Scene from Ram Leela. Photo courtesy of Ravi Varman.
Ram Leela is a Hindi drama based on the classic tale of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” The script called for a subdued and hidden violent mood, but with romantic overtones. Cinematographer Ravi Varman felt that look could only be achieved using motion picture film.
“This was a particularly challenging job,” notes Varman, whose 27 features include the renowned Barfi. “As always, my goal is to capture the mood of the film and enhance it through colors, light and darkness.”
Varman chose a variety of stocks, including KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213, KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. His camera package included an ARRICAM Lite, ARRIFLEX 435 Xtreme and ARRIFLEX 235. One particularly challenging shoot took place at Jaipur Palace, which is surrounded by a large body of water. Varman and his team were given only one day to light an area of 2 kilometers (1.24 miles). Varman and his crew had to speculate how the area would look at night, and light it during the day.
“We needed a huge body of water to dazzle in light,” explains Varman. “We didn’t have much light for the large area, so I used locally available lights like gas lamps and halogen lamps to fill it up. After it was lit, the people of the area were so happy, flabbergasted even. They told me that it had been 25 years since it was lit up like that for a visit from the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. They asked me whether it was possible to light it permanently. Unfortunately, I had to tell them it wasn’t.”
Varman uses long shots in Ram Leela, mimicking a style he learned from director David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia) and Akira Kurosawa films (Seven Samurai, Rashomon). “In a sense,” he reflects, “meditative lighting was also used to convey the conflict element. I used almost all techniques in the book to achieve the look the script demanded — keeping the camera opposite to the sunlight to get the glare effect, opening the sets to let sunlight seep in on the faces, using night film for daylight and daylight film to shoot night shots. You name it, I used it.”
The script was written and directed by the prominent Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whom is known for his exotic visuals, grandeur, and pleasant colors.
“When he narrates a scene for me, I get a good idea about the visual pattern he is going for,” explains Varman. “Then he will leave the lighting to me, and when my lighting is done, he will come and give a smile of approval, as if acknowledging my intuitive reading of his mind and frame. It was an enlightening experience for me to interact with him.”
In Varman’s career, he’s been fortunate to shoot all his feature projects on film, and says he’s aligned with Christopher Nolan’s sentiments that the cinematic opulence and magic of film cannot be created by digital cameras.
“I do shoot commercials with digital cameras to have a good grasp on the new and still emerging technology,” he adds, “but shooting on film is something enlightening. The depth of field, the density and the crystallization of visuals can happen only through film.” With the images for Ram Leela, Varman kept three things in mind: The idea that the entire world is fascinated by land, women and gold. Varman tried to use these visual elements in the production, keeping most of the frames filled with a golden-yellow, the golden soil and gorgeous women wearing designer ornaments.
In post production at KODAK Cinelabs in Mumbai, Varman used a skip bleach technique to give a dramatic edge to shots and scene changes. Varman was one of the first cinematographers to bring this process to India.
“I prefer to achieve the desired results in camera, and have them enhanced in post production. You can’t create magic in post, but you can polish the visuals for sure. And I should profusely thank my DI colorist Ken Metzker and visual effects specialist Prasad Sutar for enhancing my work on Ram Leela.”
Varman developed an interest in photography early in his life, and grew up with a passion for watching movies — though he never considered working in film as a possible career. He was just 14 years old when his parents passed, and he ran away to Chennai. As an orphan, he did odd jobs and slept hungry on the streets. With his first paycheck, he bought an aim-and-shoot Zenith still camera. At age 18, Varman became a still photographer, and later transitioned into cinematography.