Eeb Allay Ooo! To Trial By Fire: Through the Looking Glass of Saumyananda Sahi

He’s partied with Christopher Doyle, found secret ways into sites of tragedy, and discovered the surreal in the everyday. Meet the cinematographer who’s uncovered the many facets of a cinematic Delhi
Eeb Allay Ooo! To Trial By Fire: Through the Looking Glass of Saumyananda Sahi

Int, Uphaar Cinema (Green Park): Day

Saumyananda Sahi — or Somo, as he’s known to his collaborators — told me we’d never get ‘official’ permission to enter the ruins of Uphaar Cinema. However, what we could do is just sneak in. So here we are, entering the site of a tragedy through an exit that’s still open, near the bottom of the auditorium where the fire apparently began. The stairs and the floor are filled with debris from burned seats. Shafts of light slice their way through the roof and hit that famous wall mural, something that the streaming series Trial By Fire, which Sahi filmed, has carefully reconstructed. “Watch out,” Sahi warns me. I tell him I’ve spotted the lumps of faeces on the ground, only to realise he’s pointing out the rusted nails that are poking out of nearby pieces of wood. 

Sahi has, of course, been here before. He came here with Prashant Nair (co-creator of Trial By Fire) and art director Angelica Monica Bhowmick. During their first recce, they felt overcome by the horrors of the fateful day when 59 lives were lost in a fire. “There are still tickets of that day, spools of film, broken glass. Nothing has changed,” says Sahi, gesturing towards the balcony. Visiting the theatre allowed the Trial By Fire team to make sense of the extensive reports they’d read. The theatre in the show is a piecemeal illusion — the interiors belong to Navrang, a single-screen theatre in Mumbai, while the exteriors were made up of actual surroundings of Uphaar Cinema as well as a recreation of that building on a large set constructed on Madh Island. The basement parking lot was a separate location altogether. The credit goes to Nair’s direction and Sahi’s cinematography – most audiences would probably not be able to tell they’re looking at a fabricated reality.

At 36, cinematographer Somo Sahi has an enviable portfolio. His career of a little over a decade is one breakout moment after another, especially in the last few years. Starting with Kislay’s Aise Hee (2019), moving on to Prateek Vats’s Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019) and Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020) – the last two were India’s entries to the We Are One Festival in 2020 – Sahi’s credits also include the surreal Delhi fable that was Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (2019). Sahi began working on Haksar’s film in 2013, but the film would get a theatrical release only in 2022. Similar delays riddled another one of Sahi’s projects — Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons, which premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, but became available for streaming only in November last year.

Last year was particularly special for Sahi. He is one of the three cinematographers (along with Ben Bernhard and Riju Das) to work on Shaunak Sen’s Oscar hopeful, All That Breathes (2022) – arguably the most decorated Indian film on the festival circuit, having already won at Sundance and Cannes Film Festival. Sahi seemed to be grateful to Sen for for the opportunity to work on the film, going on to add how he would have liked to have continued working on the film, but he’d been called away for Trial By Fire. Sahi has lived in many places all over the country, but if there’s a place that you’d associate with him, it’s Delhi, a place he’s been filming since he was 19. Trial By Fire is Sahi’s fifth professional project in the Indian capital and Sahi’s gaze unpacks the city’s nuances, beauty and glaring inequities in a way that’s distinctive. Over the course of two feature films, two documentaries and one series set in various neighbourhoods, Sahi has managed to craft his own visual language to decode Delhi. One that’s curious, gentle and exudes empathy. Whether it’s a close-up of a noxious drain in the city or the loneliness of a grieving couple seated at a crowded dining table, Sahi brings a crucial component to his frames: Compassion.

Born to artist father Jyoti and educationist mother Jane, Sahi is the youngest of five siblings. Living in a village called Silvepura, 35 kilometres north of Bengaluru, the Sahi family owns an artists’ retreat, which includes a non-formal school for kids from the nearby village. “By the time I came into the world, the place had electricity,” said Sahi. He grew up in a home that had no TV. Instead, he had unlimited access to art books, art and artists. The Sahis’ place was home to artists from all over the world. “One example is a Scottish sculptor who came to stay for two weeks and ended up staying eight years,” remembered Sahi. 

