Q .You have worked with more than ten different cinematographers in various films, what is your general brief to a DOP and what do you expect from him to realize your vision?
I have definitely worked with quite a number of cinematographers in my 40 years of journey with cinema. I expect two things from my DOP. One, technically he has to be very sound. I mean he must be an expert on his equipment, know all the technical details which I cannot teach him on the sets. He has to have his own vision of images and needs to be a very good observer of light and also of life. He should know the lens like his finger tips. These are the basics.
Secondly, he should be a very good human being and a tolerant person who respects his co-workers, takes care of them, and should have the spirit to lead his own team. He should try to know my vision because finally it is my vision he has to project. As it is my vision technically, so I must decide first how to get it and this includes the things like at what time I will shoot, what my lens will be, what kind of movements of the camera I need and accordingly what the movements of the characters will be. These are the things which I always decide. The DOP is an integral part of my team, may be the most important part, but those who have been working with me know thoroughly that this is my domain and I decide everything.
I would want my DOPs to be careful listeners, sensitive human beings, someone who can adjust easily and understands my style of working. It is important that whatever may be his style of working as a DOP, he has to know my style of film-making and should absorb that. These are my minimum expectations from my DOP.
Q. You have worked with different DOP’s. Can you elaborate the style of working that you like the most?
I made my first film when I was a student. There was All India competition of scripts organized by FFSI. Satyajit Ray, Vijaya Muley, Chidananda Dasgupta were in the committee. I was still studying. I just wrote a script and sent it to them because I was deeply in love with cinema. Dooratwa was my first feature film. Before that I had made quite a number of documentary films. Many of them I had to shoot. They are not very good films because I had to make films for others just for money sake. It was my initiation into films and they taught me a lot, especially in getting the nuances of cinematography.
It is very good if my DOP loves music, painting and literature, especially poetry. I am greatly indebted to the images that I got from literature or derived from music, poetry and painting. I am not a film school product. I did not get that chance. I studied economics and taught economics for some time. When I was a kid, my mother used to play Piano and recite poetry. She would always ask me to close my eyes and listen to her. I was not happy with that dictate but had to follow. But, then, slowly something started happening. I found that from music I have started getting some images. From some lines of the poetry some images also started coming. These are the images which have become my constant companion. Those images stayed with me. I talked with those images. I lived with those images and images started living with me. Through this you may know I write poetry and when I compose a composition, I take that composition from those very images that are imprinted in my mind. I would want my DOP to understand that.
When I started making Dooratwa, I just wanted to make this film. Whatever little money I had made from documentary films, I invested everything. My mother gave me some money but that too was very little. Somehow I made Dooratwa with Ranjit Roy from FTII as the DOP. It was his first film after FTII. What I really liked about him was his confidence. I was new and he too was new and so also was my editor from FTII Pune, Mrinmoy Chakraborty. I have never heard Ranjit telling me even once that this or that was not possible. Whatever I wanted, he did that for me; whatever way I showed to him, he followed that. There was no video assist monitor to see and so you had to have full trust in the DOP. He was such a well known name after Dooratwa that he stared getting more and more work. He got one film for Mrinal Sen. It was a different kind of film out and out. Satyajit discussed it many times and he also praised the cinematographer very much. What we did from day one was that we never followed the rules laid. We just invented certain things. That is exactly what I have been doing till now. That invention has extended and now become a style being talked about all over.
Q. One of the master cinematographers you have worked with is Soumendu Royin Charachar (1994). How much was his experience useful to you in your film?
I don’t rest on anyone else’s experience. I just want my DOP to give correct focus. I want my DOP to handle camera rightly. I am pleased with well lit and well exposed shot. When we decided to work together he was not quite used to my style of film making but he could absorb that immediately. That may have happened because of his experience but that was very helpful. He did exactly what I said. Where you are placing the camera, what lens you are using, what kind of movements you are adding to that and where you are also positioning your characters — all these things together make a shot complete. That is very important and you cannot ask your DOP to do that for you. You have to do it yourself.
I always like to use wide angle lenses because I want everything to look very real. In that reality what do I do? I allow the non real to come in such a way that you don’t even start realizing at what point it has come in. It has been brewing slowly and finally when it has taken over the reality, at that time real and unreal remain no more two different things and become one unit. You just take in reality and at the same time you find the zone of unreal, and that is the magic. Besides reality there comes the role of dream and there comes the role of magic. So when I compose all these three things, then unknowingly something takes place and all the three elements give their contribution in composing an integrated frame.
