In Conversation with Setu

With Anil Mehta and Saurabh Vishwakarma; recorded in WICA office on 15th Feb 2014.

I grew up in Calcutta. I was always surrounded with films and photography. I was fond of photography and had people with similar interest around me. An uncle of mine Ranjan Palit, is a documentary cinematographer, I would hang around at his place just watching him work. On one of his documentary shoots, for Ruchir Joshi, I saw him on the crane with his daughter. That image somehow stayed with me. I was like wow. As a twelve year old I thought Cinematography was a wonderful profession. It was cool, chilled out kind of a work place. It is still like that, I am enjoying the space, but its not as playful as it was then.

AM: You went to FTII Pune to get started…
No I actually stared hanging out with Ranjan on his shoots. He was doing documentary shoots and I would hold a thermocol for him, do production sometimes. I got interested in it gradually. Then he said that if I was serious I should check out the scene in Bombay. He said he would introduce me to a friend of his, that friend was Anil Mehta. Mumbai was another world, totally different.

AM: No kids on crane..?
Nothing, like that, it was monsoon time, water logging everywhere, smell of turpentine on big sets. Those things have stayed with me. I was also in awe of what was happening around me. I want to retain that feeling every time I enter a set.

AM: Film Institute happened in which year?
It was 1996-1999, I graduated in 2000. After that for six months I worked with Ranjan, on Pankaj Butalia’s feature film and another film in Kathmandu. By May of 2001, I was in Mumbai. then I was working with Rafey Mahmood, he had come for a workshop to FTII. I really wanted to do documentaries also. Surabhi Sharma was making her first documentary and we had bonded very well in the Institute. That was the first independent film I shot shot. One thing led to another, I shot Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film ‘Charas’ which really got me started. Ads with Shoojit Sircar, then ‘Taare Zameen Par’ happened.

AM: So you’ve done non-fiction, advertisements and feature films, How do you view these cinematic spaces?
I am more of a non-fiction person, that’s how I started off. Even when I tried and make connections in fiction somewhere at the back of my mind the approach is ‘what would naturally happen, what is the natural flow of things, when there is nobody intruding ..How would it happen, like following the source, in lighting; which is something I do a lot when I am shooting, that’s my approach. My heroes are ‘dada’ (Subroto Mitra) and Nestor Almendros. I was very clear about these things and the people I wanted to learn from, I learned from watching their work again and again.

AM: Nestor Almendros also has a background in non-fiction?
Yes, he was shooting a lot of documentaries in Cuba.

AM: Charas, Kahaani and Taare Zameen Par… would you say that your approach in all these films is ‘documentary’?
While doing Charas I was trying to be somebody else because I thought I am shooting a feature film and I should make it like a feature film and it should have the gloss. In Kahani, I gave up trying to be someone else and I thought if this is what it is then let it be that way. It was a thriller but we let it be totally real. I would actually just light up the space and let the characters move around in it.

AM: What does cinematography in advertising films mean to you?
what I really learnt in advertising is to tell a story in a short span and how to make every shot count. All the gloss apart, it is very useful even when I am shooting longer fiction films. I always try to bring in the effective elements into the key shots. It can be a window frame or it can be prop. I don’t wait for a long shot to establish it, I try and weave it into the shots crucial to the narrative of the scene.

AM: There is a certain kind of story telling in advertising which you are drawing from but what I am asking is that does the practice of cinematography in advertising excite you or challenge you in anyway?
Advertising is not something which is in my natural grain or it’s not something that comes naturally to me.

AM: Then why do you do so much of it?
One is ‘for the money’ and second because it gives me an opportunity to practice my craft. If I want to use shift tilt lenses in a feature, chances are, I will have had an opportunity to have used and tested them in advertising. It keeps me on the cutting edge of technology.

AM: Tell us about Taare Zameen Par. Was it ‘Lot of elements to orchestrate’ or was it the ‘fly on the wall’ approach?
No, as a cinematographer you can’t be a fly on the wall. You are in the heart of it.

