Life through the lens ….
What can I say, I’ve been shooting film ever since…
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with many of the best cinematographers around. The great thing is that I was exposed to many approaches and styles. I learned what I liked and I learned how to problem solve for a variety of lighting situations.
My favorite lighting style is to shoot with natural-looking, motivated light sources. I enjoy working with large soft sources and then “paint” in the shadow areas. I work very hard to make certain that whatever story is being told is enhanced and communicated with the light and images.
To me, the best cinematography is the kind that takes you into another world ? cinematography that brings you the experience of the story and makes you quickly forget that you are watching a movie. Seamless and realistic.
The great masters of light who inspired me include Dante Spinnoti, ASC Heat, The Insider, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC Sugarland Express, The Deer Hunter, Don Burgess, ASC Cast Away, and Contact, and John Toll for his brilliant work on Legends of the Fall. Finally the greatest master of light in my opinion is Rembrandt. His art has truly been inspirational to me. My favorite piece is The Polish Rider, a magnificent work of art.
Directors I admire include Akira Kurasawa Ran; Tony Scott Enemy of the State; Ridley Scott Gladiator; Gus Van Sant Good Will Hunting; and Michal Mann Insider and Heat.
I’ve been blessed by being able to make a living doing what I love to do.”
A CONVERSATION WITH RAJIV JAIN ( ICS / WICA)
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
RAJIV JAIN: I was born on the 29th of November, 1964 at a Civil Hospital, in Lucknow, India in a working class (Indian term: Lower Middle Class Family), hard core Hindi speaking family. I spent my formative years in Etawah which is nestled in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. That is where I grew up. It was a one-horse town with a one-horse bank. I had a great child-hood though. We came from a fairly closed in urban area, and suddenly I was in this environment where we could ride bicycles out into the bush. We also had the river. It was beautiful. I loved the outback and the wide-open spaces. My father was working in a bank and we moved / on transfer every two to three years. My mother is whole world centered around her kids and the home, so as you see, I led a very sheltered childhood with little or no contact with the outside world so to speak off. My father had a still Instamatic camera that fascinated me but I was forbidden to lay my hands on it, its funny but somewhere my curiosity in photography actually developed I was forbidden to touch that camera. My dad envisioned me as a Doctor, Engineer or an IAS officer.
QUESTION: Your Qualification…
RAJIV JAIN: I went to the University of Lucknow in Lucknow, State of Uttar Pradesh and also I had the good luck of going to the Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts (Bhartendu Natya Academy/ Bhartendu Natya Akademi), Lucknow. I majored in Stage Craft and minored in Stage Lighting, intending to become a Light Designer.
QUESTION: Did you plan to follow in your father’s footsteps?
RAJIV JAIN: I don’t think I ever saw myself in the banking profession. I actually caught the filmmaking bug when I was around 10 or 11yrs old. A Satyajit Ray movie called Shatranj Ke Khilari was being filmed in my neighborhood in Lucknow. I watched the trucks going up the street, and then snuck around to the house where they were shooting. I watched them setting up the lights and cameras. I was in complete awe.
QUESTION: Were there any other influencers in your family?
RAJIV JAIN: My mother is a religious person. I had often watched her pray, I do not think I need to elaborate for who all those prayers went up for. Our careers and our future was my mother is utmost concern. I still remember that moment as if it were yesterday, i was chatting with mom as she cleared the dinner dishes and she happened to ask me what i wanted do with my life after getting my diploma from drama school, at that precise moment i had a piece of 35mm still film in my hand “I would like to do something with this” I said looking at the film. Its been a long journey since then but my mom stood by me in those formative years and guided me every step of the way. I was very keen to join the Film & television Institute of India, but i failed to qualify for the entrance exam, however moving from still photography to theatre and then cinematography seemed like a very natural progression.
QUESTION: Were you interested in movies in those days?
