Sudeep Chatterjee
Sudeep Chatterjee

Pandolin sits down with Sudeep Chatterjee, an Award Winning Cinematographer, to discuss how our movies will serve as time capsules for generations to come. 

What was your first break in the industry?

I was like any normal middle class Bengali boy who aspired to be an engineer. So after 12th grade, I enrolled into electronic engineering. After studying it for 8 months, I fled because it struck me that I wouldn’t end up being a good engineer anyway. I realized that I couldn’t see myself doing an uninteresting job. I desired to do something visual and so I quit. I was fortunate enough that my father understood. Later I completed my BSc and started looking at the options available in FTII. During those years in Calcutta I started doing a lot of amateur photography and watched several movies. FTII emerged naturally.

While studying at FTII, Vidhu Vinod Chopra visited the campus and saw my exercises and that is how I landed up working as an apprentice on the sets of 1942 – A Love Story. I met Sanjay Leela Bansali on the set and years later when I got the opportunity to work with him on Guzaarish, it was like a dream come true. So immediately after completing my diploma, I was in the middle of a big production and that is how I entered this field. I realized if I hung around in Mumbai, I would keep assisting people and therefore I returned to Calcutta and worked on independent projects like advertisements and documentaries. The scopes of the projects were small but I still chose to work on them instead of assisting other DOP’s in Mumbai.

One day I received a call for a Hindi film in Calcutta called Bada Din. Compared to the standards of the Indian Film Industry, it was a very small movie. It was directed by Anjan Dutt and stared Shabana Azmi along with Mark Robinson. That was my first film ever and considering that it had just been a year since graduation, I was extremely lucky to work on a project. After that movie, I shifted to Mumbai.
How was your experience working with Sanjay Leela Bansali?
Every minute spent on the sets of the movie has been worthwhile. Because it is very rare that people will ask you to give your best and it isn’t just that; giving your best unconditionally comes with a price and Sanjay is ready to pay the price. He wouldn’t be ready to accept anything but the best. You have to keep pushing yourself. It is a very exhaustive experience. You have to empty yourself completely but at the end of the day you are extremely satisfied with the work you have done. I know I have been a 100 per cent honest with the project. It is a different matter that I feel that there is a lot more that I could have done and Sanjay Leela Bansali is that one filmmaker who lets you be that honest. He gives you the freedom to cut a shot if you are not happy with the performance. He was always of the opinion that I should not roll the camera if I was not satisfied with his direction and I don’t think anyone lets you do that. Sanjay manages to give so much freedom and yet it is his film. He gives freedom to his Musicians, Actors, and Cinematographers. Although he is very sharp, there is always room for discussion. We discussed everything because our only concern was the film. To think of it, I doubt anyone would grant such an opportunity. I would go back home to recuperate and it became taxing at the end of the day because as I said before, we are just not use to giving our best shot on a daily basis. 
How was the workflow?
The best part about the entire workflow was that Sanjay Leela Bansali was open to different suggestions. When he approached me with the script he asked me to read it and then we discussed my opinion. That was how we started talking about the look and eventually I realized his view of the movie. It began in a very plain unspoken way. The crux of the movie was Ethan’s dilapidated life and that had to be depicted genuinely; the darkness and the bleak scenario of Ethan. At the same time, his character also propagates joy and radiates the world with hope.  We had to project his pain in this world, one that is filled with brightness. That is how we began talking about the color, composition, lens choices, lighting and the references to be looked at for the movie.  

What were your references for lighting while shooting the movie? 
We looked at many things and were inspired by the works of painters like Edward Hopper, Caravaggio, Johannes Vermeer and painters of the Baroque period. There were no direct references. We also revisited a lot of Subrata Mitra’s work. 
How long did your average lighting set-up take for Guzaarish?
It would vary from a couple of minutes to hours depending on the scale.  

Would you describe yourself as a fast Cinematographer?

 It depends from project to project. While working, I design a certain look in my mind and if there is clarity in terms of the voice of the project, I can crack the scene very easily. However, if the director has not given me the right perspective then I can be confused because I have to search for the right look. And the job doesn’t end with me deciding on the look of the movie, it ends with the execution of the design. I can think of a quicker way in order to save time but having said so, I usually don’t prefer to choose the quicker way. I would rather choose the correct way. You do earn a reputation of being a fast DOP but I am not interested in the tag. It will not help you in the long run. Of course it can be impressive if you do your work fast but what comes on the screen stays forever. Therefore I would rather follow the correct way.