One of Sahi’s earliest cinema-related memories is of watching The Lion King (1994) with his parents. “I didn’t get past the hyenas,” he said. Other Hollywood films, like Mrs Doubtfire (1993), were also attempted, but these were not what sparked a love for cinema in Sahi. When Sahi’s elder brother Kiran enrolled in the National Institute of Design (NID), he unwittingly turned Sahi towards film. At the time, NID students got to watch some of the finest films from around the world because of a tie-up with the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and the National Film Archives of India (NFAI). Sahi was 11 when thanks to Kiran, he watched Stalker (1979). The railway track scene that had Eduard Artemiev’s foreboding score along with an instantly recognisable industrial sound design, remains a beloved memory for Sahi. “It almost felt like an inlet into the adult world,” he said. And just like that, Somo Sahi had found his passion: He wanted to make films.

Guided by his brother’s friends — one of whom was Ramu Aravindan, son of filmmaker G. Aravindan — Sahi learned how to operate an SLR camera and was taught the basics of photography. Ramu Aravindan helped Sahi set up his own dark room and taught him to develop negatives. He also took Sahi to watch films in Bengaluru. “He’d [Aravindan] show me Bresson’s Money ( L’Argent, 1983) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) for being the most exquisitely filmed chase sequences in the history of cinema,” said Sahi, casually bringing together titles on polar opposites of the cinematic spectrum.

Int, Sadar Bazaar: Day

We’re in Old Delhi, visiting what became the ‘base’ for the team of Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon. It’s a local akhara located near Sadar Bazaar. Thanks to local pehelwans (like a certain Mr. Pappu Yadav), the location became the unit’s safe space and also the film’s protagonists’ ‘home’.The lanes are so densely populated with vehicles, carts, stray animals and people, you have to be mindful of everything around you if you don’t want to get hurt. Shooting even one scene in all this uncontrollable bustle seems too chaotic an idea, but Sahi and Haksar shot an entire film here. Sahi tells me the tricks they’d use to disperse crowds. “A fake B-unit would pretend to shoot something more dramatic like an action sequence nearby, so a large number of people would gather over there. And we would quietly shoot our sequence.” During a key sequence on a bridge, when the crowd was looking directly into the camera, Sahi’s wife Tanushree Das, who was a gaffer on the film, started doing a dance routine with another crew member. The crowd turned to watch them and Sahi’s camera was free to weave the tale with which Sahi had been entrusted. 

Sahi was 16 when he left home for the first time. Armed with a DV handycam (which belonged to a classmate), he ventured to make his first short film for a competition organised by the Osian Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema. He was one of 30 participants selected, which meant Sahi took part in workshops with the likes of legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle and director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He also saw Wong Kar-Wai films on the big screen for the first time. Later, he was also invited by Berlin Talents (who were helping organise the initiative at Osian) and it was the first time Sahi left the country by himself. Between attending workshops by Ridley Scott and Wim Wenders, and partying with Christopher Doyle, Sahi was certain his dream about working on a film set was about to come true.

After finishing Class XII, Sahi opted for a gap year to recalibrate his choices. He also got himself his first ‘film job’ in Mumbai, working with Vasant Nath (one of the writers of Sacred Games) and Bharat Bala, who were conceptualising an ambitious Indo-Japanese crossover project, starring renowned Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu. The project fell through, but Sahi fondly remembered “going to office” for a whole two months before returning home to Bangalore. It was around then that Sahi decided he wanted to broaden his interests beyond film. He went on to study Philosophy at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. “I think of it as a great backbone for what I eventually set out to do. It made me think and form opinions,” said Sahi, “especially when there are no right or wrong answers.”

