Tuesday, 30 April 2013

In Search of The Yellow Flowers aka The Yash Chopra Syndrome

This is the story of scene 6 of our film - Sabse Badi Daulat. It's a scene showing the hero and heroine on a 'date' i.e. they are sitting in a field and having a conversation. I wanted this to be  a kind of romantic shot so as to show that despite her claims to the contrary, the girl actually does love the guy. I decided to do this by showing the guy lying under a tree with his head on the heroine's lap. So far, I am talking about the writing stage of things.

When we were actually on location and got around to shooting this scene, I wanted to find the perfect spot for my talent to sit. It didn't prove to be so easy. I had my local advisers at my elbow and they were willing to show me the whole village and beyond until I could find my perfect spot. And we did almost that.

Starting from home base, I walked with them looking at literally every tree that we came across to see if it would do.

Have I told you that I have a bit of Yash Chopra syndrome? I don't have any delusions of grandeur that I would eventually replace the great dream merchant and fill the void left by him in the Indian film industry, but still I am inspired by him. In order to imitate his amazingly successful style, I wanted to have the yellow "mustard" flowers on the screen for this scene (and in any other outdoor scene!).

Easier said than done! If there was a tree it was possible to sit under, there was no field around it, if there was a field and also the tree in it, there was no space to sit under it. And rarely, when both were there, there were no yellow flowers in the background.

So here I was sniffing around each field to see if I could shoot there, my local consultants following on my heels, and rest of the crew and cast following a space behind me hoping to see me throw my hands in the air and shout "Eureka!" before they dropped from exhaustion!

Ultimately we came to a spot where the tree was present, it was possible to sit under it, and there were some yellow flowers a short distance from there. I decided that we would use low angles to include that mustard field in the shot as backdrop.

But when my local advisers found out what I wanted they said, "We can pluck some of those yellow flower plants and plant them here behind the tree if you want?"

I was like "Really?"

Turned out that they were not joking! On my request, that's exactly what they did! They plucked some of those flower plants by the roots, used a stick to drill holes in the ground around the tree and planted those uprooted plants.

I had my yellow flowers!

 And that's where we shot scene 6. The supreme irony of it was that the spot that I finally chose for the shot was less than a stone's throw from home base! In my hunt for the yellow flowers, I had gone all around in a huge circle!

Directors, huh? 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sabse Badi Daulat - The Magnum Opus story

I promised I will give you more stories from the production schedule of SBD. For a low-budget short film this thing was big and it was eventful!

Magnum Opus, was actually scene no. 11 in my script. It's a simple scene in essence. The hero has left his father's house opposing his dowry demand. He comes to see the girl, they meet in the street and he asks her to come with him. She says no, they disagree, he leaves. That's the whole scene. It has very few lines of dialogues, mostly poignant pauses.

What made this simple scene complex was that I wanted it to be special. I had a certain vision for it, complete with lighting, performances and the look. Hence, I called it my Magnum Opus, which means "Big work" in Latin, like a masterpiece.

The very first evening when we got there, I sat my team down, the cast as well as the crew, and told them that this was one scene where I would not accept anything less than perfect. I told them I was sorry for using that word but for this scene I wanted everything "perfect", even if we had to shoot it many times.

How true were those words!

My team promised me full support and we set out for our shooting.

Our second night there we made an attempt at it. For lighting we used 3 battery-powered, emergency lights with LED bulbs in them and dimmer controls. They were good, but I wanted the lights to illuminate only the actors and that was hard to rig perfectly for the camera.

So I tried a custom solution. We made a "lightbox" from two empty cartons of water bottles by pasting white papers inside the box. Then we experimented by holding an emergency light outside the box but facing inside. When this box was pointed at the actors it gave a soft, white, diffused light.

On top of that the temperature was down to about 1 degree Celsius with a freezing wind coming from the fields and my actors were very cold. The heroine was in a thin suit and the hero in shirt sleeves. I could see that any time I gave them notes about the performances, Jyoti would take her shawl back first and only then listen to my comments.

I offered to postpone the scene for another night but nobody wanted to give up, not even Jyoti, who I felt was the coldest of all at that moment.

We tried it for a while, but the performances were not where I wanted them, my hero was too shy, I think, for that intense lovers quarrel scene, and after about 2 hours we called it quits.

Looking at the rushes later, I found that it was a total loss. The light was way too low among other problems.

The next night we shot scene 10 which comes before the Magnum Opus scene in the film, it shows a Ladies Sangeet scene where the heroine is present with her best friend. This is where the hero sends a small kid to call her outside.

A small story about this scene as well. The shooting was done with ladies from the neighbourhood and the small kid also I drafted right on the spot. The shoot was done in about hour and a half, and we packed it up. I told the ladies we were done. But they were having so much fun they kept singing and dancing another 2 hours even after we had  finished our part. :)

Then we returned to Magnum Opus on our fourth night there. 

This time we tried a different lighting styles. We used the lights on dimmers as well as using different surfaces to bounce the light. The light was better than the previous attempt but only a little and the performances, well that was a different story! 

I kept using words like "intensity", "the aggression in love", "emotion", "subdued rage", "frustration" etc. Other than the dialogue delivery I wanted a certain type of body language etc. to convey the subtext. 

At one point, my hero got fed up with my comments on each take and asked me to show him how to do it. Okay, so I did. And still...

Oh well, to cut a long story short, we did about 20 takes again, in a cold night, and finally gave up. Though it was not as cold as the first night we tried it, staying there for long did make everybody shiver. 

When we looked at the rushes, the lighting was better than last attempt but neither the light nor the performances were perfect. And I wanted perfect for this scene. 

We tried a third time on the 5th night, the last night that we were there. This time I left my jacket off. I had been feeling a bit guilty about keeping my actors out in the cold for take after take so without making any  fuss about it, I just quietly left my jacket in the house before setting out. You can call me macho if you like, I won't object. :) 

This time we used the same emergency lights without any special rig, but we used certain angles that I liked. My 1st AD, Sagar, took the initiative in experimenting and finding those angles that worked and I looked from behind the camera. 

It's hard to describe the angles in text but Sagar himself was holding one light with an outstretched arm, just outside the cone of the camera view. Before each take I had to push on his back to flatten him against the wall, he was that close the edge of the frame. The poor guy got a crick in his back by the time we finished. In addition to Sagar, there were two of the village lads who were each holding a light facing the actors.

Once I got the lights set up to my satisfaction, we started on the performances. Priyanka had given odds that day that there would be at least 15 retakes. There we no takers. We all had our estimates of the retakes for the night. So, we were all ready for a long haul.

And long haul, it was!

I was not happy with my hero's body language, and there were times when he forgot the lines. I can't blame him though; it was a very high-pressure scene. But that didn't stop anybody else from making fun of him. Couple of times even the heroine laughed at the way he delivered a line. It wasn't always his fault but he was a good sport and didn't grieve about it. All in all it was fun even though it was hard work!

Finally we did about 20 takes and when I was sure that  I could piece together the whole scene from different takes, I called for pack up.

And that is how we did Magnum Opus. None of us are likely to forget that scene or the words Magnum Opus for the rest of our lives!