Every film shot by Rafey Mahmood is beautiful, surreal and a visual delight. And it’s been constant since his first short film Tarana to the more recent, Ankhon Dekhi. In an exclusive chat the National Award-winning Director of Photography, who in between movies shoots ads and teaches cinematography at various institutes, talks about the labour that goes into an art that he seems to enjoy the most.

Rafey on Joruney to Mecca location

What are the deciding factors for you to say yes to a project?
The comfort of working with the people who are making the project comes first. Then is the script, and last, what kind of self-expression I can offer. As in how much of my skill and talent can I put into the project?

Your last release Ankhon Dekhi was one of the most beautifully shot films of recent times. How did you come upon the film’s visual treatment?

Rajat (Kapoor) and I have been working together since 20 years now, right from our first feature film Private Detective. We don’t belong to a school which is very realistic; it’s more, for want of a better word, pictorial or stylised visual. But for Ankhon Dekhi (AD) we wanted to have a very realistic approach because it was set in a real milieu, which Rajat had seen while growing. So for this film we wanted to avoid what is unreal. Realism is a strange word. Everybody’s idea of realism is different. Also, Rajat has encouraged from the beginning that all the crew members – the art director, costume designer, actors and assistants – would keep reading and talking about the script. So the script comes to inhabit you. Then we gradually build-up on the script and conceive the look. This goes on for 15-20 days during the pre-production phase.

What process do you follow to determine a movie’s look?

One can go back to referencing, which we do a lot while shooting ads. We go back to looking at material shot in a similar genre. Like for Fatso, we referenced to a lot of Hollywood films that were of the 50s and 60s, the Technicolor period. It was a very quaint and beautiful way of shooting with colour. But in Ankhon Dekhi we didn’t have a specific reference. Our reference for imagery was the milieu, the people we saw during our extensive recce to old Delhi. Also, when I am reading the script and understanding it, I try to find the psychological motivation (of the scene) to express visually. Somehow I want to distill all that is happening in the script at an emotional level to a visual level through the language of cinema. That has been the attempt for a long time – to convey the story visually.

All your films have been diverse, like Mithya, Fatso and Ankhon Dekhi. How do you determine the visual appeal for different genres?

It comes mostly intuitively now. Of course one should know one’s craft. For example, in Mithya we just thought that we will shoot in the rains and go with a bluish feel in a grayish art direction. So every day we would go and shoot at the locations in the monsoon.  We were lucky we could finish within the schedule and yet avoid the sunlight! Then we graded the film with subtle shifts in darkness and blueness of scenes. But this look is the outer level, on a scene-to-scene level I like to imagine the state and mood of the characters. It’s bit like method acting. If you get into the framework of the script and the essential feeling of the scene across (visually and not intellectually) you can perhaps communicate the crux of the scene. Knowing the script and the director, I feel I can place the camera right in the heart of the scene or light up for the emotional content. In Fatso there are touches of magical realism using early three-strip Technicolor look because the film has elements of fantasy. So if the scripts and stories are different then the visuals should also be different! My teaching stints have helped me a lot in this.

Rafey with Rajat on Ankhon Dekhi sets (1)

You shot an IMAX film, Journey To Mecca. What was the experience working on such a technically distinct project?

That was a very important film for me and a huge project, which people had set-up over three years. Producers of Cosmic Pictures from US and Canada had gone to Saudi Arabia and stayed there to get permissions to shoot in Mecca. They got a crew from at least 20 countries. I was very lucky to be selected for it. There were two other DOPs, two Iranians from the US, ‘cos you have to be a Muslim to be in Mecca. We were trained at IMAX, Los Angeles, by the experienced IMAX cinematographer David Douglas. To be in the middle of a large humanity with a large format camera and capture each frame which is the size of a postcard requires skill. In such films the format dictates that whatever you shoot is a spectacle. So you shoot it for a spectacle, whether you want it or not, everything will look huge and big. We were trained to shoot for that.

What is your preferred camera to shoot a motion picture?

I like to shoot on film very much. It’s another matter that we have to shoot on digital. The digital technology has emancipated film-making. It is low cost and everybody gets a chance to shoot. But the image quality of celluloid is very beautiful, and I feel it should stay as an option or aesthetic choice. My preference for quality right now is film, for most of the content. I see the difference blatantly. But I guess for the larger audience the difference is not visible and not important. That one has to respect.

Do you think the digital camera output is close to the film camera output?

