"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
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
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
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
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
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'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 naÃ¯ve;
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
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."