AM: TZP was a very constructed piece?
Aamir is very methodical, almost clinical in his approach. He opens the script and he executes. On the day he is not trying out anything new. For this film he was wearing many hats – director, producer, actor.. He wanted the technical side of it sorted and out of the way when he was working with the actors. So we blocked the shots and figured out the lensing etc. the day before. I would put tape marks on the ground and write down the shot numbers. Everything was worked out. That’s a good thing, because then everyone know exactly what’s happening, there are no surprises. But then spontaneity takes a back seat. There are different schools of film-making – this is a very American/ Hollywood kind of style. Possibly because I come from a documentary background where I am constantly responding to what’s happening around me, I find this approach stifling..

AM: Then why did the shoot go overboard, you guys shot way over schedule?
We re-shot some bits, we re-did what Amole had shot. The schedule did go over by about 60 per cent.

AM: These are important things to document, with complete clarity and transparency.. The schedule went over by 60 percent because of..
Because we were working with the kids and Aamir was not in any hurry. He pushed everything aside. He took his time working with the kids. Remember, he came in quite late as a director; he wasn’t fully prepared to direct the film, he took his time..

AM: So, it basically came from the director’s space?
It did partly come from the director..

AM: This is a complete aside, but because we are in WICA office, it needs asking, that when these films go over board by 60 per cent in terms of production time does the cinematographer get compensated for the additional time or not? Did that happen with you?
Yes that happened with me during TZP. I had a conversation with the producer saying that look this is way over our contract period. They were very good about it all the extra days were compensated on a Pro Rata basis.

AM: What was the paper work/contract like?
Paper work was done only for the initial shoot with Amol. The extension of time was not signed on, as such. Even today I am grappling with Contracts which are very heavily loaded in the Producer’s favour.

AM: So what is it that you are insisting on in your contract?
One is of course the number of shooting days and the period for which I am shooting the film. Specifying Time is of essence.

AM: TZP was a big successful film, did life change after that? The film got lot of publicity and visibility and it was a well-crafted film?
Personally it taught me a lot, not particularly about cinematography but it taught me a lot about making movies and what the role of a cinematographer is. I was this young cinematographer who was holding on very aggressively to his space and fighting for his space. Aamir who is like a total film person wanted unfettered space for his actors. Today I realize that it’s not just about getting the lights right, It is also about performances. We ended up having some show downs on set but when the film released and I saw the film, I realized that on a number of occasions I was fighting for things of little consequence to the finished film. Things that did not matter to the larger meaning of the narrative.

AM: Moving on to Kahaani , very natural spaces and natural light. Got a sense that a lot was on the fly and on the go. By then you were a ‘grown’ cinematographer?
Yes, I started seeing things very differently. I realized performances are better if actors have more space, that actually makes for better films.

AM: So with Kahaani you were much more with the flow, with what the director was saying? Does that diminish the role of the cinematographer because you were talking about how in TZP you were protecting your turf?
Yes, I think it is still your turf, just that the turf has expanded, you are on richer turf if you are working with the actors, working with the film and the director, of course.

AM: This is a very big thing you are saying and it takes a while to get there. How do you think Kahaani turned out eventually, because somewhere it has that quality of a ‘non-fiction’ approach?
So there are pros and cons, I curse myself when I see the out of focus shots. I can’t say anything to my focus puller, with camera on my shoulder and actors moving around on impulse. In one scene where Vidya comes into the hotel room, opens the window, looks out and starts crying, it was my suggestion that we don’t rehearse it. ‘Follow your impulse’ is nice to say, nobody knows that I’m shooting at 2.8 minus, 75 mm lens how can I say anything to the focus puller. After Kahaani I thought did I do the right thing. But I think I did. Somewhere I want to believe that I did the right thing. I think what happens with technology, with the stocks getting faster the lenses getting faster, cinematographers are given a lot more rope to play around with. And I think I want to pass that rope on to the actors. I think that makes the scene richer and makes it more real. Kahaani was that kind of film for me.

