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April 15, 2000

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'Photography should not dominate the story'

Kabir Lal Eldest son of renowned cinematographer from South S S Lal, Kabir Lal is successfully carrying on the legacy. He is one of the leading names in the industry, with more than 80 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi to his credit, Lal is a well-known name in the industry.

Considered by manu as one of the most talented cinematographers in Bollywood, he is the first choice of industry bigwigs like Subhash Ghai, Boney Kapoor and Rakesh Roshan.

Among the films which have allowed him to exploit his abilities to the fullest and win accolades as well as awards are superhits like Pardes, Taal and the recent blockbuster, Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai. His famous South Indian films include Aditya 369, Bhairava Deepam and Michael Madan Kama Raja.

Kanchana Suggu catches up with the ace lensman to find out about his years in the film industry, the sheer excitement of cinematography and his future plans.

How many films have you done till date?

I have done about 80 films in various languages -- Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi.

How and when did you begin your career?

My dad was a cinematographer and he asked me to join a film institute so that I could get a diploma and consequently, better job opportunities. My father was popular in special visual effects. At that time, there were no computer graphics. His movies had an impact on me right since my childhood.

My dad asked me to work with him and I did. I also used to read a lot of books about American cinematography. Iíve read all the books on cinematography since 1930. These books contained a lot of theory.

I got a major break in January '86, when I was 24. I had lost my father then and got a chance to do a Kannada film called Kartavya. From then onwards, I did at least 25 Kannada films. I always got films with big heroes like Rajkumar, Anant Nag, Shankar Nag, Amberish, Vishnuwardhan.

Then I moved to Tamil cinema. I did special visual effects for a film called Michael Madan Kama Raja, a Kamal Haasan starrer, which had him in four roles -- a robber, businessman, cook and dance director. With this film, I started getting recognised.

Then I got to work with director S Srinivasa Rao who has done films like Pushpak and Appu Raja. He was doing a film called Aditya 369, a Telugu film about a time machine that goes into the past and the future. This movie too had a lot of special effects.

I did a Telugu film called Bhairava Deepam with the same director. This film became very popular and I got an award from the Andhra Pradesh government for it.

How did your stint with Bollywood begin?

Kabir Lal with family After Bhairava Deepam, I came to Bombay and did special songs for films such as Saajan, Rang, LaadlaÖonly songs. Then I happened to meet Mukul Anand for whom I did commercials like Pepsi, Ruff N' Tuff jeans, Timex watches, the Bagpiper ad with Shah Rukh Khan.

At that time, Mukul was doing Trimurti for Subhash Ghai. I did some portions of that film and about 50-60 per cent of Rajkumar starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit.

One evening, when I was in Madras, I got a call from Ghai asking me to do the cinematography for a film called Pardes that he was about to begin. Then came Hamesha for Sippy Films, Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rahte Hain for Satish Kaushik, Taal for Subhash Ghai and Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai for Rakesh Roshan.

You have done cinematography for superhits like Taal and Kaho Naa... as well as unsuccessful films like Prem Aggan and Hamesha. How do you select your films?

I choose on the basis of the banners, the directors, the kind of scope I have and the importance of cinematography in a film. I always to my directors at length before committing to them. I speak about the kind of equipments that Iíll be requiring, the kind of lights, the budget, the time I take. The main thing for me is that there should be a lot of importance given to cinematography. In case I donít like the way things are going, I donít continue working.

For Khauff, I did some portions of the film and then left because the planning was not proper. There were lot of other problems. But these days producers and directors are quite aware of the importance of cinematography in a film. They donít really want to compromise on the quality.

Do you read the script thoroughly?

Yeah, 100 per cent. Directors like Subhash Ghai and Rakesh Roshan always give the scripts beforehand.

Is your decision also dependent on the script?

No, not really. A filmmaker like Subhash Ghai does one film for two years. So we are 100 per cent sure that heíll make a good film. It's the same with Rakesh Roshan. We canít doubt these people. But if it is some newcomer, then I have to think properly.

Why did you do Prem Aggan?

Actually, 30 per cent of the film was done by somebody else, I think his name is Anwar. He had some date problems. Iím a big fan of Feroze Khan, Iíve seen Qurbani about 15-20 times. So when I heard his name, I immediately agreed. It was a good experience because I realised that success is not in our hands. The only reason I did the film was because of Firoze Khan.

