Mahanati – storytelling through lighting, chromatics and emotions

Mahanati has been a sensational hit with critical acclaim for performances and direction. However, there is one aspect of the film that has been relatively less appreciated: the cinematography. Moreover, the lighting of the film, which played a key role in setting the tone of the film, went unnoticed. The movie was successful in evoking the same emotional response from almost all the audience which in itself is an achievement. The colors we notice in the film are no accident but were carefully planned keeping the emotions in mind. The cinematographer of the film, Dani Sanchez-Lopez, is an LA-based cinematographer from Spain. He worked in Bollywood films such as Tamanchey, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Dil Dhadakne Do etc. This is an in-depth view of the lighting and color palette of the film. Read Mahanati movie review here.
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Mahanati Lighting:

There was a lot of thought put into the lighting and color palette of the film. The placement, quality, intensity and color of light has been carefully planned for each scene. They used natural lighting in some of the outdoor scenes. The practical lighting and motivated lighting were frequent throughout the film. As the film was set in 1940s to 1980s, the practical lighting has been different for each time period. During childhood of Savitri, they used oil lamps within the frame. The electric lights appear as she grows up, and the lights in studios were mostly practical lights. As she becomes an actress, the electric lamps and candles light up the scenes. The motivated lighting mostly enhances the sunlight falling through doors and windows to illuminate the scene.

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Lighting and Ambiance –

A combination of fire, smoke and rain portrays the introduction of young Savitri which symbolizes the turbulence in her life. Although the scene is dark, oil lamps illuminate it.

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Backlighting –

They frequently used backlighting in the film to symbolize that Savitri is constantly battling against odds.

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Practical lighting –

They have used practical lighting in some scenes for composition. Other than illuminating the scene, the lighting helps to highlight the element of interest in long shots.

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Lens flares –

As they heavily used backlighting, we see lens flares in several scenes. However, the lens flares signify filmmaking in some scenes.

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Diffusion –

The smoke appears throughout the film to diffuse light. Moreover, they have diffused sunlight using smoke in several outdoor scenes.

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Characterizations –

The lighting conveys characterizations in many scenes. The introduction of Mahesh has backlighting with his eyes darkened. There is an old saying that the eyes are the window to the soul. The character’s eyes can be hidden for Two reasons, that is to show them either as lifeless or dangerous. The director establishes Mahesh as a cunning person on the very first scene.

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During the scene, where Gemini Ganesan asks Savitri to drink, the face of Gemini Ganesan is under shadows for majority of the scene while the face of Savitri is illuminated. This is to hide the intentions of Gemini Ganesan while expressing the emotions of Savitri.

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Multiple Timelines –

They shot Madhuravani track on a handheld camera with organic lighting. Moreover, they partly shot this track on film stock using a super 16 mm camera for the grainy texture to depict the 80s.

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Mahanati Color palette:

The analogous color scheme intensifies the emotions. The opening sequence, where Savitri gets hospitalized, has a yellow hue which symbolizes hope. This is not supposed to be a depressive scene so the yellow hue is used in combination with flooding morning sunlight. The other scenes where they used yellow hue are: when Gemini Ganesan announces that he married Savitri in public, when the first daughter of Savitri is born and when Savitri succeeds in convincing Gemini Ganesan to leave the bar. All these scenes symbolize hope of a better future.

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Green color –

The childhood of Savitri has a lot of greens which signify stability and growth. She learns dance and becomes a stage actor during this time.

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Red color –

The red color is an expression of power and love in the film. As soon as Savitri becomes actress, the red color joins the canvas. Moreover, they portrayed the love track of Savitri and Gemini Ganesan entirely through red hues.

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They rarely used color discordance in some scenes. In extreme long shots, the red color draws the attention of the audience.

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The warmer shades of red, pink and orange express the stardom of Savitri. They have frequently used the bright colors along with heavy lighting.

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Blue color –

The black and blue colors signify the fall of Savitri. Although they have not used black color in costumes and sets, they have generated it with the help of low lighting. The blue color symbolizes the depression and frustration due to her personal and professional issues.

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Cyan and Pink colors –

The story of Madhuravani has more cyan, which signifies the independent nature, repression of emotions and inward thinking personality. Madhuravani has interest in making a name for herself instead of trying to fit in her job. Once she decides to rebel against the family restrictions, they have used pink color.

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Mahanati is not just impressive because of a great story. The technical standards of the movie are much superior to many contemporary Telugu movies.