‘There Is Nothing Greater Than Being On Set’: Swapnil Sonawane

The cinematographer of Monica O My Darling and Chhello Show talks about his process, finding new ways to be creative and what he’s learned along the way
Monica O My Darling
Monica O My DarlingSwapnil Sonawane | Monica O My Darling

In Monica O My Darling, Vasan Bala’s much-talked-about pulpy thriller that’s on Netflix’s top 10 most-watched list even a week later, the atmosphere is impeccably crafted, right from the opening credits, in which the song ‘Ye Zindagi’ pays tribute to 70s–styled Hindi Cinema. “We shot it somewhat deep into the schedule. I suddenly thought that this was the perfect opportunity to use a star filter on my camera, realising that I would perhaps never get to do this again,” says cinematographer Swapnil Sonawane. “When I shared the idea with Vasan, he clapped and was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ Usually, if a director sounds hesitant about an idea, then I tend to step back too — but Vasan really ran with it, and thankfully it worked.”

For the scene in which Gaurav (Sukant Goel) tells Jay (Rajkummar Rao) about his past crimes, Sonawane thought of switching quickly between black-and-white and color within the flashback scene to create momentum. “I thought Vasan might feel like it was too much, but he said, ‘Fuck it, we’re going for this.’ When you and your director are on the same page, it’s a fantastic feeling,” he says.

The cinematographer has had a busy year, reuniting with his Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) director Pan Nalin for Chhello Show, India’s official submission for the Oscars. Released last month, the film, about a young boy in rural Gujarat who falls in love with the process of film-making, heavily relies on its lyrical visuals as part of its poignant narrative. It was a relatively easier shoot, relying on anamorphic lenses used to capture wide-screen images, fewer handheld shots, and more Dolly moves, in which the camera is mounted on a wheeled cart on tracks to follow a character in action. “The only idea Nalin was sure of was to keep the narrative lyrical. Since a lot of the film revolves around a child and his friends, we consciously chose not to run around with them but design the visuals around them,” he says.

This shoot was far less technical than Angry Indian Goddesses, which was also Sonawane’s first feature film. “I was really excited and came up with my theories about how we should shoot, which scene could be shot where, what the visual language should be, the images and painters that I liked,” the cinematographer recalls. After going through the first two slides, however, Nalin suggested that they drop all of these ideas, start afresh without any influences, and attempt to make something of their own. “That’s the only conversation we had about the film’s look and feel. After that, we just went out and made things. Nalin believes in the way I see, and I trust his vision.”

A cinematographer’s way of seeing

Sonawane insists that while he has no fixed method of working, he sticks to certain self-made rules, even those that are “simplistic and silly”. On Angry Indian Goddesses, he decided to place lights outside the windows and avoid tripods. “I wanted the actors to feel like they were at home,” he explains. For Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2017), he shot everything in natural light and didn’t carry any lighting equipment from Mumbai. “I didn't want the safety net of knowing we had extra lights. Coming from a documentary background gave me the confidence that we could still get something cinematic if we shot at the right time,” he says.

For the Netflix show Sacred Games (2018), on which he collaborated with Sylvester Fonseca, Sonawane used clean spherical lenses for Ganesh Gaitonde’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) flashback track, to capture a clear memory of what this gangster was, and worn-out, dirty anamorphic lenses for the current time period with Sartaj Singh exploring the city’s underbelly, to capture how messed up his life is.

With Monica, O My Darling, Sonawane decided to try a little experiment, reusing the exact lenses he had used to shoot Badhaai Do — a film different in mood and tonality. “Usually, I choose the lens according to the film. This time, I wanted to see whether I could still create a different feeling with the same lens.”

Sonawane’s initial thoughts that Badhaai Do would be the “easiest film to do” and the best film to return to work with post-pandemic were challenged during the pre-production process. “It turned out to be the most prepped film for me ever,” he says, with amusement. “(Director) Harshwardhan Kulkarni’s process was to go through each and every page, every paragraph. We went to every location multiple times to block our scenes. I have never had a director so involved in everything, including the color-grading stage during post-production.” It was a novel way of working for the cinematographer, who didn’t have a bound script for Angry Indian Goddesses and didn’t always know where the actors would walk or where they would sit. Badhaai Do, by contrast, had scenes that sometimes required 30 takes. “My intention was to be invisible. I tried to remove myself and disappear,” he adds.

The cinematographer’s homework doesn’t begin when he is sent a script, but is a continuous process he hones when he isn’t shooting. In his spare time, he watches films, reads books about them and studies paintings and photography, confident that all of this knowledge will eventually come in handy when he’s on set. “Image references inspire me, even if they usually have nothing to do with the film,” he says. During Newton, when the crew was shooting in a remote area of Chhattisgarh, he put up 100 to 150 black-and-white photographs taken by Andre Kertesz, Sebastiao Salgado, and Josef Koudelka. “The feeling that these images evoked were inspirational,” he says.

Among the cinematographer’s inspirations are Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, director Achal Mishra and his cinematographer Anand Bansal, and filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane.

Falling in love with film

Sonawane grew up in Pune and Nasik, the latter being where most of his schooling happened. On school trips, he was usually the guy with a tiny KB-10 point-and-shoot camera. He grew up aspiring to be a travel photographer or photojournalist, working for places like National Geographic or Lonely Planet. “Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my father ran a color lab. The image-making process was always around,” he says. However, by the time he graduated from the art school he was studying graphic design at in 2005, his desire to get into filmmaking was palpable to everyone around him, particularly creative director Abhijeet Dey, who recommended he go and meet cinematographer Bobby Singh.

Sonwane was initially reluctant. He was afraid of his vision being influenced by someone else’s, a “silly notion”, he admits in hindsight. Singh suggested that he come hang out on the Ghajini (2008) sets for 15 days and see how he liked the experience. Sonawane was fascinated by how the set worked, how a jib was set up and how different locking systems for the cameras were put in place. “I said, ‘I am going to try everything I can to become a cinematographer.’,” he recalls.

His first major break was The Dewarists for MTV, which allowed him to explore a docu-style of shooting in which two musicians with contrasting styles were staged together. Owing to low budgets, the crew used Chinese paper lanterns for lighting. Each music video had to be shot quickly, within five days.

While Sonawane laments the slow death of film, he acknowledges that the digital boom has helped cinematographers like him to get into the field. “It democratised the medium. I could buy a 5D or 7D, go out and shoot and show my stuff to others. No two ways about it.”

Notes from set

The cinematographer, who has been working with the same core team for years, stresses the importance of being respectful to one’s collaborators. “I don't run a team, I have a team — and I never lose sight of this difference. I don't believe in screaming and shouting. I am surrounded by people who will always tell me the truth. When my assistant tells me something looks bad, I know it’s coming from the right place.” he says.

Sonawane points to The Disciple (2020) as the film that has taught him how best to approach his work. “The process is important, but you should enjoy it. You might turn out to be an average cinematographer, but if you enjoyed the process, then you had a decent life. There is nothing greater than the love of being on set.”

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