For ace cinematographer Aseem Mishra, the 24 years of his career have been an enriching journey. From documentaries and news reporting to commercials and feature films like Paan Singh Tomar and Ek Tha Tiger, Mishra is comfortable with all genres and enjoys shooting them.

As he has never assisted anyone, it is Aseem’s experience and various experiments he does, which make his work stand out. In a candid interview with Pandolin, one of Bollywood’s key cinematographers talks about his life in the industry and shares minute details of his filmography.

Aseem Mishra

Aseem Mishra

From a videographer and a cameraman covering news, dodging sniper fire in Kosovo and live volcanoes in Reunion Islands to now being a leading cinematographer in Hindi cinema. How has this transformational journey been?

Ah, those were the days! No, I am not an eighty-year-old DOP sitting against a sun-kissed snow covered mountain, sipping a hot cup of tea and talking to you. Just kidding! (laughs)

I am glad I shot news and documentaries for nearly 10 years, out of the 24 years of my career, and I loved every bit of it. From Kumbh Mela to bombing in Kosovo, filming rallies outside Jantar Mantar to interviewing heads of States, filming Indian taxi drivers in New York to the study of Indology in Hungry and Druze living in South Lebenon; what a great learning experience it was and has been. The best thing about shooting documentary is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. You just go by your instinct. But in cinema we know that things work quite differently. There’s a lot of planning – almost six months of pre-production followed by recce and then the final shoot. It has been an interesting journey for me till now, moving from documentary to commercials and feature films. But nothing was difficult to me out of all these. Maybe because I am absolutely comfortable with all the three mediums.

It still doesn’t come to my mind whether I’m shooting a film, a documentary or a commercial. For me, a frame is a frame and the source light is the source light. Each one of them has a script, if not at least a rough script, and the look comes from the requirement of the script. I have shot a lot of documentaries which were scripted prior to the shoot and many which were not scripted at all. So for me, it wasn’t a huge change. Though in cinema, I get more time to compose and set up light. So all and all it was a nice journey. And I’m loving it!

On what basis do you say yes to any project? What are the must-haves for you to come on board?

Script! It has to be the script. Be it Paan Singh Tomar, Band Baaja Baarat, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster or Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Also, I think what’s important is the first narration by the director, be it a minute long or an hour long. I remember when Tigmanshu Dhulia explained Paan Singh Tomar to me in a single sentence – a steeplechase runner who wins medals for India, becomes a dacoit due to social circumstances followed by getting shot and ultimately dies! It all happens in Chambal. This sounded really interesting to me and I said a big yes to the project. Later we sat down and started discussing the script in detail.

Even when Kabir (Khan, Director) told me the basic concept of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it was just a one liner and I got hooked to it. It sounded so cinematic to me. Also, it’s very important for me to have a good connection with the director and his/her sensibilities. Things that he/she believes in aesthetically, politically and also may be musically. I mean if you are going to spend six months of your life with that person, you better have a good connection aesthetically and otherwise! For me it’s really important to connect with the director. Because as a cinematographer, you will be finally turning his words into images on the big screen.

I feel really good when I have great sync with the director – be it Kabir Khan, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Maneesh Sharma or Milan Luthria. After this comes the production designer and costume department. It is again extremely important for me to be in sync with them as well, then be it a period film or not. I mean these are the elements which help you in composing the final frame. There are many times when a little foreground colour or background colour adds a lot to the frame. I feel satisfied when I get to work with a good production and costume designer.

Then the other important thing is money! May be I will talk about it after my next film.

For me, story and script is the biggest reason behind signing any film. I only do films where I love the script

Out of all these films that you’ve done, is there a genre that comes more naturally to you?

Honestly speaking, I think I am comfortable with all genres and enjoy shooting them. Since I never assisted anyone in the past, it all comes to me through experimenting and experience. There are no influences as such. And because I have encountered so many of these situations in my documentary days, they never surprise me. Most of the stuff that I had shot earlier in my documentary days was quite difficult both situation and equipment wise. Shooting a live drug raid in Neemuch with only available light to shooting an Indian Peace Keeping Force patrol in South Lebenonn at 3 am in the morning with the rains and missiles flying overhead.

I faced a similar situation in the film New York during Neil’s (Nitin Mukesh, actor) raid scene and the war scene in Phantom. It’s not copy and paste but yes, I knew the situation. Then there are many situations where you are totally new but then you experiment by using your common sense and say yes, the shot is ready! Our mind is constantly taking pictures. You close your eyes for a second, and the image is there.

On the set of Tubelight

On the set of Tubelight

You’ve also worked on quite a few period films (Gunday set in the 70s, Tubelight in the 60s etc.) As a cinematographer, what does one have to keep in mind while dealing with films set in old periods?