RAJIV JAIN: Ya sure! like any other kid my age the world of movies fascinated me, it was not the case of being star struck every aspect of the movie interested me, so it came as a very spontaneous reply when one of my all time favorite professors (Guptaji) asked me what I wanted to become in life? ” I want to make a career for myself in the film world, i want to create magic behind that screen”. So yes, my love for cinema goes back a long way. I grew up watching Hollywood & Indian movies. I was not drawn to foreign films. American films were the ones I enjoyed seeing. Not any more than most kids, but I managed to see the big hits of the time. My dad took me to see Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, The Longest Day during the 1970s. He loved the big historical dramas. I became a movie buff during the early 1980s, while I was going to Drama School in Lucknow. Some of my bohemian friends and I happened to find a folk & classical music & dance theatre, professional drama company, amateur still photography club and underground cinema called Lucknow Film Society. They showed classic and new wave films. They were usually 16 mm images projected on a wall. That is where I discovered the world of cinema. I remember seeing Metropolis and Citizen Kane, and films by Bergman, Fellini, Truffant, Welles, Cocteau and Stan Brahkage. That was during my late high school and early college years. I began reading about movies and directors and started clicking photographs. I did see one movie that changed my life at that time- it was a Goddard film called Contempt that Raoul Coutard shot. It was a Cinemascope film, which was very similar to what I was doing in still photography, although obviously twenty years prior to that. It used a lot of primary colors. It was a movie that put a lot of emphasis on composition and it had wide shots and long tracking shots with two little people walking against a big red wall. That was the first time that I made the connection in my mind that maybe films was where my career was headed. I was starting to feel limited by still photography. It was the first time I recognized the potential of cinema where by a narrative story can be told in a visual way.
QUESTION: Were there particular movies that made an impression on you?
RAJIV JAIN: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, La Regle du jeu, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunrise, Battleship Potemkin, 8-1/2, Singing in the Rain, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Bicycle Thieves, Raging Bull, Vertigo, Rashomon, Seven Samurai.
QUESTION: Tell us about your background?
RAJIV JAIN: My first encounter with the physics of light came by accident. One day, as I was cleaning paint brushes in a darkened garage, light falling through a crack projected an image onto the wall turning the room into a giant camera obscure. My first exposure to film was with a process camera attached to a darkroom the size of my apartment. It just so happened that one of the Surendra jija ji (universal sister in law) he was a very avid 35 mm photographer who always had his Nikon camera strung around his neck. He got me interested in photography and encouraged me to go to Kanpur, with him to take stills of a student demonstration in 1980 s. That was my first experience with a camera where I was able to express myself by taking photographs. I started studying photo manuals-trying to learn about composition. I looked at how artistic photographers used the foreground and colors and light and shadows. That fuelled my desire to learn more and more. I had a full time job in a darkroom and was going to a photography studio at night and taking pictures on weekends. That just was not satisfying my thirst for learning more about photography. After finishing my education in Lucknow in 1985 I relocated to Mumbai / Bombay and started as an runner / apprentice / trainee in low budget serials, features and industrials.
QUESTION: Were you thinking at that point in your life that you wanted to get into narrative film making?
RAJIV JAIN: I must admit, I never thought there was much of a chance for me to work in Mumbai / Bombay. It was very very hard for north Indians to get a break in Bombay.. The only other place they were making movies back then was in Calcutta and Madras. I decided to learn English, with the concept that I might go over there and give it a try. Of course, with all the work I was doing, I never got into any real sequence of lessons; and I am partially dyslexic, so it was difficult learning a new language.
QUESTION: How did you get started in the business? What did you do?
RAJIV JAIN: I started as a gofer, apprentice, trainee, spark, grip, key grip, loader, best boy, focus puller and worked my way up to gaffer (Indian term: chief assistant to DOP).
QUESTION: How long did you work as an assistant?
RAJIV JAIN: Oh, around 7 – 8 years.
QUESTION: What did you do when you completed you assistant job?
RAJIV JAIN: I worked in Mumbai / Bombay on documentaries, industrial films and commercials as a camera assistant and gaffer. They were all small projects. I worked with a couple of cameramen who were shooting locally. It was mostly 16mm and a little 35mm, mainly to make some money. While I was doing that I was still shooting mainly short films and some documentaries. I was always working on my craft and building my reel, with the idea that one day I would shoot features. When I got out of assistance ship, I gaffed a bit, assisted a little bit and was shooting industrial films, documentaries, commercials and other small jobs. I shot sales films for medical companies promoting new products and techniques, small dramatic religious films for a company T-Series, which distributed them to temples, and some variety shows. I got a lot of jobs through people I knew in during my assisting days. It’s very important to make friends because they’re the ones who are going to want to bring people they know along when they get a job. We had our own revolving group of guys who all did different jobs depending on who was shooting and who was gaffing.
