When Rama Raju and Bheem meet in RRR for the first time, it is an epic union that bears witness to the coming together of all the elements of nature… There’s a burning train, the wind fanning the fire, an angry water body, the safety of the sands seeming more and more distant... The crowning moment happens underwater as Ram Charan and Jr NTR run towards each other in a show of friendship.
One of the foremost exponents of underwater cinematography in India, Sumer Verma was the man behind the conception and execution of these ambitious sequences. A diver for close to three decades, Sumer finds solace in the seas, and it was this passion that turned into a new profession when coupled with his interest in technology. “Underwater camera work for wildlife and nature photography became my speciality. However, the field was limiting, and I explored fashion and commercial photography as well. And then came the idea of entering cinema, and my first break came with the Bharat Bala directorial, Mariyaan, starring Dhanush,” says Sumer, who asserts that an able underwater cinematographer needs not just good camera skills but immense control over their body.
It is this confidence in his abilities that got him the enviable opportunity to work in RRR. “Neither SS Rajamouli nor producer DVV Danayya had worked with me before. During the test shoot, they wanted to see my skills, and only when they were convinced was I roped in for the shoot,” says Sumer, and goes on to talk at length about the much talked about perfectionism of SS Rajamouli. “He is an uncompromising director. When I told him that the pool in Ramoji Rao Studios wasn’t large enough to shoot the portions he envisioned, he made sure we moved to Khopoli, Mumbai. Even after all the necessary training, rigging, and rehearsals, we delayed the shoot by three days because the pool in Khopoli wasn’t clear enough. We then sorted that out. The makers agreed to whatever was required.” More than as a director, Rajamouli, the person, was an inspiration for Sumer. “He had no airs about him and was polite in interactions. I found him to be a thorough gentleman.”
Although Sumer takes care of the entire underwater shooting in the films he has worked in, he asserts that it is still the vision of the DoP that gets brought to life. “Think of me as an underwater operator. The DoPs are amazing artists and visualisers, and they work with me through the process,” says Sumer. “I help conceptualise and articulate the framing. There are discussions with various departments about the lighting, the flooring, colours of the water, continuity… We are also in constant conversation with the production design to ensure the ocean floors look authentic.”
Such underwater sequences often get brushed away as CGI work; some other times, it’s not believed that the actors actually went underwater. Sumer explains, for instance, that it was Dhanush who did all the underwater ocean sequences. Only a couple of scenes were done in a swimming pool, he says. “We shot on live locations in Rameshwaram and Andaman. Be it the spearfishing or coral reefs… it was all Dhanush doing it. Similarly, Tarak and Ram Charan too gave these scenes their all,” says Sumer, whose day job as a diving school instructor comes in handy in preparing the actors for such shots. “I have worked with the legendary Mohanlal, Sushant Singh Rajput in Raabta, Prabhas in Radhe Shyam... All these actors are keen and professional. Of course, some of them have latent fears, but they persevere. For instance, in RRR, while Ram Charan knew scuba diving, Tarak was apprehensive and anxious. However, after training and shooting, Tarak wanted SS Rajamouli to have more shoots underwater.” CGI, of course, is used to enhance these shots, but mostly, it’s all real, Sumer says. “Visuals like the wavy movement of a person’s hair, or the bubbles leaving a human body are best captured live.”
Sumer believes that we are at the cusp of something huge when it comes to underwater cinematography. “These sequences are an important part of storytelling. We have seen them in James Bond and Mission Impossible films. The potential is immense, and it is important we turn it into a strong creative asset,” says Sumer.