In documentaries you are empowered by someone else letting you into their world – Himman Dhamija
When he is not creating beautiful imagery with Bollywood’s film stars, cinematographer Himman Dhamija is capturing grim and real people. The DOP, who most recently received unlimited praise for Roy, elucidates the different philosophies he follows to shoot a feature and a documentary.
He has shot documentaries like A Good Man (2009), The Boot Cake (2008), The Black Chicks (2004), The Trouble With Merle (2002), My Mother India (2001), A Calcutta Christmas (1999), Stone Forever (1999) and others.
As a cinematographer do you approach a feature and a documentary differently?
Yes, absolutely. With feature films we are creating a world which is fictional and that is very clear. And, in many ways you are being empowered to create that world. There is an empowerment in controlling your environment and what the camera is going to see in every way. When you go to shoot a feature you have to go with the thought that every image should look like what you want it to look like. You have to adjust with the spaces, environment and everything. And bend with it on an equal term as you are empowered to do that because you have that money, crew, and strength. It’s like an army on the march going out to do what it is supposed to do. You are the General of the Army and trying to make it work. So if you look at feature films like being an army on the march, then that’s fab. I always hope that it’s an army that doesn’t fuss with everything but goes with the flow, is sensitive to the environment and makes it work. That is our approach to feature filmmaking.
Whereas with docus (documentaries), you are empowered by the fact that someone has let you into their world. That is about it. And the fact is that it is their goodwill and your negotiation of your space within that place, generally it’s not a place that you have paid for, but something you have earned because of what you do and who you are. So, humility is a big factor to make documentaries in order to have the ability to listen to people, situations and environment, and be able to translate it into your camera for the audience to see. You take what reality gives you and bend it to see what you want and how you want. It’s a very different space. I would say in that space you are like a guerrilla crew which is functioning as opposed to an army. Resources are limited and on the basis of which negotiations with the people are different for docus. It’s great to cross pollinate the two formats. Like for Roy my philosophy was that if you don’t need a light don’t put it up, that’s a documentary approach too. If the place is looking great, then let’s do a little negative fill and light for the eyes, which will come from a bounce board and not a light fixture and move on.
Between the two formats, what do you prefer to shoot?
I enjoy both (features and documentaries). I think each gives a perspective to the other. You learn a lot about life from each space and it’s important to do both. As they say grass is greener on the other side, so every time you are doing a feature one tends to think documentaries are more fun and when doing that, features seem more fun. But the reality is that if you can be on both sides and enjoy it and have people that are willing to hire you to do either, it’s a nice space to be in.
Do you seek to strike a balance of features and documentaries?
You need to. When you are a DOP on a big film set you have a sense of power and it’s nice to remind yourself through a documentary that you have no power. It brings you back to reality. In the same sense, it’s nice to go back to a feature, dream and make the dream a reality. You can make your feature much more ambitious. And in turn it makes the documentaries more ambitious because you achieve large scale in very little whereas in a feature if it is large scale, you make it simple and enjoy.
Aesthetically do you capture features and documentaries differently?
I can do a feature in documentary style and documentary in feature style. And I have done that. It depends on what your subject demands. So, I have done completely fictionalised documentaries and I have features which look gritty and real. You never have good budgets on documentaries as you would on a feature, which is always going to be the case. But what do you do with it!