In this series, Film Companion picks movies and shows of the past decade with memorable long take sequences. We get directors to take us through the process of creating these scenes.
Raabta from Sriram Raghavan's Agent Vinod is the rare long take sequence which sees an explosive action scene set against a soft, melodious number. After the location of spies Vinod (Saif) and Irum (Kareena) is uncovered, bad guys enter a hotel lobby in search of them. The two discreetly make their way across the lobby, taking down their attackers one at a time, before things inevitably break into an all-out gun fight across the hotel.
Director Sriram Raghavan spoke to me about conceptualising the 4-minute sequence and the challenges of choreographing action to music.
This sequence wasn't in the script. While Pritam was doing the music, he composed this beautiful song (Raabta), but we didn't have any place to use it. And this was not the kind of a film where the lead pair can just burst into song. At the same time in the movie, there was one long action sequence which was followed by a scene and then another action sequence, and I was worried viewers would get fatigued with so much action so soon. So I combined both these problems and figured out a solution to both, which was this long take sequence.
There's a Vijay Anand movie called Blackmail which has a song called Mile Do Badan in which the lead pair almost consummate their relationship during an action sequence. That scene has always stuck with me and I thought this could be in the same zone. That was the broad idea. I sounded it off to my cameraman and my team and they all loved it.
The other aspect was that Agent Vinod took a long time to make. We had shot for almost 100 days, so there was a general fatigue in the unit and this was one of the last sequences we were doing. Coincidentally, at that time I'd read an interview with John Woo about making Hard Boiled, where he said that his entire unit was in bad shape and had lost the motivation to shoot. So he devised a single shot action sequence and suddenly the whole team came together because it requires everyone. There are too many technicians involved, it has to be synchronous and there is a lot of exciting tension on set. A similar thing happened to me. When I told my team about this sequence, everybody got so charged and came together.
We had the location for 3 days, out of which 2 days were rehearsal. We rehearsed it quite extensively. On the first day we were just brainstorming how to choreograph the sequence and how to synchronise everything, and the second day was just practising it.
Planning and choreographing the whole take is the toughest part. You have to figure out what has to happen in the foreground and the background and where the camera will be going, whilst also ensuring you can't see the whole unit. You have to make sure that everyone is aligned. It's almost like a dance.
The only thing we were worried about was someone getting hurt because there were gunshots and explosions. Our hearts were in our mouths, but luckily that didn't happen and we had fun. Plus, we had to choreograph the whole thing to the song. We actually played the music in the background but we did not have the lyrics by then. We just played this instrumental piano piece. So we had this blind piano player who was there during the shoot who never reacted to the mayhem around her.
When we finally shot it we only did one take. Everyone, including both my actors Saif and Kareena, really enjoyed it. My first AD was precisely instructing each department and when we saw it, we felt it wasn't bad. We discussed whether we should do one more but that would mean 2 hours of set-up. And I knew that if we do one more we would eventually end up doing five more so I said let's live with this one because it was a good take.