Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee On Creating The ‘Sanjay Leela Bhansali Look’ For Padmaavat And Bajirao Mastani

The ace technician talks about the paintings that inspired him, improvising with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and shooting the Jauhar scene
Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee On Creating The ‘Sanjay Leela Bhansali Look’ For Padmaavat And Bajirao Mastani

Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee is best known for his frequent collaborations with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. With Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, their creative collaboration has set a new benchmark in Indian cinema. With this photo essay Chatterjee gives us a brief peek into the process and inspirations behind the 'Bhansali look' of these two landmark films:

"With Sanjay, great is not good enough. We pre-plan a lot but it is more to understand what he has in his mind and what I have in my mind and form the basis of a mutual understanding. But you have to go to set completely open because things can radically change because Sanjay improvises to a large extent."

"There is a lot of storyboarding too. Since there are huge set-ups, war scenes it's absolutely important to storyboard. All of us, the direction team, the art team, the action director, the VFX guys, sit down and work on it together."

"In Padmaavat the attempt was to create these two worlds differently. Chittor should be this very pristine and royal place and Khilji's world should be rustic, raw yet terribly attractive. In order to bind these two distinctly different worlds I shot everything graphically symmetrical."

"When you are shooting a film you don't know what you are guided by but while shooting Padmaavat, I was very influenced by this book on Indian miniature paintings by BN Goswamy. In this film I defied logic many times as far as lighting is concerned. Why do we have to be logical at all times? You can do it as long as the audience is not getting distracted. In Indian folk art things were always abstract, there was storytelling that expects the audience to imagine. There are layers of complexity hidden in the paintings, the audience has to decode. That's what the Indian miniature painting teaches you. It's not realistic but it's doing a certain style of narrative storytelling."

"Goya's Negre collection also influenced the Khilji look. It's so dramatic. It made a very strong impression on me. It's not painted on canvas, but on frescoes he made in his residence. He used to paint them and throw charcoal water on them. The whole painting is hidden behind a layer of charcoal wash. They are extremely religious paintings with a very strong sense of morality."

"Throughout the film Alauddin Khilji is very specially lit in the film. You always have low eye light for him, his eyes are always sparkling. You have some light to accentuate his character. I really played with his face-light, making him look evil."

"Conceptually the Jauhar scene was really difficult to shoot. Sanjay had this idea of a river of blood that goes and surrenders into the fire. He was really sure about the graphic quality of the scene. The shots had to be big in scale but still had to retain the emotional content. To conceive that scene, how to plan that and break it down took a lot of difficulty."

"When Sanjay gives me the script he doesn't brief me. He will want you to come up with your vision. What he has in his mind, he will keep giving hints about it during the pre-production. You have to get that. It's a lovely process. He'll give some abstract references, looking at a photo or a painting.  For Bajirao Mastani, our references were largely based on the works of Gaganendranath Tagore. There's this painting of Gaganendranath Tagore called 'The Procession' which me and Sanjay tripped on. It's so dramatic and yet so muted. That was one of the key references."

"Another huge influence on Bajirao Mastani was that of the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma."

"When I read the script of Bajirao Mastani, immediately Amar Chitra Katha came to mind. It's a simple story and I visualized it as that."

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