You started painting, art history, then did cinematography and photography. How did you switch between the different languages so quickly?
Actually, I’ve not done photography; I’m doing it only now. I’ve studied painting and cinematography. The one photography exhibition I did was very specific; I took the images just for the exhibition. Even now, I only do mobile photography, which is very personal. I’ve never done photography for the sake of it. If you look at my Instagram feed, it’s all smart phone photographs, very personal ones. For me, it’s not at all about medium.
So you’ve never used photography deliberately as a creative medium?
Not really, no.
Not like cinematography or painting?
Well, I’d done a bit of black and white photography when I was in the institute, shooting and processing film. I know it; I’ve done it – nothing beyond. I could say I’ve not gone into still photography at all. I am on Instagram, and the photos I post are ones that capture the moment. I simply don’t care. I take photographs because it is the most convenient expression for me at times. I’m trying to express with anything that is available to me. Beyond that, I don’t care. For me, it could be an iPhone, a 5D or an FS7, and it wouldn’t matter in any case – at one level, that is.
I might as well do a charcoal sketch, if it was convenient for me. But as it is now, I have a phone camera which works fine for me, so I just take photographs of the moments I want to capture. In that sense, I prefer photography as a medium. Really, I have no obsession with any medium, though eventually, there is an element of presentation, presentability and all that.
What matters finally to me is the expression, be it in architecture, painting or sculpture or anything else.
So you don’t think there is something that could be achieved through constant interaction with a medium?
If you’re married to a medium, then there is that issue. Then you have to let it evolve to a logical conclusion. That way, maybe I’m more bothered with cinema. I might see it amounting to something, over time.
Why do you separate cinema from the other forms?
Because cinema incorporates everything. It can express through audio and visual – the moment and time. For me, this is important, that the medium is all inclusive and allows for experiential possibilities.
But then, cinema doesn’t have the permanence or even the stillness of a photograph or a painting. It always exists in time, and can’t be hung on a wall and admired endlessly.
Cinema is a projection. It is in that very impermanence, in that moment, that exists. And that’s enough, I love that. Though the idea of having something to hang on a wall is good, I don’t feel the need to personally create something to hang on a wall. I might do it, I have nothing against it; but it’s not a negative as far as cinema is concerned.
All this I’m talking about, it’s all very personal ideas. I’m not saying cinema should be like this or medium should be handled like that or anything of that sort. It’s only that I handle it like this. Personally, I have been involved with different media – charcoal, water colour, drawing – and I have a body of work in each of them. Each time I use a medium, it’s been to capture a memory of that time. Still photography happened like that too, because I had access to handy cameras and I wanted to capture a moment. If not photography, it might have been water colour… It might have been a charcoal sketch….
How do you maintain “touch” with the medium, in that case?
That question doesn’t come up, because there’s no “out of touch.” I can do a portrait right now, even though I haven’t done one in the past 10-12 years. It doesn’t matter to me. The last charcoal portrait I did was back in 2007, in Cholamandalam village, where we had this Sunday drawing session. It was open to public, we would gather at a place, someone would model for the whole group, and everybody would draw together. It was a routine that I haven’t been part of, and which hasn’t been part of me, since. But I can still pick up a charcoal stick, and do a portrait now. I might abandon a couple of papers, but I can do it. I can do a water colour now. It will be different from back then, but the point is that I can do it. There’s no obstacle in my head, as far as medium is concerned. The question is whether I want to, whether I might as well take a photograph with my phone. Right now, that suits me perfectly.
Do you see cinematography as a purely technical discipline, in which you are servile to the director? Or do you see it as an art form by itself?
Unfortunately, I haven’t worked with a proper “Director’s Director” many times. It’s been mostly first-timers, or people who are flexible. Usually, it happens so that, in average productions, the cinematographer has to do more than the technical side of things. The cinematographer has to make the cinema, not just shoot it. We’re engaged with the production also. We have to engage a bit with direction. So I’ve not done purely technical cinematography ever. I suppose I can’t talk about it, as it is.