QUESTION: When did you decide to concentrate on cinematography?
RAJIV JAIN: Immediately. I thought the directing process was too long, and I liked being a cinematographer. During my second year of drama school In 1985, I worked for three to four months for a Lucknow television station. It was my job to select what was good enough to make up the programme. It was a great internship. I also learned the craft as a second and first assistant cameraman in Mumbai / Bombay under Ashok Mehta, Binod Pradhan & K.K.Mahajan
QUESTION: What was the deciding factor in making that decision?
RAJIV JAIN: I didn’t want to look back some day and regret that I never tried. I didn’t want to be 80 years old wondering if I could have succeeded. If I failed, I could have gone back to Lucknow knowing I gave it my best shot. So, I came to Mumbai / Bombay in the midst of a fuel crisis – just traveling in auto rickshaw was a big challenge. I went around interviewing at various DOP s because they were much more accessible than big feature film operations. There was no way I could get in the door at any of those places. After about three months, money was running low. I was walking by a kind of a warehouse in Mumbai / Bombay on a Saturday, and I could see though an open door they were building sets. I remember thinking; they would not be working on a weekend unless they were behind. So, I walked in, found the foreman and told him I was a carpenter. He asked if I had any set-building experience? I lied and said yes. It was only a half lie because I had built many sets for plays in drama school. The only similarity is that they are both made out of wood. They were building sets for television commercials.
QUESTION: Did working as a gaffer help you in cinematography?
First in India Gaffer means Chief assistant to DOP. We do not have the tradition of gaffer. I approached that job thinking like a cinematographer. I would bring a new technique or a new type of light to the attention of the cinematographer I was working with, suggesting it as something that would help to tell the story in a better way. I think I learned more by watching other cinematographers work than anything else. One of the only ways to really learn cinematography is from another cinematographer. That is how I think the knowledge gets passed on. You end up picking up little pearls of wisdom along the way. The most important things I learned by watching other cinematographers at work were not technical, but how to make the set comfortable for the director and actors, and how to make it a creative environment instead of a technical environment.
QUESTION: How did you get into T-Series music videos?
RAJIV JAIN: I tried to work as a freelancer for a while but it was tough to get into the union. There was a company called Super Cassettes Studios that was run by the late Gulshan Kumar in Bombay. They had an editing place first and then they opened up an online editing facility. They were hiring a lot of people at that point and I had some experience as a cameraman and crew person, so they brought me in to be an all around studio maintenance guy. I also learned to run the tape machines. When I got in there, It was quite a small place at the time, so I learned all kinds of things. I had already done two videos at that point. I was working in the studio on commercial stuff and they would bring in union lighting cameramen, and I would sometimes work as an operator for them. I was kind of a lighting technician for them, so I learned more in that studio in the space of one-and-a-half year than anywhere else. It was a very intense education because they brought in high-quality video being recorded to one inch. We used the Sony camera and it was quite a good camera. I still think it is better than the cameras that are out there now, but we were always trying to get a film look out of it. We would play with the filtration and black levels and all kinds of lighting to see how we could get it to look like a film.
QUESTION: That sounds like it was a great experience for you?
RAJIV JAIN: Yeah, I got to shoot a lot and be fairly creative with the camera on that video. I also got to be in the postproduction process. It was a really exciting editing process, and then we did some kind of in-studio effects as well, which I got to shoot. That was a real good break for me and then the director put me forward for a lot more projects after that. I started doing documentaries. I went on the road with them and on tour three times. I did a documentary in Delhi about the recording of music videos, which we shot on video; all the documentaries we shot on video, but it really gave me an opportunity to play around with the image and lenses and moving the camera. It was great!
QUESTION: What was your first feature?
