is a different sort of feature for director Mira Nair, who made her name with visually polished narratives like Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. This crowded, slice-of-life story about events surrounding a marriage ceremony in middle-class Delhi bears a greater resemblance to the documentaries Nair did earlier in her career--it's a mobile, rough-edged film, shot on a low budget (just over a million), and with whatever lighting could be worked into the image.
Director of photography Declan Quinn last worked with the director on Kama Sutra, a lush period piece that earned him a 1997 Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography. "Kama Sutra was very designed and lit," says Quinn. "On Monsoon Wedding, there wasn't a lot of designing involved. From a lighting point of view, I went as naturalistic as I could, but we were shooting as many as 35 people in a room at once. I just tried to remember whom I covered well on the first take, and not do them on the second take--it's cutting in your head, almost. As a result, you don't have time to relight anything. I would just do general lighting for a room. In scenes with fewer people, I was able to tweak for close-ups more; the gaffer would use a Rifa-lite® or bounce board for fill."
His Indian gaffer and best boy, Kamlesh Sadrani and Barkhat M. Zaria, carried mostly small units in the lighting package, including 2.5kW HMI fresnels, 1.2k PARs, and 2k tungsten lights. "It's not the stuff I would use generally for key lighting," says Quinn. "So I brought in a couple of 6k PARs from England, and we added it to our package. If you’re going to light a room naturalistically, you need to bring the light from windows, so I needed something stronger that I could punch through and diffuse if I needed to. They tend to use lighting very directly on faces in India--key beauty light over the camera. They're very resourceful; they'll make their own light with a 2.5k HMI and soft reflector. What they don't have are bigger, punchier lights, the 20ks and 12 HMIs."
Monsoon Wedding was shot in Super 16: not Quinn's first experience with the format, since he used it to such great effect in Leaving Las Vegas and elsewhere. "I thought maybe we should use video, because the budget was so low," says the DP. "But Mira's very attached to the aesthetics of film. But there were problems. We had to bring the film into India. We'd shoot it, send it to Duart in New York, they would process it, and we'd get a report days later. And we'd worry about did it get x-rayed somewhere en route? In the end, we got bit by that." Precious footage of a party scene was damaged, necessitating reshoots and some digital repair at Swiss Effects in Zurich.
"I don't think I would do Super 16 and go through the process of answer printing on film anymore," he adds. "If I could put it straight onto high-definition or 4K digital, and then output to an interpositive directly, then I think it's a beautiful medium. You get an impeccable transfer, and you don't have to worry about handling the negative." At this point, he says, "A lot of labs are looking toward the future, and seeing that this chemical process of handling the negative is going to be around for only a little bit longer. We can transfer it directly to digital, manipulate it there, and have much more control over the image."
After Monsoon Wedding, which USA Films released in February, Quinn shot East of Harlem for director Jim Sheridan. For his next project, he says, "I'm looking for a bigger budget, a more controlled kind of photography. I tend to go for projects that are naturalistic and acting-based, and a lot of times they're really good films, but I'm not challenged all the time with the photography." Seeing Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie was inspiring, he adds. "I'd like to work on something like that, something where the photography is designed and planned, and there's a real look to the movie."