I’ve never had a director demarcate regions, and assign me the technical side of shooting. The closest thing happened in Mitr: My Friend, in which Revathi said she’ll handle the artists, you take care of everything else. Even then, I’m not doing technical cinematography alone. I could say I really don’t have a line. When I’m doing cinematography for a production, I do whatever is needed in the set, at that time, even if it is make-up for an artist – which I’ve done. I’ve picked costumes, worked on art direction. Again, medium-wise and role-wise, I don’t have any qualms about being flexible. Whatever is needed, I do it.
When you say the directors you’ve worked with are flexible, are their politics also flexible to some extent? Does it develop during the shoot, as a process in which you and the other main crew members are involved?
These are all commercial films, commercial productions. It’s all very clear before I commit to the production that it is being made for the market, for entertainment. I’ve done films that have item songs, I’ve shot those also. It’s an agreement I’ve entered into and I have to honour it – that this is being made for the market, and to the best of my ability, I have to make it marketable. That’s an agreement I have gotten into, which means that I can’t just say “It can’t happen like this” at a later stage, or demand to make it political. It’s an engagement; you’ve been hired to accomplish a task. The other option is not to do it. Personally, I’m not going to wait till someone comes up with a radical or politically strong film to work in. Since the beginning of my career, my method has been to do any work that I’m offered. I’ve done Marathi TV serials, teasers, documentaries, I’ve done everything. I need to keep on engaging with the form, in whichever way. I keep doing it, engaging with the form, to get more and more – shall we say – inside the medium.
So when it comes to cinema, you prefer to engage with the medium, bring out formal ideas…
I don’t know if it’s formal, informal – I don’t know. I’m just engaging with the medium, and with whatever dimensions and ramifications it reveals to me. I’ve done TV documentaries on tape, before digital became accepted. I did cinema on HDV – shooting on 1K and projecting in theatres. It was partially because of budget constraints, but also as an experiment. That was an adrenaline high for me, I guess – how to use a low-end camera to get a marketable, quality output. I was doing this before all the pipeline was in place, before all the formal workflow for doing digital intermediate came into place. I would do a colour correction, screen it in theatre, come back to the console, and do re-grading… I would do it 3 times per film. I worked out the route so that HDV can be 2K projected.
In this commercial structure you talked about, is there any female expression as such?
Personally, I’ve done a lot of hair splitting. I’ve wondered if what I was doing was right, and whether this was the aesthetic I wanted. But in the end, I’m entering into an agreement, as I said earlier, and taking the role of a cinematographer, not thinking too much about my personal aesthetics. It’s more or less an agendered, or a genderless kind of a role. There’s a negation in the sense I’m not thinking of myself as belonging to a particular gender, only as a technician. It’s different when there is a limited-budget production, and there are other women in the main crew, in which case there is no gender conflict at all, like Mitr: My Friend. But even in Mitr, I had a lot of conflict because the lead character is a docile, domestic woman whose transformation is, you know,nothing majorly dramatic or anything. It’s just that she gets into a better comfort zone, and communicates with her husband, and starts to see him as a friend.That’s the graph of the character. She begins as a very inside-the-house homemaker sort of person, and she has an achieving husband, and finally something happens between them, they have better communication in which she is also expressing. That is the positive change in the character, but there’s nothing more dramatic in it – it’s not like her world is opened up or anything, it’s just that she has a better friendship with her husband. She doesn’t start going out freely, or come into a circle of friendship; nothing like that. That was an issue for me when I first heard the script. It was very safe. But it was nice too, a small kind of film in which a person who was not expressive, becomes expressive and gets into a communication with her husband, which didn’t exist earlier. That is a good graph. A lot of people would be able to connect and identify with the character, but personally, that was not enough for me. I would have loved to see her transforming a little further, getting a circle of friends, and not only this friendship with her husband.
But then it was fine, I could understand the character and support her change, and I didn’t have an issue with it. Expectation-wise, it would have been nicer if the lady had opened up her world more. So in this case, the gender of the other person, that is the director (Revathi), mattered in the sense that I was not conscious about it. It was very very free. There are also cases in which everything is formal, where we talk about work in a very formal way, we execute and we go home. Here too, gender doesn’t matter; in fact, I’m not thinking about gender at all. I don’t need to worry that the other person is thinking either. The comfort level is something else in such scenarios; it’s the same as when a boy-gang is working together. Usually, when a girl comes into these boy-gangs, there are chances of fissures – unless the girl has been part of the group for a long time; then you just forget the gender difference.
