DoP Pankaj Kumar On How Magic Mike And Edward Munch Paintings Inspired Judgementall Hai Kya

The cinematographer on shooting two films-within-a-film, how the camerawork kept audiences guessing and the significance of those mirror scenes
DoP Pankaj Kumar On How Magic Mike And Edward Munch Paintings Inspired Judgementall Hai Kya

Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar just wanted to add some colour to his life. After a string of what he calls "gritty, gloomy films with wide landscape shots", like Haider (2014), Talvar (2015) and last year's Tumbbad, he was on the lookout for something new. Judgementall Hai Kya, with its neon-drenched frames and saturated colours was the answer. The Prakash Kovelamudi-directed whodunnit sees Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) and Keshav (Rajkummar Rao) locked in a twisty game of cat and mouse. There's suspicion, paranoia, crime and its eventual unraveling. The film's psychedelic colour palette is almost a character in itself. It reflects Bobby's childhood trauma and grows more intense to signify her increasing paranoia.

Inspiration came from unlikely places, such as the 2012 Channing Tatum-starrer Magic Mike. What does Steven Soderbergh's comedy about a group of male strippers have in common with the thriller? The play of light and shadows, Kumar says. "I also looked at a lot of paintings. I remember going crazy over the colours in Edward Hopper's paintings and Edward Munch's Expressionist works of the 1940s. Those colours have come out in the film," he adds.

One of the film's most visually striking sequences is set during the festival of Holi. Bobby's squabbling parents slip, fall off the terrace and disappear into a sea of red below. When the clouds of colour clear, we see their still bodies covered with gulaal, dark blood oozing from their heads. It's a colour that haunts Bobby for the rest of the film.  "When she's having an intense moment in her apartment in the second half of the film, we played this red projection light on her face. When she sees Keshav tinkering with the fuse box, his face is bathed in red light. It plays on her mind," he says.  Bobby's candy-coloured world is a reflection of the trauma she's carried with her since that day. From the multicoloured windows of her Mumbai house to the lights in her room and even her costumes, Bobby's dilemmas and mental ghosts are signified by the pops of colour surrounding her, says Kumar.

Our first hint that the incident has permanently skewed Bobby's perspective comes when we're introduced to her 20 years later. Doing a headstand against the wall, she sees the world upside down. Her job as a dubbing artist sees her disappear into her films, the lines between reel and real blurring. Embodying the fiery cop from (the made-up) masala film Rowdy Rani, she punches a creep in the face. Dubbing for black-and-white gothic horror Zara forces her to confront her feelings for Keshav, but also entertain the possibility that he might be a murderer. These two films-within-a-film gave Kumar the opportunity to have some fun. "Prakash wanted to make Zara look like a cheap, B-grade horror movie. It had to look like a typical horror film but the only horror film I've seen is Tumbbad so this was my take on it. Rowdy Rani was just madness, there was nothing period about it. We watched a few sequences from South Indian films to capture that," he says.

The film toys with the audience's expectations of who is right and wrong. Is Keshav a hapless man out to protect his wife and child or is that what he's tried to gaslight Bobby, and by extension the audience, into believing? Is he a cold-blooded killer or is that what Bobby projects onto him to justify her obsession? These shifting perspectives are underlined through the use of extreme closeups, says Kumar. "Whenever you see Keshav's closeups, they are from Bobby's point of view. Everything that gets exaggerated in her mind is shown visually through extreme closeups. When Keshav looks at Bobby closely, we almost want to get inside her mind."

Mirrors are another device used to introduce objectivity. Characters appear in them, are framed by them and use them to steal glances at each other. "I hope we didn't go overboard with the reflection shots," Kumar says, laughing. "Filming Bobby indirectly through various reflective surfaces – not just mirrors, but also glasses, the glass of the restaurant door – was just a beautiful way of keeping the camera at a distance from the character. And what distance does is gives you objectivity. You're just telling viewers that at certain points, you need to be there up close with her and at other points you need to be objective." Mirrors are also used to draw parallels between the characters. Bobby, as a child, observes herself in a vanity mirror split into three – a nod to her fractured psyche – while her parents argue in the background. Towards the end of the film, Keshav reveals his various aliases over the years standing in front of multiple mirrors. "The motif culminates with that scene. Keshav goes: I'm a bigger psycho than you. And at the end, his split personalities, his multiple identities are emphasized by the mirrors. It's a very literal interpretation, but I think it works," he says.

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