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The Role of the Cinematographer, Part I: Lighting

 | Interview |

  BY Govind Nihalani and Celluloid Chapter

Govind Nihalani

Let us start with the well-worn statement: Cinema is a visual medium. At one stage it really was a visual medium, because it did not have the advantage of sound. The visual then was really important, because it was the primary means of communication along with the intertitles that appeared from time to time. But today the definition has changed a little, at least that’s what I think.

Today the communication in cinema is not only what you see in terms of the photographic image, but also what goes with it in terms of sound, of sound effects, of music, of dialogue etc. You can see the difference for yourself if you switch off the sound track, for then you’ll see at once that the image does not have the same quality as it otherwise has, along with the sound. So the old definition now has got slightly modified.

That apart, what in cinema is an image? There are roughly three kinds of images. At the simplest level, any photographic image that is projected on the screen is an image, which does not and need not take into account the various formal and aesthetic factors like composition, colour, movement, lighting etc. It could be, say, the work of a news cameraman, going out and covering an event. For him it is important to get action in the frame, from whatever angle he takes it, to give you what actually happened. In this case, the image is concerned with giving you pure information, everything else is by accident. If it is well composed, perhaps it was not even intended.

The second kind of image, what we generally consider to be the cinematographic image is one where the shot is composed with a purpose, the angle is chosen with a purpose, the lighting is chosen with a purpose, the size of the images is chosen with a purpose, everything is calculated and designed.

The third kind of image, which also sometimes works in cinema quite significantly, is the image that goes beyond information and acquires a larger meaning than the information contained within a shot. These images carry and echo a lot of our subconscious memories, personal and collective alike, and grow into symbols. Take the example of the image of Nargis pulling the plough herself and trying to plough the field all by herself, in Mother India (1957), which has by now become a quintessential image of traditional Indian womanhood, the suffering, sacrificing woman who will not accept defeat.

I’ll give you another simple example from my own film Aakrosh (1980) - the image of Om Puri as Lahanya at the end, trying to free himself from the policemen and screaming out. When I shot it, I did not shoot it as a symbolic image, but once I had shot it and we saw the photograph, it suddenly appreared as an image of the suffering, exploited, shoshit[1] class in India, trying to free themselves and realizing their total helplessness. Something like this you have in our mythology, in the image of Krishna holding the Gobardhana[2] up, as a symbolic projection of all-protective deity. This kind of images in cinema cannot happen all the time. They are sometimes deliberately designed, at other times they happen. That is a far more sophisticated kind of image than the kinds we seek to concentrate on as part of our discussion today[3]. In fact we’d be more concerned today with the second kind of image, which is a well calculated image.

Now, a cinematographer is an independent artist in his own right, because photography is an art form. But in cinema, he has three functions. One, he has to contend with the fact that he is an independent artist, with his independent sensibility, independent preferences and everything. Two, his function is to give cinematographic representation to the director’s vision. For it is essentially the director’s vision that makes the film what is ultimately is. Hence it is only proper that the cinematographer’s individual sensibility must function as a pure technician, where he has to deal with the nitty-gritty of lighting equipments, limitations of locations, failing daylight, the little time available to him, etc.

We propose to start with the second function of the cinematographer, viz. his work with the director for which I shall go back to my own experiences. The three directors with whom I worked in the beginning are very strong artists, all of them: Satyadev Dubey, a well-known theatre person, Girish Karnad, a playwright who was getting into films then for the first time, and Shyam Benegal, with whom I began on documentaries and ad films, and went on to do his first feature film and my first film in colour together[4]. I was lucky to find myself working with directors who involved me with the film right from the stage of scripting so that I came to know the intentions of the script, the intentions of the director, and all that right from the beginning, and I became part of that creative process. It doesn’t happen like that all the time.

It is important for the cameraman to respond to the script. If the director’s response to the script and the cameraman’s response cohere and are in perfect harmony, it helps immensely. If they are not in harmony, the director should try to convince me as to his response to the script, and as cameraman I must have a chance to put my ideas forward, and somewhere we must come to an agreement, otherwise the team is not going to work. But once there is an agreement, things become only too simple.

Ideally, since each script has a different story, a different set of actors/ actresses, and everything is quite unique to it, it must have its own visual personality. When I say ‘visual personality’, what I mean is that it will call for a particular kind of lighting. A particular kind of lighting involves whether the deeper, darker tones will predominate over the lighter; whether it will employ very acute camera angles, make very strong compositions, or rely simply on giving the actor centre stage; whether it will have a lot of movement or not. All of these constitute the visual personality of a film, and that is what must emerge out of the director’s concept of a film ‘realized’ through the cameraman’s response to it.

Take a simple thing. When the director says, ‘I want a slow pan’, there can be ten different degrees of slowness. How slowly the camera has to be panned by the cameraman is to be decided essentially by his response to the script. He must know the scene, he must feel what the right speed for the panning for that particular scene should be. Similarly in terms of lighting, similarly in terms of composition. Sometimes the composition can be so overpowering that the actor in that composition may be reduced to just an element of the composition. But maybe the director wants to emphasize the actor, not the overall arrangement of space in the film. These are the factors that have to be taken into consideration before any shot is taken.