Let’s go back to your childhood for a bit…
I think I was 7 or 8 years old when I first started questioning gender. Why am I expected to do certain things, and not some other things? I grew up in a joint family, and it was normal to hear a soundtrack in the background, “You should learn to cook, keep house, this, that…” When I was 7 or 8, I started talking back and asking why I should be doing all this. I preferred going outside, buying things from the shop, and I’d ask them to tell the boys to do the cooking and all. I’ve tried to invert gender expectations of me since then. I would do the jobs men usually took care of, going out, buying things, and I used to take pride in fetching water from the hand pumps. I remember I used to fill up 3 huge drums with the hand pump and bring them home. I would rather do that than something that was expected of me. I don’t think it would have been an issue if everybody did what I was expected to do, but because I was asked to do specific things, and other people were asked to do other things, I automatically wanted to do the things I was not supposed to do. Added to that, I was a bit of a tomboy, and I’d be out on the streets most of the time.
How was the family atmosphere?
It was a middle-class family. We lived in a street which had families from different religions and backgrounds. It was a beautiful neighbourhood, with all the bonding among the different households, between my grandmother and the other elderly ladies living around us. We were the only Muslim family in that entire neighbourhood, but when Ramzan comes, my brother and I would go to every house and give them Biriyani. It was more like my grandmother cooked Biriyani for the entire street, and not just for our family. It was a lovely place to be in, a very affectionate family and all. I am first granddaughter in my father’s family. After their four sons, my grandparents celebrated me as first girl child in our house. I’ve pretty much had my way in many things, and there’ll always be somebody supporting me, whatever I did. And I did take advantage of that situation for a long time.
I suppose you were exposed to arts, being in a Chennai middle-class family?
I was more exposed to cinema, because we had film buffs in the family. My grandmother used to go in a rickshaw, and watch all the new releases. Another aunt of mine was completely a SivajiGanesan fan; she’d go with a gang of aunties for the 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock show, and also for MGR films. My father’s a film buff, who was into Hitchcock and Milos Forman, and that class of films. Plus, we would watch almost every Bollywood film, all the Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth ones. There was close connection to popular culture, through one of my uncles who was an ABBA and Boney M fan, another one who was into old Hindi songs. In contrast, my father was into ghazals, we would have Sabri Brothers’ Qawwali playing in the house. It was full-on popular culture inside the house.
You had access to all of these. I mean, you could watch both Rajnikanth films and Hitchcok films, listen to Western music and Hindustani…
Yes, and we wouldn’t miss a film, my brother and I. Even if we were half-asleep or whatever, we would go and sit through a show of Rajnikanth or a Kamal Hassan film. The important thing was that I grew up in a liberal space. The other major influence on me was my grandfather, who was a maverick character. He was well read, well informed, he likes to stargaze…. I used to go to the terrace with him at night and he’d tell me about this constellation, that constellation… etc. He once wrote a letter to the President, in his beautiful handwriting, against non-vegetarianism; my grandfather was a vegetarian, and everybody else in the family ate non-vegetarian food. I remember once I walked into the house, and found a bicycle hanging in the middle of the room, instead of the fan. My grandfather had hung it up to do some repair work on it. That’s how he was, he wouldn’t sit outside in the sun and do it – he had to come inside, hang it in the middle of the room and do his work. And so it was there, like an installation, you could say – I’m talking about a real image here, it’s not exaggeration. He just didn’t care. And in the courtyard, my grandmother would be feeding the hens. It’s all under one roof, it wasn’t a big house but everything used to happen.
