Gehraiyaan was a difficult film to visually design because we were trying to be on that fine line of observation and subjectivity, always trying to understand what the characters are thinking beyond the spoken.
I’ll sub divide the approach in a few key pointers that set the tone for how me and Shakun Batra together saw the film visually. Also, in terms of progression of mood (tonally, lighting wise, lensing wise and other visual grammar tools) we divided the film into sequences as the film progresses.
More on the pointers and sequences below.
Camera Movement and Feel
We both felt this film needed to feel as if it’s captured and not shot. A verite approach but I wanted it to have an undercurrent of poetic longing. It had to make us think and observe, and sometimes also feel what the characters are feeling/thinking. I always admired Asghar Farhadi and his style of staging and capturing. It also fit right with what Shakun had done before in his film Kapoor & Sons. We felt visually, though, we had to push the grammar in a darker, grey zone as the film progresses.
I’m a big fan of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, how he manages to create a sense of foreboding longing. An emotion that’s not loud, but very deep and he is able to capture this visually. Not always by staging extremely up close with a character, sometimes by creating visual poetry in frame, compositionally.
This film, for me, visually, was a crossover between both these filmmakers’ visual styles. It fit the film: the realistic accidental capturing of Farhadi with the poetry of Nuri.
References are only always a way to converse and arrive at the right feeling of what could be right for the film. It’s also about being on set and the director and cinematographer sensing every shot of a scene as we shoot. Me and Shakun had our favourite way of conversing. The question always was: Are we feeling/seeing it from here?
FOR LIGHTING, LENSING, MOOD and TONE we broke the film into the following SEQUENCES
(thematically). A lot of these sequential breakdown Shakun already had in mind; it was my job to interpret and put his vision to light.
SEQUENCE 1 : World Building and establishing Attraction
Visually, we wanted to begin the film on a slightly real yet brighter way. Establishing characters, not being over dramatic about lensing and angles. The camera is setting a more welcoming mood.
We discussed Normal People as a great reference spatially and visually for the scenes where Alisha, Zain, Tia and Karan get together and go to the beach house. More earthy tones, the camera is flowing with the actors and capturing as is with a sense of warmth, slowly building a sense of attraction between Zain and Alisha.
It was also about capturing the gaze. Building a sense of attraction as the scenes are progressing.
Visually it had to be happenstance and not a heavy emphasis, this is where accurate blocking helps build it naturally.
SEQUENCE 2 : Contemplation and Leap
This was all about progressing from establishing attraction to now going inside Zain and Alisha’ minds. The attraction heightens and it’s all about thinking whether to decide, whether to take that leap of faith.
We did something we called the ‘thinking pass’.
Again, Normal People did it very well by sometimes doing close ups that were subjective in nature, framed at particular angles. We wanted to find the right lens for our film. We did that on a 75mm, maybe slightly top-ish and in a way unconventional, to create a feeling as if we are reading their minds, which was pivotal to now know what would happen next.
The use of a tighter lens up close with characters created not just a subjective intimate feeling when they emote but it was a visual cue to start reading their decisions, what they are thinking and feeling.
As Zain and Alisha start feeling the attraction and more so the need to take the next step, this is when this kicked in visually. Also visually, the tone starts becoming a bit moodier, more focused lensing trying to drive your attention to both of them feeling so.
SEQUENCE 3 : Reality sinks in. Anxiety for a better tomorrow. Making peace with old self.
As Alisha and Zain start the affair, it becomes clear to Alisha that she has to move on from her past.
Visually the film progresses now to more grey. We wanted to hence bring in more mood, tonally and also with use of light. The compositions visually had a lot more of short sighting.
Staging actors in corners, off framing to visually translate the dilemma the characters are feeling. We really loved how Euphoria created this feeling. A subjective mood even if it’s not lensed close to the actors. The use of light and compositions to sometimes create emptiness.
SEQUENCE 4 : Shifting of the needle. Characters breaking free of the past. And working on the future. Moving towards stability and a New World.
This sequence in the film is all about the affair. Alisha senses that she is ‘in love’ with Zain. Attraction is at its peak. Visually one needed to feel that intimacy. We needed to capture the tenderness, the free flowing nature of their relationship. The staging, lighting and shot taking all moved towards that sense of comfort, love and an intimate portrayal of Alisha and Zain together. This phase had two songs in the film as it captured their relationship.
These sequences were shot with a very organic approach of capturing moments. Shakun and I wanted to have an absolutely empty set, and the focus was on capturing the tenderness, raw sense of attraction, and a camera that felt like its sharing a breath with them.
Staging and blocking was an integral part of getting this right. Visually it was about sensing both their presence every time we composed. Visually we wanted to capture the progression of their togetherness. Thus the first song montage has a more organic captured shot taking. Whereas the second song has more choreographed moves, longer shots and a slightly accentuated designed aesthetic.
SEQUENCE 5 : Tides turning. Manipulation. Lies. Deceit.
This part of the film is more or less what the second half of the film, as Alisha understands how much she is being manipulated. As we start understanding the grey nature of the relationships and we observe Zain behaving to his personal material advantages, visually the film takes a turn. The warmth disappears, the film becomes colder tonally. Overall the imagery gets moodier. It reflected the murky grey world of characters as is.
Visually a lot more motifs were explored. We called them ‘texture’ shots. Shots that relay the emotional brooding, that show the characters in their own space, vulnerable yet trying to find the way ahead. A lot of use of heightened drama, like shadows and just body language.
In terms of lighting, the shadows became deeper. Overall we pushed the feeling of a brighter pleasant blue that came naturally through water and elements in the first half to a sick dull hue of cold that would embody the characters in self doubt. The idea was to visually dramatise the feeling of ‘vulnerability’ and the characters dealing with
an impending doom.
Shooting through glass to create the emotion of being hazy about decisions, not knowing what to do also became prevalent. The idea was to not have all these visual cues come in your face, but seamlessly blend with blocking and the way the scenes play out.
A great reference for this was Succession. Shakun had told me he saw this in the series a lot and that way of capturing the grey would really work for our film.
Capturing a lot of expression from angles where maybe we don’t see actors faces completely, to hide
what they must be feeling, was done a lot in the way scenes were staged.
It was visually very important to show the office, a very designed symmetrical cold and grey space. A space that feels home to the aspirations of Zain. A lot of scenes here were also captured to show the slightly erratic, power hungry world this was. Succession had that, and we felt a similar energy was important for us to capture for the scenes done
in the office visually.
To conclude discussing the visual journey of the film, the cinematography was all about serving the current moment. It was about doing justice to that particular step/stair in that flight of stairs.
The story progresses very quickly towards a more darker grey exploration of human characters and how destiny plays a part in our lives and more such deeper conversations. It needed an intricate visual design that was rooted most importantly in staging and blocking. That’s a way where all the visual tropes discussed above can seamlessly help the narrative flow and also have an impact: from a progression in way of use of colour, lensing, shot taking, capturing emotion and so on.