I think most of the high-end digital cameras have apparently got close to the output of a film camera, but for some reason some of the big directors in Hollywood still prefer film. On a theoretical level, on film you shoot on a material base and every frame has a distinct material structure. Meanwhile digital image is something that doesn’t exist physically. It’s an electronic arrangement with fixed possibilities. Now this is a great technological advancement. But I feel the material base of the film is very important, we like things with some texture.

I also feel a new aesthetic sense has to emerge with digital image-making. I really admire the way Slumdog Millionaire and Rush are shot. Anthony Dod Mantle has used characteristics of digital image in these films. That is something I look forward to doing myself – to help create a work which belongs to the realm of digital.

What kind of lighting set-up do you like to employ in your films?

I have a detailed way of lighting up and it’s a huge area of interest. It gives me a great opportunity to express things visually. But over time I have become wiser and skillful in this area. The process has become simpler. I must say it comes as a compliment when people say that in Ankhon Dekhi it looks as if there is no lighting in the house. To be honest everything in the house is lit! The houses we shot in were very dark and dim so I had to light up the whole space. There was no exposure for ‘available light’ kind of shooting. We also worked on visually creating seasons in the film. The production designer (Meenal Agarwal), costume designer (Darshan Jalan) and I collaborated in a big way. The idea was to render an image in a way to make people feel and experience the seasons with that family. In AD the first part is winter, followed by summer and followed by a winter again. I tried to light indoors keeping the light of the season in mind.

For winter, we used the mixed colour temperature for lights because people in old Delhi often put on warm lights inside the house. So we would put on such household bulbs, then there is blue light coming from the doors, called the ambient light. So we played with these two colour temperatures. For summers, we put off the lights inside as generally there’s a lot of light. Also summer has more of a stark whitish look. The first winter has got mixed colour temperature, but it is simple. The last winter also has mixed colour temperature lighting, but it is more vibrant as that’s the time when there’s a celebration in the family and Babuji’s ideas have gone overboard. I think the subtle shifts reach out to the audience. And yes all the lighting was executed in an effortless manner.

Rafey on sets

One genre you definitely want to capture for the big screen.
I like romances very much. But I haven’t shot anything which can be called a pure Romance.

One has noticed that every frame in your movies is beautiful. Is it a conscious effort to create visually-appealing images?

I look for beauty, in a sense that even if I am supposed to show something grungy there will be some aesthetic to it. Beauty is also a strange word with different meanings. Everything can’t look beautiful in an obvious way, and every film is shot with different ideas of framing. I recollect Meenal had this concern while working on AD that it will look run down because it is shot in a small house and is a story about a lower middle-class family. So it is nice if people feel the film looked beautiful. What I mean by beauty here is a certain dignity and aesthetic to the presentation of the content, a visual which will draw an easy empathetic response from the viewer, so visual choices are made aptly and consistently representing script situations. In AD, Rajat and I didn’t want it to look just beautiful, but wanted to evoke a feeling for Babuji’s hard-nosed truth in the day-to-day reality of the mundane.

I’d really love to work on a film like Slumdog Millionaire where one is required to make things look really dirty and repulsive. But then again it was done beautifully. I would look forward to doing something like that as then I would have to employ my skills differently.

Would you like to do a mainstream film?

I would be very happy to do a mainstream film because it’s very exciting to have an idea and express it for a spectacle. All the feelings become grand, be it Sanjay Leela Bhansali or a Yash Raj film. How to express that effectively is also challenging. You don’t have to be subtle. You can express with larger strokes. I would love to do a mainstream film.

What are your forthcoming projects?

Cosmic Sex is a fictional film. It deals with Deh Tatya – the act of using sexual energy for spiritual growth, a very ancient practice in Bengal. It is directed by Amitabh Chakravarthy. Again, it was shot in a very different style. Then there’s Rajat’s film. But right now my attention is also towards direction.

I have two script proposals, which I am working on.

Lastly, some words of wisdom for aspiring cinematographers.

I read a Hollywood saying, recently, “People who know ‘how’ to do things, they have a job and people who know ‘why’ things are done that way are the people on top”. So remember the ‘Whys’ are more important than the ‘Hows’.


Cinematographer’s favorites – 

  • Shatranj Ke Khiladi
  • Sonar Kella
  • Junoon
  • Pakeezah
  • Pyaasa
  • Parinda
  • Omkara
  • Ram Leela
  • Yeh Jawani Hain Diwani
  • Godfather
  • Andrei Tarovsky’s work

Camera details –

Mithya – ARRI 435 with Anamorphic Hawke lenses

Fatso & Ankhon Dekhi – Mostly ARRI 235 and Ultra Prime lenses

Cosmic Sex – Super 16 with ARRI 416 and Zeiss High speed Mark 3 lenses


 – Rachana Parekh