Q&A With Rajeev Jain, ICS WICA On Film
Indian Director of Photography, Rajeev Jain, ICS WICA is a Cinematographer based in Mumbai, India. Rajeev specializes in shooting television commercials in the 35mm motion picture film format as well as HD Digital formats. Rajeev started in the early days of the music video revolution, before venturing into narrative filmmaking. His eclectic body of work includes Army, Badhaai Ho Badhaai, Carry on Pandu, Kadachit, Kalpvriksh - The Wish Tree, Mirabai Notout, Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi and Rasstar .
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
RAJEEV: I was born in Lucknow, India. There was no seminal event that happened to me as a young person that made me want to be a cinematographer. It certainly wasn’tthe quality of the light in Lucknow. I remember it was gray; was stained brown from the traffic and the sky dark. But as I say that, I realize the suppressed palette of the place did affect me emotionally. Saturates leaped out against that neutrals, as in a dream or a post-industrial nightmare.
QUESTION: What did your parents do?
RAJEEV: My parents were just ordinary folks. I don’tthink they were particularly ambitious for me. Their main concern, I think, was that I wasn’tan embarrassment. We moved to the Etawah and then back to Lucknow, where I completed my education. My degrees were in Theatre Arts.
QUESTION: Did you have a career goal at that point in life?
RAJEEV: I wanted to be a writer, but like Mohan Rakesh I thought too much and wrote too little. That is too say I was more a reader then a writer, more academician then poet. I got very interested in semiology and structuralism (the study of how language encodes ideas). Initially I studied how the spoken and written language worked, but then became more interested in how codes worked in other languages, like the language of film. My interest in film language led me in a rather convoluted way to cinematography.
QUESTION: That’s interesting. Can you be a little more specific?
RAJEEV: I became very interested in understanding how in altering light, composition, camera angles and camera movement a cinematographer alters an audiences perception of the visual event, and thereby the audience’s emotional response. It is a difficult thing to quantify. I remember specifically thinking back to seeing Pather Panchali when I was a child, and how its images had always remained in my imagination, not only for their pure beauty and sublime scale, but because they affected me emotionally, striking some unconscious but responsive cord. Later I saw Ray's "The Apu Trilogy". I had much the same response, but now my understanding was informed by my studies. It would be accurate to say that the cinematographers of these two films, Subroto Mitra, were those who most influenced my decision to become a cinematographer.
QUESTION: How did you make a connection between words and photography?
RAJEEV: In writing essays and articles about film. I realized that film images worked very much the way the spoken/written language works. You want to express certain ideas. There are culturally agreed and understood codas. These shapes, which we call letters, have agreed upon pronunciations. These letters form words. These words have agreed meanings. But it is of course arbitrary. The word “cat“ has no innate “catness“ about it, but on hearing this word the listener forms an idea in their brain. A cat. We can then add adjectives, and qualifiers, to make it a black cat, or an angry black cat. These words are codes, but not universal codes. They are specific to a culture that shares that language. Photography in some respects is a much more complex language system. The denotative (specific) or connotative (symbolic or implied) meaning of an image can be ambiguous, but also complex. Perhaps the best literary analogy is the Haiku poem. The fewer words have greater potential meaning “” the more words that are added in longer literary forms, the more specific the meaning. An image offers both specific and non-specific meanings. It can work on many layers, conscious and not.
QUESTION: Did you have any mentors or were you totally self-taught?
RAJEEV: I’ve learned a lot from other DP’s. But it’s mainly from studying their work. Ashok Mehta and I talk a lot, and he’s given me a great deal. But I was self-taught. I studied art extensively, particularly early 20th century artists, and late 19th century artists. I learned a lot about light from them. I’ve stolen an idea from every good film I’ve seen, probably. Particularly the work of Subroto Mitra (ISC), Ashok Mehta (ISC), Binod Pradhan, and Santosh Sivan (ISC).
QUESTION: Do you think of yourself as an artist, a technician or both?
RAJEEV: I think that’s a very important distinction. I don’twant to sound pretentious, but if you consider the nature of art, it is meant to give us new eyes to see the world. I want audiences to respond viscerally to what our intentions are for a film. I think that cinematography works very much like music in that it is difficult for us to measure or quantify why audiences respond to what we do. So it is an art. And its practitioners must therefore be artists.