At one point, a confused and conflicted Sahi wrote passionate letters to acclaimed directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Wim Wenders, asking if he could assist them on a film set. “I don’t think the letters reached them,” Sahi said, clearly amused by the memory of his younger self. After graduating, Sahi got his first job at the Delhi Art Gallery, where they had just acquired 80,000 negatives of photographer Nemai Ghosh, a close collaborator of director Satyajit Ray. Sahi was part of the small team that archived the negatives. He also studied most of Ray’s works so that he’d be able to identify which behind-the-scenes shot was from which film. 

It was also around then that he applied to FTII. His first choice of specialisation had been sound, but he didn’t qualify because he had no science in 11th and 12th. Sahi then picked cinematography. “Looking back, it almost seems like the obvious choice, coming from a visual background like painting,” he said.

Ext, South Block (Central Secretariat): Day

Sauntering in the South Block area around the Ministry of Defence, both Sahi and I are reprimanded by the security personnel, who tell us to stay off the grass. “Why?” Sahi asks. “You’re not allowed,” snarls the personnel. I sense an irritation in Sahi, but he lets it go. As we walk away from the barricade, Sahi tells me about an incident from the filming of Eeb Allay Ooo! when the director Prateek Vats, Sahi and the film’s writer Shubham had to deal with an irate security officer.

“At one point during our shoot, Prateek (Vats), Shubham and I were entering the Ministry of Defence with our camera. The security personnel blew his whistle and asked ‘Kidhar jaa raha hai? (Where are you going?)’ We told them we were making a documentary on monkeys in the area. Suddenly he gave us a wide smile and said “Today is a weekend, you have to come back on a weekday!” and started laughing. It’s an ice-breaker with any of the personnel if you ask them about monkeys because they deal with it everyday.”

There are unexpected traces of Sahi’s life in Eeb Allay Ooo! As a student in FTII, he did “disruptive” things that were similar to what the protagonist of Vats’s film, Anjani (played by Shardul Bharadwaj) did eventually. The FTII years were significant for Sahi in many ways. He met editor and gaffer Tanushree Das on campus (they’d end up getting married). Sahi also started working while he was completing his course at FTII. He and Das worked on Sunanda Bhat’s Ningal Aranaye Kando? (2012) and Kamal Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi (2013).  Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi… came their way soon after. By this time, the couple had shifted from Mumbai to Goa. “The joke is more people came to our home in Goa, than in Borivali,” Sahi said. The reasons people showed up at Sahi’s doorstep weren't always pleasant. When FTII students began what would end up being a 140-day protest in 2015, Sahi and Das’s residence in Goa became a refuge for some. When they returned from the shoot for Haksar’s film (taking place in Delhi), they found their home filled with senior and junior FTII students. “There was a lot of chaos because Shubham and Kislay were arrested and they very kindly gave my address as the place they were residing at. So, the IB [Intelligence Bureau] showed up at our house and there was a lot of confusion with our landlord,” remembered Sahi. 

What Sahi recalls vividly from this period is how the media likened the ‘threat’ posed by the protesting FTII students to the terror group ISIS. Their acts of dissent included writing “save FTII” on balloons, making a coffin that was labelled for ‘cinema’ and Shardul Bharadwaj handing out pamphlets while dressed as a clown who is mute. Sahi, Vats, Das and Shubham made a protest video on Bharadwaj’s clown act, which was even screened at a few film festivals. This, along with a newspaper article that Vats encountered by chance, formed the foundation of Eeb Allay Oo!. When they eventually started shooting Vats’s film, producer Shwetaabh Singh’s father, who is a police officer, was given an appointment in central Delhi. This helped them get the permissions they needed for their shoots and was a security blanket of sorts. “The belief was even if we ended up getting arrested, Shwetaabh’s father might be able to help us get out,” Sahi says, only half-joking.

Ext, Anna Nagar (near ITO): Evening

Sahi is leading me through the narrow lanes of Anna Nagar. We’re trying to find the house where Anjani (Shardul Bharadwaj) lives in Eeb Ally Ooo! Ten minutes in, we find it. Sahi’s muscle memory — we’ve been retracing the path of a tracking shot from the film — has held him in good stead. The occupant of the house, Vicky, immediately recognises Sahi. Sahi turns to me and says except for the cooler at the window, everything else had changed. 

