In this series, Film Companion picks movies of the past decade with great first and last shots and asks directors to break down how they came up with them, shot them and what their significance is.
For a film that revolves around the machinations and manipulations of people by people, neither the first nor last shots of Sujoy Ghosh‘s Kahaani feature human beings. In the 2012 thriller, a woman (Vidya Balan) searches for her missing husband in Kolkata, two years after a terrorist attack on the city’s Metro. If the first scene effectively builds dread and tension leading up to the attack, the last represents catharsis at the case finally being solved. Ghosh talks about the importance of these shots:
The film opens with the close-up of a white lab rat exposed to a toxin. The camera then pans to a row of rats, all of whom have presumably been exposed to it too and are now dead. When the next scene depicts the Kolkata Metro packed with people in tight quarters, like the rats in their glass cages, there’s a creeping realization that they will meet the same fate.
“Shots are usually a combination of what you have written down versus what you get during the shoot – how the film shapes up organically. The opening – “a close-up of a white mouse wiggling in front of the camera” – was scripted. There wasn’t much thought to it, I just thought it would be an interesting image to have. I could’ve started with the masked face, but I wrote the rat in first. It also looked good on the edit table so we kept it like that. The first shot of the rat – where it looks into the camera and does kitik kitik, that’s a live rat. We didn’t have the luxury of shooting at a studio so everything was shot on location in Kolkata.
It was important to show what the terrorist was capable of so that when the actual event happens, you have a reference point. If I’d started with the Metro sequence, you’d have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what is happening, why this is happening and how it’s come to this. It also introduces an element of justice, the film starts with the Metro attack and ends two years later with the families finally getting closure.”
By the end of the film, when Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) brings down the terrorist that killed her husband in the Metro attack, it’s the last day of Kolkata’s Durga Puja. Like Durga, Vidya too has become an avenging figure and now, like Durga, she must now leave the city. The camera doesn’t linger on her triumphant victory, she weeps, looks exhausted and outside, a Durga statue is submerged.
“It was very important that we get that shot. It took us ages to shoot, especially lighting up the Ganges in the middle of the night, which was a huge task. We just had one camera and so our DoP had to keep wading into the water with it. The shot had to look very natural – the face had to be slowly submerged in a certain way, the garlands had to float around in a certain way and show up exactly where the face had gone under. It was very designed but had to look natural – that’s a weird and specific demand. We had to keep doing it till it happened. We didn’t have many idols to use for that shot and so couldn’t do a lot of retakes also. Luckily, the Gods were kind and so it happened.”
More than the first shot of the film, it’s the last shot that’s important. Because that’s what stays back with you. It’s the culmination of the whole story and all the emotions in the film, and it’s something that may lead to a discussion. You want your film to walk away with the audience, you don’t want it to stay behind on the screen. So we put a lot of thought into it.
In the script, this was always the last shot. It’s the motif of the film. When you’re part of a Durga Puja in Kolkata and spend an intense week and the weeks before that putting it together, there’s a whole gamut of emotion that you experience. At the end of it all, there’s a goodbye and it’s heart-wrenching. I’ve been part of that every year and I wanted the audience to experience it too. What the last shot signifies is the end – the Puja is over and it’s also the end of Vidya’s journey. All this while, she’s been on this pretend trip. She was pretending to be pregnant, pretending her husband is still alive. When she finally finishes her task, it’s the moment of truth for her. The role she was playing has to end. Like Ma, Vidya has come and now Ma has to go back. She has to face that and that’s why she breaks down, because she wants it to linger.”