Could you tell us about a difficult shot in the movie? 
There were many shots that were a tad bit difficult. The last shot of the movie that was not included in the final cut was a little tricky. It was shot on a remote crane and there were a few hundred people. It required a lot of planning and it had to be taken at twilight. It was a spectacular shot; the way the camera discovers 200 people who are standing outside the house. It was important to crack the exposure and it came out really well. It is a pity it was not incorporated in the movie because Sanjay wanted to change the ending.
There was another shot that did not make it to the final cut where Sofia would give the injection to Ethan to end his life. We decided that if it looked too violent we would not use it. Sanjay edited the scene beautifully. All that you would have seen on screen was Sofia going inside and pulling a curtain that had a small window shape patch of light on it. The curtain and patch of light would quiver as the wind blew through. Although it was violent, it was extremely poetic. However, it did not make the final edit.

There was also one shot where Ethan and Sofia are travelling in the car. It is a wide-angle 12mm shot and there is a lot of headroom. It was a cloudy day and we were hoping that while taking the shot the clouds would part allowing the sun to break through. The magic happened only after the fourth shot. 

Lens preference?  
I don’t prefer any particular lens. The choice comes from the vicinity that I want the actors in. For Guzaarish, I used the ultra prime lenses. 
Lights used? 
The shafts used were largely a combination of 12K’s and 18K’s and sometimes Dinos. In smaller spaces, I use a lot of Kinos and LEDs. I try to use natural light as much as possible because nothing is as good. I pull out a light only when I have to. While shooting in Goa, we hardly used any light. And while shooting on a movie set, we lit up the location as a house would naturally be lit. I usually don’t change the lights too often. Some tweaking is definitely required but I try to avoid it. The pre lighting set up consumed 2 days but that was only general lighting. A good 2 or 3 hours were required to light the first shot.  
What is your general take on 3D? 
I personally don’t like watching 3D movies in the theatres and the sole reason is because the glasses provided are pathetic. You end up hurting your eyes and most of them are scratched and so the dazzle of watching a 3D movie dies. However, if I got good glasses I wouldn’t mind watching 3D movies because the idea is spectacular. I have seen a bit of 3D on television but I still haven’t started associating it with feature films. As a cinematographer, it is an exciting new option; you have a new tool to play with. I would love to shoot 3D despite the challenges.  
Which one of your films do you think can be converted into 3D? 
Guzaarish; I would love to watch the movie in 3D because it is more about being in the space. I watched Avatar abroad and I absolutely loved that movie especially because the glasses are so much better. At the same time, watching the latest installment ofPirates of the Caribbean was not that entertaining because I think the action was slowed down because of 3D.  
How would you describe your role to someone outside the industry?
It is difficult to find words that could aptly explain my role in this industry. You could say that as a cinematographer I am not in a position to bring you to the theatre but once you are inside I can assure you that I can draw you closer to the screen.  
What distinguishes a good Cinematographer from a great one? 
A good cinematographer is one who is disciplined with their craft and who can create worthwhile images. On the other hand, a great cinematographer is selfless. They are more concerned about the movie rather than their career. Being altruistic by putting the film above everything else makes the difference. You have to look at the film and what it requires and not what you want to do with it. That is the mark of a great cinematography. 
A good human being can be a good cinematographer because they have a nice view of the world and I genuinely believe that it translates into the image you are creating. I strongly feel that we are doing an important job and most of us don’t even realize it. We are recording our times through the films that are made. Because for the generations to come, our movies will serve as a time capsule and therefore, while we are making movies we should be very conscious about the responsibility that rests on our shoulders. Those who are aware about this would be greater cinematographers.
While shooting, I always ask myself the question, ‘what if this scene would be thrown out of the film?’ And if you can’t throw the scene out, there has to be a reason for not doing so. There will be something in the scene that aids the story. It could be an emotion or any important information. Once you crack that, it is an easy route ahead. Cinematographers need to create an atmosphere where actors can perform and a great one would make that space believable so the story is being told effortlessly. 

Who are your inspirations? 

Subrata Mitra, Robby Muller, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki are some of the names that I can think of off the top of my head. They have inspired me immensely. 