AM: between Sujoy and Aamir, anything similar?
No two directors in my life have been the same or similar, unfortunately.

Saurabh: You are from Calcutta, you know the place, did it add to your film.
Sujoy and I, both are from Calcutta. After I read the script I knew it was going to be North Calcutta. When I spoke to Sujoy, it was North Calcutta – the lanes of North Calcutta and China Town…

Saurabh: I believe that Kahaani would not have been the same film if it wasn’t Calcutta, shot that way..
That goes for any good film, it should be rooted in a certain kind of atmosphere. Lagan wouldn’t have been that good if it wasn’t rooted at Bhuj. I mean any place that has a distinct culture and people is going to make a big difference to the film

AM: What was your Camera kit in Kahaani?
The camera was ARRI 235 and Master primes. Master primes is also a functional choice because of the 1.4 T stop. We had two cameras for the pooja sequence – one 435 with a Zoom to cover the pooja from a distance and one 235 on my shoulder which was the ‘in your face’ kind.

Film stocks?
Almost all of it was Kodak 5219, pushed in some of the places — lots of night sequences.

Processing took place at?
Reliance, Processing and DI.

Saurabh: So no digital or 5D?
5D for some things but like not even one per cent of the film. It becomes very difficult to control the shooting with a 5D. When a 5D is out there anyone can start shooting. I can’t control that. So after the shoot I sat down and decided what will go to the editor.

AM: ‘Sorting of Rushes’ has become obsolete, all the material goes to the editor often camera NGs are used, it’s a real pain..
Yes, so this is one more thing you really have to monitor.

AM: Let’s talk Dedh Ishqiya specific. Start with the kit? Is that the film where you moved to shoot in digital?
Yes, Alexa, Codex Raw recorder and one Gemini Recorder – two camera bodies.

AM: Master / Ultra Primes combination?
Yes, we shot a lot on 40mm and 65mm
Light Kit included one 24Ks, three 18Ks, twelve 6Ks, twelve 4K, lots of 575s. I lit up with Rostrums all around the haveli, sun streaming in, smoke… Kahaani was just the opposite. In Dedh Ishqiya it was like, I will decide where the sun will come up…

AM: So like after Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap will not be able to make another Anurag Kashyap type film (his words), will Setu be able to do a Kahani again
CONTROL… it’s kind of addictive.

AM: Did Dedh Ishqiya turn out to be exactly the way you wanted it to look?
No I don’t think any film that I’m going to shoot will ever turn out to be exactly the way I wanted it to look.

AM: Well it is low contrast, Blacks are open…
I wanted the blacks to be open, I was very clear about it.

AM: This is not coming from Alexa, this is coming from you…
It is coming from me and my experience on Kahaani. I really wanted to look into the shadows. I want to look into the shadow of Madhuri’s earlobe, when it’s low lit and her face is two under I want information there. I wanted it to look as natural as possible. You know what I am saying…

AM: So you both, lit for that and used the digital image with its deep reserve in shadows.
The fact that I could do it, was only because of the Alexa.

AM: Then you went into the DI suite…
I had taken still grabs from the Alexa, those were my reference points.

AM: So was it like a minor move from your RAW file?
No. itna bhi low nahi tha. Itna low hai kya? You know where we come from I remember not very long ago we exposed film one-third over so we could print down to get rich blacks and the fight for blacks was one of the benchmarks of a good cinematographer. How blacks are his black. You would always judge a cinematographer with that, in india..

AM: We have lived that cycle.
Yes, I was very conscious of that. Whenever I saw that, I was thinking, could I have done this? Have I really traveled so much over the last few years.

AM: So is that the new Aesthetic?
I hope not. I would love to shoot something kadak, and golden and warm and hard and crisp…

AM: What do you feel are some of the shortcomings in Dedh..?
I think my handling of the day exteriors. I was very critical of the way I shot the exteriors, there is no imagination, there is no vision. You put a camera and it will record. You can’t take credit for that as a cinematographer. I think, in the day exteriors, that Shooting Competition for example.. there’s no thought behind it..

