I used to be a line producer with Highlight Films. In those days positions weren’t nearly as formalized as they are today. Production in general meant doing everything. We used to sit with the set director and work on art design, costume, etc. During those days there was no concept of an AD (Assistant Director). So for us it was a great learning curve, as we had to work in every space. I have always been technically inclined. I used to observe grip work and found it very interesting. I was line producing an IMAX film and a crew from Los Angeles was brought in. It was then that I met Bobby Adams (Key Grip) and was exposed to gripping as a profession. It completely floored me. From then I thought that this is what I want to do. It wasn’t just about setting up a track or pushing a dolly from point to point. It had a lot more to it than this. It was very cool because it was about designing, rigging, conceptualizing and bringing shots into reality. Additionally the impact on budget was tremendous. Here we have a tendency to order far more equipment than we may need on the day. The costs unnecessarily increase and since I had prior experience in production I could now combine my technical knowledge and cut unnecessary expenditure effectively. Many things came together and it became clear that gripping was exactly what I wanted to do. Relative to Hollywood our budgets are quite limited and so we have to modify things and find ways to work around the restrictions while trying to achieve a comparable look. On the IMAX film I did 75% of it as a Line producer and the remaining 25% as a Grip. I worked with Bobby who taught me a lot. Sanjay Sami, a talented grip, had been working on the production and brought me in.
Hollywood v/s Bollywood
There are certain things in all honesty which are lacking practically and ethically in Bollywood. I think that in the Hollywood system they prepare for two years and then shoot in a month and a half or two. Here we prepare for two months and then shoot for over two years. That is the biggest difference. In Hollywood people realize the value of a Key Grip but in this industry our work is lost somewhere. However it is beginning to happen now as the smaller budget movies have evolved. Mainstream Bollywood has seen a far more gradual shift. Sometimes you shoot for 120 – 130 days, which is a lot for a film without VFX and hardcore gripping. Now that we are exposed to so many Hollywood films the divide is slowly shrinking. We need more time in preproduction and experience when it comes to scheduling. There are only a few experienced AD’s (Assistant Director) here who can accurately schedule. These differences that I see will change over time. Hollywood has been following and refining their system for a long time. We are just getting exposed to it now. Additionally, many times we are promised a higher wage than we actually receive. It is quite unethical. Only the big wigs can bully their way around. People are always ready to work but after the project’s completion, when the wages decrease, it can be quite discouraging. This seems to get carried forward from project to project. You work because you want to live and eat but the scar carries forward and it becomes worse. I have experienced this in almost every film so I would imagine everyone goes through it. I am very passionate about what I do but for many people it might only be their bread and butter. For them it is just labor. Internationally the unions are very strong. You can never mess with them because they will come down hard. Here the unions are strong but they don’t really support people the way that they should. After Shiv Sena and MNS came in people were offended but I think it’s a good thing as they have brought back a lot of money to some that were stuck. Based on what I have heard from people, they have managed to help.
What aspect of Key gripping do you enjoy the most?
I think it’s very difficult to answer that question because there are different aspects that I enjoy. I did a film called Singularity with Rolland Joffe and he loves camera movements and that too very intricate ones. Almost every scene is choreographed. You really have to get your marks right and completely understand the mood. With those types of shots camera operating becomes great fun. There are times when we fabricate rigs in order to get a certain shot. You design it and when executed beautifully, can be very gratifying.
What excites me is when a certain scene is very shot driven or when the Cinematographer would demand something very specific in terms of camera movement or rigging for that matter. Every aspect of it becomes exciting but when it gets repetitive it gets boring. Thankfully for us it’s always about working with different Directors and Cinematographers, which is a great learning experience.
Quality of work in India?
Abroad people who have been working as a 1st AC (Assistant Camera), 2nd AC, clapper, or a loader have been in that profession for 30 years. Here I have been a Key Grip for so long and everyone wants to find out what I will be doing next, or when I am shooting as a Cinematographer. People need to understand I am a Key Grip and that’s my profession. A lot of people need to understand that a 1st AC or a 2nd AC is a profession. Technicians here are still stuck with only 500-600 rupees a day. We cannot do that. Everyone aspires to be someone who is making more money. Internationally a Key Grip or a Cameraman’s wages are far higher. Education is a big component. First start treating the technician with respect. If you see, most of the technicians are here because they had nothing else to do. This attitude needs to change. I never hire people who are not educated. I am here by choice. Quitting one of the best production companies and getting into gripping was my choice and people thought I was crazy. We are training people and we will get there soon. Before any training begins they need to know the basics. They have to understand the universal film language so even if you are working on a Spanish film you can understand when they are talking about a certain shot. I may not understand their language but I do understand the language of the film. You need to know the basics for that, to understand film as a medium. In some cases, however much you train somebody, they will lack basic education. It’s not that they don’t want to learn, they love to but they just can’t understand. They try very hard. If you don’t understand the medium then you are basically screwed.
