‘Parenting’ from behind the lens: Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee talks about 'Gangubai Kathiawadi'

For cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, whose recent film ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ is the talk of the town, to collaborate in telling a story is a ‘wonderful process, almost like parenting a child’

Sudeep Chatterjee with Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Sudeep Chatterjee with Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Garima Sadhwani

When does the process of making a movie start? Is it on the first day of the shoot when the actors are rehearsing their lines before the camera says ‘action’? Is it when the crew starts building the set? Or is it when the writer starts writing the first draft?

For cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, whose recent film Gangubai Kathiawadi is the talk of the town, the whole thing starts when the director gives him a call and asks him to shoot the movie. Says Chatterjee, “It’s a beautiful responsibility that the director entrusts you with. To collaborate in telling a story is a wonderful process, almost like parenting a child.”

When he first reads the script, Chatterjee starts visualizing the world in his mind, which takes form with a few tweaks here and there. Each discussion with the director only gives more shape to this idea. Chatterjee feels there’s a lot a cinematographer is responsible for- the lighting, the sets- but what matters the most is keeping intact the vision with which the film needs to be made.

But the film doesn’t always turn out the way it was first envisioned. Chatterjee says, “With a director like Sanjay [Leela Bhansali], who evolves with every take, the process is much more dynamic.” Each day on set something new is explored, layers and sub-texts added and the film made grander with each scene.

And while some may think of Bhansali as a tough taskmaster, Chatterjee feels that every day he has spent with the filmmaker on set has made him grow as a cinematographer. He smiles, “Sanjay is perhaps the most democratic director I’ve worked with. He makes sure all of the decisions on the set are extremely mutual. And he makes sure that the potential he sees in you is extracted.” This means that on most days, the team is pushed to work beyond what they think they are capable of, which just makes the whole project more beautiful, shares he.

Then does all of this make a cinematographer’s job more creative, or is it more technical? It’s a mix of both. For instance, during the shooting, the cinematographer needs to take a call on whether the scene requires a wide-angle shot because it needs to show the bigger picture, or whether it requires a close-up to focus on the emotions of the protagonist.

Interestingly, the whole shoot of Gangubai Kathiawadi happened indoors. Chatterjee explains, “We decided to create an outdoor set, but it was all covered so it became an indoor shoot, which meant that the whole film needed to be shot in artificial lighting.” This posed a huge challenge to the crew as the lighting needed to be shifted and managed with each take.

This, says Chatterjee, was the hardest technical and creative choice made in the film. It isn’t easy creating the illusion of daylight on a set where there is no source of natural light while also playing with shadows and different light angles. Chatterjee says, “I always try to be cautious so that in my attempt to dramatise, I do not lose the element of realism.”

Another challenge was recreating the Mumbai where Gangubai lived. Coming to the rescue of the team, the director shared with them a lot of insight into the kind of architecture and places he saw growing up in Mumbai, that eventually helped shape the film set.

For Chatterjee, what defined the film was the idea to tell the story of a woman fighting and struggling for her rights through the life of a prostitute. The cinematographer says that they didn’t want to show Kamathipura as a disgusting place, but instead as a place of dignity and beauty where real women lived and loved. “For me, it was a gratifying experience to find beauty, not just of the eye but of the soul, in the most disgusting and depressing of places, and to show them to our audience as well,” smiles Chatterjee.

The film itself was a gratifying experience for Chatterjee because it released after a lot of hiccups. The cinematographer shares that originally they were working on a film called Inshallah, which they completely delved into and worked on for months, only for it to be shelved one day before the shooting was to begin. And when the team took on Gangubai and started shooting, the lockdowns happened, posing a whole new set of challenges. To finally see it on the big screen, was an experience that Chatterjee had long waited for.

Is there anything that the cinematographer would do differently if he had a chance to work on the film again? Um, yes. A few things maybe. The lighting here, the shot there, something else could be highlighted in a different scene. Chatterjee laughs that while chasing perfection, a lot of long days and nights have already been spent on the set.

Chatterjee believes that each image becomes unique when you add a little bit of yourself to it. Extending a word of advice to aspiring cinematographers, he says, “Making images today has become a tad bit easier, so put in your story and your individual take to make each image your own. Create something that pulls people out of their homes and takes them to the cinema halls.”

But that isn’t enough, Chatterjee strongly believes that whatever cinema we create, also documents our times and lives, and so, each image must hold the truth that shows a genuine reality of our world for our future generations.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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