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Interview Hindi

Cinematographer's job is to translate director's vision on screen: Tumhari Sulu's Saurabh Goswami

Goswami, the man behind the camera for Tumhari Sulu, speaks about the technique, art and challenges of cinematography in a changing film industry.

Shriram Iyengar

The magic of Suresh Triveni's Tumhari Sulu has been spreading like wildfire. While the film has been lauded for its magical characters and realistic portrayal of a middle-class family in Mumbai, it is filled with some amazing behind-the-scenes work. The cinematography and lighting raise the quality of the story to another level.

Praise for doing that job well goes to Saurabh Goswami. A close collaborator of Suresh Triveni from their advertising days, Goswami has previously worked on films such as Ek Thi Daayan (2013), Dolly Ki Doli (2015) and Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016).

Before Tumhari Sulu's release, Goswami joined director Triveni and production designer Dhara Jain on a visit to the Cinestaan.com office to speak about the film and the work that went into it. The realistic style and simple composition of the film are factors that support the wonderful script and raise the film's quality.

Vidya Balan's very arrival lights up the sets: Tumhari Sulu director Suresh Triveni

Throughout the interaction, Goswami revelled in talking about working in tandem with Triveni and Jain on the sets of Tumhari Sulu. "We sat down for 42 days before the shoot to prep for the film," he said. This long preparation, the director revealed, was key to the rapid schedule in which the film was shot. However, it came at a price. The cinematographer had to be strapped to the camera when the crew shot under the harsh Mumbai sun. This, though, is part of the job, he admitted.

A fan of Roger Deakins, Goswami sat down to speak with us about the role of a cinematographer, the reason he prefers to avoid VFX, and why everything in the frame has to be about the story. Excerpts: 

So, what does a cinematographer do? What is his role, in your opinion?

For me, it is translating the director's vision. Completely understanding the director's vision and translating it on the big screen. That is, if you want to tell a story. If you don't want to tell a story and show your work, you can do a lot of things. 

What was the one visual brief that you took in when shooting for Tumhari Sulu?

My brief from Suresh [Triveni] was pretty simple — beauty in the ordinary. That is what we tried to capture with every frame. The character was also a beautiful character in the ordinary world. That was what we tried to do in terms of framing or lighting.

Vidya Balan in a still from Tumhari Sulu

Capturing the ordinary is a challenge. There is a delicate balance when it comes to lighting and framing. How important were the inputs you received from your director and production designer, and how did you include them in your work?

Suresh gives us a brief. He would tell us this is what he wants out of this scene. Dhara [Jain] would design the place in a certain way in terms of palette, texture, everything. Then I would come in, and this is all a discussion before the shoot. I would also look at it and discuss how I want it to be lit. The location we were shooting in, the house, was a real location in the sense that it was an abandoned flat.

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Dhara recreated everything. Walls that were half broken were turned into windows. For instance, the glass in the window frames. I said they were not fitting correctly into the palette, and that she should try something else. And we did that. 

The basic element of sunlight in a world is important. It was a location where it was difficult for real sunlight to come in, as it was surrounded by foliage and stuff. Everything you see as sunlight in the film is created sunlight. 

It is not a perfect world but an imperfect world. An ordinary world where everything doesn't look perfect. That's where we tried to retain the realism and tried to capture a little bit of the beauty in the realism. 

As a cinematographer, is there ever a desire to use the camera as a tool to create a style, or is the objective to simply capture the scene in honesty?

Yes, we do [think about style]. That's why I said, as a viewer you need to be a part of the world that is happening. So every inch of the detail is accounted for in terms of production design. In terms of camera movement, it needed to be in the world. It needed to follow the character as she is going about her daily routine and her daily life. Even in terms of emotions, how close you are or how [far] away from the character you are depending on the scene's emotions. 

There are moments when you step away and use a different perspective. There are some city shots we have used to say that, basically, this is one home in a city that we are talking about. But it could be any of these houses. 

It is a conscious decision, it always is. And it should be, otherwise you don't tell a story, you just shoot.

So, as an artist-technician, how much of your own creative urges do you apply to the scene, and how much is restrained? And how do you come to the decision?

