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"The strangest cinematographer in India": Rajeev Jain ICS WICA - Dubai Based Indian Kenyan Cinematographer

Rajeev Jain curses like a runner; in part, because he actually was one, in a way, before he discovered photography and cinematography (he worked as spot boy / runner).

Rajeev Jain may be the greatest cinematographer working in the movies today. He is certainly one of the most respected and perhaps the most idiosyncratic Indian Director of Photography / Cinematographer based in Bollywood - Mumbai, India. An Indian by birth, he lives and works predominantly in India (among his films are Manika Sharma's multi-textured Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree and Ayyo Paaji !!) with forays to the Kenya (where he shot, among other films, Wanuri Kahiu's unique Rasstar) and India (the beautifully spare Carry on Pandu).

I managed to squeeze an interview into his busy schedule the morning before his "Cinematography Class" presentation, Getting him settled wasn't easy, but once we found a room to ourselves, he turned to me like I was a new buddy and said: "So... my name is Rajeev." Thus began a memorable interview, punctuated by puckish stray comments, many of them so off-colour they drop off the colour charts, and explosive bursts of laughter that defy description, somewhere between a bray and a cackle, yet utterly disarming. But most of the interview was taken up with his passionate ideas on making images and telling stories, and his philosophy of filmmaking. We began the interview looking over some DVDs of Rajeev's work with Wanuri Kahiu. He picked up the Rastar !!, their collaboration. "You have to get the original version," he remarked. "The colour is wrong on this one. It's not blue enough. It was all blue, but then they kind of 'corrected' it when I wasn't there. They took away the blue because they thought I didn't know what I was doing."

Did you know what you were doing then?

No. I think I started to know what I was doing in the middle of Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree until then it was like - in India, they say, "Your eye is high but your hand is low," which means you can't achieve what you want to do. You have all these aspirations, you expect to do something great, and actually you complicate things. Because your hand is low. In the middle of Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree, it was either I was going to get fired or I was going to leave, or I just sort of stepped back one step. I think that's the whole point. That's what I try to talk about now. The intimacy of the act - which is like, you know, at my age, you need glasses to see anything close up - and then how to step back.

That's the thing: the balance between being so involved in something that it has energy, it has intimacy, it contacts people, and yet being removed enough to say, "Yes, no, yes, no, no." That's the job. And it was actually in the middle of Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree that that happened, because I had made this really complicated shot; I had five filters on the camera, and we're trying to do this lengthy shot with incredible moves. It was just, at that time, we were thinking of style, instead of discovering style. We were imposing instead of receiving. I think [receiving] is what's happened ever since. You get to the point, for example, in Badhaai Ho Badhaai, where you realize you can't light big street of New Delhi. If you're us, you say, "we can't light the whole street, so let's go with it." That's the difference, and I think that is possibly an Indian perspective, possibly a more mature perspective on how things really happen, and possibly just getting older. It's a mixture of all those things.

It's interesting how you describe it as being intimate while at the same time stepping back for perspective...

That's just it. I think the whole thing about filmmaking is that it has to be engaging enough that I have to believe enough of what I'm seeing that it becomes universal. It's really that simple. That's why it doesn't matter anymore what language it's in because, if you're really saying something, then we'll hear it. Up until cloning starts next year, we're all more or less biologically and spiritually... There are places where we interconnect and the only way you can interconnect is if you disconnect with yourself. If you don't know... I think that's the whole point. People go to film school to learn about filmmaking. No. Why don't you go out and learn about life and then...

I was in Nairobi two weeks ago and they all speak English, they learn in English. I thought, "This is the future." That you have people from other disciplines who are interested in filmmaking. We spent the whole day together. It was the most engaging experience I've had in... I am doing a Kenyan film next year, because that's it, it's about life, it's not about technicalities. You show me the red button and I press it and the film rolls. That's about it. That's what I know.

