Mrinal Desai, initially trained as an engineer and worked in the oilfields of Egypt, UAE and Kuwait. The search for something more soul satisfying led him to study Motion Picture Photography at the Film & Television Institute of India. He now works on a variety of projects across the globe – doing feature films, TV commercials and documentaries on practically every cinematic medium.

Mrinal’s last feature film, ‘Court’ was an astounding critical success winning 19 awards internationally including 2 Lions at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival and Golden Lotus for Best Feature Film at the 2015 National Awards. He was second unit Cinematographer on Danny Boyle’s 2009 multi Oscar winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. He works extensively on documentary films as a cinematographer.

We discuss his journey, the assistance a cinematographer provides in the service of the director’s vision, the visual style of Court (2014), and we find out if art infact has the answers to all the questions, amongst other things. The Excerpts.


Mrinal Desai

Mrinal Desai

Could you tell us a little bit about your transition and your journey from an engineer working in the Middle East to FTII and everything thereafter? 

I trained as an engineer and worked in the oil fields for a few years. It was very nice, there was a lot adventure and I made a lot of money. But something didn’t feel right. It was a narrow world and I wanted to explore larger aspects of the world. So I took a sabbatical for a year to find out if there was something more interesting that I could do. I had some friends who were in films at the time and that’s how I got acquainted with the world of film making. And I thought what a camera man does is quite interesting and I thought of exploring it. So I started assisting at that time. This was around 1995-96. I started assisting couple of camera men in Mumbai and I also started doing production for documentaries with foreign crews that came to India to shoot. They would require someone enthusiastic and they would come with small crews, so they were happy to have people join the team. I would work as a camera assistant on those projects too and they would teach me stuff. These were the days when they would still shoot on film. So that’s how I slowly got into films. And then I applied to FTII and got in and I did the 3 years course there. I passed out in 2000. Since then I have been working as a camera man.

I was searching for answers, questions and searching for why things are the way they are and I thought the world of art would be able to answer those questions.

What made you incline towards cinematography as an expression? Were you always interested in arts or was that a realization? 

I can answer this question in hindsight. At the time when it was happening, I had no clue. I just thought it was cool to be a cameraman. My friend was working on a pilot episode and I offered to help as the assistant director. And that was my first experience in films. Then I saw the camera man and my friend was an assistant camera man, and I thought it was very cool. You could call the shots. (Laughs)

So it initially started of like that. But in hindsight what I realized was that I was searching for something. I was searching for answers, questions and searching for why things are the way they are and I thought the world of art would be able to answer those questions. Because I didn’t find them in the intellectual world that I had come from which was the field of science. And there were all these questions that were bothering me about society and I thought art would have the answer.


Do you still feel art has the answers? 

No I don’t think anymore that art has the answers. But I think that in the practice of art we can find the ways which can take us to the answers. It is not the end, it will never be the end solution. But it can be a journey. It can help you embark on a journey which will take you to a better place. I think that’s the best part of art. If you chose to embrace that side of it.

And then art can also turn into plain commerce also. It can be just like any other business. But at its very best it can help you embark on a journey which helps you find the best within yourself and best for society.

Everytime we would go with what felt like the right thing to do and it turned into the visual language of the film (Court).

What according to you is the power of good cinematography?

Today after all these years of filming, I really feel that the cinematographer even though is a very important part of the process, I am beginning to feel like it is a very small aspect of the entire process. The less we do, the better things are. I really feel the directors are the captains of the ship and whatever the cinematographer does should be in service of that impulse of the director’s vision. And once the cinematographers are able to tune into that, then they can bring in all the power of their craft and their experience and their aesthetic to serve that. But if the cinematographers are going off on a tangent and trying to do their own thing, then that has contradictions with the fundamental impulse of the film and that can be detrimental to the impact a film can have.


Most of the shots in Court were objective, static shots and long takes. Was that the directors vision or yours and why did you chose that style of cinematography for the film? 

