Aseem Mishra reveals his secret force, inspirations and philosophy behind being one of India’s top Cinematographers.

What is it that excites you about the film industry?

The challenges, compositions, and the people!

What factors do you consider before choosing to work on a movie?

I would say a good script. A script that you feel attached with, that matches your sensibilities, and triggers a smirk on your face after reading it. Not one that leaves you thinking of ten other Hollywood films having the same / similar story. For me it should look fresh, challenging, exciting and something that would allow me to push the boundaries!

Do you think Indian Cinema is taken seriously?

Internationally, it’s not taken seriously. At least not as seriously as the so called “world cinema”. In India, being an important part of this world and civilization, we have not been able to project ourselves as a serious, responsible Film Industry. It is still taken very lightly. There could be many reasons such as India being a part of the third world. We have been constantly sending films to various festivals all around the world. Some films got appreciated at Cannes, the Oscars, Sundance etc but that’s about it. We need to be seen and taken seriously as a Film Making Industry. For that we will have to make good films, which are content wise, aesthetically and technically, at par with the other films of the world.

What are the obstacles to making a ‘good movie’ in the Indian Film Industry?

I think if you have a good script nothing can stop it from becoming good cinema. Yes, we do have excuses like the budget wasn’t enough, the crew wasn’t efficient, the producers wasted too much money on the sets, the actors’ dates etc. But to me, nothing can stop you from making a good film if you have a good script. Yes, there are issues like snow falls, landslides, earthquakes, volcano eruptions etc!  But these things don’t happen every day. I would love to shoot a live volcanic eruption rather complain about it! Personally, I think there’s nothing (but a bad script) that can stop you from making a good film.

What is your cinematographic philosophy? Please share instances from your previous or upcoming movies.

I light each scene as naturally as I feel, as per my gut instinct. I am very dependent on my inner feeling for a scene. I don’t believe in too much science or in excessive use of technology or logic. I feel the scene and then light it naturally and instinctively. Sometimes I’m on the border of being flamboyant but it works for me. Cinematography is the mental picture of the Director and it is the visual soul of what the director is trying to portray. I stick to that simple philosophy. I don’t over dramatize a scene visually just because it looks good. My attempt in all my films is to make the audience feel like a part of the scene. In a short span of time, I am lucky to have shot a wide variety of films. For example, the movie ‘New York’ had stylish locations, so the entire film looked gritty and pretty at the same time. When I was shooting the movie I composed the shots to capture the natural beauty. When I wasn’t able to shoot at the location, I styled the shots with my lens. For instance, the interrogation sequences between Irrfan Khan and Neil Nitin Mukesh.  Unlike most people, I went tighter in most of the shots, which made the shots look different. I was really satisfied with the final outcome of the shots. In contrast, in the movie ‘Pan Singh Tomar’, I went raw with different angles and compositions. I had to keep in mind the story and the rawness of the narration. One needs to feel the hard reality of life in Chambal and not make it picture perfect and cozy. Whether it is a blockbuster film from Yash Raj Studiosor experimental cinema like Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster, I adopt a similar approach to all my films. I experiment with the digital format and push it to create images that I am very satisfied with. At the end of the day, I am an artist performing his role in cinema. I am a student and lover of cinema first and then a Cinematographer. So my philosophy for lighting and cinematography is very simple – FEEL IT.

What is your favorite lighting technique? Are there any lights that you cannot shoot without?

I follow the sun, i.e. the sunlight. I strictly believe in a source but I don’t stamp my work with saying ‘look! This is my source!’  I do it in a subtle way, I use anything and everything that can contribute to my lighting- from a bulb to a lantern, a fluorescent to a Kino or a Dino- but in the day time I very rarely mix an HMI with sunlight, instead, use a natural source by bouncing it.

What is the hardest shot/ scene you’ve had to light?

I don’t find anything tough or not so tough in lighting. It’s all there in your subconscious and just needs a bit of a trigger to come out. That’s my work and I love it! I enjoy composing, lighting, creating mood for the lines that the actors are saying. It’s so much fun! I don’t consider shooting or lighting a burden. For me, they are deeply experimental moments when you sit and think of a new way to crack a lighting technique that suits the scene. Also, since I have never assisted anyone, the ideas come naturally to me. They don’t have a prior signature (in no way am I suggesting that one shouldn’t assist). All I am saying is that I have not come across any situation where I have found lighting to be tough. But yes, I have found situations, which were tough because of excessive wind, rain, storm etc.

While on set, how do you make sure you connect the technical aspects with the emotional ones?

I guess it comes naturally to me. Maybe that’s why I am a Cinematographer! I follow my instinct to the core. I talk a lot with the Directors in the prep stage to get into their minds. During a very casual chit-chat I try and figure out the basis of the script. I don’t follow film references because I don’t watch too many films but I get a feel of the scenes of the film.

What is your take on HD cinema?

I shot Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster on the Arri Alexa and I loved it. It gave me fantastic result in low light areas. Its low noise levels and beautiful reproduction of colors impressed me. We have to respect it as a digital format and that’s it. It is silly to have a discussion on whether the Alexa or any other digital format will replace film. I think that’s impossible. A film is a film is a film! (Laughs). They are two different formats.  It is like comparing the computer and the human brain, we have evolved over millions of years and then we have come to the point where we are today. The other thing is when you develop film and wait for the results the surprise value isn’t there in the digital format. Also I guess we have got used to shooting on film. I learnt cinematography on film at my institute and then started shooting video and then film again and now the Alexa! Quite a rollercoaster ride! I have no issues with shooting on any format or any camera. It is just that I don’t like people saying that smaller is better! (Laughs).

Which Institute did you study filmmaking in?

I did my masters in communication from MCRC Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. We were trained on the U-matic low band and 16mm camera. There was just one 16 BL camera. We got 1200 ft. of film to make our final project. That’s it! But there was a lot of importance given to the theoretical knowledge of films especially regarding Photography, Cinematography, Film theory etc.

What is your best work till date?

I would say ‘New York’and ‘Pan Singh Tomar’. They involve two diametrically opposite landscapes. Scale wise, budget wise, everything was totally opposite and I shot Pan Singh Tomarjust after coming back from New York. It was very interesting – psychologically – to replace New York streets with Chambal ravines- brown, muddy and hot. I loved shooting these two very different films back to back. I would like to include a bit of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster in this lot as I enjoyed shooting it and it was a movie wherein I looked at my own painting and said “Ah! Nice work”. After the shoot is over, I am not attached to my work at all. In fact most of the time I look back at my framing and say, “Is that mine?”

Could you name some Cinematographers / Artists who have inspired you?

Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Man Ray. Painters like Salvador Dali, Picasso, Marc Chagall, Van Gogh. Cinematographers like Làszlo Kovacs, Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond etc . I like their mind. I like how they thought about forms, colors, lines, in fact the basic idea behind painting that canvas or taking that picture, that’s what I find interesting. I am as inspired by the mornings as much as the nights. I am attracted to detailing like Pablo Neruda or Michael Ondaatje. I get excited and surprised by small things such as a small magic trick or a picture taken by some random photographer. They make me happy.

A director who you wish to work with?

Ingmar Bergman (Laughs). Any interesting director with a more or equally interesting script!

In the entire history of filmmaking which movie would you have loved to work on?