Of course you accumulate certain experiences, but basically it's about how you see things and it's about what voice you have. If you have something to say, then people will listen. If you have nothing to say, then you make or remake. [laughs his hyena laugh] Or, as in India, how come they have all these very interesting stories? and then you don't realize until the New Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 how far India has gone, and then you say, [whispering] "hell." And that's what's going to happen. That's the future of the nest in fifteen to twenty years. And it's already happening. Filmmaking in India is much more dynamic because people have a voice. People have a voice because they have a story, because they're actually living instead of negotiating or litigating. [laughs]

Is that why you keep working in India?

Well, I born and brought up in India. It's not a matter of "keep working" or not. When I become DOP and I've been a foreigner for 25 years. I've never been anything but a foreigner. I think that engages. I think that's very important to the way I work because as a foreigner you see things differently, and as a cameraman, you have to see things differently to inform the image. It all, it all, it all, it all, it all makes sense. I started doing films in India, in Kenya. I started doing Swahili-language films so, yeah, I regard myself as a Indian Kenyan DOP, but I just happen to be brown, or pink, actually. It's kind of like a delayed adolescence. I feel I grew up there. I was in my thirties by the time I was growing up. I still haven't grown up. It's just more familiar. But, like we said, you have that balance. The point is, you have that balance: you know enough about it, but you still have a remove. I know Indian culture, but I don't know it academically. I know it day to day, sleeping with... that's all right, we won't talk about it. You live it. And yet, of course, I still have my Jainism, I have all that stuff. It's a very liberating balance.

How did you become a cinematographer? Your official bio lists a lot of activities, but it doesn't say anything about photography or cinematography in your past.

No, no, no. In my family, the batteries would rust in the camera before we would finish a roll of film. I finally found two or three photos of me when I was a kid, but I think that's probably the only ones that exist. I was reading since I was five-years-old and I was always interested in literature. It was never a dream, it just happened that I was travelling for a while. I think it came out of the frustration of language, that I had been a foreigner for so long that I got to a point where I had been travelling for so many years and it was like, "Oh, yeah, oh, ouch, ah." My English was down to that level because I hadn't spoken it for so many years. And I thought, "So what's the alternative to language?" There's images, I guess, and I just happened to be with artists. I'm always with musicians, I'm always with dancers, and one way to convey the energy of music and dance is to translate it into another form. And that's it. It wasn't anything, it just happened to be... [waiter comes into the room and Rajeev motions to him] Do you speak Swahili? Do you know the word "Waka Waka"?

How did you wind up behind a camera for Army [produced by Mukul S Anand] That was your first film, wasn't it?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the first film I made. For that time it was important because it was giving a voice to Indian women (played by Sridevi), basically. Western women would appropriate it as a feminist film, and it is, in the good sense of feminism. It was, "Okay, so let's talk about things," and basically, it's one women talking and trying to translate ideas into visual things.

And then we made this film that won award and I didn't know what I was doing. I fluked it. And then I got really scared and I thought, "Maybe I should learn something about cinematography." And then I become serious and tried to learn cinematography and I realized that I don't give a oooops, actually, and I came back to making films basically as I could until Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree. So basically, learning through mistakes.

That's the thing about the films we've made, that they are an appropriation of a lot of mistakes, and I think that's a really important dialogue that I should have with other kids. Because the rest of the world, in the film schools, what they tell you is that you can be logical about it, you can learn how to make films. You can't learn how to make films. You got to make mistakes and you have appropriate the mistakes, and then you learn from those things, and then you have a voice. That's the real trajectory, that's the real journey. When you write, you know, you look and... "I don't need so many adjectives, no." Really. I studied writing and then I couldn't write for twenty years. Now I've done fifteen to twenty journals because it's just a pleasure. When you get away from the bad, when you get away from the academic, when you get away from... But you've absorbed enough of it. Of course you have to work on the technique, but the thing is to work so well that the technical stuff becomes so familiar that it's not even there. Then you're starting to write, then you're starting to make films, then you're starting to articulate, then you're starting to make bad like I am now.

I don't create images and I don't really know how to talk about them, but I enjoy losing myself in them and being moved by them. I don't know how the process works. How does a cinematographer work with a director to get the director's image on screen?