I think for me, it is easier to decide this because I am a story guy. I believe in telling stories. So any work which overpowers the story is a deterrent. I can't put in my style. I can't push for my style. This is an easy question for me. This applies to any film, any director I would work with. This film [Tumhari Sulu] is a dream to be working on. Every person on that crew was collaborative. Nobody showed their style. There was no ego. 

Be that as it may, there is always a point where a director and a cinematographer will have a divergence in ideas. How do you approach such an impasse?

With Suresh and me at least, we had discussions. There were scenes that he looked at in different ways. I had doubts about a few things which needed to be dealt with in a different way. This is something that happened a long time before the shoot. 

There are times when it gets difficult to see what the director is seeing. The final award after the entire process is when your director says that you have actually captured it exactly the way I had imagined it. We have always come to a conclusion, which could be only his [decision] or only mine.

You have spoken about the preparation time before shooting to sort out differences and lay the foundation. Is that your preferred mode of working as opposed to movies where scenes are decided on the spur of the moment?

I prefer being in prep. I have a longer prep and lesser shoot days because it really helps a cinematographer to understand the director's world. 

Cinematographers are often at the heart of the changing world of technology. There is the new arrival of shooting on 3D. How adaptive are you to technological changes in the field and their impact on the art and craft of cinematography?

I think it is a matter of story again. The only 3D film which worked for me was Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011). None of the others really worked. It had the idea of doing 3D, every visual worked in 3D, and the story worked as 3D. 

Yes, technically, we should learn. But the medium is such that it should work. It is like aspect ratio for me. If I don't shoot in CinemaScope, it is the story that is the reason. 

So, who are the technicians in your field that you admire?

Across industries, no one can beat Roger Deakins. His work stands out. I haven't been able to see the latest Blade Runner because I was caught up with our film. 

I would recommend it for the scale and the visuals created on screen. They are fantastic.

Apparently, it is all on set. There is very little CGI involved in the making of those scenes. That's Roger Deakins. He is another cinematographer who works only for the story.

In the Indian context, I really admire the work of Mohanan sir [KU Mohanan of Miss Lovely (2012), Talaash (2012) and Raees (2017)]. Whatever he does. Anil Mehta [Rockstar (2011), Secret Superstar (2017)] as well. There is Jay Patel, who is shooting Meghna Gulzar's film [Raazi] and is close to my ideologies and I really like his work.

I don't really take inspiration from someone else's work. I know they have worked on a different film, in a different time, with different restrictions. So I go with the flow. 

What is your take on CGI? I know you worked on Ek Thi Daayan (2013), and it is a movie in the horror genre. But as a cinematographer, how willing are you to include effects and CGI in your work?

I would prefer that CGI is avoided as much as possible. I love realism. I love shooting in real locations. Though Ek Thi Daayan required a lot of VFX. 

I am not against VFX. Not that we won't do a good job with it. We do outstanding work. In fact, we do most of the VFX jobs for Hollywood. We just don't give them time. VFX needs time. We should be well prepped for VFX, and then it should be done accordingly. 

In a world where we are obsessed with movement, how does one compose a frame? Is there space for cinematography that creates art, composes frames in still-life format, like, say, a Mani Kaul or a Kumar Shahani?

If you are making art, you need to be very conscious of every frame, every movement, and plan it according to the art. I won't say Tumhari Sulu is a Bollywood film, but we might just break the path. But, at its heart, it is a Bollywood film. It is again the script and the story which demand every frame and movement. I am not very conscious of what social media or other art films are doing in terms of framing or lighting, when I am working on a story. 

The best example would be Mohanan sir's Miss Lovely. It was art. Beautifully shot. But when he comes to something like a Raees, he switches with ease.

I haven't done anything like a Miss Lovely, but I haven't really got an opportunity to do it. 

A still from Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely (2012)

Every cinematographer at some point dreams of becoming a director....

(Laughs.) Yes, we do. Yes, we do. 

So any plans on that front?

Not yet. I am quite happy telling other people's stories right now. But yeah, in some time maybe.