An increasing number of cinematographers from the Hindi film industry are headed towards the high stool that is reserved for the captain on a film set. So was sitting on the hot seat a fun experience? Did it involve any challenges? Will they do it again? Visual masters tell us all about their new roles.

“As a DOP you express your director’s thought and vision through the camera, lights and lenses. But as a person you also have your own vision, your own thoughts, and I felt that I should also express it through my creation,” says cinematographer Laxman Utekar (shot Boss, English Vinglish, Blue, etc) when asked what drove him to direction. His debut project is a Marathi film, Tapaal, a story about a young boy and a childless couple.

While Utekar felt a sudden desire to communicate his thoughts on the 70 mm screen, in case of his peers it was a little more than that. Cinematographer Mahesh Limaye (shot Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, Dabangg, Fashion) whose first movie as a director is also a Marathi film, Yellow – about a girl suffering from Down’s syndrome – says, “I have been shooting feature films for the last ten years. A couple years ago I had a thought that I should direct a feature film. So I started directing ads two to three years ago…”

For cinematographer Amit Roy (shot Dum Maaro Dum, Sarkar Raj, Sarkar, etc.), the original ambition in movie making was to direct films. It was a brief stint with his uncle, Deepak Roy, two-time National Award winning documentary filmmaker that etched out a different route. Roy, who turns director with the Hindi film, Running, recalls, “My career as a cinematographer got a lot of momentum. But deep down the aspect of wanting to direct kept gnawing me. In fact it was fuelled to a great extent by Ram Gopal Varma. During the shoot of Sarkar he kept telling me that I would make a good director. And every year I’d meet Ramuji and he’d poke me (to direct).”

Cinematographer Ravi K Chandran too is currently pursuing his big dream to direct. His first feature as a director is Yaan, which will be released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.

Once the visual magicians decided to direct, they began work on their first script with their respective co-writers. Chandran chose a love story, Utekar wanted to tell a tale set in his village, Roy liked an idea presented by an independent writer, and Limaye and his friends after an interaction with special children were inspired to make a film on them.

Soon enough the DOPs’ dreams to direct were on the way to realisation. But then a journey without roadblocks isn’t worth writing about. And Roy laughingly says, “Obviously one starts out thinking that the X Y Z of top stars will come on board and do your film. But that doesn’t happen for a debut filmmaker, regardless of what your stature otherwise in the industry might be. If you try to pitch a film as a director, they (actors) will look at you again fresh. And rightly so, ‘coz it’s two different things. Obviously it’s harder for you to understand that in the beginning.”

One of the reasons cinematographers-turned-directors are not taken seriously as a storytellers, as Chandran puts it, “All actors might take a new director as a director, but they think as a cinematographer one is not able to direct for some reason or we’ll get into arty zone. They feel they make very moody films. But the film I am making is completely commercial action film.”

Limaye too agrees, “After Yellow’s trailer came out, a lot of my director friends called to ask me if was making a classic. Because most DOPs go for creating visual treats, whereas I went for a powerful narrative.” He was made aware of it early on his career, “I have worked with a lot of international DOPs. And I would always ask them about their experience with feature films, and a lot of them suggested that when you shoot a feature your work should follow the story. It shouldn’t stand out too much. Everyone has to work together to put across the story nicely.”

Roy too was conscious of the common perception and says, “I am okay if a critic says in their review that my film is a shoddily shot film but the story really grips you. In the last two-three years I have brainwashed myself against cinematography so that I don’t give unnecessary detailed attention to it. Of course I will capture something in a way that is correct.”

Interestingly, the DOPs-turned-directors chose to shoot their first features. While Roy promoted one of his former assistants as the cinematographer of Running, Limaye and Utekar worked with their regular team of technicians and doubled up as cameraman as well. The Tapaal director puts it simply, “If you hire another DOP it may happen that the visual ideas may not match. You have a certain perspective of the subject and the other person has another perspective to the subject. And that creates a lot of problems.”

Duties of directing and shooting at the same time had its share of conflicts. “There used to be a war in my head. For instance as a DOP I felt I needed a few more shots, but the director in me would say that the narrative is more important than the shot taking. I had fun working with two minds in one head,” smiles Limaye.

Ask the men if direction takes over cinematography? Utekar, who is inspired by filmmakers Gauri Shine and Arif Ali, says, “I love cinematography. Tapaal just happened. If I have free time and get a good concept I will definitely make another Marathi film. But I am not shifting focus to direction.”

Similarly Limaye, who wants to create emotionally powerful stories like Zoya Akhtar and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, says, “I really love directing. But I’d like to continue what I did for so many years. But then I don’t know. I definitely won’t give up on cinematography.” Whereas, Roy, who discovered direction through Satyajit Ray and Roman Polanski, reveals, “I do consider myself a cinematographer in hibernation, but then never say never! Every now and then I do feel a pang to shoot something, just walk into a set and shoot something for somebody else… But then I have tasted blood. I have shot 15 films as a cinematographer, so I’d like to make at least so many films as a director. What might be convenient is that during the big gaps between the movies I make, I can take up interesting projects as a cinematographer.”

– By Rachana Parekh