Avijit graduated from FTII in December 1995, majoring in Cinematography.
As a child what were your early influences towards cinema?
My early exposure to cinema was through Hindi film music heard on the radio, or played on a record player. I do remember images of films watched in a theatre. Like Navin Nishcol walking towards camera on a Bombay street in ‘Victoria No. 203’, a truck running over a mill worker in ‘Deewar’ and the lights coming on around the screen at the end of ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ as Rajesh Khanna walks away from camera. For me these are the earliest memories of cinema – one obscure shot from a mainstream film.
There was a theatre called Alpana across the road from where we lived, in Model Town, Delhi. Once a friend of my father’s led us past the manager’s cabin, through the projection booth to a small parapet in front of the projectors, from where we watched Deewar! I only remember the truck from the film and was mortally afraid of trucks after that.
How did you first become interested in film direction?
I can never answer that question satisfactorily, but let me try. Growing up in the 1970s, we were fed a healthy dose of nationalism and social responsibility on the mainstream media. I still immensely cherish the idealism behind that. As soon as I finished school I joined Doordarshan as a host for youth programmes. I think that set the ball rolling. The absence of awareness of different career options other than the usual ones made me want to make educational and career guidance films for students. All of this led to me applying to MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, but I did not qualify.
FTII wasn’t even a thought at that point as the place was in the middle of a major strike in the late ’80s. I had no idea of the possibilities of different kinds of film and how one went about it. I used to take photographs with my Zenit camera, process and print them myself. So I finally applied for the cinematography course at FTII and got through. That totally changed things for me.
Ours was the last batch to complete the course in three years straight, in 1995. It was also the last batch to shoot diploma films in black and white.
How did you move towards documentary?
I think this had to do with my interest in still photography. I loved engaging with real people and live situations. Responding, thinking through the lens. It gives me great pleasure to keep the shot alive by one’s interventions – in the way you would move your camera, change the magnification, play with light. For this reason I really like shooting handheld as it allows me to move around freely and dynamise a shot.
Perhaps to some extent this was also a reaction to the studio-based narrative fiction training at FTII, which did not really expose us to the possibilities of many other genres.
What steps did you take to train yourself?
Training in both the technical and aesthetic areas of film making happens over a period of time. Besides ones own reading, the FTII community is very supportive with technical queries. With regard to aesthetics, I feel one is largely on one’s own.
We imbibe all the time, by looking at light, looking at movement. Watching films and engaging with the other arts.
Have you assisted anyone? How does it help one?
Very briefly. I wasn’t really cut to be an assistant, but sometimes I wish I had assisted longer as you do learn a lot while assisting senior cameramen. Plus some of the greatest cameramen never went to film school and learnt on the job.
How did your first film project come about? Tell us something about the experience.
My first major independent film as a cinematographer was Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s ‘Kumar Talkies’. This came about with his engagement with his family owned cinema in the small town of Kalpi in southern UP. This was a truly challenging shoot as we were filming on both 16mm and DV at the peak of summer. The post production of this film was another story, with all these mixed media and that will take up a whole chapter to talk about.
My first film as director was ‘Snapshots from a Family Album’. This happened at its own place over a period of five years as I filmed my parents with a DV camera. I would beg, borrow, hire cameras to be able to film at home. This became a film about looking, performing, about intimacy and love, family histories and as much about film making. It was an extension of my stills of my parents.
How do you decide on a film subject. What are your inspirations?
In all my films since ‘Snapshots..’, the subject has been given to me. The treatment is what I can call mine and that is very film specific. As a film person it is film form that truly gets me going. I find it hard to script or visualise without having an idea of form in my head. And for this one draws from the vast bank of references and influences that one has had over the years.
Is film direction intuitive or is it something you learn?
It is both.
Film technology is continuously changing. Do you think it affects you as a director, in the way you want to tell stories.
Definitely. Each medium and its specificity informs the way you make images. One has to adapt to what the medium offers. For me it is the distinction between studio based production on any format (35mm, 16mm, Red or Alexa), or the more informal media like DSLRs and other digital cameras like the Sony EX3 and Z7 that define how you will shoot. But these days we have to constantly relearn and forget technologies. I often learn on a need to know basis.
Your favorite films or directors? At least two of them?
SNS Sastry of Films Division was a brilliant film maker. I was introduced to his work at FTII. He was a cameraman at FD, who went on to become a film maker and he was as proficient with a talking heads film like ‘I Am Twenty’, as he was with a totally abstract and stylised portrait like ‘Amir Khan’. His films are beautifully made and have been a huge inspiration for me.
The other big influence has been Derek Jarman, particularly his film ‘The Garden’. Apart from these I really like the Tsai Ming Liang (‘I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone’), Jia Zhangke and many others. Among Indian contemporaries, Dibakar Bannerjee and Ashim Ahluwalia are film makers whose work I look forward to.
What role does commerce play in film making?
Its complicated but very clear. There is no cinema without commerce. I, as an independent film maker, have to earn my living shooting various things – documentary, installation art videos, ads and other things to subsidise my own films. Documentary funding organisations are supported by the government and international bodies which are funded by the CSR wings of various corporate organisations. So, nobody is truly independent.
What helps a film more, the story or the marketing?
Both. And I was glad that ‘Sankat City’ had a good run despite poor promotion.
Do you often get all that is in your wish list or is it a hard bargain every time?
What is in the kitty now?
I am completing a two part documentary on contemporary Indian art, tilted ‘To Let The World In’.
Any advice to the inspiring directors? Especially for those seeking to work in Documentaries?
We need more and more film makers who break boundaries, experiment with film language and give us new things to look at, untie the knots in our heads. There is place and work for everyone in the industry, as a technician or a film maker. It helps to be able to multi-task and mentally separate your livelihood from your passion. Easier said than done, but possible.
Any memorable blunders?
Too many to list here. I sometimes wonder if conceptual blunders are worse than technical ones.
Your dream project?
To be able to go back to film based black and white photography and be able to process and print it myself. It is still doable!