Even as Leo is bookmarked with Anbariv’s high-powered action and extensive VFX sequences (we’re looking at you Subramani) cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa looks at Vijay and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Leo as a performance-driven film. At the end of the day, Leo is a film about a man (Parthiban, played by Vijay) resisting the urge to let his past slip away from him. So, for every techy first-person-perspective drone shot and brilliantly packaged POV shot like the one with the eagle in the climax, Leo also has attentive single takes that depict a person through their everyday ritual and vintage lenses that underscores the eyes.
Vulnerability was key to the film, Paramahansa tells us as we caught up with him over the phone. The cinematographer, who has filmed Vijay in Nanban, and been on sets with the actor as an assistant DOP for a few others, adds that he knew Leo would go on to be Vijay’s best performance, when he heard the script. “He is in a different space today and filmmakers are trying to utilise it. He completely surrendered himself for Leo and was more sincere than any of us in the film."
In this interview, the cinematographer tells us what interests him about techy camera rigs, how he carved his own place in LCU and tackling the film’s core experiment — How far will Parthiban and ergo Vijay go when he’s pushed?
Excerpts from an interview:
What about Leo stood out for you when you heard the script for the first time?
I had one question for Lokesh — why is this character fighting for his identity as Parthi? Then Lokesh answered my question in a line. If someone wants to get rid of his identity, he needs to believe that he was killed and make sure he believes it. We have seen similar revenge stories earlier, and everybody knows the parallel drama and the hero's past. Lokesh wanted to do this experiment. He didn't want to do the same thing. How far will 'Parthi go to make sure his family doesn't know he is Leo?' was the experiment. It's a form of catharsis.
The problem with the comic (A History of Violence) is that in the 30th page, they revealed his (Tom, the main character) identity. I don't know if any other commercial hero would've accepted this script, because there were no other commercial elements in the film until the ending. I am excited to see what Lokesh is going to do with Rajinikanth sir. He is such a gifted filmmaker.
There are some notable long takes in the film, but why did you specifically choose to capture Parthiban entering his cafe in a single long shot early in the film?
The idea came from Lokesh. Most of the scenes you're seeing in the film have performances that are done on a single take. Either we'll shoot the continuous take with a single camera or we'll use multiple cameras. The day I listened to the script, it hit me that the film was performance-driven. The story can be set anywhere, so the location or ambience wasn’t very important. The film was initially set in a small hillside like a malai adi vaaram in Munnar. So, we wanted Vijay sir to be comfortable in every possible way. For any artist, a single take helps them do the scenes with emotional continuity. When you try to keep the technicalities away from the artist and capture them the way they are, it's different. I told Vijay sir, "Whenever you want to go and start, you go sir." I wanted him to feel free. So, this is where the fluidity of single shots were helpful. We also used this in the chase sequence and the gang fight post-interval.
Speaking about his intro scene in the cafe, we wanted to establish the character's profession. Usually in films, we don't often see the characters do their jobs. So, we wanted just one shot of him doing the job. We wanted it to be so strongly pronounced that audiences couldn't ask "Why isn't he doing his job?" It also helped us slowly set up the mood after the title card. We got to a beautiful location in Pahalgam and found a very sweet coffee shop that gave us full access for two months. So, we wanted to really explore the location.
Was this scene inspired by the Copacabana single take in Scorsese’s The Goodfellas?
The classic example for us was Roja. That was the first time steadicam was introduced in Indian territory — the scene where a girl is bringing some food to Arvind Swami when he’s kidnapped. That established the entire setup of his situation. Any DOP would want to do a shot like that in their lifetime. We are all fans of Santhosh Sivan sir, and this film had that kind of requirement and mood and we went for it. Lokesh likes to register things but I like movement. So we didn't want to keep things static.
What were your conversations with Lokesh like? And how was it working on the film’s palette and texture in Kashmir’s harsh cold climate?
Initially he wanted me to watch Vikram and Kaithi again. But the first half of Leo isn’t in the mood of the two films at all. So, he told me to take control of the first half. We split the responsibilities between the first half and the second half. He knew the kind of mood he wanted to capture and the factory setup. The brighter visuals and shooting in daylight was quite new to Lokesh.
It was very difficult shooting in Kashmir because the light was very tricky. We could shoot the shots only at 11am due to visibility issues. Once the crew comes into the location, the snow becomes dirty. So we set up the shot and then cleaned up and got fresh snow. Only after this we brought in the artists. We used multiple cameras because we didn't want to drain the artists. We also had to make sure that they didn’t get depressed because cold climates tend to do that to a person. The entire crew needs to be credited because they responded to all of this for 55 days of shoot. We didn't even have 3-4 days of a buffer where we could go wrong. There were some 17-18 hotels in the town and every single hotel was occupied by us during the production.
But the good thing about working with Lokesh was that every morning he’d come to shoot with the mindset that we had to break stereotypes and do something new. He also respects critics so much. If a fight master suggests a massy fight or anything, he'd be like “I can't answer the critics”. He doesn't think too much about numbers, but thinks about the film.
Lokesh has spoken about how he had to brief people new to the LCU territory about the universe’s texture. Tell us about fitting into this.
Initially we had a difficult discussion about the camera. He wanted to use the same cameras used for LCU - which is an ARRI camera, which I am not too fond of because they are too bulky. The RED camera, on the other hand, is much more advanced in colour science and has an advanced inbuilt technology. You must have seen the eagle POV shot in the climax. To get that kind of smoother motion, we should've used a lot of rigs. But these guys came up with a brilliant idea called inbuilt gyro stabilisation. If you see the original footage, it would be very wobbly. Using the particular hardware, if I use an extra code written by a freelancer called a gyro flow, I can get stabilised footage. This way I can control my stabilisation level according to the mood of the scene.