First of all, I think we're at a point in history where... Everyone says that, after the silent era, sound destroyed cinema. That's the historical retro view. What it means is that a film like Sholay, directors like Ramesh Sippy, were getting so articulate visually. I think we're back to the same place, and it's happened because everyone's on the Internet.

In India, for example, one or two of the young women I've known in my life, she would spend at least four hours a day - this is a typical Indian woman in her twenties - probably four to six hours a day online, probably two or three hours in a karaoke bar, and the rest of the time in front of MTV - [a blast of laughter] - so I think they have more visual sophistication than my friend Rajesh of Filmfare magazine. Even you and I are coming from another culture. I think it's still a literary culture, I think that the tide of cinema and everything from the 60s that educated people, the auteur theory - "auteur" is the French word for author. It's about words. And I think this is what's happening, that we actually are moving into an area where the audience is more sophisticated than the critics.

[In an aside to me, he smiles: "I'm sorry."]

But they don't know what they know. They're still kids, they're still crawling along on their hands and knees. That's the great freedom at the moment for someone like me. This is the best time since the 20s to be a cinematographer because the impact of the image, whether it's the blockbuster bad with the special effects, which is one area that's being pursued, or whether it's articulating touch, very subtly in Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree, for example. I think this is a remarkable period and I just happen to be a cinematographer.

What it means is, we go back to the same thing, so if you have something to say, how do you say it? And my job is, "Away with words." That was the name of my film, by the way. Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree is a pun. "Away with words" is to remove words so that the image conveys the emotion or the light conveys the mood or the composition conveys the integrity, for example. And "a way with words" is: That's what you say, you tell me what you want to do and then I say, "It's blue," or I say, "Maybe we're here" [frames a portion of the room with his fingers].

I think that's that job, to take words, whether they are on a page, or whether it's you and me talking, or whether it's the dialogue - those are the three basic aspects of filmmaking - and my job is to articulate them, is to try to find, to [sniff, sniff] smell the essence of the thing, to cut through the bad, and I think that's the job.

So how do I prepare for that? That's the question. And I think it's by living. I have the most wonderful job in the world because I'm looking. Everyday. I notice the light on your face. I complained about [his Director] Manika's shoes yesterday. That's my job. And that's the pleasure that I can convey to you. You can actually sit there and say, "There's no story, but whoa, it's so wonderful the way she walks up the stairs," or enjoy the beauty of her. And it really is about beauty, it's a celebration of beauty. And beauty can be Shabana Azmi, it can be a decapitated head. That's also beautiful in its way. Or blood on the ground. I'm not saying beauty in the sense of angels in heaven, Aishwarya Rai kind of stuff, I'm talking about beauty in the sense of the celebration of life.

What do you think about digital versus film?

[cringes] Don't even go there. Digital is a different visual experience. The thing is, it's the same as a zoom lens, it's the same as... Remember in the 60s when they first had machines that could make multiple images? So you have Babu Bhai Mistry's films [motions repeated images across the screen]. So what? It's all tools. The thing is, what does it articulate? The digital stuff is a way of looking at things, but nobody has yet found it. And the only people who find it is the kids. The kids will find the language of digital filmmaking. This dialogue is bad. So why did a critic work for Rasstar? It's the same thing. [snaps his fingers] Bang! It was just this medium at that time, using it this way - it jumped, we jumped another step in the history of painting, in the articulation of ideas.

It's the same, honey [to Jude]. Don't waste your time talking about the tools. The kids will find the language of digital. We won't because, for us - I don't know about you, but I'm older than you - for me, it's still awkward because, you know why? Because we're used to looking at film. There's no other reason. There's no other reason that there's a dialogue about digital and film except that Kodak is not still working out how much money to put into developing and Agfa already gave up making film. They're retaining a dialogue because we haven't found a person, and it'll be a kid, it'll be a twenty-year-old kid.

So we don't have anything to talk about. There's only two ways to go. Either we educate ourselves, which may not be necessary, by the way, or we retain conservative attitudes and say, "Oh, no, no, film is texture, when you touch the film..." and all this oooops bad. It's just a oooops tool. The point is ideas and that's what we're going back to.