I have seen all my DOP’s falling in love with this kind of work. This mutual respect has really helped me a lot. Be it Sudeep Chatterjee, Venu or Sunny Joseph. All of them say that dada has made us forget the conventional photography or whatever we were taught. It is because my style of cinematography is exclusively mine. You have to give your hundred percent to achieve this and if you can give that, then you can definitely achieve it.
A documentary film on me is being made by a girl called Supriya Suri. It’s being produced by Films Division. They were shooting with me and wanted me to show to them how the movement of double trolley happens. When I went there, I found that these people had already laid the trolley because they learnt about that from Ashim Bose who did “Uttara” for me. These are the things that have been contributing to other films. This idea of double trolley where two trolleys move together is something that I decided long time back because I was shooting outdoor on uneven surface where you cannot put anything.
You have to somehow manage to lay the trolley and I also had to add another movement to the first movement in order to further that design. In those days it cost me 700 Rupees and when I told it to Venu on the phone he was in Trivandrum and I was calling from Calcutta. He almost started laughing at me thinking dada must have gone mad, otherwise how can two trolleys move together with one camera and if it can happen, that cannot but be magic.
When the whole thing was brought home to him at the shootings in Orissa, he immediately fell for that. So you may know that I have invented many things that came to my mind automatically and just for my own shots, but it is good that some other people started practicing it. The cinematographers have been using it for reference.
I think Venu is the most spirited person and I really love him like my brother. Now he is a family friend although we have not been working together since some time.
I will never forget the day when I was shooting in Bolpur and that was the last day and last shot. I told Venu to go to the Monitor and watch what I was doing and then just to do that for me.
Since I was also doing it for the first time, I myself was a little uncertain and all I could say to my DOP was to just to go on doing things the way I was telling him. I went on doing what I myself wanted to do.
I told Venu a few things and looked at him. He said to me,” Dada, just 10minutes.” It was because I have told him not to use any artificial lights. He just saw what I did and he did that again so well that a beautiful shot was taken. So many times Venu really helped me create the kind of images I needed for my films.
When Sudeep worked with me he was almost a newcomer. He was not very well known and was a struggling cinematographer. I called him and he started working with me. After finishing the work he also said the same thing that he had learnt so many things. I believe that a film-maker must have his unique style. When a cinematographer comes to work with that film-maker, he realizes that this is the style and from that he absorbs many things.
Sudeep had never worked with me before, but for my kind of camera-work, he can fit the bill very nicely and his lighting is very good though it takes a little more time.
To tell you very frankly I never had any problem working with any DOP. I met this Spanish DOP Diego in Madrid. There was a retrospective happening in Madrid film festival. He used to come every day and he just met me and that’s all. He never told me his plan to come to India. But then one day my daughter called me and told me that this person was here. My daughter Alokananda is a music director. She has been working in Mumbai. Diego and my daughter were working together in a Marathi film and it was there that he started talking about me to her. Then she told him that I was her father. Then one day Diego said that he really wanted to work with me and requested me to give him a chance. And thus he came. He is really a very nice person. But he was not used to this type of situation as he had never seen this style, but we started working together. I tell all my cinematographers what exactly I want and how to achieve it. Even after that I show it to them in the monitor.
Sometime some problem would crop up and I had to scold Diego but it was almost a lesson for him and he really did the things nicely. He is a very nice person and very young. We worked together for another film and he did it so nicely that it is worth seeing. What I really expect from my DOP is correct exposure.
I always ask my DOP not to trust his meter but his eyes and his mind. Meter reading is very important but don’t think the meter will always guide you correctly. Put your mind, put your experience whatever it is and put your senses in it and then only you know what the correct exposure is.
I think that if I can tell a DOP after seeing his film that here he has put this light and there he has put that light, then he has failed.
A film-maker or even a cinematographer should not be able to know exactly where the lights have been placed and that’s very important. I have observed this problem many times while watching a film. Placement of lights is very important, and the DOP should know where he should put lights and where he should not. You don’t have to lit everything .You must leave some space for darkness. Darkness in cinema doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have any light. You have to create darkness also through light but then you must know how to create that.
I was once in Cannes with Sven Nykvist, a legendary cinematographer worshipped all over the world. Sitting in the hotel lobby we were waiting for a car to take us to some theater for seeing a film. I was just telling him that every director dreams that one day his DOP will be Sven Nykvist. He loved that and said—‘But for that I have to become a Subroto Mitra.’ I found that kind of respect only for Subroto and I think that India’s all time great cinematographer was Subroto Mitra.
