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.
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
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.
admire include Akira Kurosawa Ran; Tony Scott Enemy of
the State; Ridley Scott Gladiator; Gus Van Sant Good
Will Hunting; and Michael 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 29th November, 1968 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
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
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
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.
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. 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
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
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
QUESTION: When did you decide to concentrate on
RAJIV JAIN: Immediately. I thought the directing process
was too long, and I liked being a cinematographer.
During my second year of drama school, 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 ISC WICA, Binod
Pradhan ISC WICA & Late K.K.Mahajan ISC WICA.
QUESTION: What was the deciding factor in making that
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
QUESTION: Did working as a gaffer help you in
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
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 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.
QUESTION: What do you look for when you are reading a
script? Is it the story, the director, a combination or
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. 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
QUESTION: Who were some of the cinematographers you worked
with on commercials?
RAJIV JAIN: I worked with Late K.K. Mahajan ISC WICA, Binod Pradhan
ISC WICA, Vikas Sivaraman ISC WICA and then Ashok Mehta
QUESTION: Did you move back and forth between commercials
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
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
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?
9 full length feature films, 24 Short Films, 2032
commercials, 7 TV Series, 155 music videos, 121
documentaries & infomercials.
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 late 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 ISC WICA 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
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 1402 commercials & 9 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.