THE INFUSION OF SUBTEXT
For almost a decade, HIMMAN DHAMIJA has been adding to his repertoire as a cinematographer by consistently working on cinema that cuts across a wide canvas in terms on genre or sensibility, in films as varied as his debut feature Boom, last year’s Chandni Chowk to China, and the understated Little Zizou; as well as well-received documentaries like last year's The Boot Cake and A Good Man, both Australian productions. Here, in two parts, he speaks to Vikram Phukan about his work and philosophy.
I think it’s very different. You’re looking at two completely different film-making cultures. Just to begin with, the grammar of film that is used or the genre of film that we work upon is very different. The equipment may be the same all over the world…
…but the culture here is much more frenetic.
Yes. There is a intensity to work there too, it’s just that there are less people doing it and there is less work as well. Here there is a huge volume of work…
Yeah, in India your authorship quotient is lower. The reliance upon you for your story-telling abilities is lower. Here traditionally the DP is still referred to as a technician. In Australia, a DP has, I think, possibly a little bit more control. But really, this is a very difficult question, because in India we have a lot of volume, a lot of choice. You can pick and choose based on what it is that you want to do, you can select whom you work with, what kind of process you want. In Australia, you don’t choose that much. The freedom to choose is more in India, and less in Australia because you have that much less work, but having said that, there is an approach that a DP’s work is to light, and framing is secondary and always in consultation with the director.
Yes, and the structure of what you’re doing, and the dramatics of what you’re doing, is not really your lookout. Infusion of subtext is something that is demanded but not really that much. However, in Australia when you’re hired as a DP, your collaboration with the director is much greater, and the expectation of providing authorship is so much higher. But the choices you make here are what is critical because you could make a choice where the expectations of you are the same as that in Australia, because that happens here as well. And if you actually look at it, we make more films, in my opinion, in that realm of film-making that Australia does anyway.
In mainstream cinema, do you ever feel a certain conflict in sensibility?
Of course, there is always that. Those conflicts will always be a part of it.
For example, Chandni Chowk to China was a spoof. The suspension of disbelief in these kind of film is not something you really have to adjust to. In other projects though, have you felt over-saturated by the extent to which cinematic liberties are taken? Boom was your first film, and it was very cavalier kind of film-making, but very inventive. You’ve been part of many projects, have you felt bogged down sometimes?
Not really, you are always prepared. You come in with certain expectations, what it is that you want to make. Even if those expectations are not met, there is always something else to spark your interest. There’s always something to learn from every situation so unless it’s completely untenable, you have to be professional, since nobody twisted your arm to take up the project. You try and see it through, and afterwards if it is not working out in whatever shape or form, you find something that is working for you and continue in that vein.
So there is an adjustment…
All film projects involve some adjustment to an extent and yes, I have done some features in which I have felt, what am I doing here? I’ve been on some that I would have liked to leave… and I have never quit. I finished it. I have quit projects before they started, because that way they have enough time to replace you, they may never talk to you again, but at least you’re not putting yourself and them through the torture of an association which is going to be difficult. Once you’re in it, then you finish it.
What about your hand in the story-telling specially when working on a mainstream film... do you have a signature style that you sneak in, or that you’re allowed to imbue into the texture of the film?
Well, I choose my films also based on uniqueness. If you see the films I’ve worked on, they’re all different from one another. For example, at the very beginning there was Boom… this was a caper film, I think as a film it may have arrived a little bit ahead of its time.
…and it wasn’t really promoted as it should have been, and it seemed to attract a kind of backlash almost immediately that sabotaged its chances.
That was there but what also happened was, after Boom, the persona of Amitabh Bachchan as seen in a mainstream film, actually changed.
Although they are people, including his son, who consider the film a black mark on his resumé… but really, it was irreverent and saucy, and actually quite entertaining to watch him lusting over Bo Derek, for instance.
Exactly, and what happened after that was that suddenly his persona acquired these unmistakable grey shades. That’s interesting to me, because it happened to the biggest icon in the cinema world, it was a watershed moment.
Everything was very clear-cut for him in the past, almost a straight-jacket. And here you had the graininess…
…it was grey, it was dark, and sleazy. After that, he was able to repeat that in a lot of his films...
…pushing the envelope in terms of characterization…
…and that way if you look back at the film, with its dark and sleazy overtones, it did all right. It was a film that was twisting existing notions. So as I mentioned, in any film there has to be something that sparks your interest.
I could never understand why the film got so much flak. His earlier film Bombay Boys did quite well in the same vein. Maybe people were reacting to things like Jackie Shroff getting a blow-job under the table, as if that exemplified the film as a whole. I loved the colloquial way in which the three models spoke, in their own accents, vernacular or not.
Well, it was a very real film in many levels. Yet it was alien. For Kaizad, I did Boom and that was it. We’re still friends. I was sitting in Australia before that, and I knew nothing about the film industry so that film kind of set the ball rolling. I was excited by it because it wasn’t in the genre of Hindi film that we were used to seeing. We’re sitting on the wall and we could fall on either side…
Would you have taken a fall too because of the debacle it turned out to be? As a technician?
For me it was amazing. While Boom was being shot, people had seen the rushes, I don’t know how, and that’s what I love about this country is people make it their business to know unlike any other film industry.
Which could either have been out of a sense of competition or to scout for new talent?
They want it. This is a commercial industry and they want the talent. So they’d seen the rushes and I was getting phone-calls for new projects. Your rushes are supposed to be secret, so how is it that within two weeks, there are people who’re reasonably well-known in the industry who’ve seen them.
So at that level, for film technicians, talent rules, and merit is what counts?
Whereas in terms of the acting pool, there’s always been a lot of nepotism…
…also who sells.
But what’s interesting is that in your field of work, you don’t feel that someone’s got an assignment undeservedly.
No, it’s pretty straight. It’s commercial, you’ve got to deliver the goods here. What goods you’re going to deliver, that is a different issue but this is a fair and level playing field. And that’s what is actually fantastic about this country and this film industry. It’s very fair, open, warm, whether it is in advertising or whether it’s in feature film.
So you’ve never felt that people didn’t make it big because of the insularity…
It’s not an insular film industry at all. It’s very open, and there are people from all over the world working here and when you’re coming in from the outside, if you know what you’re doing, the generosity with which the film industry reciprocates is actually phenomenal. That is why I am here…
Is that also connected to who you’re working with?
I’m talking about everybody, the crew, the industry, everybody. Even other DPs. When I came here, I had no idea about this place, I didn’t know where anything was and I didn’t know anybody, so the producer or the line producer would say, call up so-and-so. So I called up a DP and say I need a certain piece of equipment. We’d have a chat then I’d have one. Sometimes you run into a situation that you don’t quite know what to do… and you sit back and think about who’s done something similar, you can just pick up the phone and call him for pointers.
What did you work on next?
Well there has been American Daylight… which never saw the light of day. But then that was an DV film, the first one. And that was the first time a foreign director came in, so I wanted to see how a white guy would come in and deal with this place… it was never released eventually, not even on DVD, but it was a challenge.
In Part 2 we discuss the mix of genres in Chandni Chowk to China, and the world of Little Zizou...