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Chat with Govind Nihalani

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Govind Nihalani recently won the Kodak Technical Excellence Award at the MAMI Film Festival, for his work as a cinematographer. He is one of our finest filmmakers, who started his career as a cinematographer, and went on to make 15 films in a little over 20 years, that include highly regarded works as Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Tamas, Drohkaal, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa and Dev. But his work as a director often overshadows his role behind the camera. Excerpts from an interview:

You are one of the few cinematographers who turned director, what made you also want to direct...because cinematography in itself is a very creative line of work.
I think it has something to do with the course I did in SJ Polytechnic, Bangalore. It was an integrated course, in the sense that all branches that go into the making of a film were taught - starting from laboratory to photography, editing, sound recording and film direction-all were part of the course, with an emphasis on cinematography, of course. It imparted knowledge of all the aspects of filmmaking-the diploma was even called Diploma in Motion Picture Technology. So it was not only cinematography; right from the beginning I felt that apart from cinematography, direction or filmmaking was something that came to me very naturally.

So, when I finished working on Ankur with Shyam Benegal, I came across a story by a very fine Marathi writer, C. T. Khanolkar. I liked that story immensely and felt like making a film on it. Having worked with Shyam on small budgets and a different kind of cinema-which was away from popular cinema-I got a very good feel of the logistics of filmmaking and I could feel that we can control it. The other factor that came into play was, of course, working with Shyam was not like just coming on the set and being told what shot was to be taken. It was a circle of friends-Satyadev Dubey and Girish Karnad and others used to be there-and a lot of discussions used to take place on the script. I used to be there at these sessions, so it was not just being given a scene and interpreting it, one knew the whole process of the creation of the script. I didn't participate in the writing, but I used to be there and whenever possible, I used to put in my two bits. So I grew up in a filmmaking environment, which was like teamwork.

In popular cinema, when I was assisting Mr. V.K. Murthy, I was never part of the development of the script. But with Shyam this happened, so I imbibed a lot. Since I already had a background in direction, as part of the course, it was natural that I wanted to make a film.

Once you became a director, you did the cinematography for just your own films...
After I did my first film, I continued to work with Shyam Benegal. I did two more films with him, but after that, it reduced. I did the cinematography of my own films because that's what I loved. And I felt that the film I ultimately made was such a tight film, in the sense that it did not have any major scenes to be staged, huge locations to be lit up or massive crowds to be managed-it was very intimate kind of film, I felt I could manage both very easily.

In fact, over time, it became very much a part of me. So, when I started writing my own scripts I used to visualize the lighting, the camera movements also, so it became a very integrated process in my mind. I could think of direction and cinematography together. But whenever there has been a conflict on my own film, the director has always won over the cameraman. But on someone else's film, I establish a very good rapport with the director, being a director myself I put that aspect of me in the foreground, and as a cameraman I try to understand the person's vision and then try to work that out. With Benegal, with whom I have done the maximum number of films, the process used to be very interesting, but not very long. We used to decide on the look of the film or the 'personality' of the film very quickly- because both of us had very common preferences, we used to communicate very fast. That led to a quality in the films we did together, because he would give a lot of freedom to me to create the kind of images that we decided should be there in the film. That helped me quite a lot.

You see what is important for me is, being a cameraman and a director together, I can take a decision on the kind of look a film will have. When one describes the look, one has a very definite idea in mind. The look of a film cannot be entirely a cameraman's job, there have to be inputs from the director too; how does the director visualize the scenes and when we say visualize, there are certain specific points-like a director might want to shoot a scene in which in every shot the camera is in motion. He might like to shoot a scene where the camera is totally still, he might like to shoot a scene in long shot, or a combination of the two. He might like to have a feel of a documentary, or a very dramatically lit scene. So all these go into creating the look of a film.

Are these decisions taken beforehand?
Sometimes they are taken beforehand; sometimes they are improvised on the spot. The kind of films that Shyam and I were doing together, partly the basic look used to be decided, in the sense that the feel in the entire film should be realistic. But since we were shooting on locations, many times we had to improvise a lot. We'd go there, and stage the whole action and then decide how consistently we can maintain a lighting style. If this is the location, does it have windows, are there any practical sources of light-all these things have to be taken into consideration. You take certain aesthetic decisions-that this is going to be a low key scene, there are going to be a lot of shadows in the frame and a lot of darkness, or the other way round. Then you go on the location and decide how that can be maintained. So it is always a combination of deciding earlier and going to the location and improvising. On a set it is much more under control, because you are not bound by sunlight, you are not bound by what is seen outside the windows, so you can create and hang the lights from wherever you want- there is much more controlled environment in a studio. But while working in a studio, again you have a choice, you can create realistic lighting or you can create a highly dramatic effect-both are possible.

