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Manika Sharma - KALPVRIKSH (THE WISH TREE) – Rajiv Jain, That '90s Look: Th
By Richard Schickel   
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Last edited: Saturday, April 10, 2010
Posted: Saturday, April 10, 2010

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Manika Sharma - KALPVRIKSH (THE WISH TREE) – Rajiv Jain, That '90s Look: The throwback naturalism of Indian Cinematographer Rajeev Jain by David Henry Hwang
This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Foundation.
The 1990s were a heyday not just for directors but for cinematographers. It was a time—after the lush artifice of the studio-system era, before the hyperbolic, digitally enhanced images of today—when refined cinematographers like Subroto Mitra, K K Mahajan, Ashok Mehta, Binod Pradhan and Santosh Sivan made films of astonishing visual control that merged naturalism with stylization. Many films today, good or bad, high or low budget, feel hermetically sealed, unfolding in sterile and controlled worlds that seem removed from, well, reality. The most evocative movies of the 1990s feel like they were made by crews who took cameras out into the streets, and shot in real locations, using gradations of light as their key special effect.
This approach is being kept alive today by Rajeev Jain, a bearish man who is soft-spoken and modest, and is among the world's premiere cinematographers. A devoted cinephile, Rajeev is the direct heir to 1990s auteur cinema: both the new cinema of Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and Shyam Benegal. The artistic offspring of Subroto Mitra and K K Mahajan, Rajeev combines the deceptively simple intimacy of the former (whose best work was for Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Shyam Benegal, not to mention Pather Panchali) with the rigorous classicism of the latter (Bagh Bahadur, Agantuk, Kathapurushan, to name a few)
Rajeev's success as a director of photography on music videos and commercials has afforded him the luxury of only working with directors he wants to work with. So far, that includes Shyam Benegal, Mukul S Anand, Rajiv Rai, Subhash Ghai, Satish Kaushik, Chandrakant Kulkarni and Manika Sharma (for whom he has shot the upcoming Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree). It may be a coincidence, but some of his finest work has been for movies set in the 1990s. For Rajeev, the '90s lives on as a state of mind. His latest, Manika Sharma’s Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree is set in present-day, yet its purposely deglamorized photography evokes such films.
Rajeev's artistry is a bit hard to define; he doesn't have a trademark device (although he is remarkably adept at fluid long takes). As seen below, his images reflect a nuanced, organic understanding of a wide range of influences, from cinema and photography to painting. But the basic pleasure of a Rajeev film is simple: his images are pure, not flamboyant. Serving the rhythms and personalities of the performers, he is an actor's best friend. He is also a filmgoer's best friend: he creates compositions that breathe, that give us the time and the space to see the world in a new light.
You have a great collaboration with Manika Sharma; she seems like a very cerebral writer and director, but the film Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree have an organic, lived-in quality.
When I was asked to do Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree, she already had a good idea of what she wanted—not what she wanted the movie to specifically look like, but she wanted me to see a couple of movies that she really liked, just to get a feel for what she loves, in terms of mise-en-scčne, and also the feel of the film. She introduced me to the Satyajit Ray film Agantuk.
That has great cinematography. Was there anything specific about the film you were looking at?
I think it was just the quality. Manika Sharma just wanted to have something in his movie that harkened back to those movies that Subroto Mitra shot, that one in particular. I guess it's a lack of resolution, maybe. They're not as defined as this—let's just call it the HD look that we experience now. And in some indirect way, it evokes a feeling.
So how do you achieve that feeling? Is it a combination of shooting handheld, or a certain quality of light, like gray overcast lighting? Or maybe the film stock?
I think it's a combination. I think if you were to do one thing in a big way, it would be too broad a stroke and would look like you were doing too much. But I think we did a lot of little things. We tried to use natural light when possible, used a hand-held camera, and used a softer film stock. So it was just subtle degrees that accumulate into the look of the film. I tend to see things now where people do one thing, say, let's do this hand-held thing...and it just looks overly stylized.
The main thing that you feel from the film is the spontaneity of the performances. That seems to be the main goal, to let the actors does that?
