Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar talks to Padma Iyer about his process while making the film Tumbbad, the challenges he faced and a lot more
How did the journey of Tumbbad begin?
I met Rahi (Anil Barve) in 2006. We did a short film Manjha together. One day, while we were editing the film, it was two o’clock at night and he narrated this story to me. It was amazing and we knew that we had to make this film. At the time, we didn’t know that it would take us so long and it would be such an intense journey. None of us had made any films at that time; we only had dreams and when you dream, you don’t know what’s in store for you.
At that time, I had no idea whether this film would be made. But we intended to make it, and the way Rahi got into it is what made it a reality. When I told Rahi that we had to make this film, I thought he would take time to write the script and that I would have to push him to get it done. But he was ready with the script the next week! The story board was 600 pages long. I was, like, if he is so much into this, then this will happen. That’s when our journey began.
We started working towards raising funds for the film and that was an altogether different struggle. The script went to a lot of financiers, investors and production studios. Everyone was excited about the film. No one rejected it outright. The moment they saw Rahi’s presentation and his story board, and when they read the script, they knew this was unique. They were all excited. But when it came down to numbers, it was not sitting right. No one was prepared to invest the money. This was ten years ago, it was a different time.
Do you think this was the right time for this film to release?
It would have been amazing if the film had come out in 2012 or 2015, when it was made. Any time would have been a good time for this film to release.
The canvas of the film is huge, especially the visuals. Did you always plan to shoot the film the way you did?
The large-scale work reflects the ambition with which we went ahead to make this film. We were not subtle about it. Rahi has no subtlety and I was completely taken in by his enthusiasm. We wanted our first film to be the biggest ever; we are going to make it for the big screen, the big canvas. All this was subconsciously reflected in our visual style. And since the film was set in a certain time period, we wanted the audience to be completely a part of the atmosphere we created. So, visually, yes it had to be grim and gloomy.
The idea was that once the audience enters the theatre, we would grab them by the throat and not leave them till they leave the theatre; rather we should not leave them even after they leave the theatre. They should come back to the theatre to become a part of it again and again. That was the ambition, the idea. Today, I feel very fortunate that we were able to achieve it.
You have worked with a very limited colour palette. How did you decide on that?
The palette of the film was always going to be very limited. The film is shot in a very specific light and we did not want to deviate from it. For the outdoors, we didn’t use any artificial lighting. We waited for nature to give us light. We waited for clouds to cover the sky, so that we could create the atmosphere of rain. And it rains all the time in the film. So that limited our lighting palette.
Prosthetics are an important part of this film. What is your approach while shooting?
To shoot heavy prosthetics like we had in this film, you need to have a lot of patience. You also need very good prosthetic art. And people who were involved in the prosthetics for this film were exemplary and amazingly talented. Gurpreet Dhuri and his team designed the prosthetics. They were very heavy to carry, so there was tremendous effort from the actors as well. Shooting the prosthetic is easier; the difficult part is to actually make them. And our emphasis was to make them as realistic as possible. If the textures is right and the materials used are as close to human skin or monster skin as possible, then we could photograph it like we would human skin.
The film has been shot with many restrictions – space, colour palette, weather, cast… everything. What challenges did you face?
To create that atmosphere, we needed these restrictions. Like I said, we did not want to distract from the world we had created. The claustrophobic spaces and sets were not designed to be camera friendly or lighting friendly or shooting friendly. They were designed in a way that you felt creepy. You just wanted to get out of the house as soon as you entered it.
Shooting in the house was very challenging. The camera was always in my hand. We did not have any grip equipment as the restricted space would not allow for it. In this particular sequence, when Sohum (Shah) comes back to Tumbbad, the grandmother has transformed into this extremely weird being. The house is covered with roots and cobwebs. So it was extremely challenging to move the camera. We had to rehearse and my assistants would keep tearing the cobwebs as I moved with the camera, so that I could squeeze the camera in any way possible.
Another thing that comes to mind is the depth that is created in the scenes. It is not a 3D film but it looks like one.
It is very interesting that you mention that, as that was one of the very important visual cues of the film that I had in my mind. I wanted the film to have a lot of depth. We kept the camera moving in a dynamic way and that is one of the tools that we used to get the audience into it.