I also came into contact with different kinds of people right from childhood – there were Christian families in the street, a Tamil Brahmin family diagonally across from our house, and there was an artist who lived near us. So I’ve been watching art, getting exposed to it back then too. My mother’s side of the family were all mostly into medicine and similar professions. We even had a real skeleton in the house, which was, like, 6 feet. So, in one grandparents’ house, everything was steeped in popular culture, in whatever was happening at the time, with all the appreciation of music and cinema and all; and the other side was into science, medicine, diagnosis, analysis and all. And my grandfather married my grandmother and immediately took her out of Purdah (burqa), and made a point that all his daughters would be at least post-graduates. My big aunt became a doctor, and her children and all included, there are about a dozen doctors in my mom’s side. There was an expectation that I would become a doctor too. I would enter the house, and my grandmother would put a coat and a stethoscope around me, and I’d walk around with that. It was like a forced play.
Till about my 10th standard, I had this notion that I was to do medicine. I thought I would make a very good doctor. It seemed very easy for me to listen, feel empathy, and understand the patient’s point of view, diagnose and all. My father was a good doctor in that way, very humanist. He had a lot of patients who were very poor, the beedi-rolling worker kind of people, who had no money for consultation or to buy medicine, and he would take money from his own pocket and give them. I’ve witnessed that. For me, that was the idea of medicine, actually. It was about alleviating pain.
This point became the first real self-criticism that I had undertaken. Even though I was good at understanding how the body works, even though I knew that I would be good at diagnosing, is that what I really wanted to do? At that point, I was doing a few water colour and charcoal drawings, and I began enjoying the expression. I found that, there is a point in it. I’m happy when I’m using the colours. I didn’t write the medical entrance exams, didn’t apply. And I’m very glad I did that.
This questioning that began with why I was doing medicine, led me into art and into the question of what all of art was about. By the time I was in college, I was also taking lesson on flying, and trying to get a Private Pilot License. It was like I had accepted that I can’t do one thing all the time, I would do whatever I wanted to do, whatever I feel like doing – I would pursue it. At the same time, I would do Abstract Expressionist paintings. I had a body of work in it. The routine was that I would leave the house early in the morning, by 5, go take flying lessons, go to college, have some activity in the evening, and be back home only in the night. I might have done an anatomy study in college, and I would have flown in the same day. I suppose I had this sort of Classical-Renaissance education, in which I learned everything. As a result, I really don’t believe in classifications of any kind. I would try to learn, and evolve whatever faculty I could. I think that’s how it should be. Some people would have a leaning towards some particular skill or talent, then I’d say do that. If you know something, or like something, then do it.
Chennai was, and is, a centre of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.
Yeah. I tried learning Veena, actually, back when I was an adolescent. But it wasn’t conducive for me to continue learning it, so I dropped it. But in my school, I was very much involved in the choir, and my class had Mridangam (a type of percussion instrument) players and beautiful Carnatic vocalists. That was a culture there. I studied in a Tamil Brahmin school, by the way. The atmosphere was filled with music, dance, mridangam, flute and what-not.
Would you say the aesthetics of these traditional arts have influenced you, in some way?
Definitely, it’s a full cauldron of things, isn’t it? The Music Academy in Royapettah was between this grandmother’s house and that grandmother’s house. In my school days, I wasn’t interested enough to go to Sabhas (music halls which host Carnatic concerts) and attend concerts, but later I began to do it.
Everything was happening around me. Art, cinema, music… In one grandmother’s house, it was entirely filled with cinema. Sivaji Ganesan’s grandchildren used to come to my house; I knew Nirav Shah, another cinematographer whose father was a Hindi film distributor in Chennai; Sahasranamam’s house was nearby; AIADMK office, DMK office was nearby – everything was there. In my childhood, I would hear and see these people, the happenings, whether I liked it or not. As far as cinema was concerned, I was in touch with the people behind the screen, you know, and they were all easy and comfortable. The best thing was that in my family, whoever wanted to go for a movie, listen to a concert or anything, they could do it. There was some issue with me not doing medicine, but I was a spoilt brat and I ended up having my way.
I didn’t have a deep understanding of the arts back then. That only happened much later, during my Baroda days, when I consciously looked into the arts and tried to understand them further. Otherwise, it was just part of many things happening.
Did you feel the change, or that you were a part of the changing environment, in the arts, during the 90s and 2000s? Something like a generation shift, when the art forms were trying to move on from the accepted greats of the previous generation?