My job is to be as true as possible to what you need, as true as possible to myself, and then you take it from there. So I make a film with Manika Sharma. Manika just complains about bagels all day [laughs] and she talks about books. I have no idea about literature. She talks about cars, you know. It's not my culture. But after, yeah, we found a middle ground. That's the job. Whether it's eating or going on a trip with a group of Kenyan tourists, it's the same. The journey is the point. Now, I think to take the journey you have to prepare and the passport is your integrity. The passport is, like I say, life. You spend a bit of energy on living, but you have to go where your energy takes you. And I know I'm the strangest cinematographer in the world. I know it, because most cinematographers are really conservative. They're real straight guys and they're very technical and they can fix your machine if it breaks. I can't even find the battery. [laughs] So I think that's it. That's valid. I don't think everyone should live and work like I do. I think the government doesn't think so either. [laughs]

You and Manika Sharma have an amazing convergence of style and approach and filmmaking philosophy. When I watch his films, the ones that you shoot, they are so different from anyone else's films in the world.

They take longer to make. [laughs]

And then you see Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree, which is a gorgeous movie, every frame of it, but it doesn't look anything like a Manika Sharma film. It doesn't have anything close to that texture.

That's the quality of the filmmaker and that's my job. I have to be the best whore in the world, you know? I have to be a brilliant. I have to make you happy. You pay me, I make you happy. That's my job at a certain level. Of course, some have genius. Mine happens to be Manika Sharma. [laughs] I mean, really, that's what it's about. Of course I can do this stuff, I can go through the motions, I can moan when you need me to, but there are sparks. If you look at the great filmmakers, the Mani Ratnam and Santosh Sivan when they were making movies together, why are the films different? Because there's an integrity, there's a communion between the collaborators, and there's a trust. And I think that's what makes a difference in, as you say, Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree. Or, as much as I like Manika [Manika Sharma], Manika's films are a little bit more academic films.

Or Chandrakant Kulkarni's "Carry on Pandu".

There you go. I'm still there. I'm not doing a bad job, but it's not the same job. I know. And we should celebrate that. Isn't that what marriage is about? Isn't that what a good restaurant is about? It's the intimacy, and I think we should celebrate that. It's no film critic kind of stuff. It's not accessible intellectually. It's only accessible one on one, in bed or whatever. It's a gut thing, it has to be.

Then how do you work with Manika Sharma that's so different? Why do her films take so much longer to make?

Because you're always looking for the film. Which is basically a film school premise: we don't know what we're doing, so let's try. And really, we're talking about millions of rupees, so it's extremely brave. It's almost arrogant, it's so brave - to think and work and actually believe that what you have to say is much more important than the money and the time it takes. Which is kind of naïve; it is a film school idea. It's like when you make your first film, you have no idea what you're really doing, you just go on gut instinct. It's just this costs a lot more than a student film. [laughs]

How did you come up with the blurry skip-frame style that you used in films like Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree and Carry on Pandu?

Boredom. I think it was about boredom. And I think Bollywood is like that. I think it was just an subconscious response to the energy of the place in which we lived. Have you ever been to Bollywood? It's full on all the time and I think that's it. And maybe we were also trying to save film stock [hearty laugh]. You only shoot four frame per second, you get three times more film.

When I interviewed earlier about making Kalpvriksh - The Wishing Tree, you said that Manika Sharma shot every scene different ways, in essence, made a number of different films and then decided which one to make in the editing room.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I call it looking for the film, which means that if you and I are sitting here and maybe our dialogue is not perfect, maybe tomorrow we'll go and sit over there, or maybe we'll try it on the street. Or why don't we just forget about the dialogue and just walk. And that's what happens. Which is a very intuitive response. I don't know if it's anal, or in French they say, "nombrilisme." Do you know what that means? It means looking at your belly button.

