worked on the film and seen it, I believe that it is. There are some films in which you want someone from inside the system to solve the problem to show that the people who are powerless inside that system can have power. Then there are other stories, like this one, in which it takes an outsider. It takes someone who isn’t coloured by tradition or dogma to see that these social rules don’t make any sense. Not only are they wrong, they’re absurd. And I think that’s why he has such a valuable viewpoint, because he’s coming at it as an outsider. It could be that an insider is so buried under the weight of all of the pieces of society that he becomes discouraged from trying to solve the problem or arriving at a better place. I’m convinced that it was the right call, but I’m also convinced that we needed to ask ourselves that question a lot of times to make sure that we did it sensitively. To have done it without knowing that it could’ve been a problem would’ve ended up in a much less sensitive film.
Did it inform how you framed or lit Ayushmann?
This film is different to Mulk in that here, I wanted to show his subjectivity, all the time. That’s why we have very very extreme closeups. To force the viewer into his perspective. Then we cut into what he’s seeing a lot of the time. It’s a very classical edit construction but serves to show us his state of mind. I started from the perspective of: What’s this character’s state of mind here? What’s he thinking here? How much control does he have here? How powerless is he here? And I hoped to shoot him that way. It’s unusual in a mid-budget film with a star, but Ayushmann was really patient. He knew what we were trying to do. For me, the most interesting films treat people’s problems, they treat people when they are unsure of themselves. And I hope that’s what we portrayed here, that he feels very alienated by this strange social structure.
How I approached this movie was by finding a single, muted (light) source, letting it into the room and letting it be. Making it shinier or glossier would’ve done a disservice to the material
What films are you referring to when you talk about those in which people are unsure of themselves?
I presented them with a lot of tone and mood references. After I read the script, the first place I went was more or less my favourite film – Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). That’s a world in which people are so at sea, so alienated by the space around them. We weren’t as extreme, of course. I also looked at The Sacrifice (1986) for those long tracking shots through these barren landscapes. I played Anubhav a lot of Gordon Willis stuff – Klute (1971), The Godfather (1972) – to show how you can have the world around a character reflected how they’re feeling. I wanted to show their state of mind inside the frame. The most recent film I referenced was Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017). I found it enormously inspiring in how they shot closeups. It’s a character who should be powerful, who has all the trappings of power, who kills people. And yet he feels powerless. I wanted to show that wearing a police uniform doesn’t necessarily confer power on someone. It has to come from the person.
There are DoPs who I admire enormously for their realistic work. Their approach – not lighting for beauty, no backlights, no face lights, lighting the space and letting people live inside of it – is how I approached this movie. In each case, finding a single, muted source, letting it into the room and letting it be. Making it shinier or glossier would’ve done a disservice to the material.
Water became a clear metaphor in scenes where we were trying to put characters off balance. Ayushmann (Khurrana) wading through the filth to get to the shed – the water is a symbol of death and danger
Neither Mulk nor Article 15 feel like they’re shot with an outsider’s gaze. How did you familiarize yourself with small-town Indian life?
I love shooting on location. I did a bunch of work on documentaries when I was young and being out in the middle of nowhere with real people and non-actors teaches you that everyone’s a person. I don’t know if I’m consciously framing people as real people as opposed to constructed characters, I’m not sure. I hope that we look people straight in the eye. That’s a pretty basic rule. Treat every person as if they have an inner life, even if they’re a small character.
Most of Article 15 has been shot early morning or at night. Why was that important?
When I was thinking about how to portray this world, I wanted these people to live in a place where there was no sunlight. I was trying to manifest this feeling of a people who always live on the edge of something, on the edge of society, on the edge of achieving something. But they never quite get to the sunlight. It’s not their fault, they were born in the shadows. And that’s why I decided to make this insane request of the production team. I had to fight very hard to generate that sort of a schedule – to be out there in the hours before sunrise and the hours after sunset every day so we could show these people are never comfortable. I obviously don’t have any clue about what it’s like to be discriminated against in such a way but what my instinct told me was that it wouldn’t feel quite whole or centered until it’s gone. And that’s what I wanted to show, that the world never smiles on such people. Conversely, the people who profit from this kind of discrimination always live in the sunlight and they have no idea of their good fortune.
Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village. Was that by design?
Absolutely. Everyone’s hiding something in this place. Everyone. The whole project of the movie is to lift that mist so yes, 100%. It was in the screenplay right from the beginning, to have fog in these key scenes. We had a large production footprint, generating hundreds of meters of fog.
Water becomes a recurring motif – the film starts with rainwater dripping off a pipe, there are shots of characters washing their hands in the sink, a damaged sewer becomes worse over time, characters wade through mucky water…
About three days into the recce, we realised we’d been seeing all these spaces near rivers, all these fields with 12-inch-high water. It was winter, early Jan, I think. It struck all of us that water could be an amazing motif, not just of death, but a creeping illness. Standing water is very different to flowing water. It’s more dangerous, things are hidden there, bad things can breed there and if you start to examine what’s inside, you’ll be grossed out. So it became a clear metaphor in scenes where we were trying to put characters off balance. Ayushmann wading through the filth to get to the shed – the water is a symbol of death and danger.
Let’s talk about some of the most striking shots in the film, starting with the wide shot of the girls hanging. It’s grotesque but also tableau-like in its aesthetic. How did you and Anubhav decide how much to show?
We spoke a lot about what was sensitive and what was over sensitive, whether we should present the audience with the real thing, as opposed to images of what has happened or oblique references to what has happened. Even though it might have been uncomfortable, that’s how we decided to go. Inevitably, practically, you overshoot these kinds of things and in the edit you make a judgement call about how much to show. That wide shot of the tree and the crowd around it was a really important one because showing that people have come out to see this – there’s some element of spectacle in it, about it being not so awful that you can’t look at it. There are people in this place who are used to death. That life is cheap in some places in the world is a statement that’s important to say out loud so we can stop making it cheap there. These bodies hanging by themselves would’ve been tragic but that the crowd is so used to it that they can face it, is worse. It’s an awful scene but I also like the dynamic of the police officers there. There’s a lot of social and political commentary happening in that scene.
There’s the shot of the manual scavenger emerging from a drain and then re-entering it
I don’t know how this man was introduced to Anubhav but he was on set one day and they were chatting. Anubhav introduced us, he said the man was a manual scavenger in real life. It’s an unbelievable job to have. We spoke about how to include his work in the film because it’s such an amazing summary of the tough working conditions that people have to live through. We decided that we didn’t need to do anything, really. We shot it in slow motion so people could spend some time with the action. We don’t say anything about what this man is doing, just show him doing his job and the audience can come to their own conclusion as to whether this is acceptable or not.
Then there’s the shot of the men wading into the swamp, lit only by their torches
This was great fun for me. It’s the kind of shot you get to do once every 10 years. It’s a spectacular image, the light from the sky reflecting onto the water. But it’s also a metaphor for how hard solving this problem is, how they’re just searching around in the dark.
The bus has this everyday quality to it, but becomes sinister when Ayushmann is investigating it because of the camerawork
It’s a dramatically charged space, because we all know what happened there. We took a lot of wider and mid shots of him just looking around. The camera operator and second unit DoP then said that this is where we should go in really tight and show all of the textures of what he was looking at because even just the glimpse of a red tone on a seat would jolt the viewer into starting to imagine the experience of the girls there. We don’t really show anything gruesome, just let the audience imagine it.