RAJIV JAIN: My first feature as an independent DOP was Army (1994) starring Sharukh Khan, Sridevi & Ram Shetty directed it. It was color in anamorphic. I changed the contrast with lighting to eliminate all the gray tones. That was my signature, pure blacks and whites with no grays. Late Mukul S Anand visited the set when I was shooting, and later I worked with him for his production house MAD Films on his commercials (1994).
QUESTION: What do you look for when you are reading a script? Is it the story, the director, a combination or something else?
RAJIV JAIN: Usually it is the story, but there are some people who are so talented and good to work with that I am always inclined to say yes; I shall go anywhere. I think primarily it is the story that has to grab me. I don not necessarily think about it visually at that point…ideally it would be a film I would love to go see. I am also looking for something different than I have done before. I crave variety. It is a combination of things. At first, I thought the script was the most important thing, but I discovered scripts are constantly changing. It is not so much about the shots you make. Cinematography is about the environments you create. A film is a reflection of a series of two-dimensional images projected on a white screen. It is static flashes of light projected through a lens that somehow stimulates the brains of people in the audience and create a three-dimensional moving world. When you agree to shoot a film, you are making a moral commitment – it is an obligation you owe to the director and to the audience. There has to be a visual continuity that makes the audience feel like they have witnessed a slice of life. I tend to be more interested in the concept of a film. I ask the director to tell me what they want to do with the film. There was one film called Army. The movie is two and a half hours long, and it is the only movie I have worked on where only two pages changed during shooting. It is the best script in a Indian movie that I have ever worked on. There are not many experienced cinema directors in India because many of them are from TV. I have tried to train myself to understand what is necessary to make a film for the cinema.
QUESTION: What were some of the other low budget movies you worked on?
RAJIV JAIN: I do not claim the ones before Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi. The first thing I did out of my being an independent was a small movie named Rasta that was shot over 15 days in Jaisalmer and never got released. It was my first full-fledged narrative experience. I did other films after that. Those films played a big part in putting things together in subsequent movies because you learn from your mistakes. You learn that there is no time like the present on a film. There is no going back. You need to plan and also persevere through the hard times on a film. On lower budget and independent films, those hard times come all the time. There is no easy shoot, because the powers of commerce are bearing down on your shoulders. The main thing I learned doing these movies is that you have to answer to yourself eventually. You have to pace yourself and stay true to the purpose. When we made Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi (in 1998) I had a clear idea of the purpose and that told us how to shape the look, but I did not know it worked until it was screened. I was terrified looking at the dailies and not knowing if I was on the right path. When I saw the first rough cut, it was probably my most terrifying and most exciting experience.
QUESTION: Your recent work includes two features. The last one was Badhaai Ho Badhaai. Describe your experience shooting a comedy feature.
RAJIV JAIN: Comedy can be tragedy. I believe the hardest part about it is that if we shoot everything flat, it is just going to look like a flat comedy. Comedy is bright but you still want to see texture in the sets. In comedy, I think a lot of times it plays static because it is about the comedy, it is not about the joke. If the joke is happening in the frame, people should be listening. If you move the camera to tell the joke, it is distracting. Now, if you move the camera for a reaction in the picture itself, that is a different thing. I think comedy is harder to light than drama. There are different levels of comedy and I photographically see each level differently.
QUESTION: How did you get started shooting commercials?
RAJIV JAIN: While I was still assisting in camera, the production company called and said the agency wanted me to shoot their next commercial. I had never shot 35 mm film, so I was shocked. I still remember the slate with my name on it. That was a magic moment. The commercial came out good, and that lead to other commercials, mainly in India. Shooting commercials, I learned how to collaborate with many different people, jumping from one project to another with many different looks and locations. I think I have applied a lot of what I learned from shooting commercials on to shooting features. It is not a conscious thing. I was just in so many different situations solving the same types of problems.
QUESTION: Who were some of the cinematographers you worked with on commercials?
RAJIV JAIN: I worked with K.K. Mahajan, Binod Pradhan, Vikas Sivaraman and then Ashok Mehta.
QUESTION: Did you move back and forth between commercials and feature?
RAJIV JAIN: I did almost one feature film in three years. The rest of my time was on commercials. Commercial work is very interesting because you can try a lot of tools first. In India now, commercials deal a lot with aesthetic so it is just like still photography, and you learn to create different worlds and they are eager to get those kind of non-realistic worlds. I learned to take risks, because if you want to achieve something special you have to try, and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you do not but then that is all part and parcel of the learning process.