Lighting, costume designing, production design, set, makeup and hair styling – all contribute a lot in giving it (the film) a period look. Paan Singh Tomar, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, Gunday and now Tubelight are some of my films set in 60s-70s. I enjoyed shooting all these films. It’s really important to work closely with your costume and production designing departments. As I said, lighting too plays a very important role. You have to be clear about certain questions that if there’ll be any artificial source available during the time of the shoot or will there be tungsten source (bulbs) or fluorescent source of light.

Another aspect prevalent in many of your films are the hilly regions of India, be it Bajrangi Bhaijaan or now Tubelight. What are the pros and cons one faces while shooting in such locations?

The quality of light in the hills and the mountains in the North is beautiful. I have tried to capture that in Tubelight and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. I love that light. It is so beautiful. But then there’s a flip side to this. The weather can change anytime. In fact, when we were shooting in Marhi, which is close to Rohtang Pass, the weather would change on an hourly basis. It becomes really difficult to match the light. So a typical style to follow in this case is starting with an extreme wide shot in the morning and ending up with close ups.

The weather normally changes after 1.40 pm but in Marhi, it was changing constantly. It also becomes difficult when you are shooting at high altitudes in a place like Ladakh. The human body takes around two days to settle down, acclimatize. It also becomes difficult for actors to do an action scene. But we did pretty well in Tubelight. Though the sun did play major hide and seek with us there too. The other situation that we faced was windstorms. We were shooting in a place called Likir and every afternoon the storm would start at 1 pm and end exactly at 4.30 or so. So we only got an hour and a half to shoot post lunch. It was quite bizarre. Otherwise, it’s fun to shoot in the mountains where you get nice clean fresh light.

I don’t give too much importance to technology. I’m more into art and aesthetics

You are known for the technology you use. How do you make a choice between the cameras and lenses for any film? What did you choose for Tubelight?

Not true. I am not a technology person at all. I don’t give too much importance to technology. I’m more into art and aesthetics. I still don’t know why DPs are called senior technicians. But yes, I experiment a lot with the medium. For Tubelight, I choose to work on Alexa XT with Ultra Prime Lenses. But I shot the film largely on 340mm Optimo zoom. I love the lens. It’s so versatile and fantastic.

I wanted the background to be quite out of focus/diffused/blur and stay a lot on the face of the actors in order to catch their emotions. So, I was actually shooting most of the scenes with shallow depth of field. I wanted all attention to be on the actors. Also Tubelight is a very simple film so I kept everything related to cinematography very simple. There was no extra use of attention seeking lighting, no heavy backlight or cut light etc. I basically kept it very simple and real with a little bit of magic here and there.

Aseem Mishra

Aseem Mishra

While working with the same filmmakers and actors, like Kabir Khan and Salman Khan in this case, what kind of efforts are needed to make sure that each project has a distinct charm and no similarity to previous ones?

I think the moment you think on the lines of shooting it differently from any of your earlier films, you have lost the game. The idea is not to think that way at all. You should think how best you can shoot the film according to the script without deviating or digressing too much. A Phantom or New York will look very different from Bajrani Bhaijaan or Ek Tha Tiger. I truly and totally go by the script.

Also, when I’m shooting with Kabir we normally have a discussion much before the actual shoot and the style evolves during the shoot of the film. For example, we decided that New York will be shot with a 135 mm and 180 mm lens. And we stuck to that. We decided that we’ll shoot Tubelight on a 340mm optimo, I mean most of the film, to maintain the feel and look of the shots but still keeping the script in mind and going by its requirement.

There are times when you want to take big wide shots and that’s fine! Well, I go by the story and the script. Even when shooting Salman sir, I don’t think I spend a lot of time on how to make him look good but spend time on how to make Laxman (Salman Khan’s character in Tubelight) look natural or part of that scene. The only special thing I would do is to add a bit of eye light for him. He has the most expressive eyes in the industry. So for me, the story and the script are most important. Everything depends on that.

Also, what are the benefits of a long-term DOP-Director association?

There are a lot of benefits of a DOP – director long term relationship. I don’t know how it works if they are married! (laughs)

But yes, it’s really good if both are in sync. Which happens when both of you are thinking on similar lines. You don’t have to be a mirror image but you know what I mean. This is my fifth film with Kabir and we are going strong because of many reasons. The first and foremost is the mutual respect for each other. Then the similar sensibilities, ethics, aesthetics, political stand and socio political take on a certain issue. I mean a lot of stuff goes into framing a shot. It’s not that you put your camera there and that’s it! At least I don’t function like that. You are telling a story in that frame. That frame is yours and that of the director’s mind cum vision.