It is not important what style the cinematographer is easy with. It is because he has to realize finally what style a particular script demands. Each and every script itself tells you how to take a shot. So you cannot come with any set style and start making film with it because it doesn’t work. Every script is a different film as every script makes you aware of one thing that stylishly it has to be different from the film that you have just finished.
I have often seen that the directors themselves don’t have any clue about cinematography and they begin to bank only upon the DOP. Now this is a dangerous thing. If you can’t make yourself clear to your DOP what exactly you want or what kind of style you are going to follow or what kind of treatment a particular script demands, then you are not a director.
Finally for a good DOP it is essential to work with a good director. It is also essential that there is good script and the DOP has read the script several times and noted down the questions and has discussed them with the director again and again.
Q. After Venu, Sunny Joseph is another cinematographer who has worked with you in maximum films. Could you please elaborate the way Sunny worked with you?
BD: Among all the cinematographer I have worked with, Sunny is the quietest. I have never seen him getting angry. While it is quite common to find Venu bubbling with his anger there Sunny is a very quiet person and at times that quietness also is very irritating. Sunny is a very good cinematographer, his shots are always perfect, the exact movement I want and besides that he is a ‘Pundit’, I mean, a very scholarly person.
He is a very good teacher and he loves to teach. I will not be surprised if one day he gives up film-making or DOP as a profession and gets fully in to teaching as he is a very good teacher.
I tell you one situation when we were shooting. It was ‘Lal Darwaja’ and we were in Diamond Harbor. We were to start shooting and we were waiting for Venu and he joined us after two days. After he came, the next day I took him to show the place and the location where we’ll be shooting. It was cloudy and drizzling all the time. We had umbrellas and we went. I told him that that was the location. Venu got very upset and said, “Dada, we have to change it ; this location will not work ; forget about it. Let us find out a different place.” I didn’t say anything except telling him, “Let us go to the hotel.”
Next day it was a little better as one could notice that it was a little sunny. I again took him to the place and that time he said, “Dada, what can I do if you insist? Then I will have to shoot.” After two days we started our shooting.
We went there in the morning to lay so many things. When everything was ready, I asked Venu to start shooting and we rehearsed all the shots because you only get 15 minutes to complete the entire scene at that particular light after which it gets completely dark. It was the time when Venu shouted excitedly, “Dada! It looks so brilliant!”
And that is what I mean to say. The DOP may not see what the right time is or what the right position or right lens is. When all these things happen together rightly, then the entire thing will change.
That has happened with me so many times with each and every cinematographer. They have to know what time shooting will start, from which angle, what will be the lens, where the characters will be and whether the backdrop is right. Even your background will change if you change the lens. If you use 24 mm lens, the background will be different and with 40mm or 100 mm it will be altogether different. If you use 150mm, then it is very difficult to say that it is the same location which was shot with 24mm. You can change the shape of the location. I have gone to Purulia and shot certain locations but in my film so many times I have heard people saying the same locations looked different.
There is one house where Mrinal Sen made his film with Smita Patil. In the same building I also shot a film. It is very difficult to realize for the audience that it is the same house. There is nothing called ‘Great Location’. A location has to be supportive to the script or a particular sequence and then the way you will show it in your film should also be supportive to your sequence. This is what exactly you are doing to that location. You can change so much of a location that someone will say this is not the same place as we saw. You have to be thoroughly knowledgeable not only about the script but also about how to achieve it.
No DOP should come to a film-maker as a rigid follower of a particular style. The Director has his own style and the DOP should absorb his style.
Cinema is so magical and so deep that you can place it in between music and poetry. Knowledge has no end and I am still discovering so many new things. These images have contributed so much in my life that I am extremely indebted to these images.
In the beginning I was not very confident while using something. I was not sure that this magical element or the dream element would be accepted. Your images should be such as can absorb the audience fully so that they start a new journey with your images. Then one after another, they start their journey to the point where the magic has started or where the dream has started or where reality has started extending to the dreams. It makes you conscious of so many aspects in our life. Your DOP can really do wonder if he can feel what kind of treatment he needs to apply with a particular Director. Images are my language and so I value my DOP a lot. I need to depend, trust and love my cinematographers. I am lucky that I have been able to do that most of times if my life.