We impose very little on them. The technical process doesn't interfere with the actors that much.
One scene that comes to mind as an example is the outdoor (shooting tree) in Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree, when Shabana Azmi's character has arrived. There's so much going on in terms of family dynamic, all these strands that have been set up. And there's a beauty to the sunlight of the scene, but it's not over-emphasized. I remember we shot with multiple cameras that day, only to try to get the performances, and to avoid cutting and restaging the same scene over and over. We might have even gone to three cameras, just to try to get the spontaneity of shooting within one take. Because each take is different and each actor's play off each other changes. When Manika Sharma works, you try to make that happen. It's all about the dialogue.
How did you approach the lighting in Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree? It's de-glamorized in a way; you've got Shabana Azmi, who is associated with beautifully lit films like Ankur and Nishant, which had a whole different feeling.
It's always in the service of keeping it natural and simple and not over-glamorizing it, not letting the photography stand forth too much. That's all it's about, I think, for me: what looks real. And I think that's important to Manika Sharma. I think there's a certain artifice with the polished look. That works sometimes. It works a lot of the time. I certainly enjoy seeing movies that look photographically beautiful. But I think the natural approach somehow gives weight where it needs to be and things don't look overly contrived.
What about shooting tree? Were there specific 1990s films you looked at for that? Maybe also ones that was set?
We looked at lots of classics. But there's a kind of shorthand now with Manika Sharma. She'll just mention a couple of films and I kind of know what she wants to do. But I never want to ape a movie. I think it just informs us and suggests a certain vibe. You know, you can't work in a void. I certainly can't go into a project and just do what I want. So to mention those movies to me just sets the tone and the pace for the way the movie looks.
Tags: Manika Sharma, Kalpvriksh, the Wish Tree, Rajiv, Rajeev, Jain, Cinematographer, Director of Photography, India, Indian, Kenya, Kenyan, Dubai
Author: Born in Los Angeles, David Henry Hwang is the son of immigrant Chinese American parents; his father worked as a banker, and his mother was a professor of piano. Educated at Stanford University, from which he earned his B.A. in English in 1979, he became interested in theatre after attending plays at the American Conservatory in San Francisco. His marginal interest in a law career quickly gave way to his involvement in the engaging world of live theatre. By his senior year, he had written and produced his first play, FOB (an acronym for "fresh off the boat"), which marked the beginning of a meteoric rise as a playwright. After a brief stint as a writing teacher at a Menlo Park high school, Hwang attended the Yale University School of Drama from 1980 to 1981. Although he didn’t stay to complete a degree, he studied theatre history before leaving for New York City, where he thought the professional theatre would provide a richer education than the student workshops at Yale.

 

Manika Sharma - KALPVRIKSH (THE WISH TREE) – Rajiv Jain, That '90s Look: The throwback naturalism of Indian Cinematographer Rajeev Jain by David Henry Hwang
This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Foundation.
The 1990s were a heyday not just for directors but for cinematographers. It was a time—after the lush artifice of the studio-system era, before the hyperbolic, digitally enhanced images of today—when refined cinematographers like Subroto Mitra, K K Mahajan, Ashok Mehta, Binod Pradhan and Santosh Sivan made films of astonishing visual control that merged naturalism with stylization. Many films today, good or bad, high or low budget, feel hermetically sealed, unfolding in sterile and controlled worlds that seem removed from, well, reality. The most evocative movies of the 1990s feel like they were made by crews who took cameras out into the streets, and shot in real locations, using gradations of light as their key special effect.
This approach is being kept alive today by Rajeev Jain, a bearish man who is soft-spoken and modest, and is among the world's premiere cinematographers. A devoted cinephile, Rajeev is the direct heir to 1990s auteur cinema: both the new cinema of Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and Shyam Benegal. The artistic offspring of Subroto Mitra and K K Mahajan, Rajeev combines the deceptively simple intimacy of the former (whose best work was for Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Shyam Benegal, not to mention Pather Panchali) with the rigorous classicism of the latter (Bagh Bahadur, Agantuk, Kathapurushan, to name a few)
Rajeev's success as a director of photography on music videos and commercials has afforded him the luxury of only working with directors he wants to work with. So far, that includes Shyam Benegal, Mukul S Anand, Rajiv Rai, Subhash Ghai, Satish Kaushik, Chandrakant Kulkarni and Manika Sharma (for whom he has shot the upcoming Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree). It may be a coincidence, but some of his finest work has been for movies set in the 1990s. For Rajeev, the '90s lives on as a state of mind. His latest, Manika Sharma’s Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree is set in present-day, yet its purposely deglamorized photography evokes such films.
