Don’t we all love the movies? A good one can make our day, and a bad one… well, let’s not get there.
But what we often overlook are several people behind the cinema. The ones behind the camera – who make it look relatable, who add emotions to the script, who make the cinema breathe life.
Today, we speak with one such man who has been a part of several films we have loved over the course of over 25 years – right from the beautiful Chameli to the latest show-stealer Sacred Games. Aseem Bajaj, a cinematographer, a producer and a cinephile, who talks about his journey so far in an industry he has forever known and loved.
Here are the excerpts.
How did cinematography happen to you? What’s your story?
There were many things that I wanted to do as a child. Mainly, since childhood, I wanted to be in the movies. Cinematography came to me while doing theatre. We got cast in a movie called Bandit Queen and there was this amazing cinematographer called Mr. Ashok Mehta, who I saw on the job while working as an extra. That’s where I got fascinated by the man himself, beyond the craft. I didn’t know the craft back then. But I wanted to be that man with a camera. I approached him, started working with him. And that’s how slowly, cinematography happened.
You’ve been a part of so many wonderful, distinct projects. Right from Chameli, Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi to Golmaal among others. Which has been the closest to your heart?
I think an experience like Bandit Queen, where I started as an extra and became an intern later on, it can’t be forgotten. I felt similar energies when I worked as a producer in Parched. But as a cinematographer, the ones that remain closest to my heart are Shabd, Chameli, Hazaaron…, U Me Aur Hum. They were all creative collaborations. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happened on that Friday, it is the journey. One Friday can’t wipe out an entire year that is spent on one project and the wonderful people you collaborate with. It is the journey that we live for, not the destination.
Let’s talk about your association with Sacred Games. How did it come to be? Were you expecting this kind of a response when you started working on it?
Vivek Agrawal, the producer of the show from Phantom Films, reached out to me with the project. I had read the book before and I was impressed. He sent me the script of the first eight episodes and once I started reading it, I was hooked. I started reading in the evening and finished it entirely by next morning. I couldn’t stop. About the success though, we certainly weren’t expecting this kind of a response. It always makes you happy when anything you work on that goes big, right? However, Anurag (Kashyap) and Vikram (Motwane) had always known that would cause a stir, as directors they knew its scope and had the vision for it. For me, I was working on it because I believed in the script and wanted to be a part of it.
You’ve worked on Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs and have collaborated with them in the past. How is their way of work different from Bollywood?
When I talk about Hollywood, I don’t have too much experience. I shot for the India portions of Jobs, which lasted about four days. But yes, after Parched (which Bajaj was a co-producer of), we’ve been collaborating a lot more with them. We worked with several crew members from Hollywood. The post-production was entirely handled in Los Angeles. Same goes for Rajma Chawal. They pay a lot of attention to the script development and have a very, very disciplined work atmosphere. We are disciplined too, but still there’s a lot to be learnt from them.
What about Bollywood? What do you like the most about the film industry?
Camaraderie. Jo humare yaha bhaichaara hai, wo bahut zyada hai (The sense of brotherhood that our industry has is a lot). And that is something I love about our industry. Hollywood is slightly cut-and-dry in comparison, in my opinion.
Talking about production, your last film as a producer, Rajma Chawal was a sweet tale about a father trying to reconnect with his son in the changing times. Before that came the critically acclaimed Parched. What can we expect from you in the future?
While as a cinematographer, I don’t have really have a say, as a producer, I like to keep myself away from commercial cinema. My wish is to make as many socially relevant films as possible which address issues on a world level. Be it Parched or be it Rajma Chawal, both addressed problems that we face worldwide. So even if my films make 10 people think and try to change themselves, that’s a success. And that’s what I want to achieve.
Has any other work in the industry inspired you in recent times? Any film that made you say, ‘Wow, this is the kind of cinema that we should be looking at’?
Roma was brilliant in recent times. In our industry, I think Andhadhun was a great piece of work. Badhaai Ho too, even though it was slightly dragged, was a very good film. Masaan was beautiful. Films like those stay with you.
What would your advice be for upcoming cinematographers who are aspiring to make it work for themselves in the industry?
Just shoot. Shoot anything, but shoot. Non-stop. Capture images that talk to you, and capture images that talk. Don’t be bogged down by technology. Just remember that it’s not the technology that is making it, it’s still the art and craft, the literature and language that’s going to make it. It’s all about human emotions. That is why a pure animated film like Finding Nemo can make me cry ‘n’ number of times – it evokes those emotions. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not better than the previous generation. No, you’re it. Know that you’re it.
Other than his love for cinema, what touched us the most about Bajaj was that even after 25 years in the film industry and a brilliant body of work, he kept reiterating about his love and admiration for the next generation, the new generation of cinematographers and how quickly they learn to adapt with everything. He gave examples of his colleagues at Sacred Games, Sylvester Fonseca and Swapnil Sonawane, and how difficult it was to differentiate between his work and theirs.
That encouragement and spirit is rare to see – one of the traits that make him stand tall among the rest even today.