Cinematographer Dominique Colin discusses his work on Rohena Gera’s film “Sir”

[English] [français]

Dominique Colin (I Stand Alone, L’Auberge Espagnole, The French Kissers) shot the first movie by young female Indian director Rohena Gera this year. It is in competition in the Critics’ Week. The film was entirely shot in Bombay, a city to which the Bollywood cinema industry is extremely important. A look at this love story in an upper-class apartment building between a maid and her employer. (FR)

How did you come to work on this project in India ?

Dominique Colin : Rohena Gera, the director, wanted to work with a French cinematographer for her first film. I was lucky that she chose me, mainly because she was familiar with my work with Cédric Klapisch. It was a rare opportunity for me to get to know Bombay and its cinematic savoir-faire, a world that I had never experienced in a real way.
The film is profoundly anchored in Bombay and describes contemporary Indian society. It is a universe in which the caste system is slowly evolving into a class system, and in which social divisions are still hard to overcome. Nonetheless, the screenplay is full of nuance, and Rohena wanted to provide a modern point of view, one that went beyond the flamboyant style for which Indian cinema is known abroad.

Is that why the image was intentionally done in a European style ?

DC : Yes, for sure. She wanted to make a clean break with Indian cinema. Besides, this film might appeal to Europeans more than to Indians ! In any case, the film was first launched without any French money or assistance, and then gradually found partners as we were making it. So, this is primarily an Indian film, which was directed in a European style.

What did you take away from your experience in India ?

DC : As you know, Indian crews are often pretty massive. It was out of the question to shoot Sir in such conditions. So, we insisted on having as few people on the crew as possible. Despite that, even though we shot the film almost entirely with the camera on the shoulder, we immediately found ourselves with two grips. As for the gaffers : in India, the entire team is supplied by the renter of lighting equipment, and they come with the equipment in function of what you chose, no matter the project. Since the film was almost entirely shot in a real apartment (located in a luxury building nearing the end of construction), once we’d done the pre-lighting, there wasn’t much left for the five sparks to do !

Other than that, the crews in India really give you the experience of old-time work. They’ve also got a really sophisticated cinema culture. I felt that from the first days on shooting : when you ask the gaffer for something, you have the effect you requested a few minutes later, but it’s even better than what you’d imagined. In fact, the main challenge was not to overly-systematize the sole set. Because we shot the film in nearly-chronological order, I insisted that we regularly set up and break down, so that things would change a bit throughout the film and would give each scene its own specificity.
Another thing is the responsiveness of the technicians. It’s pretty surprising when you come from a set in France, where everything is everything is prepared and regulated by security considerations. For example, I remember that I noted, during scouting, that there was a passageway in the building under construction that would let us get to the roof for a couple of takes. Of course, when shooting began, we realized that the workers had blocked off the passageway. Far from worrying about the situation, the grips jerry-rigged an outdoor lift on cables and pullies that allowed us to get to the roof and get the takes we wanted.

What lighting equipment did you have available ?

DC : The equipment is really the same as here, and you’ve got a broad choice to select from. When you go visit some of the renters, you feel like you’re in a hangar four times the size of Transpalux ! We had a small budget on this film, so I had to settle on a simple list. Nonetheless, I was able to use a few SkyPanels that came in handy for adjusting the lighting inside in function of the day or night outside of the windows that I had to manage. Furthermore, because the building was built next to a shantytown, it was important to me that we see what was outside of this “ivory tower”. A large terrace also allowed me to light a bit from outdoors, which wasn’t a luxury on some of the scenes. A funny story : we weren’t the only ones shooting in that building, and, just one floor below, another Indian movie in the purest Bollywood style was being shot. One day, out of curiosity, I went to see the apartment they were using as their set, which was flooded by (at the very least) 30kW of HMI light ! That’s when I understood why Rohena wanted to make a more European-style movie !

What equipment did you choose to film this story ?

DC : The film is entirely based on human relationships that change throughout the film. That’s why I decided to work with nuance and in the instant. I found that digital cinematography lends itself well to that type of approach. With my own Sony FS5 camera in hand, I was able to be completely autonomous on this film, meaning very light and very mobile. This camera is remarkably pleasant on the shoulder, and I used it on occasion with a Helix stabiliser. This stabiliser doesn’t need an exoskeleton to be operated and you get the same height and almost the same feeling with it as though you were carrying it on your shoulder.
In order to keep the configuration as light as possible, I almost entirely shot the film with my Veydra series, especially manufactured for the Sony camera. Three lenses (25-35-50mm), very compact but very well-manufactured, and which give me a pleasant, neutral, and well-defined image.

What was your workflow ?

DC : I shot most of the film in RAW, except for the few outdoor daytime sequences, which had to be shot in ProRes, essentially for budgetary reasons. On location, besides the focus-puller, I just had one other Indian assistant camera operator and a DIT who was in charge of saving the images and who made the dailies in a rudimentary way using two LUTs I’d summarily prepared. I can’t say the dailies were faithful to what we did later in colour grading, but I feel at ease using the technique of blindly filming (as though using a film camera) without trying to obtain a definitive result instantaneously. By basing myself on the rendering of the FS5’s viewfinder, approximative though it may be, I have enough to go on to adjust things on set.

What about in postproduction ?

DC : Colour timing lasted for two weeks and was done with my old friend Lionel Kopp (he and Dominique founded Les Trois Lumières lab in the 1990s), and we always work in the same way : a quick go-through to fix the densities and perfect the lighting on spliced scenes, and then we go over again a few more times to refine things, without ever pausing too long on one scene – otherwise, we might get lost or make the wrong decision.

Ratna is a servant working in the home of Ashwin, the scion of a rich Mumbai family. The young man’s life seems perfect, but he feels lost. Ratna senses that he has given up on his dreams. She has nothing, but her hopes and her determination obstinately guide her. Two worlds, separated by everything, meet, discover one another, and brush up against one another…

(Interview conducted by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)