AM: What about Abhishek Chaubey and your equation with the director?
I think the one thing that digital has done is that during shooting, 90 per cent of the image is there, I’m talking of information not the final grade. So the director, provided he is somebody with visual understanding, you can jam with him. He sees the shot and it’s like ‘acha yaar aisa karein to kaisa lagega’ that space was not there earlier. For example there was scene in Ghanchakkar or even in Kahaani where this guy who is with a torch at night, I’m shooting 500 ASA pushed one stop at 1.4 plus on a master prime, the monitor is showing mainly noise, the director is in panic, “chapega ke nahi ..?” I had to shoot it on 5D and show it to him, “Yaar dekh ye aisa dikhne wala hai…” are you okay with it? So provided that the director is somebody who wants to engage, which Abhishek is, he will now schedule so that we can get the right look/light, he has done it on number of occasions

AM: His strength is writing, particularly dialogue writing, I was wondering if that kind of person invests in cinematographer’s process?
He does, he is very very into ‘what is the image like’. We discussed a lot but there was no referencing. We never had any film as a reference. He said, I don’t believe in references, I said nor do I. Our ‘Look’ conversations started on the first day of recce.

Abhishek Chaubey, Director, Dedh Ishkiya on Setu and the film:
“Working with Setu has been an absolute pleasure in every way possible. There has been a great amount of understanding between us and I believe that it reflects in our work in the film. As is usual, we had very little time to prep and had to rely a lot on our instinct. We did spend time thrashing the script and instead of working out a detailed shot breakdown sort of treatment, worked more towards understanding the moments and the piece as a whole. We deliberately avoided an overarching treatment formula or concept; instead focusing on the need of the scene. Therefore, we have sequences treated on slow dolly movements immediately followed by gritty handheld style. A scene lit soft and warm, it’s effect soothing and nostalgic followed by an ominous situation that looks dark and high in contrast. In some ways Dedh Ishqiya is about contrasting moods and spaces and Setu understood this fully.”
“The Cinematographer – Director relationship is the most important relationship on a film set. The creation of the image their single most important job. It helps when they get along as individuals. Setu and I have many things in common. It was great fun jamming with him on set, whether we were discussing dramatic emotions, figuring out lensing for a scene or merely pulling each others’ legs. We tend to do the last one a lot.

Saurabh: I feel Dedh Ishqiya was two films in a film in terms of style…
Yes, it is. It was more about creating one world into the other. Once you come to the haveli everything changes. That was a conscious decision in terms of style as well as the way it was lit up.

This film was shot for how many days?
It was shot in 55 days and that song took 4/5 days. In all it took 60 days.

Saurabh: Also wanted to ask you, after you finished the film about the projections and outputs…
It was a nightmare. It is worse than the film print days. So many file formats..

Saurabh: Tell us about the deliveries, now every six months there are more number of deliverables…
Exactly, I don’t know if ACES is going to solve the problems.

AM: What was your work flow, your RAW files came to you on the DI suite and you did a 2K master on the Base light or Lustre or Resolve?
I worked on Resolve, 2K Raw, Linear workflow.

AM: Did you encounter any color fringing around the clipping whites, sky meets tree for example
Yes that’s quite irritating, its my first film on digital so I am on the learning curve.

AM: So, what’s next?
Sujoy’s next project with Vidya Balan in Bengal, it’s not going to be Kahaani 2 but will be the same genre.

AM: And you will be shooting on?
I don’t know. Digital may be.

AM: So this thing is irreversible now, is Digital cinematography the way to go..
Not at all, I feel we will still be shooting film for a while.

AM: Any advice for a person who is starting out as a cinematographer in Mumbai.
Don’t watch Indian Television.

AM: Any interesting films you have seen recently?
I enjoyed ‘Ship of Theseus’ that’s was very unusual image making. I really enjoyed it. It was shot Canon 1 D, I think. Another of the joys of shooting long fiction is that 5 minutes into the film and it doesn’t really matter what you originated on, the film creates it’s own experience..

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