Change, yes. But, in that respect, more than the exposure to music, it was my stint with an art gallery, where I worked for a year after my graduation. That affected me. My concerns at that point were about discovering what art was about. I was doing paintings, and I used to get very good feedback about my works. Then I started wondering, if this thing I’m doing is good, then what is “good?” I needed criticism. It was at that point that I joined a gallery, and started handling works from artists from around the country. Paintings, mainly. I’ve handled MF Hussain, Manu Parekh, Anjolie Ela Menon – I’ve apprenticed Anjolie Ela Menon. I’ve sold art. I was very good at it.
That was the time I started getting critical of the gallery system. Because once a certain kind of work is getting sold, then there is a compulsion from the gallery’s side on the artist to continue to do that kind of work. This presented a problem to me, in terms of what art is. Is this art? Isn’t this mythmaking?You’re creating a notion of what an artist is, and then marketing it. When market comes into it, it changes how the artwork is perceived, and the artist’s work is being controlled by the gallery – all this made the whole thing very suspect, and I became very critical about it. That was the time of big artists and big names.
The Postmodern period?
It was not yet Postmodern here, it was just before. Postmodernism has happened outside, not here.
The gallery system was keeping art insular from the happenings outside. I suppose that’s why I wanted to study art further and went to do a course in art criticism in Baroda. I still hadn’t figured what art is.
Baroda became one cauldron for me. I got awareness about art movements, and activities, and was let into what people were thinking and talking and discussing around the country. The film club was restarted at that time. And I started watching the other kinds of cinema, whereas I had grown up on the popular cinema. I was mind blown. “Oh, so this is possible in cinema?!” That was a turning point. When I realised artistic cinema was possible, my head sort of somersaulted. I was watching the classics, mainly, like Battleship Potemkin and the Ritwik Ghatak films, Amma Ariyan, and all. There was a time when I had walked out of Roja, which I’d gone to watch with my friends, because I couldn’t stand it. That’s where I was coming from. And from there, it was a huge transformation and a discovery of another world of cinema, in which the possibilities were entirely different.
It was in my time at Baroda that all this – the possibilities of cinema, the popular cinema, the gallery system, the counter-narrative to the gallery system, the artworks derived from the Western Postmodernism – everything fell into perspective. And then I began looking for a very indigenous expression. I felt, in cinema, it was possible. Not that everything is well in the world of cinema; there is the entire mainstream system and structure that dominates. But still, those are also bound by a certain aesthetic, and you can’t really leave everything and do a completely derivative work, because whatever you show is seen on screen, and can be seen by everyone. It’s all laid out on the screen. There’s no masking or anything. There’s nothing else there, there’s the screen and there’s the audience. It allows someone to make honest cinema and put it out, and it can really be nice.
Medium is important. But it’s all about expression. What is it you want to express, how much you want to reach out and to how many people.
My dissertation was on propaganda films, on the whole phenomenon of Tamil cinema and politics. Public art and propaganda is something I studied; Fascism and how image-making is critical in propagating Fascist ideologies. In Tamil politics, cinema is very very crucial. Right from scripting, dialogue, building of the persona of the hero – building of the persona of Jayalalithaa also mattered. It reflects the way she finally changed herself to become a sort of mass leader. All this just points to the fact that it is imperative to handle the medium properly.
Somewhat similar to how the image of MS Subbulakshmi was made with the help of cinema?
Yes. Exactly. There was a lot done to make sure she remained at the top. These kinds of things are definitely manipulating the market. We’ve also heard stories about Mohammed Rafi, KJ Yesudas – how they reign. Not that they don’t have calibre, they are exceptional artists. Along with the calibre, they exercised certain…
This is all, you know, hearsay and stories circulated on the set. I wouldn’t be able to provide evidence. But managing yourself as a brand is a commercial possibility which exists in every field, and cinema is no exception.
You’ve travelled to a lot of places, studied and learnt at different places. You’ve taught students early in your career. Is there any conscious logic behind this? Or do you just try to explore possibilities?