There lies the value of the director-cameraman relationship. If they share the same points of reference, it helps a lot. Shyam (Benegal) and I don’t remember having discussed the visual look of a film for more than fifteen minutes, to maybe half an hour at the most, because our references are all common. If he says he wants predominantly deeper tones in the lighting, as it was for his Nishant (1975), we’d immediately ask ourselves:  should it have a Rembrandt feel or the feel of a Vermeer, or should it have the contemporary documentary style? It is then quite easy to refer to a painting or a photograph or a film that we might have seen together and arrive at a decision. And once that happens, everything follows smoothly.

Now, any film that you have seen contains certain elements that essentially go towards making the visual personality of a film. If you want to identify them you have to look for them. The first thing, and the most essential thing, to study is the lighting. It is the lighting that gives a different kind of feel to a film. If you have seen some of those old Hollywood film in black and white, particularly those concerning criminals and private eyes, those that go by the name of Film Noir, the dark films, they have a predominance of black areas., a predominance of shadows, high contrast; in other words, one side of the face will be well lit, while the other side, not particularly well lit, will be a shadowy area. Now, that was a look that emerged not necessarily out of choice, but from certain technical limitations of that period. The basic limitation was that the films were slow, requiring a greater amount of light for exposure. If you wanted a certain depth of field, the amount of light required was even greater. Therefore, you had to use a certain kind of lamps which from a distance could give you a greater amount of light. It was a kind of lamp that could provide you with a sharp light, because the lamp technology had not advanced that much at the time we are talking about. So arc lamps were used, or lamps with glass before the lens, giving you a sharp beam. So when you threw it, you got a strong shadow also. The shadows became unavoidable. So what do you do with them? The imaginative cameraman and director started putting it to use. It suddenly became an art in itself. The shadows served as an element in the creation of the mood, particularly for that kind of film. That’s how the shadows worked. But in similar films being made today, darkness is created and used in a different manner; the shadows are sometimes used, they don’t predominate in the manner they did earlier; only because now the films are faster, and you require very little light. If I just want one light here, I get full exposure. So a different style of low-key photography has now emerged. So now through the genre of the film remains the same the lighting style has changed.

Every cameraman has a preference for a certain kind of lighting. For example, if you have watched my films, you must have seen that somehow I have little liking for half-lit faces. The contrast in my images is slightly higher than that in the rest of the cinematographers, because I don’t like flat-lit things. But there are cameramen who function excellently in very evenly lit situations, e.g. particularly K.K. Mahajan and A.K. Bir, who have both achieved wonderful results with that kind of lighting. Among foreign filmmakers, Godard’s earlier films, photographed by Raoul Coutard, have that very softly evenly lit look, and he has achieved some very good results with that.

Let me tell you an incident. When I was in New York in 1980-81 for an exposition on Indian cinema at the Museum of Modern Art, one of the evenings at one of the parties I had an occasion to meet a famous cameraman, Nestor Almendros, who has shot several interesting films including Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982). When he came to know that I am a cameraman from India, the first thing he asked me was: 

‘How is Asha Parekh?’ He said, ‘I have seen a film in which I thought she is very beautiful.’

I said, ‘Well she is there, and actually getting on in age.’ Then I asked him, ‘How did you evolve your style?’

He said, ‘You will be surprised to know that my inspiration is your own cameraman Subrata Mitra.’

I said, ‘How come?’

It seems when he was studying cinematography in the Paris institute, they showed Charulata (1964) over there, and he was totally fascinated by the visual quality of that film. Then he made an effort to understand how the quality was achieved by Mitra, and once he knew how it was achieved, he tried the same thing in his own exercise film at the institute. In Europe till then there had been a  wide use of a particular kind of lighting originating in Hollywood, with a strong influence on European, and particularly French, cameramen. They naturally started laughing at Almendros’ different style of lighting. They said, ‘What are you doing? This is no way of lighting!’ But once they saw Almendros’ results, they started slowly changing to it. Almendros still follows the same kind of lighting, the kind of change he has brought in himself.

What I am trying to tell you is that every cameraman has his own preferences for lighting, and will pick up elements from some other cameraman and try to add them to his own style to create a unique style of his own. If you watch Raoul Coutard’s lighting for the early Godard films, r the work of Miroslav Ondricek for Milos Forman’s films, you will notice a beautiful, general, ambience light, with no strong blue shadows or strong lights. Now we would pick up some of these elements from there because we like that kind of lighting. Something we do somebody else picks up and makes use of it. So in any cameraman’s work you will find elements of different kinds contributing to his style, so that ultimately there is just no such thing as a cameraman’s one particular style; there are bound to be influences from various sources, and with all that the work becomes a little more dynamic. Even in a particular film there may be two different kinds of situation demanding different kinds of treatment.


1. Shoshit: Hindi word meaning ‘Underpriveleged.’

2. In Mahabharata, Lord Indra invoked many clouds to appear in the sky and schemed to flood the region with rains lasting for seven days and seven nights. Krishna in reply then lifted Govardhan hill, under which all the animals and people of the region took shelter, safe from the rains of Indra's fury. Ultimately, Indra accepted defeat, and after praying to Krishna, left for his heavenly abode, the Svarga.

3. 28th October, 1991.

4. Ankur (1974)