You did not feel tempted to work in a mainstream film?
Well, all my training was done in mainstream cinema, when I worked with Mr. Murthy, and he photographed several films for Mr. Pramod Chakravarty, which were all mainstream films. So I know the genre, there is no question about that. What happened later was that, because of my association with the film society movement, exposure to European cinema-not just Hollywood and British cinema-of a period after the second world war, when the new Arriflex camera came and there was sudden freedom from the huge, heavy Mitchell camera, there was a certain sense of liberation because you could hand hold the camera. In East Europe, particularly, they were doing a lot of experimentation. They had very little money and very limited stock, so they had to improvise a lot. In France and Italy the new wave-neo realism-was happening.

So the entire effort was to make the film look as natural as possible. With my training in the mainstream cinema, with dramatic lighting, glamorous lighting, very stylized kind of look... then there was this realistic look available on the other side, it created a very good integration of ideas. I became aware of different kinds of lighting that was possible, and the kind of films we were making then, it was possible to combine the best elements from both styles

The work that is usually noticed and awarded is in the big glossy films...
As they say photography in a film should be such that one should not notice it. It should not attract attention to itself. But now it depends upon the genre of the film. If you are making a film that is inspired by the MTV kind of technique and things, there your editing, soundtrack and photography will scream. That is the demand of the particular genre.

But if you are making a realistic film then the photography has to blend with it. You notice the work of all the major cameramen - notice the work of my guru Mr. Murthy, in a film like Kaagaz Ke Phool, where it was very stylized and then you have Pyaasa and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, where there is no dramatization at all. It is so subtle that you don't notice it. You look at the work of Subroto Mitra - never will you find the photography scream, but what beautiful work. You look at the work of Sven Nykvist who worked with Ingmar Bergman, or look at the work of Fellini and you can't find a character more stylized than in Fellini's films. And there also what a good combination of realism and dramatic visual quality in the same film.

So it is really relative - you cannot take a film like Ardh Satya and light it up like a musical. In a musical all the stylistic elements must stand out and sing - and create that larger than life feel, but in a different kind of story, all these elements should recede in the background and not scream out aloud. Like you have in acting - you have understated, restrained quiet performance, visually also you can create those elements. Because in a film, unless all those elements get together, and work in unison you just cannot get a fully integrated work.

In your films there is a combination of low key lighting and heightened drama.
If I were to give a musical analogy, a singer sings a on a particular note, and there is a tanpura that provides the note to the singer, but within that composition that starts from alaap and go to dhrut, they go through various shades of rhythm and tempo, and the singer is backed by the level that is provided by the tanpura. So visually also you have to hold a tanpura.

Every cameraman has his own interpretation of what is realistic lighting, what is dramatic lighting - which is very subjective. All colours are available to everybody, how blue is used differs from painter to painter. So in this case, I go by what is the 'sur' of this film, visually and otherwise. Once that 'sur' is in the mind then you can craft the frames very well. I believe that it is not just the lighting, but the camera movement that is very important - how you employ it - and the most important factor is lensing. Now lensing is not just putting on lens or another, it is how you are using different lenses to give images a certain quality. You might decide to shoot one scene entirely with wide angle, even for close-ups you use that. Sometimes you decide to shoot the entire scene on a tele end of the focal length. And you might like to shoot a scene with a lens of 150 mm focal length. If you have to mix the focal lengths, how you do it seamlessly, or how to make the glaring difference in the perspective of a tele lens and a wide angle lens for a certain impact. The choice of lens is very important and I have been very conscious of that.

So a combination of good lensing, lighting, camera movement, and finally the composition which is very very important. The moment you put four lines of the frame on anything, the image within those four lines acquires its own emotional quality, the way you emotionally respond to that image, creates its own energy. And when you cut two shots together, with different magnifications, it has its own dynamics. And all that can be helped immensely by composition, by putting certain elements in certain given areas of a special frame. What has happened is that after cinemascope came, films started being shot on exotic locations, composition in Hindi films at least, suffered a great deal. Mostly you have beautiful backgrounds and people standing or dancing in front of them, the power of composition to create an emotional response for the audience is not being utilized as much as it used to be, earlier. Because the cameraman and everybody was very conscious of this element of the image, which is not the case with the new genre that is emerging.

Today aesthetics is equated with a very kitschy kind of visual beauty.
There is nothing wrong with that if it is done with a certain amount of good taste, and taste again is a very subjective matter. Ultimately anything that you see on the screen is a combination of two minds - what the director is trying to say and how the cameraman is telling it. And the other person to whom we do not give enough prominence is the art director and the costume designer. They contribute so much to the look of the film. They do a great deal to create the visual personality of the picture.

If you were to make a film you didn't shoot yourself who would you hire?
It would depend on the kind of film, but the first choice would always be, if he agrees, Mr. Murthy. He is so adaptable and so open to new ideas. 

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