In fact, when Kabir and I are shooting on location, most of our conversation is very cryptic. It’s very non verbal and just simple communication. We don’t discuss shots on location in front of actors. He knows exactly how I’m framing and I know exactly what’s in his mind. In fact, now I know exactly what magnification he is looking for. That’s the comfort level you have when you are working with the same director again and again. But still I would say New York as a film looks pretty different from Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Though it was shot by the same director and DOP.

The moment you think on the lines of shooting a film differently from any of your earlier films, you have lost the game

As a lot of changes can occur in post production, when the digital intermediate is created, what do you focus on to ensure that the story remains king and the treatment supports that?

Your question is my answer. Story is the king! For me, story and script is the biggest reason behind signing any film. I only do films where I love the script – be it Paan Singh Tomar or Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Actually when I’m reading the script, I’m also writing the images that are flashing in my head side by side. Then I go through the images again, meet my colorist and tell him about those images. We sit and discuss the look and feel of the film to be on the same page. If possible, we also do a test to see whether the images are working or not.

Since I shoot a lot of my stuff in available light I don’t need to tweak a lot of stuff in the DI stage. Yes, the basic sluma levels and the contrast levels etc. I’m not a big fan of DI. I don’t push my images. Also because of my schooling, I stick to the basics. In most of my films, you will see very normal skin tones. I love normal skin tones. There’s beauty in that. Imagine a scene where a Chinese, African, English and a Rajasthani are all in the same frame. I would love to see their skin tones. That’s their beauty! How can I ignore that and make them all look monochromatic. Unless and until you really need it and only if the script demands it. I like my images to be clean and in case I need some colour separation between the foreground or the background, then I use gels. That’s it.

Aseem Mishra

On location of Tubelight

Where do you draw inspiration for your projects from? Anyone’s work that you follow?

I don’t follow anybody’s work in particular. Sorry if I’m sounding too blunt, but that’s the truth. I don’t even watch too many films. My inspiration is the people I meet, my surroundings, the music that I listen to and the images that I shoot on my still camera – my black and white images.

Having done several documentary films and news in the past, do you miss the non-fiction style of shooting?

I don’t miss it so much but yes, I feel really good that out of 24 years in the industry, I have spent a good 10 years of my life shooting documentaries. There are so many times when I’m shooting a scene in a film and I’m reminded of my documentary days. I remember when I was shooting the war scene in Phantom, I was reminded of the events that I had shot on the Lebanon Israel border. That was live.

There are many such déjà vu moments. I would love to shoot a documentary film even now. I feel totally comfortable shooting a documentary or a commercial or a feature film. I think finally a frame is a frame. In documentary you are more alert and intuitive. You need to keep your eyes and ears open. Literally! Of course, I miss meeting different kind of people and knowing them first hand. People like Gorbachev, Kofi Annan, Phoolan Devi, Charles Sobhraj and so many others. I think I just love the audio visual medium. That’s it!

The best thing about shooting documentary is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. You just go by your instinct

From Contract to Tubelight, how has the industry for a cinematographer changed?

I think the only change that I can think of is the scale. Scale has become big. Bigger budgets. But I don’t think there has been any change in me. My light requirements remain largely the same. My equipment list is the same. Seriously! Just because it’s Tubelight, it doesn’t mean that I will ask the production to get two truckloads of light. No not at all. The less the better. I love to shoot scenes with just a single source of light. I just love it. But at the back of my mind, I know that if I ask for a panther to shoot, I will get it. So that comfort level is present.

With director Kabir Khan

On a personal front, how often are your cameras along with you? Do you always keep them along even when you are not shooting?

Never. I have my days when I go and do black and white photography. But I never mix the two. Work and still photography. I love black and white photography. I would also love to shoot a black and white film someday.

I don’t carry anything with me when I’m going for the shoot. I just carry my phone and that’s it. I don’t like carrying anything with me. It feels restricting.

Which phone do you use? It is always interesting to know the gadgets that a DOP uses.

I phone 7 Plus. There’s no logic or reason why I use it. It’s just a phone.

They should find their own style of lighting and compositions.  Be fearless and prepared to work hard without losing the focus

As a closing note, is there a message you would give upcoming cinematographers who hail from smaller cities but want to make their name in Bollywood?

I don’t think I’m in a position to give major gyan (wisdom) to budding cinematographers. I’m still struggling to shoot what I want to shoot! I’m still experimenting and learning each and every single day. It is important to be patient and lose that ego. One should observe things around you and experiment a lot because it’s a beautiful and interesting medium. It is interesting to experiment a lot with compositions. They should find their own style of lighting and compositions.  Be fearless and prepared to work hard without losing the focus. I’m saying all this because I believe in these things. I made my own rules because I never assisted anyone. So whatever I shoot today is by experimenting on my own – be it documentaries, commercials or feature films.