I don't know. I'm doing it myself, so how can I judge? But it basically means: Is there a better way to express this idea, or what is the resonance of this idea, or what is the space of this idea? I think that's what we're saying. So what is the space of this event or this emotion or this idea? There's nobody else in the world who dares to work this way. And it's looking for the film, and I think that's an important idea that, when we go back to what we were talking about, the West and the East, it is a philosophical point of view. In the East, you talk about Confucianism, and Confucius says, you have the greater body - whatever it's called, heaven or whatever - then you have us, then you have the state, then you have city, then you have the family, and then everything is... it's a cycle.

Whereas in the West, you have Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. What bad! It's Shakespeare, it's 500 years old. "So you have the cop and you have Indian Star, and they hate each others' guts at the beginning but then something happens and they get to like each other and then there's a happy ending." That's Indian filmmaking. You're imposing an idea. "So, what we have to do is take away this wall." Why? I like the wall. Keep the wall! That is the difference, that you have this idea that you can structure films, and that's bad. Like we said, it has to come out of us. That's why the East is so... I've done nine films that have been bought for remake. [laughs] "What are you doing?" You're admitting you have nothing to say. It doesn't matter how you say it, it doesn't matter how digital you get, it doesn't matter how many special effects you get, it doesn't matter how big Reliance Media gets. It's bad. It's just a clone.

You are listed as "Cinematography Consultant" on La Mia Kenya. What does that mean? Is that some sort of contractual mumbo jumbo?

No, no, no. It means that I designed the look of the film. I shot the first ten days, then I had to go and do something else. Actually I did a Film in Uganda, Last Life of Amin. It's beautiful. I love the film. I probably got as much money as the director for that film. So I couldn't take my crew. So what am I going to do with my Mumbai crew? We get them some work. [laughs] So I started the film, I shot the first ten days, and then I went to Uganda, and then I went back a couple of times during the shoot, and then I did the post-production. So they didn't know what to call me.

Do you have any influences as a cinematographer?

Yeah. I really think music and movement, dance, you know, and literature inform my visuals. It's so strange. Like with with Manika Sharma. We come from different backgrounds - she's Indian Canadian, I'm supposedly Indian Kenyan - and yet we read the same books, we're both totally into literature and music. What usually happens is, we'll be sitting, have a talk, and she'll play some music and say, "How wide should this be?" It's a very abstract thing. So if we go down the main street of Mumbai, she says, "Do you think?" "Oh, yeah," and then we play music and he says, "Isn't that like they are together?" And that's what happens. Music informs this ambiguous relationship between two friends lost in Mumbai. I think that we are the anti-thesis and I think that is the West-East dichotomy.

All the references are to other movies, rather than reaching out from there.

That's a jerk-off. As well as it works, it's still a jerk-off. It's still an intellectual conceit, as pedestrian as he tries to pretend it is, as working class as he tries to pretend he is. Whereas we are a bit more... I wouldn't call it intellectual, I wouldn't call it cultured, but it comes from different sources which are more basic. I think music is more basic than film. I think dance is more basic than film. And I think the way I film is also based in dance. It's not cinema, it's dance. The relationship between me, the camera, and the actor is a dance, it's always a dance. It's not a structure. It may form a unit, it may develop into a unit which has a structure of its own, too. And I think the way we shoot is like dance, too. I don't know if you know anything about dance, but most dancers, like most martial arts people, they actually build the work as they go. They can tell you, "We'll start here and we'll end outside the door," but that's about all. [laughs] And dance is the same. What if we start at the table and you pick me up and throw me, like that.

I talked to Saroj Khan last year and that sounds just like how she described choreographing a song. Just finding out what people can do and then building scenes around them.

Yeah, especially if you're working in the Indian film industry. You may not have any dancing skills, so what are you going to do? You do what you can and we take it where we can. I think that is a very  Bollywood attitude. It's also a very Indian attitude, to appropriate rather than impose, and to evolve rather than to dictate. I think that's very Indian.

"You can't learn how to make films. The point is ideas and that's what we're going back to."

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"reels of joy - 2010" is posted !!! ... please let me know what do you think ???

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