The production wanted me to shoot in a full wide aspect ratio which is the 1:85 ratio so that Netflix, IMAX and PLF can use it fully. But Lokesh was hesitant and even I didn't want the wider format; I wanted to go with the 2.39 aspect ratio. Then I understood how much Lokesh admired vintage songs and films. So, I suggested using vintage anamorphic lens. Nowadays, people don't use it much because new model optics have come in. But the anamorphic lens was quite famous between the 80s and mid 2000s.
Like this, more than LCU, I tried to look at what Lokesh liked as a filmmaker and brought in a set of new equipment. I convinced him and showed him the results. He particularly loved the 85 macro lens. Most of the dramatic closeups are shot with those lenses - it keeps the focus on the eyes, blurring everything out. We used this in scenes with Vijay sir and Sandy master in their slow aggressive mode. This film isn't about wide shots or location, but it is about the 85mm with a choker closeup. We thought this was enough to depict the film's conviction. Lokesh was so happy about the lens.
What were your thoughts on LCU as you began filming?
If we had to shoot Maryan George sir's character in the same location as Kaithi, then I would have been more careful to match the mood. But in Leo, they are coming into a newer space. So, it didn't require me to do a lot of homework.
All the good shots in the film came out well because Lokesh understood my rigs and wrote stories for my camera. That is Lokesh for you. He knows the lens. Right now he is using LCU as a utility to drive his scenes fast so that he can get people engrossed instead of giving a backgrounder to a new character. That is how I see and enjoy LCU in the film.
What are some of the scenes he wrote for the camera?
The camera flying along with the eagle has become popular on social media. I wanted this particular concept called FPV - first person perspective for the scene. There is a community that uses FPV drones, which are used for races. I found one person called Siddharth who was good at FPV racing in Mumbai. I collaborated with him and made an extra rig so that I can mount my KOMODO camera into the FPV drone. I was doing this homework mainly to match the hyena's speed. I used this rig in the hyena sequence too, but people didn't give too much attention to the camera in this scene because all their attention was on the hyena.
This is where the fight masters and Lokesh began liking this particular piece of equipment. They thought this was super cool and felt the need to write something for this equipment. Since the eagle had a scene with Vijay sir in the climax, he wanted to establish it somewhere in the flashback portions. And the fight masters are so tired of taking this buildup reveal slow-mo shots for gang war films. From an art direction perspective, we put up a bigger set, so I wanted to credit the art directors by establishing the entire set in one shot. We thought it was a risk because it might be dizziying for people. But he wrote it into the story so that it didn't come off as a camera gimmick.
We spoke a bit about the action sequences. Now do tell us about Vijay’s intense monologue with Trisha in Leo.
This scene was challenging for us. We didn't want a lot of people on the set to give them privacy. Except my camera, every other camera was operated by remote rigs from some other room. Only Lokesh and I were in the room. Even I felt goosebumps when he got up to pacify the kid in the middle of screaming. All of this was magical because there was pindrop silence on set. The way we lit up the scene was very tricky because all three angles should look good but shouldn't be flat-lit. Generally we can do something like this only in sitcoms like Friends. It took so much homework to get the thin kind of lighting changes.
If I put a back light for Vijay sir, it would look bleached on Trisha's face because we're dealing with two different skin tones. I particularly wanted a silhouette when they kissed as I didn't want to give some other idea to that scene. It is an emotional moment because they are expressing their trust in each other. It took us 6 minutes to finish the shot and we packed up. Instead of telling cut, Lokesh said 'pack up'.
Vijay breaks down in many scenes in Leo. Even when he's not crying, you can see streaks of tears on his face. As a DOP, how did you make sure to capture Parthi’s vulnerability?
The lens that I used made his eye look like a very 3 dimensional thing. Naturally a few people get some moistness in the eye, which gets enhanced with this lens. In Thirupaachi, there is this particular scene where his friend is killed in Chennai. Everyone would be crying around him and the way he reacted in front of the camera was brilliant. The particular scene unfolds very quickly in the film. But because I knew how long he took for the shot and prepared for it, I knew that he would do a great job for a film like Leo. I knew it was going to be his best performance of his career when Lokesh narrated it to me. He is in a different space and filmmakers are trying to utilise it. For example he loved the silhouette shot. He said "Don't intercut the face, and keep it like this." For me it was a big eye-opener that someone like Vijay sir loved every single thing we did in this film and thoroughly enjoyed the small nuances. He completely surrendered himself for us. He did his homework because there were many single shots that required rigorous rehearsal of lines. He was more sincere than any one of us in the film.
Another anticipated film of yours is all set to be released this year. What can you tell us about Dhruva Natchathiram?
This film was the first film that I started using my own equipment. Before that I used to rent cameras from rental houses. Whenever I used to go to foreign locations to shoot songs for Telugu films, I would like some locations where I’d want to shoot fights, but they would eventually only shoot songs there. I noted down these places and took Gautham sir there and shot the film in an exclusive way. Till that date, it was one of the best action films the two of us had shot. We really enjoyed filming because it was like a school/college kind of atmosphere where we hung out all the time.
I am so happy that it's finally shaping up. Since it was shot in different time frames, I left and Kathir sir did a portion, Jomon (T John) initially started the film and Santha (Santhana Krishnan Ravichandran) was involved too . Everything about this film is nostalgic.