Rajeev's artistry is a bit hard to define; he doesn't have a trademark device (although he is remarkably adept at fluid long takes). As seen below, his images reflect a nuanced, organic understanding of a wide range of influences, from cinema and photography to painting. But the basic pleasure of a Rajeev film is simple: his images are pure, not flamboyant. Serving the rhythms and personalities of the performers, he is an actor's best friend. He is also a filmgoer's best friend: he creates compositions that breathe, that give us the time and the space to see the world in a new light.
You have a great collaboration with Manika Sharma; she seems like a very cerebral writer and director, but the film Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree have an organic, lived-in quality.
When I was asked to do Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree, she already had a good idea of what she wanted—not what she wanted the movie to specifically look like, but she wanted me to see a couple of movies that she really liked, just to get a feel for what she loves, in terms of mise-en-scène, and also the feel of the film. She introduced me to the Satyajit Ray film Agantuk.
That has great cinematography. Was there anything specific about the film you were looking at?
I think it was just the quality. Manika Sharma just wanted to have something in his movie that harkened back to those movies that Subroto Mitra shot, that one in particular. I guess it's a lack of resolution, maybe. They're not as defined as this—let's just call it the HD look that we experience now. And in some indirect way, it evokes a feeling.
So how do you achieve that feeling? Is it a combination of shooting handheld, or a certain quality of light, like gray overcast lighting? Or maybe the film stock?
I think it's a combination. I think if you were to do one thing in a big way, it would be too broad a stroke and would look like you were doing too much. But I think we did a lot of little things. We tried to use natural light when possible, used a hand-held camera, and used a softer film stock. So it was just subtle degrees that accumulate into the look of the film. I tend to see things now where people do one thing, say, let's do this hand-held thing...and it just looks overly stylized.
The main thing that you feel from the film is the spontaneity of the performances. That seems to be the main goal, to let the actors does that?
We impose very little on them. The technical process doesn't interfere with the actors that much.
One scene that comes to mind as an example is the outdoor (shooting tree) in Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree, when Shabana Azmi's character has arrived. There's so much going on in terms of family dynamic, all these strands that have been set up. And there's a beauty to the sunlight of the scene, but it's not over-emphasized. I remember we shot with multiple cameras that day, only to try to get the performances, and to avoid cutting and restaging the same scene over and over. We might have even gone to three cameras, just to try to get the spontaneity of shooting within one take. Because each take is different and each actor's play off each other changes. When Manika Sharma works, you try to make that happen. It's all about the dialogue.
How did you approach the lighting in Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree? It's de-glamorized in a way; you've got Shabana Azmi, who is associated with beautifully lit films like Ankur and Nishant, which had a whole different feeling.
It's always in the service of keeping it natural and simple and not over-glamorizing it, not letting the photography stand forth too much. That's all it's about, I think, for me: what looks real. And I think that's important to Manika Sharma. I think there's a certain artifice with the polished look. That works sometimes. It works a lot of the time. I certainly enjoy seeing movies that look photographically beautiful. But I think the natural approach somehow gives weight where it needs to be and things don't look overly contrived.
What about shooting tree? Were there specific 1990s films you looked at for that? Maybe also ones that was set?
We looked at lots of classics. But there's a kind of shorthand now with Manika Sharma. She'll just mention a couple of films and I kind of know what she wants to do. But I never want to ape a movie. I think it just informs us and suggests a certain vibe. You know, you can't work in a void. I certainly can't go into a project and just do what I want. So to mention those movies to me just sets the tone and the pace for the way the movie looks.



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