QUESTION: Have commercials affected the way you shoot movies?
RAJIV JAIN: They give you a firmer grasp of the possibilities for what you can achieve with photography. You get a lot of experience creating different looks in different ways that may apply to a movie. The more you shoot, the more you learn. Occasionally, you will discover something new that you can build on.
QUESTION: Do you have a particular style that makes your work recognizable?
RAJIV JAIN: I think everyone has got his or her style, but I would hate for someone to go in a movie theater and say ‘Oh, RAJIV JAIN shot that because that is his style.’ I would like them to say, ‘Oh, who shot that?’ I think you have got to be more versatile in your looks these days. Every film is different, so you like to think that you can put something different into each movie as opposed to creating a repetitive look.
QUESTION: How many features, commercials, music videos have you shot?
RAJIV JAIN: 6 features, almost 1032 commercials , 43 music videos & 150 documentaries, corporate & industrial films.
QUESTION: Have all your projects been restricted to India or have you done shoots abroad as well?
RAJIV JAIN: I shot in Austria, France, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nepal, Holland, Russia, Singapore, Sri lanka, Switzerland, Uganda, United Arab Emirates & United Kingdom.
QUESTION: How did you finally get into the Indian Cinematographers Society and Western India cinematographer s Association?
RAJIV JAIN: You could apply to get into the Association. I had experience both in commercials and movies as an assistant, and also as a cinematographer on five feature films. I had much better documentation as an assistant for getting in the union. I was a loader for K.K.Mahajan on five features & two TV serials, and I was an assistant for Binod Pradhan on two features & approx. 300 commercials and Ashok Mehta on two features & approx. 100 commercials. I pulled focus for one year until I moved up to chief assistant & camera b operator.
QUESTION: Is cinematography a talent that you are born with, a skill you learn, or both?
RAJIV JAIN: I think you have to be born with the ability to visualize. As a child, I spent a lot of time looking out of the window in school when I should have been looking at the books. I got scolded for it many times. I grew up and yet I still do it. I still fantasize, more than I think an average person would dare to do. Out of that kind of daydreaming, you end up making images that take on a kind of reality of their own. Movies have influenced how we make love, what we wear, how we eat, how we walk, how we talk, and how we act in everyday life. You have to be able to walk across the bridge into this imaginary world and be able to walk back. One of the tricks is that you have to know how to handle light. You must have a feeling for different kinds of light. Where do you get that knowledge? You have to know film like the back of your hand. That is a skill among others that you have to learn. Even as a kid, I responded to light emotionally. It is always been a part of me. Filmmaking grabbed me at a young age and gave me a voice I did not have in any other part of my life. I am lucky to have found an outlet for that. I ca not imagine doing anything else.
QUESTION: Finally do you ever get used to the fact that you are living your dream?
RAJIV JAIN: The night before I shot my first commercial for Late Mukul S Anand, I only got two hours of sleep and I had a panic dream that our interior hallway set had been built less than half scale-it was kind of like. We could not walk on it much less film on it. There was no room for our lights or the actors. In my dream, I kept asking, ‘How are we going to shoot in this space’ After 600 commercials & 5 Feature Films later, I still do not sleep much the night before the first day of shooting. The truth is that I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to earn my living by using shapes, colors, contrast and movement to bring a story to life. I love the collaboration with the director, production designer and actors and the passive collaboration with the composer, editor and writer. When I hear a carefully crafted musical score and images that I have photographed come together on the screen it brings tears to my eyes. It is really incredible how the music can enhance my work. I have talked to composers about this and they tell me it is the same for them when they hear their music and see how the photography works with it. We have almost no contact during the making of the film, but are key collaborators in the emotions that bring it to life on the screen.
QUESTION: Do you feel a sense of responsibility since a lot of people will be influenced by the movies you make?
RAJIV JAIN: I feel a responsibility towards the public and for a business that I have loved all my life. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can work in Bollywood in the tradition of the great filmmakers who were here before us. Movies have brought something into our lives, and we have a responsibility to give something back.