“Love is a source of freedom, which emerges through one’s metaphysical response. It is an invisible force that makes the world around me fascinating. Hence, I continue to explore the hidden mystical beauty through mediums like painting, writing, observing and filmmaking.
“From its inception to today, filmmaking has set its profound identity, and in the process, it is considered to be the best metaphysician – ahead of common sense, philosophy and even the disciplines of physics.
“Technology has always played a crucial role in its creative expression. In the present context, with the quantum advancements in technology, filmmaking appears to get enslaved by its momentary thrill, rather than inspired by the beauty of human sensitivity.
“From a historical perspective, scientific innovation and the subsequent technological advancements act as an impetus for the changing phenomenon in a society. Similarly, filmmaking - being an extension of a civilized social culture - has picked up the traits in presenting a powerful look to its expression. And the film medium is able to find access to areas where it tends to be unimagined.
“It is the cinematographer’s purpose to tap into his or her sensitivities and to use light to evoke emotions and create an illusion of reality, instead of just copying it.”
A.K. Bir is an award-winning producer-director-cinematographer. His work has won multiple National Film Awards, including 27 Down, Aadhi Mimansa, Daasi, Shesha Drushti, Nandan, Baaja and Lavanya Preeti, the latter of which also received an International Jury’s Critic Award and screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival.
A Conversation with A.K. Bir
How did you become interested in filmmaking?
It happened by chance, or otherwise I would have become an engineer or a doctor. Without any predetermined plan I applied to the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, due to the initiative taken by my father who was a professor of physics and the college’s principal. The film institute gave a new perspective to my thinking. There, I was exposed to world cinema which shaped my inquisitiveness and perception of the world around me with regard to its visual interpretation and cinematic language. Gradually and instinctively, the interest was born to negotiate the filmmaking culture and its aesthetic.
When did you decide you wanted to become a cinematographer and what was the motivation or reason for the decision?
My instinct for painting, sculpture and writing acted as the motivational force to take up cinematography as a tool to re-create the image of visual interest in the depiction of reality.
What experiences from your early days still influence your work today?
My time at the Film and Television Institute set the foundation for my development and growth in the sphere of visual sensitivity and design. Even now, it remains a source of inspiration and impetus for learning. For this I owe my masters who taught me and instilled in me the strength and courage to pursue the cinematographic discipline as a profession.
How did you make the transition to professional work?
I ventured into the film industry in Mumbai after college. Initially, I worked on short films, then gradually documentaries. My first feature film, 27 Down, was produced in black and white. It was a major professional commitment, which did unnerve me initially, but through the experience I gained confidence. For that I won a National Award for Best Cinematography.
What are your feelings about the relationship between cinematographers and directors?
In the filmmaking process, the relationship between the director and cinematographer is the most vital one in the course of the evolution of its creative expression. Being two different persons with varied individuality and at the same time applying through a unified vision, is the most challenging application. It is in fact an act of transcendence.
Can you give an example of how you approached a particular project that was creatively satisfying to you?
A project generally deals with an idea and its inherent complexity. To understand its problem, one needs to pose questions to find the basic character of the problem, the dramatic element governing the problem, and the dynamic viewpoint of the problem. These will help in grasping the mood and accordingly one can assimilate, design and deduce the technical feasibility in its simplest form and yet achieve the right perceptive nuances. This also helps in setting the style, rhythm, harmony, grace and pace of the visual language.
At times the nature of authenticity helps in presenting the dimension of its impact on the audience. For example, in 1973 when I was shooting my first feature film 27 Down in black and white, the theme of the film was crafted through middle-class sensibility acting across the demanding cosmopolitan reality. In order to present a stark reality and its dynamics, I decided to use only block lenses to capture the sharp authentic images in the form of candid reality, with the support of raw stock, which could give the required starkness and contrast to present the illusion of an earthly tone. Also by limiting the block lenses to a few selected focal lengths, I aimed for an integrated and disciplined visual character. It was a tough decision, considering the wild, unpredictable locations and the candid mobility which the subject demanded. Though it was ridden with risks it was accomplished with satisfaction.
How have advancements in technology – for example, film stocks, lenses, camera mounts, digital post production, etc. – changed the way you shoot a project?
Technology has advanced immensely in the last decade. From a historical perspective, it has been noticed that the scientific innovation and subsequent technological advancements act as an impetus for the changing phenomenon in a society. Similarly, filmmaking - being an extension of a civilized social culture - has picked up the traits in presenting a powerful look to its expression. Film is able to find access to areas where it tends to be un-imagined. The digital imaging technology, and especially the digital post-production, has become the most influencing system in guiding the mind of the film creator.
But there arises a dilemma, in that the filmmaker can fall prey to the tantalizing gimmicks of the technology. In a way, the virtue can also become a vice. Ultimately, it is the knowledgeable and cultured human sensitivity which will set the true value of technology.
What part does filmmaking play in popular culture?
An image is a symbol of a wealth of information. It is very direct, clear and revealing. This is a language that is universal and its impact is beyond any cast, creed and geography. Thus, it plays an important role in sensitizing the mind. At the same time, to appreciate the moving image and its merit, it requires an enriched mind to delve into its depth. It always is an indefatigable effort of the filmmaker to enrich the audience and in the process effect a civilized culture.
If a non-filmmaker were to ask you what a cinematographer does, how do you explain it?
The cinematographer is a sensitive being who uses light to create an illusion of reality, instead of just copying it.
What advice do you have filmmakers just entering the field today?
Anyone who aspires to pursue the disciplines of filmmaking needs to stay connected to the original self, which holds the power of imagination and the beauty of intuition. He or she should also have the courage to explore the truth by being honest, sincere and dedicated.