Future is digital but I miss the joy of seeing the rushes: Aseem Mishra, Cinematographer, Paan Singh Tomar

By Bikas Mishra • Published on March 15, 2012

[F]rom the skyscrapers in New York to the ravines of Chambal in Paan Singh Tomar, cinematographer Aseem Mishra’s body of work is diverse. Aseem, who holds the distinction of shooting the first Hindi film on Arri Alexa feels nostalgic about the good old celluloid but believes that the future is going to be digital. Bikas Mishra talks to Aseem Mishra:

Irrfan (L), Aseem Mishra (R)

Paan Singh Tomar is being hailed for its cinematography. Can you share your experience of shooting the film in Chambal valley?

Not just for cinematography but also as a complete film! When I look back, I had shot it just after shooting New York. So for me it was an interesting change. I took it more as an experiment! From shooting reflections and skyscrapers to shooting ravines of Chambal, going from cool tones to warm tones. It was a very interesting experience. Magic realism at its best!

PST is one of my most passionate works till now. I think shooting it on super 16mm added a lot to the whole feel of the film. 35mm would have made it very sharp. The ravines look towering in the film but once you know the landscape you start falling in love with it. For me it was like having an affair, it’s poetry in its purest form.

Since I have shot and directed documentaries in the past, I was quite familiar with the visual language of the film.  It’s almost like capturing the moment. Also Irrfan is an instinctive actor and I had a great equation with him. He gave me a lot of space. He is very open, very friendly, extremely sensitive n intelligent. We had a long chat before we started shooting the film on the look of the film: his young days as soldier in Roorkee and then his older days as a baghi in the Chambal valley.

Chambal was little tough on the lighting part because after 8 am the sun would start to climb up and stay there till 5.30 pm in the evening, followed by a sudden sunset! But I have not seen a place as robust and as accepting as Chambal.

What kind of discussions did you have with the director before working on the film?

Tigmanshu Dhuliya is a content heavy person, extremely intelligent with a great sense of humour. We had a great time shooting PST. We had long discussions on the film initially and since it was my first film with him, we were in top gear from day one. In fact on lot of occasions, the discussions went beyond just shot taking! From the army to the baaghi, from David Leans ‘Passage to India’ to Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Bandit Queen’, from athletes to cricketers, we had conversations about everything keeping the film in mind. But I would say that we weren’t looking for any references. I don’t watch too many films. But yes I love paintings. We discussed a lot about camera, whether to shoot it on 16 mm or go digital. We had similar discussions on Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster later. I still think shooting on 16 mm was a good call.

We also had a lot of discussions on the DI part of the film. It was important technically.

Discussion on lensing was an important part of the film. We shot a lot of ravines between 14mm to 24mm and the steeplechase in tele-photo.

Did you have any difference of opinion with the director?

NONE! We were completely in sync.

Paan Singh Tomar had elements of a sports film, action and drama, was it difficult finding a balance between all these elements? What was of supreme importance for you among all these elements? 

I wasn’t looking at the film in sections. It was a film for me and that was it. A complete film. Actually I find it strange when people discuss a film talking about it as the first half and second half!  I see a film as a complete film. But yes while shooting you have to keep in mind the lensing, camera movements, colours etc. But all that is there in your subconscious while shooting the film. In this case, the look and feel of the film was very important to me. Irrfan as a young soldier and Irrfan as a baaghi..one looks for details all along the journey. I enjoy it that way! I like looking at those flies and insects trapped in a box full of pethas (sweets).For me that’s real! Or the ants going hysterical.. I mean these images can have a major subtext in the film but you won’t lose much even if you miss them.

What is the most important factor for you to choose a project to work on?

Script and the director.

Aseem Mishra

Are you a supporter of digital technology?

I don’t have a problem with any kind of technology. I am at ease with both chemical and digital medium. We all will have to adapt to new technology. This is happening all over the world. The quality of the digital images is getting better and better. It has its definite advantages and cuts out on a lot of issues arising from the chemical process. In fact I don’t know if you are aware, I was the first DoP to shoot an entire film on the Arri Alexa. Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster was the first Hindi film to be shot on Alexa. The biggest advantage in my mind is the ability of a digital camera to reproduce dark and very low-lit images without any grain or under exposed quality. The good digital cameras give you very good shadow detail, which gives me as a Cinematographer the ability to experiment with very dark moody images.  Convenience is also an advantage. The fact that there is no more dependence on a photochemical process and you are assured of clean images that will be true to the exposure you set. Also it is faster to shoot as the setup doesn’t need reloading of magazines regularly.

Would you accept a project if it has to be shot on DSLR for lack of budget, if you happen to like the script?

Yes! Why not? But a few things will need to be taken into account, especially highlights while shooting digitally. However it’s a matter of getting used to it and going with your gut. I am a Cinematographer who depends heavily on instinct. If I like the way something looks and feels, seems just right for the scene, I shoot it. I don’t believe in excessive use of theories.

35 mm is gradually fading away from the industry; will you miss a thing or two about it?

Yes.. I will miss the surprise element and the joy of seeing the rushes for the first time after the negative has been processed! I will miss going to the lab and meeting the technicians who have been working in the labs for ages! I love them. Yes I will miss the smell of the lab..smell of the emulsion…

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