Normally, actors and their available dates are the sole deciding factors for the shooting schedule of a film. But, for the critically acclaimed mystery-thriller, Tumbbad, there was another variant that was calling the shots — natural light, or the lack of it. “The entire schedule of the film was planned around light. We wanted the consistent grey tone, which can only come with the heavy rain-filled clouds of monsoons. So, we shot over two monsoons. This is quite a special thing, a shooting schedule is never centred around light alone,” says Pankaj Kumar, the cinematographer of Tumbbad.
“The dark grey tone and constant rain give a kind of ominous feel to this village called Tumbbad and, even when the narrative shifts to Pune, we have kept it on the greyscale. We wanted a constant sense of gloom and dread. The atmosphere became a character in the film,” he adds.
Tumbbad is largely set in a mythical village, where it’s always raining. The camera is fearless as it gets up, close and personal with its characters. The film is also set in the early 1900s and there is no electricity. The climax of the film, which was set in the womb of the goddess, had only one source of light — an oil lamp. “The surreal climax was, equally, an exciting opportunity and very challenging. First, the space was akin to a dark, red chamber, with just one source of light. Then, we had multiple, immense shadows that are constantly moving. I loved that play of light. And to be able to manifest it, I am happy,” says Kumar.
Kumar has now become one of the most sought-after lensman of the industry. He made his debut as a director of photography with the visually stunning Ship of Theseus (SOT) and followed it up with Haider (2014), Talvar (2015) and Rangoon (2017). Tumbbad is his second venture with producer and actor Sohum Shah, after SOT. “Working with Sohum (Shah), on these two projects was like working with the family, which also demands long-term engagement and commitment. Both films were completely outside the studio system. We had an autonomy that otherwise doesn’t exist in mainstream films, especially where visuals are concerned,” says the FTII graduate. He adds that Anil Barve, the director of the film, had prepared a storyboard that resembled a graphic novel. “I knew that Tumbbad would have to be told visually as well,” says Kumar.
Kumar, who was raised all over India as his father was in the Indian Air Force, has always been fascinated with the moving image and the camera. “I started with still photography. I always wanted to transport the audience to the centre of the action. I shot SOT the same way, and I think it got further enhanced in Tumbbad,” says Kumar, who is great admirer of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Burn After Reading) and the visual language of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovksy.
The lensman laments that not many mainstream films keep the visual language in mind. “Our scripts are primarily dialogue driven. We need a visual narrative to be woven into the script right at the conception level or we would keep suffering from mediocre cinematography. I suspect that most Bollywood films can be heard on radio. But imagine how Tumbbad would sound on a radio? Sab cheez radio pe nahin dekh sakte hain. When a script doesn’t allow it, even top class cinematographers can’t do anything,” says Kumar.
There is, of course, now competition provided by VFX. One wonders if the green screen will make the human touch and vision redundant? “Anything created only with VFX is a forced spectacle. They are created to dazzle audiences. Baahubali is not my kind of cinema. I detest the green screen as it takes away from cinematography. There is no sense of space, place and time with green screen,” says Kumar, 43, who spent a part of his growing up years in Hyderabad, where he finished his school and college.
He is hopeful. “I hear a lot more of the phrase, ‘it’s shot well’, and not just from cinema-literate people, but the aam janta. I think, if images are telling a story effectively, people respond and acknowledge the craft that goes into creating them,” he concludes.