Abheri De

Abheri De : In Conversation With A Cinematographer

As a child what were your early influences towards cinema?
Cinema was always a part of our life since the beginning. I can’t vividly remember, but there’s an image in my mind of watching Mr. India in a theater with my extended larger family; when I may be only 2 years old. My dadu (maternal grandfather) was the main injector of cinema in our family that I realized much later. ‘Pather Panchali’, ‘Aparajito’, T’een Kanya’, ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’, ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’ – all of these I watched on Doordarshan in the ‘Chhuti Chhuti‘ Programme that used to be held in the summer vacation time for the children. And dadu made sure that I also sit with him for watching those films whenever that is happening on television. I may have seen ‘Pather Panchali’ & ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ innumerable times, without knowing how great a cinema it is till I reached an age. Sometimes DD National also showed good cinema in different languages from all over India, I remember watching some of them even reading the subtitle when I was in school. My mother is a diehard fan of Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, so Friday night on Doordarshan, used to be our film night at home. ‘Deewar’, ‘Silsila’, ‘Zanjeer’, ‘Amar Akbar Anthony,’ ‘Kabhi Kabhi’, ‘Anand’, ‘Guddi’, ‘Abhimaan’, ‘Mili’, ‘Sholay’, ‘Chupke Chupke’, ‘Don’, ‘Hum’, ‘Khuda Gawah‘ – all I have seen before class VI. In fact, my masi (maternal aunt) took me to watch Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mammo‘ in Nandan when it was released in 1994. That was my first conscious memory of seeing cinema on such a huge screen. Though the experience of the narrative was disturbing, I think the impact of watching cinema on a screen was much larger than the context of the film at that point of time.

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How did you first become interested in cinematography? Did you start with photography?

That’s a long story. After completing class XII with Science, knowing that I do not want to sit for the AIEEE or JEE or IIT, I actually didn’t know what I wanted to study in my graduation. And my higher secondary result wasn’t good. Hence, I filled up application forms in various subjects across many colleges and universities in Calcutta, e.g. English Hons, Physics Hons., Bengali Hons., Comparative Literature etc etc. All these subjects had different entrance tests to qualify for any of these courses for the next 3 years. In this time suddenly the idea came that what if I study Journalism; My English writing was fairly well and the job of a reporter seemed better than doing anything else. So I started looking for Journalism courses in the graduation level. Only two colleges offered journalism & mass communication in 2003, which also very newly adapted courses under UGC. And there was no admission test for those, but I was bit skeptical about the courses. Accidentally, I came across an under graduate course named Mass Communication & Videography in St. Xavier’s College where the syllabus seemed interesting. After two rounds of selections, finally I got selected. We had Film Studies as a pass paper in the course and for the first time that subject opened up a new world in front. And my view towards looking at world started evolving around film studies. I still remember one day we had a screening of ‘Three Colors Blue‘, a film made by Kieslowski and that was the turning point. After completing the screening, I was immersed in the images, and for the first time the idea knocked, that I want to be a cinematographer. So it was my 2nd year in college.

What steps did you take to train yourself?
To “train” myself, I first bought a second hand manual SLR camera with a 2nd hand lens. And I started taking still photographs. Getting to understand and apply the basic technical parameters such as ISO, Aperture, Shutter speed, to expose a frame on a 35mm negative became crucial. Reading it in a text book and apply them when you are clicking are two different things. Manually putting the factors in camera and focusing the image while capturing a moment to tell your story via a single frame is a method of practice. And then looking at a contact sheet to understand how your exposure went after developing a roll, was a great learning. Precisely that became a building block before we went onto expose motion picture on a celluloid camera for the first time. And as exposing one frame transitioned into exposing cans on 35mm motion picture at 24fps, more technical aspects started to come in. Rest was all our studies that were a part of my graduation course curriculum in St. Xavier’s College. There was no extra preparation needed for FTII entrance examination.

Have you assisted anyone? How does it help one?

I have started assisting industry professionals only after my diploma film got over in the institute. Before that, all the assisting work began in the institute itself for our seniors in their various projects. Starting from pulling focus and assisting in keeping continuity and to observe the nitty-gritty on any shoot, however small it was, was initiated in FTII.
Industry made me see the scale. And that was another eye opener. Working seamlessly in a team who is just an important part in the filmmaking process like any other team is what the core value is. The amount of planning that is required to run a set, making your light and filter requirement, how much of a generator power you are going to need, what are the other grips that may be required for a particular day etc. etc. are all what I experienced for the first time. And most importantly I saw what managing people on set means. When you have 300 crew members working tirelessly day and night, the canvas is too huge as an assistant to experience. Slowly the whole process seeps into you and you as a new member start fall into place. When you grow old in assisting from project to project, the other non technical things start to inspire you. Like, how is the director and cinematographer communicating, what is the roll of a production designer to make each and every frame worth looking at. Sometimes a small detailing makes a frame look so natural, and not perfect. As a whole you become confident of your craft if you are a keen observer and learning every day. I used to write down experiences, jotting down each new thing that I learnt on a shoot, be it seeing and using a new light or a diffusion/gel. 

How did your first film project come about?

My Diploma film got completed while I was working in Bombay as an assistant. So we had to make a DVD for showing that to people. Once I travelled back to Calcutta, my home town, and showed the ftii diploma film to the people I knew. And seeing that work, Mr. Abhijit Guha (Rana Da) gave me my first feature film.

What is perhaps the most important factor for you to choose a script?

Hypothetically saying, a oneness with the characters. But people who are making the film will be equally important for that script.

Is cinematography intuitive or is it something you learn?

I think it is both.

Where do you seek inspiration from?

Everyday people and surroundings

What’s your dream project?
None that I know of now. But thinking aloud may be exposing on 35mm, a full length feature film where Mr. Shahrukh Khan will be associated. 

Your most memorable blunder.
Shooting a documentary on a DSLR camera and not putting the shutter speed close to 1/50th for an outdoor sequence when people are talking. To compensate the exposure in a hurry, I closed down the aperture, and increased the shutter speed and all the shots got a strobe effect.

Any advice to the inspiring cinematographers?

Expand your imagination. Perceive everything around you, starting from nature to people. Get acquainted with the rhythm of life as you are living every moment. Practice your craft. And be there. Do not lose hope.

What book, music, and movie are you enjoying right now?

Books – ‘CAMERA‘ by Todd Gustavson’.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse‘ by Charlie Mackesy.
Music – Indian Classical Vocal & Instruments from all the gharanas.
Films – Recently watched 29th KIFF in Calcutta, so not got over it. Some notable films: ‘The Promised Land‘ by Nicolai Arcel, ‘Anatomy of a fall‘ by Justine Triet, ‘The Old Oak’ by Ken Loach

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