Hamesha too was not a very successful film, but technically, it was good. It was after seeing this film and Pardes that Hrithik and Rakesh Roshan decided on me for Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai. Technically and cinematography-wise, Hamesha was a good film. So in a way, it didnít quite affect me. But when a film flops, however hard you have worked on your cinematography, itís of no use because nobody sees the film. So at the end of it, success does help.

What do you do once you've signed a film?

Kabir Lal I first see the cast. For example, letís take Pardes. We had Mahima Chaudhary and Shah Rukh Khan. Mahima Chowdhary was a newcomer. So I thought about Shah Rukh Khanís previous film and how he had been photographed earlier. Even with Taal, I went and saw Aishwarya Raiís previous films and how she had been photographed in them. Then I work out what I can do, whether I should follow the earlier styles or invent my own.

Next, I see what kind of a look I want to give the film. Taal started from a village to Grammy. So I have to keep on working on the kind of look I want to give at the beginning, the middle and the end of the film. I also see my own previous films and decide if I can do something that I havenít done earlier.

Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah. If you notice, Taal has many contrasting colours, very dark. But Kaho Naa... is very bright. In Pardes, the challenging part was to show the interiors erected in India as interiors abroad. It was a challenge to give a foreign look to Indian sets. So these are the things one has to constantly keep working on depending on the mood of the film. I donít want to do the same things over and over again.

So the cinematography changes according to the subject of the film?

Yes, it changes according to the script. The look of a murder mystery is always different from that of a family drama. Moreover, I feel photography should not dominate the story. The photography should only go well with the story.

You received a lot of appreciation for Taal. What was your reaction to that?

Actually, even the music of the film was very good. Taal was shot in real rain and real fog. The specialty of the film is that the cinematography did not dominate the story. The beautiful look is not the only thing in the movie. There are some scenes that are dry and some very bright. I always see to it that there are variations in my film. If the audience watches everything that is in the same tone, then thereís no fun. The entire film should not be beautiful.

What, according to you, complements cinematography best?

I think background music, costume and scripts. The main thing is art direction and the backdrops. One more thing is nature. We always plan and go to on outdoors. But things might not always work out according to plans. Sometimes we have to be prepared. Photography is all about taking a decision within a second. You have to be broad-minded and take risks You have to be always clear about what you are doing. There shouldnít be any doubts.

There are also times when you think that a particular scene would not turn out all that great, but when you see it later, itís beautiful. The yoga scene in Taal starts from sunrise and the transition goes on to early morning. We couldnít go everyday at sunrise and take the shot. You wonít believe this entire scene was actually shot reverse. We used to go around evening, at about 4-4.30 pm, and take these shots. So the scenes that you see as sunrise are actually sunset, shown in reverse.

Sometimes you have to do these things. Like they say, there are five Cís of cinematography -- camera, close-up, continuity, cutting and composition. The sixth C is cheating. That comes through experience.

Are you under a lot of pressure during outdoor shoots since itís very expensive?

No. Makers like Subhash Ghai donít even make 10 per cent compromise. There is generally a lot of cooperation. For Taal, there were about 300 people, including Aishwarya Rai and Akshaye Khanna, waiting for the sun from morning to evening at Madh Island one cloudy day. These people just donít want to compromise. I get a lot of encouragement from such makers.

Thereís one incident Iíll never forget. We had gone to Agra to shoot a song for Pardes with Mahima Chaudhary. After seeing the rushes, which was my very first work for the film, Subhashji called me and said that he was shocked since they were not upto his standards.

I thought that was the end of my career. I requested him to give me another chance to re-do the whole song. I made some adjustments in the colour combinations. Then I got a call from him saying that my job was fabulous. He couldnít believe that the whole look of the song had changed so much. Had my work got rejected, I wouldnít have done Pardes, or Taal for that matter. Iím much more careful now.

Did you anticipate the success of Kaho Naa...?.

No, not at all.

What did you think when you first saw Hrithik Roshan and Amisha Patel?

