Anil Mehta

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Q. The DOP always helps the Director in the realization of his vision. What kind of locations came to your mind regarding that vision when Imtiaz narrated the Script to you and how did you go about choosing the locations?

To begin with Imtiaz narrated only the idea, not the script, he was still working on it.  Straight awayit was very clear to me that this film was going to unusual places.  It’s a kidnap story that starts in Delhi. So in a sense it’s a story that has to stay off the Highway. Locations were first plotted on a map in Imtiaz’s office, what route would the kidnappers take. Imtiaz’s long time Associate, Rajesh Tibrewalthen went on the first recce by himself.

My chat with him before he left was’ “don’t think logistics, find places that ‘smell’ right for the movie, lets push ourselves and production.”  We were more interested in what is true for the film.  The Salt Factory, near Sambar, where she is kept captive is not a very friendly place-there are no hotels nearby and you have to travel one and a half hour to the nearest hotel, but we were not concerned about all these things.

The spirit of the film determined  the locations. We trekked 45 minutes from Aru in Pahalgam to reach the village location for the climax.

In the upper Himachalthe roads and hotels had not yet opened for tourism, we shot in towns like ReckongPeo, Nako, Kaza. It was -5 degrees one night in a hotel in Kaza, without electricity and water.

Imtiaz likes to shoot his films in script sequence and he is very loyal to real locations. That sets a tone for the film.

Q. What was your basic approach to cinematography in “Highway” ?

I approached Highway with an ‘Indie’ spirit. Minimal Gear, Shoot from the hip, Keep it simple…

When we finished shooting in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan I shed all the big lights, because everything from thereon was day exterior. There was somenight scenes in Punjab and Kashmir but I kept stripping down the kit.  For the climax we were down to a portable generator, some household fixtures and polyboards.A lot of the film is shot handheld and available light.

Q. On certain occasions one happens to see wall graffiti in the foreground, say when the Truck is going away in the frame. Was it the result of conscious efforts to bring out the local area feeling or it just happened?

Following the Graffiti on the walls for changing areas and changing languages was one of the motifs that Imtiaz had in mind. Another motif  was electric poles. Every time we’d see a set of electric poles and electric cables or for that matter communication cables like telephone cables, we would be doing tracking, passing shots with them. The cables and poles did not make the final cut.

Q. Since most of the time in the film the shots are being taken while the truck is moving, in such a situation  what were the rigging plans for the camera ?

We knew that the TATA 407 was going a large part of the middle section of the film, a lot of  scenes were going to be set within it. It had me worried initially, because Imtiaz wanted a very generic cabin at the back, like a metal container.

Gradually after much discussion between SumitBasu, the Production Designer, Imtiaz and me we arrived at the truck that now features in the film. Production bought a brand new vehicle and every single detail on the truck is put in there by the Art team. The other big aspect was shooting the truck from the outside, again no fancy gear, No tracking vehicles with jimmy jib, no low loaders, no gyro stabilisers, just some pipes, clamps and ratchet straps..

We got in ArjunBhurji as key grip and he designed and fabricated platforms on 3 sides of the cabin. I could ride all of them with camera and director tucked in. There were times when Imtiaz and I would be just sitting along and I would be shooting by looking through camera.  We wanted that kind of flexibility rather than the locked off camera feel. But because we were not shooting locked down roads, we often had hard rigs on the body of the 407.

We also did a lot of parallel tracking stuff from another vehicle, again Vibration Isolator on a Innova or Eeco or a small pick up with an open back, whatever we could get. We lived precariously sometimes.

Q. Most of the night sequences having long shots in the outdoor are lit up very realistically as if it were lit by real moon only . How did you plan the lighting scheme for these sequences?

Night lighting in exterior in the open fields was another of the major concerns for me.  The sensitivity of the Digital cameras in low light conditions was very useful. I rated the SONY F-65 at 800 ISO.

Again the lighting schemes were simple.

We used two units  of 12 bank Dinos just giving a one sided  wash across the entire filed. Maybe there was one 2k or 4k soft box as a fill but I did not complicate the lighting beyond that. In the petrol pump I just ensured that all the Practicals were working. In the torch lit scenes the torches lit the scene. In the exterior of the salt factory, I got the Art Dept. to buy a Sodium Vapour Fixture, it’s in the frame and it lights up the entire shot. A tube light here a naked bulb there, that was the philosophy. Alia’s free run in the salt pans is Day for Night. It took a lot of time for the VFX  teamto get the  “day for night” effect to look right. I don’t think we cracked it fully, but I do know that it was very hard work. The fact that we had 5D mixed in will all that motion blur.. did not help.

Q. How did you light up sequence of Alia inside the Tata 407, where there is no direct/indirect penetration of the sun light in any obvious manner?

I have to give credit to Sumit and his team here. The phatta/boards at the rear allowed me some fill at times,

The 3” perforated strip along the length of the metal body turned out to be a great lighting solution. Small improvisations went a long way. Sensitivity of the camera and lenses helped a lot.

Q. What were the other occasions where the  Production Designer was of great help in achieving your lighting plans?

On a location based film the Production Designer is still a very useful person. For instance in the Salt Factory where Alia Bhatt is held in the night, there the  entire space on the top where she sleeps and wakes up the next morning looks like part of the factory but actually it was all dressed by the Production Designer. When we went there, there was nothing but pigeon shit. All the Industrial debris was brought there by the Art team. I got them to fix in the practicals where I thought they would be useful.   In theDhaba sequence, where Alia has a meltdown,  I told the art guysto erect a street lamp pole with a tube light.

Q. Which camera and set of lenses did you use for shooting ‘Highway’ and any specific reason for choosing the particular model?

Sony F-65  was just out and couple of feature films were already shot on it. I had the opportunity to test it and found it quite faithful at 800 ISO. What I found really good about it was, it’s color rendition.  I feel in our conditions,  our skin tones, the kind of landscape, the kind of light we deal with and the wide palette of colors in our frames, I thought it would help. I chose the Master Primesprimarily for sharpness and speed. Our Projection quality takes care of the rest.

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