How ‘Aadujeevitham’ Cinematographer Sunil KS Translated The Pain Of Najeeb With His Camera

The cinematographer takes us through filming in the arid deserts of Jordan and the Sahara, working with a real sandstorm, and being Najeeb’s companion in the Blessy film
How ‘Aadujeevitham’ Cinematographer Sunil KS Translated The Pain Of Najeeb With His Camera

Every Malayali knows Najeeb’s story, and so did Sunil, when he got the call from Blessy for Aadujeevitham. “It is the most-sold literature in Kerala,” he tells us. “I was extremely happy because I knew it’d be a cinematographer’s film.” While KU Mohanan shot the flashback portions for the Prithviraj-starrer, Sunil filmed all the portions in the deserts of Jordan (scenes with Najeeb’s imprisonment) and the Sahara (the escape sequence), starting from 2019. The pandemic eventually hit, and the crew was stuck in Wadi-Rum in Jordan for 72 days, before revisiting the film two years later. Throughout this adversity, the team never compromised on anything. Even if it meant preserving sets for around two years.  

Blessy is a perfectionist. He never compromises on anything. And Prithviraj is extremely dedicated,” he says, not before crediting one major castmate behind the scenes: nature.

Excerpts from an interview:

A BTS still from Aadujeevitham
A BTS still from Aadujeevitham

For a film that gives a lot of importance to cinematography, what was your brief from Blessy?

We had a 20-day pre-production in Kochi. We had a table where we put a miniature, which we used to compose the scenes with the chief technicians. Each and every sequence was explained by him. We all had an understanding of how the film would be even before leaving Kochi. In fact, we even had the final edit of the film in mind. He was that precise. We didn’t shoot one extra shot. 

Najeeb is alone in most of the film and the camera is the only witness and messenger of his pain. How did you achieve this?

We needed to travel with the audience and show them the change of day. We wanted to register the time-lapse instead of lighting scenes down. To achieve this, we divided the day scene-wise into four parts. 

Najeeb in Aadujeevitham
Najeeb in Aadujeevitham

Could you explain how you did this?

So, every morning we'd be shooting the same scene. We could hardly film two or three shots during that time frame. Because the time frame would be about two to two and a half hours. Then we’d switch to a sequence where the sun was a little harsher and continue the same exercise. 

That sounds incredibly challenging!

Yeah. One scene might take 20-25 days to finish. We had a bit of a problem also. When the lockdown happened, we were stuck between two or three scenes. So the locations had to be maintained, including the masara. We did not remove the masara. It was in the desert for two years, and we had placed security there to take them off later. Even the cave that Najeeb comes out of was kept there for two years. We did this because once you remove it, you cannot put it back again. The terrain would change. Luckily everything was preserved when we came back to shoot. We just had to take out some sand, that’s all.

But the difficulty in all this is for the artist because they had to carry over the emotion and energy from one scene to another. The moods would change and even the costume and makeup would undergo slight changes. All the artistes and chief technicians supported me for this.

How was it shooting at the Sahara Desert and Jordan with its extreme weather conditions?

Jordan was not so harsh but the Sahara was a bit difficult. We had a shooting window of only two months in a year, in March and April. Before that, it would be too cold and after that, it would be too hot. In the first schedule before COVID hit, we could only shoot for 40 days out of the 70 days we planned. We were eventually stuck for 72 days in Jordan. Days were extremely hot and the nights were extremely cold. The quality of the light kept changing. Even if a small wind comes, the dust flies, which changes the lighting conditions. But we didn’t compromise on anything.

A BTS still from Aadujeevitham
A BTS still from Aadujeevitham

Can you explain any scene with an example in terms of how you visualised it?

The toughest scene to shoot was the one where Najeeb and Hakim meet in the second half. What was written was that the scene should be in a heavenly space or heavenly mood. It was very tough to find a location that fit the part because the rays had to come after the rain. I think we took 8 days for that because we had only a one-hour window between 4.30 and 5.30 pm due to our requirement for the particular lighting. We shot two shots each day and then matched it.

The heavenly rays after the rain
The heavenly rays after the rain

The excursion in the desert with Najeeb, Ibrahim and Hakim was a spiritual delight. How did you work that stretch out?

Actually, the desert was very beautiful. But we wanted to show the harsh and dry climate. The director wanted to portray Ibrahim Khadiri like he was Buddha. Usually, whenever we’d show him, we’d do it at sunrise. And he’s left out of the movie like a sunset. In the last shot, if you notice him falling, it is like a sunset…he leaves the scene like that. 

I was also curious how you shot with the goats. They couldn’t be trained right?

The camel is much easier compared to the goats. There is this scene where a fight begins between the goats and all of them come back to Najeeb. In that shot, I remember, one goat had to turn back and cry. I think we spent a full day on that shot. 

Tell us about shooting the sandstorm sequence. Was the weather helpful?

We were supposed to shoot it with a propeller. We got big propellers from here. But once we went there, we got to know that the propeller wouldn’t have any effect on the artist. Because it was such a vast area, the amount of wind we had did not affect anything. The local bedouins told us that if we were lucky, we might get sandstorms. So we pushed this scene and waited for the sandstorm to happen. Luckily, we got to know on the app that there was a sandstorm coming. We shot in a real sandstorm. The background mud cloud alone was done in VFX, but all the interaction that was happening was real.

The sand particles that come through the wind are very sharp. It pierces. We were all safe because we were covered. But it was tough for the artistes. Both Najeeb and Khadri had a tough time. And the other thing was that the rolling sands would have static electricity in them. And once it touches our body, we cannot touch anything else, the camera or people. But we got some good shots.

How was it for you to work with such a small acting crew, especially in the desert? It’s mostly Najeeb and the goats…

Yeah, only three people actually. That was the toughest, most challenging part of this movie. I think for about an hour, there are only three characters. As I said before, we changed the terrain, because the progression had to be seen. We kept changing locations every half an hour. When you see the movie you can see a flat desert, a high dune desert, and more. We were lucky to get an oasis also. We changed up the terrains a lot so it wouldn’t look very boring. That’s why Blessy wanted the initial part of the masara to be put in between the rocks. The rocks themselves feel like a prison by nature. Once they run from there over the night, they see a sea of sand. That was intentionally done. That’s why we shot in two countries.

Apart from the terrain, what were some of your other challenges?

Shooting at night in the desert was a huge task because you cannot light a desert. We had two full-moon windows in those 72 days, for which we planned two sequences, one in the Sahara when they’re escaping and another in Jordan at the masara. There were a few fills but the majority of the light is coming from the moon. Regarding the animals, the snake was real. We got a few snakes from a snake catcher. We got 5-6 snakes and multiplied it in post. There was no creation.

We used different lenses like a probe, so we were not so close (to the snakes). We also shot a few scenes on the phone also because they were very quick. 

It’s like you worked with nature to make this happen.

We worked along with nature, yes. And nature supported us big time.

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