MA: Basically, when you are lighting, it is pure art. The technique behind it is a mathematical calculation about the exposure and the frame and whatever else. Uske upar aapne aapka canvas rakha hai. How to light it, half-light or three-fourth slide, is there backlight… the terms are technical, but the culmination of these is pure art.
AB: And all of us sitting in this room don’t think like that, they don’t think aaj main half-light leke aaunga. Even when he walked onto the set and read the script, he must have got the brief and he has it in his head.
MA: Either you see it or you don’t.
AB: When someone says, ‘Oh, I love that cameraman’s work’, it is because they have seen it as it was in his head. I started learning by following a photographer called Ansel Adams and I learnt that the only way he used to see landscapes was in terms of zones, and I think that is the only thing I look for. I see in zones.
MA: But you light in zones, yaar, all of us.
AB: You start seeing in zones. And today I am verbalising this, but when I am on the sets, I am not even thinking about it. It is unconscious and automatic.
MA: You actually layer a picture when you’re lighting it. If you want the characters to pop, then you give them a little more light, and then light the background uske hisaab se. How much should I under-expose or over-expose the background colours? These are things you don’t even talk about. They just come naturally as you work, as you read the script, in fact, so that there are certain ideas formed even before you get to work, as to how you want to approach the film. I think the only thing we seriously think about, consciously, before we start work on a new film is, what exposure level am I going to use? Am I going to shoot this film at 8 or would l like to maintain 4, 5 or 6? Because that will define the depth in your frame and that is very crucial.
AG: I think technique and technology become second nature. For instance, if you go to art school, you first learn about material and method. Similarly, for us, the technology and technique becomes the part you learn first.
AB: That is true. I am really envious of people who can sketch. If any of you have seen the sketches of Sanu, you will agree that they are brilliant. Now, he doesn’t think about using blue in the background, for instance; it just comes to him. There is a depth to his painting that is amazing, and that translates into his commercials as well.
BOI: Ok, we know that superstars drive the business, as far as the audience is concerned. There are also celebrity directors like Rohit Shetty and Rajkumar Hirani. And celebrity producers. People will say, ‘Yaar Karan Johar ki film hai, Yash Raj ki film hai.’ Sometimes even music directors draw crowds. People will say, ‘AR Rahman ki film hai, achhi film hogi.’ Why do cinematographers not get that kind of recognition?
SJV: They do, down South.
AB: I think you can’t commercialise cinematography. You might get people to hum a tune, sing the lyrics of something. How do you commercialise cinematography? Everybody loves Raju Hirani’s films, but he didn’t become famous overnight. It took Munna Bhai MBBS, which had a commercial element to it. Anything that has a commercial element is brilliant. Rohit Shetty, as you said, has a commercial bend of mind. Karan Johar has evolved a palette of dreams and makes you think, ‘Wow, this is what a rich man’s house looks like!’ This appeal is absent in cinematography, at least for the common man. That is the reason cinematographers remain off the radar.
BOI: But don’t you think there should be some public acknowledgement? After all, it is your visuals they are watching.
AB: As far as cinematographers go, the people who are going to see your film are the people who are going to give you your next job.
AG: If someone comes up to you and says, ‘What camerawork, amazing but film, film yaar aisa hi tha, mazaa nahi aya.’ But when they say ‘what a film’, I guess that is much more satisfying and we are much happier. I think getting into the skin of the film, that is our primary role.
SJV: Also, the popular idea of ‘good work’ has nothing to do with what good work actually is. As long as the popular story goes forward emotionally, that is seen as good work.
MA: If a movie is a hit, then everybody is a hit. On the other hand, if the movie had a great director and great actors but the film crashes, everybody has to take the fall. People say, ‘Yaar teri woh last film nahi chali na.’ And I am, like, hello, all I did was shoot it.
AG: Also, I guess the public perception of what is good cinematography is very literal. If the movie has great landscapes, they like it. One of the best compliments I have ever received was when someone told me, ‘I watched the film but I didn’t see your work.’ For me, nothing is more satisfying than hearing that. It meant my work was seamless.
AB: Are you sure he wasn’t being sarcastic? (Laughs) But, seriously, it does mean you have done your job well. You have translated your director’s vision.
BOI: Finally, what is the one thing that worries you about your profession and what is the one thing that excites you?
AB: The one thing that worries me is the massive digitisation that allows someone even with a smartphone to become a ‘cinematographer’, thereby undermining who we really are and what we do. A cinematographer isn’t just the guy behind the camera; he is involved with the story from the beginning; he thinks about how to translate director’s vision. There is cinema in our work, whereas today a guy with a smartphone or a digital camera boards a train, takes five to six shots, puts them together and suddenly he is a ‘short-film maker’. Not to undermine them, sometimes they are good, but many of them are not.
SJV: I think if it is liberal, it’s a good thing. Something might come of it, like art.
AB: Everything has two sides. I have seen work that people are raving about, which is technically quite bad, then you don’t know which aspect to applaud. The fact that it is liberated or the fact that it is technically bad. I don’t know which part to look at.
MA: People tend to generalise and call a good film good work. There are a lot of films that had brilliant camerawork but because the films didn’t work, no one even looked at them twice. So the thing is, our work is closely linked to the success of a film. You know what is good and what is bad, it just gets lost somewhere and the effort of the cinematographer gets washed away. As they say, the process starts way before, six months before we start shooting. For Everest, which I shot last year, we had done the recces already, and that was a television programme. We started work on the film in July 2013 and we started shooting in January 2014. We actually went up 16,000 feet, looked at it and came back. We used to sit at script meetings, mere ko kya lena dena hai script meeting mein but it’s all part of the process.
AG: Your question was about what worries us. I think what concerns me is the amount of time we put in before a film goes into production. I would like to make another point which is that cinematographers are the closest collaborators to the director. Undoubtedly, the hardest job on set is the director’s but the second-hardest job is the cinematographer’s and the fact that we are a part of the project from beginning to end. As far as I know, there are only two countries in the world, where cinematographers are considered co-authors on a film, Poland and Belgium.
CD: Co-authorship… Wow!
AG: Yes, which actually amounts to royalty fees as well with the release of the film and the DVD release and whatever else. I attended a meeting of the Polish Cinematographers Society on this. It took a long time for them to achieve it but they finally did. It is a very evolved thought and we are not even close.
MA: You are talking about co-authorship but mein jo bol raha hu…
AB: Paisa mil jaye bahot hai.
MA: When you are shooting an ad-film, you are paid for a day’s work but you are shooting for a minute version or a 15-second version or a 60-second version, so the producer charges three times.
CD: And the back shot is used and they used it regularly.
MA: How many years they used that?
CD: That’s true
AB: You know what? Music directors have cracked it. They take separate payment for 15 seconds, for 60 seconds, the licence fee is `3-4 lakh, while cinematographers are hired by the days and we are not given due credit.
MA: When an actor is contracted, he says you can use this commercial for one year but next year you have to pay again. Some of the commercials I have shot are still being aired on television, like Doodh Doodh. How many years it has been? Why shouldn’t I be paid for something that has been on air for 15 years? But it doesn’t work that way.
AB: We wish it could but it doesn’t.
AG: My point was we are the closest collaborators to the director but we don’t get our due.
SJV: We are the only guys on the set who know the story and are thinking about it all the time.