A graduate from SRFTI(2003-2006), Susheel Gautam has shot films like ‘Piku’, ‘Madras Café’, ‘Jolly LLB 2’, Shershaah and Hotstar show ‘Grahan’ as second unit cinematographer. In the last decade or so Susheel has shot many commercials, TV shows, promotional videos, documentaries & corporate films.
He is the cinematographer of acclaimed short ‘Nooreh’, which won multiple awards in various national and international film festivals Including Sonje Award at Busan International Film Festival(BIFF)and Best Cinematography at Kelvin Cinema Festivals of Films and CSIFF .
As a child what were your early influences towards cinema?
Interestingly my childhood memories are sprinkled with literature more than cinema, as my father is an academician and an author. I grew up in the 80s & 90s and the mainstream cinema of the day was considered low art in my household, so much so that the first time I stepped into a cinema hall was when I was 17 years old!
But that was also the golden era of Doordarshan and I remember watching some memorable films, especially in the afternoon slot (It used to air National Award winning films). It was also the age of VCRs and we used to get 3 movies a night Package. While my neighbors got films like Nagina, Chandni and Maine Pyaar Kiya we often got Mother India, Dosti and Do Beegha Zamin. I enjoyed both.
How did you first become interested in cinematography? Did you start with photography?
It happened through sheer chance. I was pursuing Physics and wanted to go into research or teaching. But with MSc results my dream of academics shattered and I was on the crossroad looking for alternate career options. Incidentally, around the same time my elder brother passed out from Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) and came to Mumbai. He asked me to consider films and helped me attend a film shoot in Delhi to gain some exposure and decide. Although I had spent some time in SRFTI during my brother’s stay, this was the first time I seriously observed the process of shooting. The camera and cameraman caught my attention the most. I decided to give cinematography a shot. My brother had an old Ricoh SLR. He gave it to me and I started clicking pictures on the streets of Delhi or at home mostly with family members as models. Soon it became an obsession and from a stray dog to a wildflower to a busy market everything became a frame.
What steps did you take to train yourself?
Once I chose cinematography, I wanted to prepare well. And the first step was to watch and develop a taste and understanding of good cinema. Those days IFFI used to be held in Delhi every alternate year. Luckily I got a festival pass. It was truly an eye opener. I followed it up with a short-term film appreciation course at Jamia. I applied for FTII & SRFTI, moved to Mumbai and tried my hand at videography with my brother. Finally I made the cut at SRFTI and those three years of formal meticulous training and exposure really shaped my vision and sensibility. Apart from regular theoretical and practical classes, we had wonderful workshops with eminent DPs like Sunny Joseph, Mahesh Aney, Anil Mehta, Vikas Shivraman and Late KV Anand.
Have you assisted anyone? How does it help one?
As we all know it is difficult to get independent work immediately after passing out (though things have changed for the better a little bit), I started looking for assistantship upon reaching Mumbai in 2007. Usually, focus pulling is something that film school students don’t prefer but I grabbed it with both hands as I was getting an opportunity to work with a master like Mr. Barun Mukherjee. I keenly observed his meditative process of composing a frame and learnt a lot about mise-en-scene, lighting up big sets and minutely detailing the frame. Going forward I also worked with A K Bir, K U Mohanan, Setu and Bijitesh De. From Bir Sahab I tried to imbibe the magic of using natural/minimal light and walking the tight rope of exposure. Mohanan sir’s calmness under chaos and precise communication were things to be learnt. Setu bhai’s passion is infectious and Biji’s extensive planning and swift execution left a mark on me. And then there has been a long association with Kamal Jeet Negi that started with Vicky Donor as an associate cinematographer and gradually I started doing second camera and second unit. Kamal is a bundle of energy who shoots on the go and breaks conventions. He always tries to push the envelope while remaining true to the script. Probably this is the reason we have achieved dynamic and different visual styles in each film from Madras café, Piku, Boothnath Returns, Jolly LLB 2 to Shershah. I recently did my first OTT work as a second unit DP with Kamal for Hot Star called Grahan.
How did your first film project come about?
Though I shot a digital film early on for a batch mate, my first significant work came about with the Indie short ‘Nooreh’. Actually a very senior DP was supposed to do the film but it didn’t workout. The director Ashish Pandey who is my senior then offered it to me. I read the script and immediately said yes although deep down I was a little jittery since the film was set at the Indo-Pak border in Kashmir and Ashish wanted to shoot it there. The shoot was extremely challenging but the warm hospitality of local made it memorable.
Tell us about some of the challenges you faced while shooting Nooreh.
