Madgoan Express

Posted on Jul 11, 2024 by Samara Husbands

Express Yourself

DOP Adil Afsar tells Oliver Webb about the experience of shooting Madgaon Express

Kunal Kemmu’s directorial debut Madgaon Express follows childhood friends Dodo, Ayush and Pinku as they begin a dream trip to Goa. As they navigate a series of mishaps and unexpected twists, their friendship faces the ultimate test. The outcome is a chaotic, funny and heartwarming journey filled with laughter and camaraderie – stunningly captured by Adil Afsar. 

Afsar studied fine art and specialised in applied art before pursuing a master’s in filmmaking, graduating in 2005. “I’ve been shooting for the last 19 years,” he introduces. “When I choose my films, one important thing for me is the script and vibe of the person I’m working with. Before this film, I had an offer to shoot an international film in the Middle East. It was a good script and a comedy-caper kind of feature.” 

Afsar was on the verge of signing on for that film when he got a call from Excel Entertainment about Madgaon Express. “Kunal is a well-known actor in the Indian film industry,” says Afsar. “We previously worked together on a popular web series called Abhay. I shot Season 3 with him as an actor where we bonded and clicked. 

“He’s a passionate person, very driven and always looking to excel in what he is doing. During my interactions with him as an actor, I clearly understood the fact he’s not only great at what he does, but also has a strong sense of storytelling, dialogue and mise-en-scène. While I would give him instructions to help the camera angle or movement – or even a lighting mark – he would keep those things in mind. That’s the mark of not just a great actor, but a person who understands the grammar of filmmaking. 

“The script for Madgaon Express was hilarious and I already knew Kunal as a person. Plus, Excel Entertainment is one of the best film studios in India, so everything fell into place. I said straight away that I wanted to do this film.” 

The decision to shoot on an ARRI ALEXA 35 marked a milestone as the first theatrical feature film in India to use the camera
The decision to shoot on an ARRI ALEXA 35 marked a milestone as the first theatrical feature film in India to use the camera

The initial conversations between Afsar and Kemmu about the look of Madgaon Express revolved around the lack of visual finesse in comedies. “The look is often compromised in Indian comedies,” explains Afsar. “The visuals for us had to be perfect and not a shoddily shot comedy. If the comedy works, then people often don’t care about frames, camera angles, lighting and camera movement – but we consciously wanted to keep in mind that it should look a certain way. Also, since my background is in fine art, I enjoy creating colour palettes and love painting with light. In the scene when the characters are in the airport, for example, this moment is a form of happiness; I tried to reflect that through the colours.

“In the room where the main characters first figure out the drugs in the bed, the colour of the walls are yellow, as this is the colour of madness. It’s doing something to the audience’s mood without them knowing about it. All those colour theories were there in my mind and I was trying to apply them, but it has to be subtle as you don’t want the audience to go off the story. Kunal and I discussed these things in detail while Prachi Deshpande, our production designer, beautifully incorporated all those details into the final production.

“I truly believe that, in addition to a good script and great performances, mise-en-scène plays a crucial role in the overall representation of a scene,” continues Afsar. “Creating a cohesive colour palette, along with thoughtful sets, costume and lighting choices, subconsciously leaves a long-lasting impression on the audience. Fortunately, we had talented actors in our film who delivered strong performances, resulting in a satisfying overall experience for the audience. The trio, Divyendu (Dodo) Pratik (Pinku) and Avinash (Ayush) are amazing actors and they had such great comic timing, which translated wonderfully on screen. Also, Upendra Limaye, Chhaya Kadam and Nora Fatehi performed beautifully. As a cinematographer, my intention is always to capture the performance of actors with the best possible manner and with the least invasive method.”

The shoot lasted 50 days across winter 2022 to early 2023 – and Afsar captured the film with the ARRI ALEXA 35. “It was shot using a two-camera set-up and Zuhair Afsar handled the second unit. When we were in pre-production, the ALEXA 35 wasn’t available in India and there were few bodies globally,” he recalls. “I spoke with Philipp Chudalla at ARRI and requested a camera test for the film. He flew to India, and after testing the camera, I was impressed with it.

“Securing those two bodies was nearly impossible, but ARRI came through for me by providing the cameras – not to mention the invaluable support from my executive producer, Ollwyn Dsouza, and Futureworks, my camera rental house. Since it was a new camera with the latest colour science and sensor, I collaborated with my long-time friend and exceptional colourist Andreas Brueckl for the colour grading of the film. So, Madgaon Express became the first theatrical feature film in India to be shot on the ALEXA 35.”

Kemmu insisted on ample camera movement throughout the film. “We created a bogie of a train,” details Afsar. “The train is very compact, so we made one which enabled camera movement. There is an entire single shot where the camera moves along from the actors, entering the compartment and to the seats where they are sitting. I designed the rig for that, while Deshpande was very helpful in incorporating the movable walls and ceiling of the train bogie in her design. I’m the sort of person that doesn’t want to move the camera unless it’s required. You don’t move the camera or change the angle because you feel like it. It should be helping your story one way or another,” he surmises.

Afsar began his career working as a DOP for MTV India, which proved particularly useful when capturing the songs depicted in the film. “In India, we shoot many songs! I have a strong understanding of songs and music videos because of my background at MTV. MTV was a playground for me; it was like college after college. I also get requests to capture songs for specific films, so I go and shoot them. In the west, they don’t shoot songs the same way unless it’s for a musical.

“There were 100 dancers for the Not Funny song,” he continues. “We had a fantastic choreographer, Vijay Ganguly, and Kemmu also has a great understanding of music as a director, which is extremely important. We didn’t want the songs to simply come across as songs – we wanted them to be a part of the story. They weren’t very long numbers; our songs are just situational and there aren’t many in the film.

“The most important thing for me is the people I’m working with,” admits Afsar. “You need people who are on the same wavelength and have the same energy. I was fortunate that Kemmu, Dsouza, Deshpande and my sound designer (Sohel Sanwari) had energies on the same level.

“Even my second unit DOP and colourist were all in sync, and most importantly, we had truly amazing producers in Ritesh Sidhwani, Farhan Akhtar, Kassim Jagmagia and Rucha Pathak, as well as our team of editors – Anand Subaya and Sanjay Ingle.”

Concluding his thoughts, Afsar states: “We all wanted to make a good film and we worked towards it diligently. All the departments were looking after each other along with the entire cast of the film, which was so involved and delivered brilliant performances. That’s the kind of environment you want to create when making a film.”

This feature was first published in the July 2024 issue of Definition.

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