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25 years of DDLJ: We planned the Punjab locations and portions six months in advance, says cinematographer Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh, now a leading director in Punjabi cinema, recalls the challenge of making the visuals from Punjab match up to the beauty of the film's European locations. The whole impact of the film would have been lost otherwise, he says.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Think of Punjab and chances are the mind will conjure up the now-clichéd image of verdant green fields lush with vibrant yellow mustard flowers swaying gently in the breeze.

This quintessential image of Punjab was created by Aditya Chopra in his directorial debut Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and remains etched in the popular imagination.

The man behind the lens, who created and shot this image, was ace cinematographer Manmohan Singh, a stalwart of Punjabi cinema.

Interested in photography from a young age, Manmohan Singh graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and got his first stint working on Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978).

Thereafter, he worked on GP Sippy’s Ahsaas (1979), the Punjabi film Chann Pardesi (1981) and his first film with Yash Chopra, Vijay (1988), which was the beginning of a partnership. Manmohan Singh went on to work on Yash Chopra's landmark films Chandni (1989), Lamhe (1991), Darr (1993), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and Mohabbatein (2000).

Some of his other films in Hindi cinema are Betaab (1983), Chaal Baaz (1989), Lekin (1990), Maachis (1996), Hu Tu Tu (1999) and Filhaal (2002).

Speaking of his long association with Chopra and the latter's emphasis on creating compelling visuals, Manmohan Singh said, “Yashji was very fond of beautiful visuals — whether it was the cast, the location or the sets. Especially in the films that I worked on with him, glamour was extremely important, whether it was Darr or Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Chandni, Lamhe, because he had this great vision of beauty in everything and took special care in selecting the locations, the costumes of the cast and went deeply into the visual part of the film. At times, he would be so fascinated by the visuals that he would change the concept according to the visuals. That helps the cinematographer also. We had a beautiful working relationship. He never interfered in whatever I would do. I was free to give him any suggestion, but he gave me full respect as a colleague though he was much older than me.”

When it came to his son's debut, the veteran filmmaker pulled out all the stops and called in the old hands to create the film's foundation.

Recalling the making of the film, the cinematographer-turned-director said, “It was a very ambitious project. At that time, before the start of DDLJ, I had started my film as a director with Teerandaz (1993) with Sunny Deol and Sridevi, along with another film. I was working on both these films as director. Yashji came to me and said that ‘Aditya has asked for you to work on his film’. I told him, ‘Yashji, whenever Adi starts his film, I will do it. This is a promise to you’, and I stood by that.

"It was a beautiful experience working with Aditya, where Yashji was working as production manager for him, doing the recce, sitting on the music, the script... of course, Adi had his own vision regarding the film and stuck to it.”

Visually, the film charted a fairly large expanse, moving from locales in England and taking us through some of the most scenic locations across Europe. Along with this were the earthy, rooted images of Punjab, evoking the beauty and nostalgia associated with one’s homeland.

Previously, Chetan Anand’s Heer Raanjha (1970) had notably portrayed Punjab in all its vibrant colour and splendour. A quarter century later, DDLJ offered audiences an equally enduring image of Punjab and Punjabiyat (Punjabi culture).

Recalling the thought process behind the imagery, Manmohan Singh said, “The film had to look beautiful. This was the requirement of the film. And as the father of the girl still loves Punjab, loves India, and wants to come back, so we were careful that coming from Europe to Punjab, the visuals should not suffer. If the film was weak visually, the whole impact would be lost. We had to show that Punjab which looks beautiful and has life. So shooting that portion was more difficult. It was a challenge and we were very aware that it has to look great. We worked hard on the location where we would shoot and planned everything six months in advance.”

Aside from this, the motif of the journey, symbolized through trains, was equally crucial in the film. As the cinematographer explained, “The way we shot the train sequences was special because it’s a journey, a journey through Europe, and that’s something I will never forget. It was like we owned the train and the station and we could do whatever we wanted! That was a great help given by Switzerland. We could never have achieved that [the visuals] without their help. We wanted to create those visuals and needed the locations, sitting in the bogies, on the platform, shooting at the station elaborately without any difficulty, so that was a journey for us. It was something everybody enjoyed and this is one film which every person in the unit enjoyed.”

While images of Punjab were being forged for the big screen, there were several examples of Punjabiyat seen off screen, where the unit came together like a family. Reminiscing about this, Manmohan Singh said, “Yashji was a jolly person, he loved life. He was always happy when people were around. One special thing was the way in which the entire unit was taken care of by Yashji and actually his wife Pamelaji. It was a treat for us. When she would be around, she would see to it that every member is eating properly and we have the best food. I have worked for almost 40 years in 'Bollywood', but this was special to Yashji. The food served by him was something we would always cherish. And he loved food!”

As a filmmaker, Manmohan Singh gave a shot in the arm to Punjabi cinema with films like Jee Aayan Nu (2002), Dil Apna Punjabi (2006), Mitti Wajaan Maardi (2007) and Mera Pind (2008). Melding glamour, beauty and aesthetics with a social message, they created a powerful template that was followed by other filmmakers.

Talking about the impact of various filmmakers on his own work as director, Manmohan Singh said, “I worked with Yashji for a long time and it becomes a habit to work like that, so great visuals was something I tried in Punjabi films also. The visuals, the beauty and the glamour were definitely influenced by him. After a time, you don’t have to work for it, it comes naturally. I worked with Gulzar saheb in many films and he had a great impact on me. In my Punjabi films, I say I have the visuals and beauty of Yashji and the simplicity and realism of Gulzar saheb, so I think I am a combination of these two directors.”

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Indian cinema