To start with, the recce and shoot was in one go and we were shooting in a very remote location called Gurez. So I had to visualize scenarios based on the script and some location pictures and place light and camera requirements even before reaching the location. Most of the film is shot in natural or very minimal lights and without any grip, as nothing was available or could be transported. The nearby army camp was the only source of electricity, so we had to run every now and then to charge batteries and transfer data.
Not just me, everyone worked in strict constraints as we had a small crew of 12 people where everyone was multi tasking. The line producer was Chief AD and driver doubled up as production manager. We were even prepared to sleep in sleeping bags, though luckily we got a government guesthouse.
How has been the response to Nooreh?
I’ve seen the film with varied audience and people just love it irrespective of their culture or region. Its local yet universal fervour has struck a cord at various international film festivals like Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), Indian Film Festival of Stuttgart, Kelvin Cinema Festival of Films (Shillong), Artic Open Film Festival (Russia), Nepal International Film Festival, South Asian International Film Festival, Culcutta International Short Film Festival (CISFF) and a many more. The film also won Best Cinematography awards in Kelvin Cinema Festival of Films and CISFF. When Nooreh was screened as opening film at Indian panorama, IFFI, I was truly overwhelmed as it took me back in time to my first IFFI. But the most significant screening was when we finally went back and screened the film for kids we shot with in Kashmir. Watching the film in that village school with locals is a memory I will cherish for life. There is also this hair raising instance of life imitating cinema when we had to flee overnight due to cross border firing while we were there to screen the film. This is an exact scene from Nooreh.
What is perhaps the most important factor for you to choose a script?
Obviously the story and script has to be compelling. But other factors are no less important like the people I am working. In fact, once I left a film as I did not like the atmosphere on the set especially director’s behavior towards the crew. Also, in a mainstream projects where a lot of money is spent on actors, sets, etc., I believe crew should be paid well.
Tell me about your style of Cinematography.
Cinema is an evolving art especially due to its heavy dependence on technology. So I don’t want to bind myself by a particular style. Also style is always script/narrative driven. Having said that I like the fluidity of handheld shots and love having the camera in my hand. It provides an interesting sense of control yet leaves space for spontaneous exploration. Funnily, my last film ‘Tumhare Bina’ has only static blocs.
Tell us something about your latest film.
Recently I did a short film ‘Tumhare Bina’ produced by Jar Pictures and directed by Shailendra Jha. The film is set in the Covid lockdown phase and deals with loneliness and companionship. So even though the context is contemporary, the theme is timeless and universal.
Is cinematography intuitive or is it something you learn?
I think it’s a bit of both. One has to master technique so that its use becomes instinctive. This balance is the sweet-spot of creativity. As I mentioned, technology is changing fast– new cameras, rigs, lights and accessories are launched every year, sometimes every month, we must keep abreast with evolving imaging techniques.
Where do you seek inspiration from?
I seek inspiration from everywhere – nature, people, arts, history, my surroundings, works of my seniors and contemporaries… everything.
What is in the kitty right now?
Meetings are on; hopefully something will start soon.
What’s your dream project?
I would love to do a period film or a futuristic sci-fi, as it’s challenging and exciting to create the look, feel, atmosphere and the mood of a particular era or of an imaginary world. Recently I did a Netflix series as second unit DP that was set in 90s. I really enjoyed the experience.
Your most memorable blunder?
There are many to be honest but the most memorable blunder is during my initial assisting days. We were fresh graduates from film school helping each other on projects. So I was assisting my friend Tushar Kanti Ray on the film Dhobi Ghat. We were supposed to shoot a day exterior scene after shooting whole night. We were shooting on film and we were using 500T for night and 250D for day. As it happened we started shooting day scene straight after finishing interior night scene. I forgot to reset my light meter for day Stock. To my horror I only realized this after pack up. We were shooting Super16 which was to be blown up to 35mm so exposure was critical. To make matters worse it was a scene on a crowded street of old Mumbai with Aamir Khan. With pounding heart I owned the truth and to their credit Tushar and the director Kiran Rao handled the situation commendably. They calmly said they will figure out something. To my relief, after a few days we shot the scene again.
This incident made me more careful on the set and I made it a habit to cross check everything minutely. Also I learnt it is important to own up.
Any advice to the aspiring cinematographers?
Be an observer – light falling through sheer curtain, the monsoon sky, the crowded station, human faces… anything and everything is an image, a story. One needs to see it.
What book, music, movie are you enjoying right now?
I had lost the habit of reading for last many years. During Covid lockdown, I consciously worked on it and started reading again. I recently finished reading a very interesting book – ‘Kaun Hai Bharat Mata?’. It’s very relevant book in today’s time. Another book I am reading is ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ by Yuval Noah Harari. Although the books I am reading, are not directly related to cinema, I feel cinema is byproduct of who we are. In movies, I recently watched Dune and Gangubai Kathiawadi.