When we leave Anna Nagar, Sahi shows me a nearby house. They shot for two days at this place for Trial By Fire and having shot here for Vats’s film earlier, Sahi had felt confident about this location. Except Eeb Allay Ooo! had been a low-profile, guerilla set-up while the Netflix production drew a lot more attention with its bigger cast and crew. Then the weather refused to cooperate. On the first day of the shoot, the sky was overcast. However, on the second day, it was sunny. For consistency, Sahi had to ask for permission from each house to tie skimmers to the roofs of their homes. Just as this was being done, it started to rain and next thing you knew, the homes of the locals had been flooded. “It was a complete mess!Sahi says, remembering the past while looking at the neighbourhood in the present. “What (a) documentary can give you, fiction can’t buy. You look at the Eeb Allay Ooo! footage and there’s so much life in it. You can feel the space. But when we did it in fiction, with all the money at our disposal, it wasn’t quite the same,” Sahi admits.

Sahi won’t describe himself as a Delhi expert, but he’s shot practically every aspect of the city that you can imagine, from the grime of Old Delhi, to the grey apocalyptic skies of Wazirabad, the bylanes of ITO and the open spaces of Lutyens’s Delhi where monkeys create a nuisance. The cinematographer remains fascinated by how the capital is the site of power, but also a locus for so many of India’s dispossessed. Yet one Delhi rarely leaks into the other, and each one remains a little microcosm of its own. Sahi says the way he discovered and eventually filmed these neighbourhoods drew extensively upon his directors. As an example, he mentioned Sen and his perspective in All That Breathes: “Discovering how Shaunak (Sen) saw the city, where suddenly you’re looking up or down and not at the people always.” 

For Trial By Fire, Sahi’s conversations with Nair made him realise he needed to keep the camera close to Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (played by Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol). For some sequences, he tried to replicate a newsreel aesthetic, adding a visual grain of realism to the story that draws closely upon actual incidents. In the first episode, there’s a scene in which Shekhar and Neelam are stuck in traffic, outside the premises of Uphaar Cinema. This was shot in a lane that is actually outside the theatre. The crew was given permission to use only about 100 ft of the lane and the challenge was to make sure no anachronistic details, like Metro signs or mobile shops, entered the frame. Sahi’s documentary experience came in handy and the actors were shot using only mid-close-ups. The setting was visible only in fragments and as a suggestion. In the sixth episode of the series, the camera’s simple pan shots are used to register the passage of time in a way that seems simple and unbroken. You can “pan with empathy” or you can “pan with suspicion”, as Sahi puts it, which is why it’s imperative for him to know the reason and intent behind a project. 

At the heart of Trial By Fire is a parent’s grief and to show that, Sahi relied upon editor Walter Murch’s “blue light theory”. Murch says if a filmmaker makes all their decisions based on how a room will have blue light, then the essence of that light will be felt even if you remove blue light from the room. The absence becomes telling because the other props signal or point to the blue. For Sahi and Nair, the blue light in Trial By Fire is grief. “I have a kid, Prashant has two, we can’t even try to imagine what it must be like to lose our kids. We can’t imagine what they [Krishnamoorthys] went through, but then at the same time, we have to evoke it. So our choices were revolving around it, without necessarily going all out,” he said. 

Since last September, Sahi has turned his gaze upon a new city. His next film, which he’s co-directing with his wife, is primarily set in Barrackpore, where Das grew up. The couple moved to Kolkata as part of the film’s process. “Barrackpore, the place, its people, its history, the mingling of the Army with civilian population here are all very central to the story so we couldn't even imagine it anywhere else,” said Sahi. We’ll have to wait to see what this new muse inspires in Sahi. Cinematographer by profession and philosopher by degree, he likes to have time to prepare for a project (most of his previous films have afforded him almost a year). The idea of doing something quickly, just for the sake of doing a ‘job’, is alien to him. “Like, to play an instrument, if it’s a job, I think there’s a contradiction somewhere,” said Sahi. “How do you sing if it’s just a job?”

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