Cinematographer Ravi K Chandran has worked on memorable films like Black, Dil Chahta Hai, Ghajini, My Name Is Khan, and Saawariya. In this masterclass with Baradwaj Rangan, he recollects working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black, how it was different from working with Mani Ratnam, and why he used cutting-edge technology to get the look of Black right. Edited Excerpts…
You worked with a great visual artist like Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black and Saawariya. Sometimes you have just one or two shots in the whole day. How was the experience?
I was shooting Yuva and the next day I had to go to the set of Black. When I reached there, Sanjay sir was very relaxed. If there’s a short circuit, we won’t shoot that day. He’s very disturbed by such things. Even the entry of his studio has to be clean without loose cables etc. He wants to enter a set peacefully.
He can’t take pressure. A scene in Black where Shernaz Patel comes in with a lamp when the current goes off, I shot in a day instead of shooting it for a whole week as planned. He printed the rushes and saw it. He came and hugged me. So, he started to plan more scenes. But he likes to take his time and rehearse. He doesn’t like anybody shouting on the sets.
Both Mani Ratnam and Sanjay Leela Bhansali are visual masters but have a different way of approaching things. I was lucky to work with both of them. But if I had trained with Sanjay alone, I wouldn’t be able to do a Mani Ratnam film, because of his speed. The energy is different.
Sanjay’s shots are very symmetrical and precise. He shoots mostly indoors nowadays. Mani is out in nature at the mercy of sunlight, wind and rain.
A bit after the shooting started, the set of Black burnt down. Did the energy change after that?
Yeah, because all our equipment and antique furniture were lost. It was a short circuit or something that caused the fire. We had even gotten old furniture from people’s houses. The tragedy is that the entire floor collapsed — it’s one of the biggest floors in Film City. We then decided to start shooting again with a new set.
What was the prominent visual philosophy of Black?
In Black, only a few characters live in that big house. They get lost in it. I needed to show the scale. After thinking of a few options, we decided to have polished floors in the house and in a Shimla-kind of place.
We never thought the film would be a digital intermediate (DI). Before that, not many have done it. We have to scan the negative, get it in a digital format and put it back into film after cleaning up. We had only film projection back then. We took it to Australia and the guy who worked on The Lord Of The Rings. But it was too time consuming. So, we worked with Prime Focus in India. It was a very difficult process because the technology isn’t as good as it’s now. Rather than enhancing it, to get just what you shot was a challenge. Finally, we got good results. Not as good as we hoped but it was good for the time.
Why did you decide that you wanted DI?
We didn’t have to use DI, but it was a new thing and we could control certain things better with it. DI was a bit primitive and since the monitor was small, spectacular shots never looked spectacular. Whenever the lights in the set change, the skin tone of the actors changes. We used to struggle for consistency. I used to have lights marked for Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee that I used throughout the film. I could control such things with DI. After Black, many cinematographers took the risk with DI.