QUESTION: Tell us more about your analogy of music and cinematography.
RAJEEV: I can sit in dailies and I can see the other people watching the film with me respond physically and emotionally to the images; but it is very difficult quantifying what they are responding to. If you watch people listening to music, they may also respond, but you would hard put to quantify why they are responding.
QUESTION: I’ll borrow a phrase from Subroto Mitra, who said, cinematographers are the authors of the images. But, that isn’twidely recognized.
RAJEEV: Part of the problem lies with our collective culture. Films are reviewed as theatre rather than as a unique art form. Critics will talk about scripts and performances. They talk about things they understand, but they understand them because their own cultural antecedents are principally in traditional theatre, though they may not recognize that. In this context, cinematography and music aren’tunderstood, except to say they were beautiful, because there is not a particular language developed within criticism for their description. Unfortunately, many reviewers don’trecognize how decisions made by the director, cinematographer and composer made a profound impact on the visceral reactions and intellectual responses of audiences. I’m not saying that cinematographers aren’trecognized. We are, at least within the industry, but not in the consumer press. I don’tthink I read a single review that mentioned the significance of Subroto Mitra’s (ISC) decision to use 16mm film and other formats in certain scenes in The River, yet that made a profound impact. I consider that a significant artistic decision worthy of comment, in fact, essential to an audiences understanding of the film’s artistic treatment.
QUESTION: The collaboration between directors and cinematographers is unique.
RAJEEV: An important thing about that collaboration is that cinematographers have to integrate their vision for a film with the director’s vision.
QUESTION: Do the many music videos you shot influence you today?
RAJEEV: Not really. None of my films look like music videos, but the great thing about music videos was that we could experiment with different lighting, film stocks, lenses and filters. We would decide to try putting four filters on the lens, force process the film, or put a negative through a reversal film postproduction process to see how it comes out, and then try it again the other way around. It was a great way to learn.
QUESTION: Are there other cinematographers whose work you follow?
RAJEEV: I can mention all the obvious names, but the truth is I learn from all cinematographers. I can watch a television program shot by a 29-year-old cinematographer and find something that he or she did that is quite interesting. I’m constantly learning from other people. I still read every magazine and journal about cinematography and photography that I can lay my hands on. I still study art. I collect books of photographers and paintings. But it’s not just the good work that others do that I learn from. I learn from my own mistakes that I have had ample opportunity to make over these last 20 years. When my son Adam was in the seventh grade, he wrote an essay in which he was required to say who his hero was. He said it was me. “My father is my hero because he messes up all the time, and he lets me see it.“ So I feel o.k. about messing up. I think that’s a hugely important lesson to learn. It’s o.k. to mess up, and you will sometimes mess up if you’re willing to push the limits of your craft.
QUESTION: Did any other mentors influence your thinking?
RAJEEV: I was a graduate from the University of Lucknow for a short while. That’s where I met Renu Saluja who was a really important mentor. She pointed me down some really interesting avenues as regards film theory.
QUESTION: How do you decide that something is a film you want to do?
RAJEEV: Early in my career anything that was offered was a film I wanted to do. Today, two things are likely to affect my decision. One is my first meeting with the director. That relationship is like a marriage only, oddly, much more intense. You have to decide whether you’re going to be able to get along with that person for the long time that you’re going to be together. I think I have gotten along well with over 90 percent of the directors I have worked with, and many have remained friends. The second thing is the photography. I’m always interested in doing new and different things. If the project is very much like what I have done before, and the script is not great, then it is less likely I will be interested. Sometimes a project comes along that is just so interesting it is impossible to resist.
QUESTION: What do you tell students and other young filmmakers when they ask you to share the secret of success? Do you tell them the truth about the odds?
RAJEEV: I think you have to be patient, and not let yourself believe that things are going to happen quickly. You need integrity and honesty about who you want to become. That way, even if you fail, you can fail with some dignity. If you compromise and fail, what do you have left?
Visit the Author's website: http://www.rajeevjain.com