Teaching came very early in my career. I got a project soon after finishing my course in the Institute. Even as a student, I’ve questioned the teaching practices we follow. I was very critical of textbooks. I always felt that books and subjects should be dealt with in such a way that we enjoy learning, as a continuous experience. But what we’ve done is we’ve broken up the school time into fragments, between which subjects keep changing. I felt we should do one subject a day, and cover a topic fully, rather than do 40 minute sessions for each subject. Of course, I only thought of this from the point of view of a student who was experiencing it. Why is there an emphasis on rote learning? Altogether, it seemed like a broken system to me, and it seemed to mess with our natural flow and natural curiosity.
When the chance came for me to do a session with some students, I definitely eschewed all these. I mean, we need textbooks, but what is more important is how one comprehends the particular content, and how you take the knowledge forward to its successful application. That became a point in my exploration, what I would explore in a classroom. I don’t enjoy full time teaching profession; I try to take up more of workshops and short-time teaching programs. For me, it has to be very clear where the students start at the beginning of the class, and where they are by the end. I feel there should be a quantum change. Whatever was unknown in the mind of the student about the topic should have been cleared by the end.
I don’t really see teaching as a job. It’s more like a study for me. Each session has something new about it – the students, the subject, how we approach it, how the subject relates to the particular group of students. It’s a creative process by itself. It’s creative in the sense, there’s creativity in the way the particular group of students attain a resolution, and in the way they acquire a certain skill they didn’t have. Wherever this process has taken me, I’ve gone. It is very much a part of my entire being.
It’s that I’ve done so many different kinds of works, that I’m sure, somewhere, my experience will be of some assistance to the students. I’m very confident about that. I’ve done a session for railway employees, about a thousand of them – a film appreciation course. I’ve done a session in Oman, for Arabs and Malayali ex-pats. I’ve handled a session in which 50 women learned to operate a camera, and take shots effectively. Within 4-5 days, we went to thePalayam market, and they were shooting.
The main reason I didn’t want to get into medicine, in the end, was that I supposed it would make life predictable. Maybe I was wrong, I don’t know. Anyway, even now, I try to keep my life interesting with a mixture of activities, without sticking to one thing for a long time.
The Indian Women Cinematographer’s Collective is a very interesting idea. The idea of collective is something that’s actually losing popularity today. There are very few concerted collective efforts – in any field, for that matter. The idea of personal growth seems to have overtaken this idea of collective. This is very much different from the situation back in the 60s and 70s, where there were informal collectives – and in some cases, formal ones like the Odessa Collective – working in almost every art form. How did you come to conceive of such an idea? Why did you include women alone? Doesn’t it possess the danger of “othering” women?
In a very practical sense, to make something happen in cinema, you need people working together. Yes, there are one-man teams, one-woman teams, but those are the exceptions, and they have their own style of doing things. AndI have observed that male bonding is very easy, especially among young adults. But among women, everybody is friendly in school, college and all, and then each person just moves on to their own life because of social demands, settling in and all that; the bonding between them doesn’t develop as well. These groups, when it comes to cinema, come together and units are formed, and they go on a collective sort of journey, watching films together, thinking of stories and developing them together. That’s how a lot of films happen. This is the model that is there, that is prevalent. You can see it in Malayalam cinema. These groups are predominantly made of males. Now, why would they think of consciously bringing in a woman into it? There’s no need – it’s not like there is a dearth of male technicians or artists. It would be an unnecessary challenge to the power structure. The logical solution that occurred to me was to bring together the women and form a group of our own. This would promote exchange of ideas and create new teams. I don’t think it can happen any other way. Let’s see where it develops to.
So you don’t think it will make the gender gap bigger?
Nothing like that. Nobody outside is affected by it. If some product comes out of it, the only thing that will happen is that it will enrich the body of work that is available for the public to watch. The recently formed Women In Cinema Collective, which I’m part of too, is something similar, concentrated in the Malayalam industry. Women are facing a lot of problems in the industry, and it’s really tough for women to break through and make films of their own, or become lead technicians in their own right. The collective effort is mainly concentrated towards levelling the playing field. At the end of the day, what is being lost? If more people make films, there are more people getting jobs and making money out of it, and there are more diverse products coming out into the market. That’s it.
Final question, across all art forms, whose creative works inspire you or move you the most?
Very difficult. I’ll think about it and message you later.