Kabir Lal with Rakesh Roshan When I first saw Hrithik, I never thought he would be such a big star. I was working with Fardeen Khan that time and he was much better. I thought Hrithik had some problem with his nose. But every day, he seemed to grow. I was extremely impressed by his performance in the stage song, Sitaron ki mehfil. He did some excellent work in that song. Before that song, I really didnít think he was that good. He would take great interest in the look and the makeup of the two characters. He used to discuss the second character of the film with me. Both Rakesh and Roshan always discussed the scenes in detail with me.

Another scene I really appreciated was his underwater death sequence that was shot abroad in Bangkok. He was actually acting without oxygen. We had an underwater crew and camera. There were two people behind the camera. He was told to act however much he could without oxygen and if he had a problem, he was supposed to signal. And he did a fabulous job. That really made me appreciate the boy. Not many people can do such things. He is also technically savvy because he used to assist his father. He is very soft-spoken and doesnít consider himself a star-son at all.

Coming to Amisha Patel, she is not very glamorous, but she has this vulnerable face. From the first day itself, she was very confident. The only shortcoming is that she doesnít understand make-up at all.

What was it like shooting for the Pyar ki kashti mein number?

For the first time, I was shooting on a real ship which was actually moving. We took the ship at Sri Lanka and were shot from Sri Lanka to Bangkok. We travelled by sea for 25 days. We had a tough time shooting this particular song because our cameras would never be steady. I would not even get proper sleep because of the constant movements. But the minute I saw the sea and the sails, it was really thrilling. The backdrop really encouraged us to work hard. Rakesh Roshan had done the perfect planning. Even shooting on the island was good.

Do you normally choose the location or is it the directorís prerogative?

The director chooses the location and discusses it with the cameraman. We also give our own suggestions. But I always give full credit to my directors.

These days, shooting in foreign locales, however unnecessary it may be, has become mandatory. What do you have to say about that?

Kabir Lal It has become a major trend today. I think it's because of lack of planning and preparation. Some directors simply donít know what type of songs they want. They just want to go abroad. Another reason is that in India, you donít get permission for aerial shots easily, though it's quite easy abroad. So all songs shot in foreign locations have to have this aerial shot. Itís called the chopper shot. However, I feel everything should be according to the script. Without that, there will be no impact.

What role do the actors/actresses play in cinematography?

The contribution of a good-looking male/female to cinematography is 30-40 per cent. Makeup is also important. Iím very particular about the heroineís makeup because I use white light. I always prefer if the heroine comes at least 15 minutes in advance in front of the camera. But these things hardly happen. Heroines like Kajol are hardly bothered about their appearances.

Youíve done three films with Subhash Ghai. What is it about him that you really admire?

Firstly, he doesnít do too many films. I think that his sense of drama is excellent. His characterisation and the relationship between the characters in the film is very real. He has a good command over the language and also a great sense of music. He gives a lot of importance to music and executes the story along with the music. These things make a lot of difference.

And Rakesh Roshan?

Rakesh Roshan plans the story 100 per cent. His screenplay is excellent. He is experienced and confident. He looks at each scene from several aspects and balances each of them to make it appealing to people from three different categories.to watch. His music too, is totally different.

Have you ever worked in an art film?

No. Iíve never got the chance, but I would definitely love to.

How different would the cinematography for an art film be?

Art films have to be realistic. It has to look like real life. You have to show real faces and real locations. It is very easy to beautify anything. But it takes a lot of preparation and knowledge to show something very real.

How do you improve yourself?

I watch a lot of Hollywood films. Iím a huge fan of Vittorio Storaro. He experiments a lot, he breaks rules. I watch his films like The Little Buddha, The Last Emperor, Dick Tracy. I also regularly check out this site called www.cinematographer.com. Itís a beautiful site. Here, you can go and chat with some of Hollywoodís cinematographers and know their experiences. I keep myself updated about the latest happenings in this field through this website.

Which are your forthcoming films?

Kabir Lal, on the sets of Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai There is Boney Kapoor and Satish Kaushikís Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai. Then thereís Subhash Ghaiís Yaadein. Iíve just begun my homework on this film. Itís in the early stages. I think thatís about it for now.

I would like to work on new concepts. The best thing for me is that all my brothers are also into cinematography. So I can assign work to them which would give me a lot of time to myself.

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