What are some of the recent adventurous moments you have had on set?
Recently we were shooting for Reema Kagti’s film “Act of Providence” with Cinematographer K.U. Mohanan. There is an entire action sequence where a car falls into the sea and we wanted to have a P.O.V (point of view) from the sea. The car had to leap about 100 feet into the sea. We had to have the camera further out and we were thinking of what to do. We couldn’t use the Strada Crane, as it wouldn’t reach that far. So we looked for an industrial crane and rigged the camera and still we couldn’t get the reach. Thankfully we had one shot where the car falls in and it didn’t need to be that far out. We had blocked the whole Pondicherry promenade with huge cranes so we couldn’t extend the days. We finally got some industrial aluminum trusses used for stage shows. It was a night shoot. We called everywhere in India to get these things and Chennai was the closest. We managed to get 150ft of truss and we built the crane in the evening with them. We suspended our crane from the industrial one and put the remote head on, counter balanced it, and the crane was sent into the sea. Eventually we got the shot. The camera was 4ft off water and 250ft offshore looking back toward the coast.
“Dhrona” was another learning curve for me. Goldie Behl said, “Do what you want.” He gave us total freedom to try new things. We had a 40ft by 15ft travelling blue screen on a truck so we could actually get Abhishek Bachchan riding a horse. We tried every other option but it didn’t work. So we had prepared a tracking vehicle and shot him all the way through. Later he was keyed out. We did a motion control shot where the camera travelled around him from one point to another and then it was stopped and locked. After the set was changed the process was repeated. Earlier the motion control could never do a 360-degree but now it can. We built a motor and yes there was a slight error but we got it fixed in post. I am quite lucky to be working with Directors and Cinematographers who have pushed hard and thrown challenges at me. It enables me to do something innovative.
Is the definition of a Key Grip in India different from abroad?
The people who understand the definition know it as the same thing. However, many people don’t understand the definition and think that grips are required only for car rigs. They don’t realize that one cannot make a film without a grip. They will say they don’t need grips because there isn’t a rigging job. I get that a lot of time. Some people simply can’t afford it. Eventually it’s always a budget issue. It might add to the budget on paper but they don’t realize that they will lose half an hour of shooting time per day. If you calculate that, the package is suddenly free of cost. Grips are also safety officers on set.
Sanjay Sami, Arjun Bhurji, Bobby Adams and Vidal Cohen (One night with the King). Even today I learn from junior technicians. Every small trick in the trade helps. I just compile it all together because you never know when they will be required.
“Watch and Learn”
Emmanuel Lubezki, Janusz Kaminski, Ravi k Chandran, K.U.Mohanan, Binod Pradhan, Sudeep Chatterjee, Jason West, the list is endless but Binod Pradhan is great.
Hardest shot or scene you had to light and/or rig?
We were doing a commercial with Samir Arya in Mukesh Mills. It is a pretty run down place and we had to rig 4 HMI’s on those dilapidated structures. So we built a framework on the structure. We didn’t know how strong the structure was to hold the weight. It was quite risky. Eventually we managed it very well.
In the entire history of films which one would you have liked to work on?
Avatar or Titanic.
Equipment you would like to work with in the future?
I am in the process of getting a Gyro-stabilized head. What I really need is something on a tracking level like a good tracking vehicle with a stabilized head and a telescopic arm.
What makes a good Key Grip?
Somebody who can listen. If you can’t listen then you wont understand what is going on and if you understand what is going on then you have won 3/4th of the battle. Secondly you need to research a lot and be updated on what people are doing all over the world. In terms of equipment do your homework and be attentive. I can’t create magic. I need access to things that can help me create it. Abroad, without a stabilized head, no body would have executed a stable shot.
“However good I am, without that piece of equipment, I cannot do it. They have access to that equipment. I know what they use and either I don’t have access to it or I don’t have the money to use it. So that is always an issue and even if you have the equipment but lack the right person to operate, it becomes total junk. As an industry we have started to recognize the value of a good technician”.