Grief and destruction is upon Arumapuri, seconds after the politically charged Tamil Nadu village is introduced in Vetri Maaran’s Soori and Vijay Sethupathi starrer Viduthalai Part 1, now streaming on Zee5. A train has been blasted off its railway bridge into pieces, with victims and survivors of the tragedy sprawled across — some howling in despair, and some jostling to get any sliver of help they can get. The excruciating scene, which has you catch your breath for much of its eight-minute duration, is also the product of one long excruciating take. “It might look smooth on screen, but the execution…it was something else,” recalls cinematographer Velraj, whose name fittingly appears on the screen, just as news of the explosion is announced to us through diegetic sound.
Viduthalai’s pièce de résistance took one month to stage, eight days to rehearse and over Rs.five crore to become reality. Velraj, who has filmed all of Vetri Maaran’s films except Visaranai, tells us that a long take was necessary to register the emotions of the film. “When we were initially discussing the scene, which was written in the script, Vetri sir didn’t tell us that it would be a single-take. Just a few days before filming, we realised the technique would be apt for the scene,” says Velraj.
Their initial plan was to shoot at a real location, but they eventually settled on erecting a set near Vandalur. “We couldn't have shot at a real railway bridge because getting permissions from the Indian Railways isn't easy. They also wouldn't be comfortable depicting an accident in front of a real compartment. So, we were looking out for unused rail tracks, but couldn't find any.” The planning began with the art department, who did an exceptional job sourcing props. Setting a film in the 80s also meant that they had to stay true to the time, taking the tiniest detail into account.
After researching similar tragedies, the art department took around three months to erect the set. “We bought around two compartments, and had to remove a few things that didn't fit the interiors of the 80s. And then we erected a set with a total of four compartments.” Right from the villagers’ slippers and saris to the kind of suitcase they carried, everything had to be from the 80s. The film, which used many non-actors for the scene, had 25 assistant directors behind the scenes, divvying up responsibilities to instruct the actors.
The chaos in front of the camera followed suit behind the camera. “A kid with a broken leg had to be lifted, while a man had to fall from the train and still do his part right. While all of this was happening, a mother needed to feed her child some water. If the performance was off, we would need to shoot again, which would take another three hours to set up.” This unbelievable piece of information makes one wonder: what really transpired behind every 180-minute time period?
While most action sequences are usually shot with a handheld camera, a shot with so much movement called for something sturdy. “Action sequences always look gritty when a handheld camera is used. That shake gives such scenes an impact, and we’ve seen this in many films. But we couldn't do that with this sequence.” The entire scene was shot on a gimbal to ensure smooth flow of the camera, which seamlessly climbs in and out of the train's crevices in Viduthalai. The biggest challenge of filming a scene of this scale was ironically connectivity issues, the cameraman adds.
“The gimbal is operated by a person, but for the camera to pan, there is a device called the mimic which needs to be operated by a person elsewhere. For the mimic and the gimbal to be in sync, we needed perfect signal, but due to small disturbances it was often cut. Only if all mobiles were switched off, would it work,” says Velraj, adding that it was a task to get the huge set to turn off their mobiles.
But the gargantuan effort functioned entirely on one foundational aspect. It was all about timing, Velraj says. “The camera keeps moving forward, so for it to climb on top of the train, we built a ramp, which was hidden right until Ilavarasan sir's profile (the scene begins with Ilavarasan’s welfare minister getting down from his car). And once that shot was over, the camera would go on the crane, which again needed to be moved away in a few seconds. And when the camera went near the engine of the train, there was another crane, which took the camera to the top on a rope, which finally captures the compartment falling down. Everything operated on timing. Even if one second was missed, we had to start from the top.”
The gimbal, at one point, was operated by everyone right from the assistant cameramen and fight master to the light men, Velraj tells us. “This scene couldn’t have been done without the effort of even one single technician that was present there.” Another significant player in the scene’s success is composer Ilaiyaraaja, Velraj asserts. “Without Ilaiyaaraja sir’s rerecording, the cinematography wouldn’t have been this elevated. When we showed the footage, he noticed one lone wedding garland hung inside a compartment, and became so affected by it. Such was his involvement.”
Velraj, who looks at long-take legends, Roger Deakins’ and Emmanuel Lubezki’s works (in 1917 and The Revenant) as inspirations, adds that the technique helped them keep the atmospheric tension intact. “A lot of big artists often consider their first ever take to be the best because that perfection is unmatched. We wanted to capture that very perfection with a single shot.”
If you’re wondering how many takes the shot took, Velraj has one simple and one complicated answer. “The camera begins near Ilavarasan sir’s car, immediately going on to zoom into a wailing newly-married bride who has just lost her husband. To come to this scene itself it took us a day,” he laughs. “But the total number of finished takes from start to finish would be around 4 to 5.”
Cheering them on incessantly from the sidelines was Viduthalai’s cast and crew. “Vijay Sethupathi sir didn't have a scene, but he would still come to set to watch it all unfold every single day. Oru thiruvizha maadhri dhan irundhuchu (the environment was no less than a festival). So once we finished the take, the claps just engulfed us. We just knew the scene would be spoken about and shake people up.”