Court is an interesting example. The visual style of that came out of a process. It wasn’t decided that this is what we will do. It was Chaitanya’s first feature film so he was also exploring things but he was very clear about certain things. One of those things was that the camera should have a very objective use, he wanted the camera to look at things in an objective way. He didn’t want the camera to add too much flavor or have a bias, and that was the idea that was there in his head. But how to achieve that we weren’t very clear because there are all these different ways to shoot certain things. We began very early on, we would try on different things with still cameras, we took pictures, and we would try out various things. We would plan things. Even upto the day of shoot we weren’t clear. I would set up the camera for a certain shot and we would decide what works and what doesn’t. What felt right and what does not. So we felt our way forward and this is what it ended up being. Slowly through the shoot the style kind of went on emerging. Everytime we would go with what felt like the right thing to do and it turned into the visual language of the film. And we slowly eliminated the things which didn’t feel right. I remember for a couple of days of the shoot we had a steadicam, we thought we would do a steadicam shot and we tried it as well but we realized that it didn’t feel right.

Filming in Bangkok for Oni Sen & Stimulus Productions' K&N's TV Commercial

Filming in Bangkok for Oni Sen & Stimulus Productions’ K&N’s TV Commercial

With technological advancements both in terms of camera and post production, do you think one can escape the drill of lighting a shot? 

Not really. What’s happening now is that the tools are changing. If you trace back the history of visual arts, the first tools were probably a piece of charcoal to paint the walls of caves. Right? Then somebody would have made pencils and then someone invented paper and some pigments and paints were made. Then we discovered the photographic process in 1800’s. So these tools are changing all the time. People are using these tools constantly to express themselves, to tell stories, to make art, to make money, whatever. How people use these tools is entirely upto to them. As we find ourselves today, we have a certain set of tools, and people are using these tools based on who they are, where they from, what’s available to them inorder to tell their stories. So you’ll find somebody who doesn’t have access to a VFX person, he’ll use whatever he can to tell the story. Somebody who lives in a world where things are easy, where there are 20 Studios nearby and he can easily do a color grade and fix things in post, he won’t bother with lighting too much, because he knows he can fix that later. People will use whatever is available to them. Somebody will use an iPhone to make a film. It doesn’t really matter. Lighting will always remain an important part of the process. Maybe the amount of time you spend on it will depend on the project. If you’re doing a project that does not have a heavy post budget you’ll be more careful with the lighting during the shoot, if you’re making a TV commercial and you know you have tons of money to play with it later in post, you’ll probably not bother so much. So that will keep changing depending on the project.


Why do you think the craft globally is more developed as opposed to India? Do you think it is?

I think it’s a combination of commerce and the work ethics in the west, so to speak. The combination of these two things with intense competition also pushes you more and more to excel at things. In a country like America, there is reward for meritocracy. In the east things work a little differently. The society is differently set up. In the US, it’s all about being the best, the best product, the best technology, the best research, so people are willing to push the boundaries. You have finance for that. In a country like India you won’t get finance for that because it is not ingrained in our culture. So it’s a combination of cultural and commercial reasons. Not for lack of talent, I feel because talent is everywhere and vision is everywhere but sometimes just the cultural milieu can allow you to do certain things. Also in the west there are more genres of film making which have been around for a long time. Whereas in India Bollywood had really one particular language and way of functioning for a long time.

There is immense talent everywhere I think. Sometimes I also feel that the fewer resources you have the more fascinating this work that you do becomes. Because then you’re looking for more innovative ways of doing things and expressing yourself. Whereas when you have unlimited finance, like there is in the west, you get stuck in the same place, in that world, you then stop doing interesting things. You end up living in the bubble, the west has just too much money.


What have you been working on recently?

Currently I am based in New York. I am mostly doing documentary work. The last bit of fiction I did was this year in April, when I shot a short film in Ahmedabad. The director was the script writer of Firaq. This was her first directorial venture. Apart from that it’s been mainly a lot of documentary stuff.