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]
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?
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 ......
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Vijendra Katheria is a Delhi-based cinematographer and author. He teaches cinematography and advanced film production at Asian Academy of Film and Television, New Delhi, as well as a course through the Extension entitled, “Cinematography ”.