It seems that the word ‘Cinematographer’ is a point of contention in some circles. Vittorrio Storaro claims that DoP is the wrong terminology. What is your opinion on it?  

I don’t care. I am really not interested because it doesn’t really matter. According to me both are correct terms. Having said so, I haven’t read the article by Vittorio Storaro yet but I believe I will agree.
Do you think that the Indian Film Industry should adopt the same standard as Hollywood as far as unionizing its labour?
Absolutely. We suffer so badly and we have to put things in place. The attitude will always remain the same. We should have more than just a community where everyone could unite and discuss matters governing the Cinematographers. Sadly, our industry is a star dominated one and therefore things have to change. I strongly feel the necessity of taking things in our hands but even I haven’t taken the initiative because I have no time. I am actually embarrassed that I haven’t done anything. It is not only the responsibility of one person but of everyone involved in this profession. The underlying problem is that we only voice our grief and fail to find solutions.
Pandolin should absolutely do something about this situation. It would be very noble and inspiring. We hardly share anything concerning our work. I enjoyed giving this interview because I haven’t spoken to anyone about my work while giving one. This has been a very rare kind of interview. Journalists are only interested in how my equation is with actors.  
Is the medium of film dying? 
If a medium of film is introduced which is better than what is available, then why would you not pick it up? Film is better than Red or Alexa but eventually it will die. Although I think film is better, I am not married to any specific medium. I would choose the best that is available. 
How do you feel about current digital technology? 
I haven’t yet seen a digital camera that is better than film and I am hugely concerned about archiving. If a movie is originated on film, we know how to archive it but the question posed in front of us is, how are we going to archive on a digital format? Apart from archiving, my concern lies with the maintenance and repair of the camera. Also, is it weather proof like film? It is not just about the quality of image. Even if something better does come up, it will take us time to adapt and get used to the digital workflow. I have shot a few things on Alexa and minute things like the absence of an optical viewfinder disturbs me. I am accustomed to concentrate while looking at the eyepiece as I make many last minute decisions while looking at a rehearsal. But while shooting with Alexa, the HD monitor was better than the eyepiece and so I found myself looking at the monitor. I had to train myself because you tend to loose your concentration as there are so many things happening around your peripheral vision. I have to agree that there is a lot of pressure from producers but they only look at the cost saving aspect of it. 
Which movies inspire you? 
I watch everything. Also I am very pro Hollywood because I think they shoot very well. They make movies believable and the industry is blessed with some great Cinematographers. Apart from Hollywood movies, I enjoy watching a lot of French Cinema. 
Do you think that Indian cinematographers are not talented? 
I don’t believe that the Indian Film Industry lacks talented Cinematographers. For example Subrata Mitra, Ashok Mehta, Ravi K Chandran, Binod Pradhan, Santosh Sivan are in par with Hollywood cinematographers.
People in Hollywood desire that kind of work and at the end of the day its teamwork that counts. Every person from the director to the producer to the last artist or technician who works on the set is responsible for the work that comes out from Hollywood. There is so much discipline, something our industry sadly lacks. 
What is missing in this industry? Do we lack vision or resources? 
Stars dominate our industry. Also, people place their bets on safer things. They don’t gamble. We lack visionary filmmakers and the most unfortunate part of being in this industry is that if things are not played out well or if the outcome is not good, it is badly ridiculed. I am embarrassed to be a part of a film industry that makes fun of a movie like Sawaariya. I have attended award ceremonies where people have mocked the movie and I am truly ashamed. You may have not liked the movie but you can’t deny the fact that it was such an interesting attempt at telling a very different kind of a love story. A very strange mindset is found in our industry. Personally, the film didn’t work because I couldn’t connect with the story.  But I can’t throw away the fact that someone had worked so hard to bring the movie on the screen. Artists who have worked on the movie have done a commendable job and the best part was that the movie was shot so beautifully.  
A cinematographer is 1/3 manager, 1/3 technician and 1/3 an artist. Is there anything missing from that equation? 
The one thing that is missing is humanitarian. You have to be a good human being to make everything else fall in place. You visualize the scene first and that is where the artist’s role comes into place. Then to translate that into picture, the role of technician enters and the last is manager.  You need to make people work towards achieving your vision.

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