Whenever the camera was in my hand, I always saw the film from an audience perspective; where would I place myself as a viewer to watch this action. Usually, I find cinematic framing very boring, non-involving. That is a different kind of art, where you want the audience to be distant and you want them to merely observe a framed piece of art. But, in the case of this film, unless you put the audience in that space, they are not going to experience the horror that takes place. And, to do that, the camera had to move exactly as a person in that space would move.
The climax has been talked about a lot. How was that experience?
It was a very spooky experience being on set as the set was created in a way that it palpitated. It was created entirely out of silicon. The production design is fabulous. So these crazy guys, Nitin (Zihani Choudhary) and Rakesh (Yadav), actually created the set out of silicon. And there was a team of people who figured out the machinery that made it come alive. So when we would stand on the ground of the set, we would feel the ground moving and breathing. It was spooky to shoot there.
It was not as claustrophobic as shooting in the house, as it was a set. Also a lot of stunt work had to be done. Initially, this monster Hastar was an actor with full body prosthetics. It was a difficult part to play. If we had known from the beginning that we would finally do the character in CG, we wouldn’t have made the heavy prosthetics. Shooting the scene was very challenging. We were not moving the camera in a way that was VFX friendly at all. We shot the scenes with an actor with wires etc. In the end, it was replaced by CG. All the movements look realistic because they are shot on a real person.
When you are working with CG and VFX, does it change the way the camera is used?
It usually does but in Tumbbad, I made sure it didn’t. In the climax sequence, when we had to multiply characters, the normal way of shooting would have been through motion-control equipment. We did that in the first schedule in 2012. It is such a heavy piece of equipment. It is a crane that replicates the movements. But it became highly restricting and the scene was just not working. It was not the language of the film.
I wanted the audience to get into that hell hole, into the womb of the goddess. I wanted the audience to get close to the monster. So when we redid the scene in the second schedule, I told the VFX supervisor that I was not going to use motion control, I would be using a handheld camera and I would not be thinking about the VFX. He let me shoot it the way I wanted to, and the rest was taken care of.
That was a very solid climax and it gave us goose bumps when we read it. So there was no way we could mess it up while shooting. We shot a lot more material for the climax, but CG is so expensive. That is why the scene is so contained and it is way shorter than the length we shot. But it is effective, I guess.
The film was shot over a long period of time and in between you ended up working on other films. So when you went back to Tumbbad, was it difficult to get back into the zone?
The first time I shot it was in 2012 and the second time in 2015. But with Tumbbad, there were no difficulties getting into the zone. The moment I was on the set, I entered that world. Tumbbad was my second film after Ship of Theseus. I had already been through an intense shoot process. And during the actual shooting of this film, I wasn’t doing anything else.
After Tumbbad, are your expectations from your future projects higher?
My expectations are very high. I want better scripts and nothing else gives you satisfaction. But that was then. Tumbbad was done three years ago. After that, I did go through this intense period of frustration of not finding anything as substantial as this film was. But I have made my peace with that. I have set my expectations lower and I am happier now. I am extremely proud of Tumbbad. Now that the film has released, it is a cathartic feeling, a big relief.
Did any of you who were a part of this film ever worry that the audience may not get this film?
No. None of us ever had any doubts that the film would be incomprehensible to any section of the audience. With Ship of Theseus, I never thought the film would release commercially. But with Tumbbad, we knew that this film was not intellectual. It appeals to the basic instinct of any human being. So why wouldn’t anyone not relate to it?
After Tumbbad, what’s next?
I just finished shooting Mental Hai Kya. It was a very enjoyable process. I enjoy the difference that each film brings.
You seem to love shooting with a hand-held camera. Why is that?
All my films have been shot on hand-held cameras. I like to hold the camera. I like to respond to actors. I like to respond to the performances. And I like to respond to scene and its energy. I don’t move the camera all the time. With any script, the first thing I try to figure out is the rhythm of the film. Once that is clear, then I know when to move the camera and when not to.
With changing technology, do you think that the credit of good camera work may be taken away from the man behind the lens?
A camera doesn’t do any of the work; it is always the person behind camera that does all the work. The camera is just a tool. Imagination is a very human thing. There is no other life form that possesses it. As long as human beings have imagination, art is only going to emerge from that. All machines are just tools and they too are products of the human imagination. All these inventions, new technologies… I love them. I love any product that is a result of creative thinking. It is the manifestation of the greatest gift of nature to human beings – the imagination. So we should celebrate it.