As you watch love blossoming between Savitri and Gemini Ganesan in Mahanati, with Sada Nannu playing in the background, the song ends with both of them sitting on the rocks at a beach in Chennai. Spoiler alert! This is when Ganesan, played by Dulquer Salmaan, tells Savitri, played by Keerthy Suresh, that he is already married.
With waves crashing on the bridge of rocks that protrudes into the sea while children play innocently nearby, it’s a beautiful setting depicting the conflict in the minds of both characters.
It also happens to be Mahanati’s cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez’s favourite scene. Especially given what went down before shooting there.
“There was this idyllic beach I saw while scouting locations in Chennai. I saw these kids jumping and playing around on the beach. I told Nag Ashwin (director) that look, it’s so beautiful, but it’s a pity we can’t shoot there as it’s completely unviable. Where would we place the crew… and everyone would get wet. But Nag took on the challenge and said ‘let’s do it’ and we made it happen,” Dani says in a conversation with The News Minute.
When they went to shoot there the next day, the children weren’t there. Dani fondly recollects how they went looking for the kids, had them excused from school to come shoot there and how Dulquer and Keerthy had less than a minute to jump off the rock and run to avoid getting wet. But they got soaked anyway.
“It was a little adventure. It was magical,” Dani smiles.
And that’s how Dani remembers his entire journey of shooting for Mahanati – magical.
He talks with much excitement about the movie, remembering every single detail and the challenges that they overcame to create Mahanati.
“Not knowing the language actually helped me. Because I have to tell the story through the subtext of what the actors actually mean through my camera work,” the Spanish cinematographer says.
Dani, who had earlier worked on Jagga Jasoos, was brought on board after Nag liked his work in the Bollywood film, especially the colours he used.
But Mahanati demanded something much bigger. The story of a legendary actor, entwined with the story of a journalist, Mahanati was a complex film, given it goes through the 1940s, 1950s, all the way into the 1980s.
Some of the most exceptional scenes from Savitri’s hits were recreated in Mahanati, including popular songs such as Vivaha Bhojanambu and Aha na Pelanta from Mayabazar and Raavoyi Chandamama from Missamma.
“I started off with watching all the movies Savitri had done. I analysed what different masters of Telugu films did in those days and analysed the frames, where the lights were, where the cameras were placed, how Savitri was photographed and how everything looked,” Dani says talking about recreating the black and white scenes in the films.
But the recreation was challenging, Dani says, because they had to work with how the colour would look like before they went into the cut of black and white. It had to be seamless.
“It was a collaborative effort between me, the production design team that managed to recreate the colours of the background, the shape of the walls, the costumes and jewellery perfectly, and Keerthy Suresh, who knew every single piece of gesture Savitri was doing in the scenes. Mayabazar, which also had the colour version was even more challenging. We had to recreate both the colour version plus the black and white because we were going black and white in the film,” he says, adding that it was a success because if you place old and new frames side by side, you can see that it is extremely similar.
The use of colours
And not just the black and white scenes, the colours used in Mahanati too were well thought out. Dani says that the colours in the movie show the evolution of Savitri’s character.
As the story begins with Savitri as a child, there are a lot of greens, browns – the colours of the earth. The camera is always capturing sunsets, something Dani says he made sure of.
“We would go into interiors, shoot under trees, near fields, bring in the feeling of sunrise and sunset,” he adds.
Once Savitri moves to the city to become an actor, you start seeing more hues of gold. Once she starts growing as an actor, we start getting all the warm tones around her, there is more gold and brightness as she grows and once her downfall begins, it’s all blue, which is a colder colour, representing her frustration contrasted by layers of darkness.
“There is also another storyline with Gemini Ganesan, which is a love story. With love comes red, the colour of love in the film, and we start seeing it in both the leads. Even in production design as in colour grading or lighting of the film. But then the grandness of Savitri becomes a little too much for Ganesan to take and he becomes jealous. Then the colour becomes green, to represent envy,” Dany says.
The story of Savitri is told through memories of people in Mahanati. Dani says that they wanted those sections to have a different look.
“Since we learn about her through people’s memories, we wanted the scenes to look flashy, like how people remember things from the past. And the nostalgia was brought through the lenses. We used anamorphic lenses to show grandness,” he adds.
The parallel storyline of Madhuravaani, played by Samantha, also sees a similar evolution of colours. Her story is set in the 1980s. To bring about the feel of the 80s, all the sections with Samantha and Vijay Deverakonda (who plays the role of Anthony) were shot on 16 mm on a camera from that era.
“We even used a set of diffusion filters and diffusion gels on lights to represent the progression of colours. It’s something that may not be noticeable but it’s there. In fact, if you really pause the movie and observe, you can see it. You can see it in the emotions that the image evokes,” Dani says.
One of the biggest challenges for Dani was portraying the character of Gemini Ganesan, which, according to Dani, is one of the most complex in the film.
“Instead of simplifying it, Nag decided to keep the complexity of Ganesan’s character. You have to first fall in love with him, but he cheats you and need to understand why. It was very complex. It was really tough as a cinematographer for me to grade him. But Dulquer has his amazing super power. No matter where you put the lights, he looks greats,” Dani recollects.
“It was magical bringing Savitri back to life, showcasing her story in the same way she lived it. It’s been one whole year, 160 days of shoot, which has an irreplaceable place in my heart. This has been a journey of a lifetime for me and I don’t think I’ll have any other project as beautiful as this one for now,” he says.