Artistic heroism, to try different things without judgment, defines Sudeep Chatterjee. He is Hindi Cinema's finest, most sought after cinematographer. His range is visible from a mere glance at his filmography, with films like Road, Chak De India, Dor, Dhoom 3, Guzaarish, Baby, Bajirao Mastani, Housefull 4, and Padmavat under his belt. He is as much at home with Ram Gopal Varma, as he is with Sanjay Leela Bhansali whose next film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, he is shooting. He is also shooting the much delayed and much anticipated Dharma production, Brahmastra. The range is visible. Right after Dhoom 3, budgeted at 125 crores, he did a small Bengali film, Chotushkone. He doesn't want to be known as the man who only does big films.
In a chat with F.stop, an online portal that hosts photography talks, workshops, and seminars, he got into the details of his journey. Here are 5 exciting stories he told about himself, his camera, and the big bad beautiful universe of cinema.
Chatterjee, an FTII graduate (before dropping off the engineering stream) moved to Mumbai with no contacts per-se. "It just so happened that my friend Hemant Chaturvedi, who was shooting for Ram Gopal Varma's Company gave my name to him. He was looking for a cinematographer for his next film, Road." When Varma first contacted Chatterjee, he thought someone was pranking him. When they met for the first time Varma asked him "How do you plan to shoot the film?"
"Like a typical Bengali intellectual I told him, 'I will shoot the road as a character', to which Ramu just laughed, and asked, 'But how?'"
Chatterjee mentioned how this was a great film to start his career with, because of the sheer frames that he got to shoot. But he did mention that since he hadn't assisted cameramen (the only non-cinematography experience that he had was as a Behind The Scenes camera-person for 1942: A Love Story) before becoming one himself, he had to learn a lot on the job. It was both freeing and exhausting.
Chatterjee spoke about how we watch sports either through the wide shots, or the tracking shots where cameraperople zoom into the field. For the climactic hockey sequence he wanted to be in the field, moving with the players, tracking the ball closely. "It was chaotic, handheld and dirty," but what helped was that his director Shimit Amin, who was also an avid photographer, understood the need to look distinct.
When they were doing the recce for the film they were disheartened by the state of the infrastructure for women's hockey- the hostels and the fields. Amin told him that they need to be truthful to this, but to also bring a "coolness, a swag to it. This is not a documentary."
"A lot of composite work", which means the photo you see of Bajirao climbing onto the elephant on a battlefield is actually many layers put together. The background is from Raisar in Rajasthan. The mountains from Ladakh. The explosions were added later in a separate shoot. The elephant was shot in Kolhapur. And Ranveer was shot in the studio in Mumbai. Visual effects are further additional layers. Many of these scenes were day shots, that in post production became night shots.
This requires an immense recce to finalize the locations. The mountains of Ladakh were used in both Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. They were supposed to shoot the climax of the Bajirao Mastani in Chambal (where the Sonchiriya scene with the crocodile was shot), but when they told the location team that Ranveer would have to wade into the water, they mentioned the crocodiles, and the location was moved.
With Deewani Mastani, the tricky part was the many mirrors which would reflect the set lights and the various cameras. So Chatterjee told Bhansali that instead of big flat mirrors, they needed small broken mirrors, which would help in hiding the lights, and even if the lights were seen, the mirrors were so small, you would not be able to recognize it.
Dhoom 3 was the first big Hindi film to make the move from shooting on film to shooting on digital. It took a bit of convincing Aditya Chopra (the producer) and Vijay Krishna Acharya (the director). He actually shot a scene in a studio with Alexa (the digital camera), the film camera, and a RED camera. He showed all three prints to both Chopra and Acharya asking them which one they preferred. Both pointed at the digital copy thinking it was the film copy. Chatterjee broke the news to them, that that shot was in fact digital. The fate of the film was sealed. "In hindsight, perhaps the film made a quicker exit because of Dhoom 3."
There's no regret, but only a sense of romance for the days when, because of the constraints of film, the shot was more pious and there was more discipline. Now directors even want to shoot rehearsals because they can. This upsets Chatterjee.
The fire, obviously, wasn't real. Chatterjee put dino lights on the floor to reflect off their faces to make it look like they were approaching fire. Rigs were put up for lighting the set. "Bhansali wanted it to look like a river of red flowing into the fire." In a chat with us a few years ago, he mentioned how Gaganendranath Tagore's painting of 'The Procession' was hugely influential in creating this scene. Skin tone is also something to look at carefully. For the Ghoomar song, for example, the overall ambient lighting, which was dimmed down, affected the skin tone, which had to be cleaned up in post production, giving it that metallic sheen. (There was also the post-production of clothing the bare hips, remember? That's another story)
For Chatterjee however, this is an important scene for another reason. "This is the only time when the two worlds of Khilji and Padmavati- the beauty and the beast- meet." It had to look like worlds were colliding, which is always an exciting thing for him. One world never suffices. When asked what recent movies have moved him to awe, he replies, "I wish Tumbadd was offered to me. Also, Kumbalangi Nights." The artistic heroism is on display.