How do we celebrate the dignity of the marginalised souls living in Kamathipura? How do we bring their silent resilience to screen? These were the thoughts Sanjay Leela Bhansali and I pondered over the day I read the script of Gangubai Kathiawadi.
This was the fourth ﬁlm on which I was collaborating with Sanjay. We don't need to talk at length about the look of the ﬁlm anymore. I know that Sanjay, in his own way, will direct me towards his vision. We just spend a lot of time together before the shoot; in fact that's our prep. I sit through his music sessions and somehow that gives me an insight into what is going on in his mind. We bond over music, sharing our vinyl collections, talking endlessly about ﬁlm music over the ages, or just simply listen to music.
"Sur" and "taal" are two intrinsic aspects of cinematography, just like it is in all other arts. Every ﬁlm, like every piece of music, is set in a raga and a rhythm. If we are to create this symphony, every member of the team has to tune herself to the melody and the rhythm that the screenplay is playing out. We must learn to listen.
The thoughts of my conversations with Sanjay on the first day kept ringing back to me. This is a story of a girl who was pushed into darkness. But she belonged to the light. She brought in hope and joy to those around her and I need to tell this story through images that radiated in that glow. Gangubai had a beautiful soul. I had to bring to screen her inherent beauty.
Let the sunlight have its own plan of ﬁnding Gangu……I did that through the ﬁlm. For me that was a strong subtext. I played with the sunlight on her face in many many scenes. Sometimes it brought hope, and sometimes its absence brought despair.
The time when business begins in Kamathipura, it's supposed to be dazzling, attractive, seductive; at the same time, I wanted to wrap it with an air of melancholy.
Afshan comes into Gangu's life like a patch of golden sun. His scenes with her were always bathed in a comforting winter sunlight. The song "Jab Saiyan" happens in twilight moments but unlike the other twilights in the ﬁlm these were touched by warm golden rays of a setting sun.
Their ﬁnal break up happens in the same last rays of the settings sun. Here I used it like a sad reminder to their relationship.
The use of red light is such an obvious cliche that at the ﬁrst thought I rejected it. Something about it remained inside, and one day while lighting a scene I was toying with a red light just for fun. Sanjay loved what he saw. He felt it brought a certain drama. I decided to keep it just subtle enough not to make it obvious.
From my conversations with Sanjay I could ﬁgure that he really wanted to celebrate Gangu's white costume. I knew I had to bring out the white in all its glory. It was a wonderful symbol of Gangu's soul – pure and unblemished. We extended the concept in the Azad maidan scene in the all-white tent.
Eventually we ended the ﬁlm with Gangu's procession in Kamathipura, also set in twilight, but the twilight had shed its blue melancholy. Gangu had transformed Kamathipura into a serene magical white dreamland.
Fragments of memories from our childhood kept coming back to us as we were creating this world. There were street cinemas that we enjoyed, with people sitting on both sides of the screen. There were the street qawwali, and the glory of the cinemas. The music of that era……it engulfed us all the time. It had to ﬁnd its way in the ﬁlm.
And then these favourite moments of mine. The power cut scene where the girls emerge with their little candle lights……not ever willing to give up, carrying the light in their heart. I love what the scene says so gently yet with so much strength. Then there is the death scene of Kamli which is so poetic. And ﬁnally how Sanjay used Birju in the scene Gangu makes a phone call to her mother. The tragedy can be so beautifully expressed when you see the impact of it on another character. There were so many of these moments that were so personal for Sanjay. I knew I had to bring in everything, not just from the discussions I've had with him about this ﬁlm, but from everything I knew about him for the last 28 years.
A lot of the ﬁlm had to be shot in the streets of Kamathipura with a lot of junior artistes. These kind of shots take a lot of time to choreograph and execute. Shooting with available daylight always becomes a challenge because the sun keeps changing its position and you are always playing a catch up game with the sun.
I had a very challenging solution to this: let's create our own sun.
We covered our entire outdoor set with an industrial shade that we built and converted our set to an indoor one. The lighting would be completely artiﬁcially created and that way it would be entirely in my control.
Some thing like this has not been attempted in our industry before. So it was very challenging. I had to take a lot of care to make sure that the daylight and twilight scenes don't look fake.
Sanjay Bhansali as a director and producer stood behind me like a rock and that faith he had in me made all the diﬀerence. Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray, our production designers, were incredible in how they integrated the shade as a part of the structures. It was sheer engineering marvel. The set stood in Film City over two lockdowns. And then there was my gaﬀer Shyam, and my assistant cinematographers Chang, Debashish, Deependu and Avdesh who pulled oﬀ this humongous lighting miracle with not just eﬃciency but with love for what we do.