Smriti Kiran: She is one of the best still photographers in the industry, but photography was not Ishika Mohan Motwane’s passion. Her father, an air force pilot, is an avid photographer, so Ishika grew up with cameras around her. After dabbling with wanting a career as a pilot, a marine biologist, working on the side as a part-time dog walker, she left to study photography at Santa Monica College in 1998. That is where the learning and curiosity began. She kept going back for multiple semesters to experiment with technique, form and formats. In the middle of this semester, she even managed a small working stint with leading photographer Atul Kasbekar. Her course in Santa Monica College and the work stints in between gave her a solid foundation to build something on.
She came back and took on small assignments that came her way. But everything changed when in 2001 Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who was making Devdas at the time, called her to come on his sets. Nearly two decades later, she continues to find joy being in the centre of the on set madness. She has shot for top of the line projects like Devdas, Veer-Zaara, Slumdog Millionaire, Million Dollar Arm, Wake Up Sid, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ta Ra Rum Pum, Udaan, Phillauri, NH10, Lootera, Sacred Games, Extraction, and also has a long-standing portrait series with Platform Magazine.
Ishika, you’re the first still photographer to come on the series. I’m so happy that we are starting with you, I’ve always been fascinated by the work that you do. Very few people know that you’re also an actor – you did a brilliant short film, Awake, directed by Atul Mongia. I wanted to begin by asking you what does a still photographer do on a film set?
“Still photography is essentially about bringing out an emotion of a film for the first time before the teasers and trailers.”
Ishika Mohan Motwane: Primarily, photographers on set started off on a very basic note, at least over here. Of course, you had brilliant photographers who were documenting Satyajit Ray’s films and that era. Then it slowly started becoming more about documentation for continuity: you had photographers coming on board to make sure that your set stayed the same if you had to reshoot the scene, or when there was patchwork to do. They began to be known as continuity photographers, and their job was to essentially document images for continuity for the entire film schedule. Slowly, it started changing.
Being a continuity photographer, you started doing a little more. There was a little more importance given to stills on set — a lot later over here than what was being done internationally — when images from the set started being used for PR, publicity, and eventually, even posters.
It’s essentially about documenting the film. It’s about having the first look out there. In the end, you’re also bringing out the emotion of the film for the first time to the audience – before the teasers and trailers. You always have a first look – it’s about bringing that out for them to see what the film is about; to get the emotion there.
At least, that’s the way I look at it. I was luckily not needed for continuity. I came at a time when I didn’t even know the whole continuity thing existed; I also really didn’t like the idea of it because I didn’t want to just document a napkin or a staircase on set. I came in at a time when things were changing. I was lucky to have Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) as my first director on a feature film, who said, ‘Just come. We’ll see kya hota hai.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. So, I asked Vik (Vikramaditya Motwane), ‘What am I supposed to do?’
I went in with a camera; I eventually found my way and realised how important it was to have an image that represented the film.
Smriti Kiran: Coming to your first project, Devdas, which was one of the biggest projects at that point in time and you were working with some of the biggest names. What were the first ten days like, and what was the brief given to you?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: There was no brief. That’s what I’m saying: I came at a time when I was lucky to not get a brief. Sanjay had enough issues of his own to make the film; giving me a brief was the last of his concerns.
I remember going on set with my two cameras and a bunch of rolls — at that time I was shooting film. I was extremely nervous going on that film set because I had never been on one before; I hadn’t been exposed to the world of film production. With Atul (Kasbekar), I was a little exposed to publicity shoots, which were done afterwards. But being in a big space with so many people, having responsibility, and realising that maybe this was something that was expected of me to deliver was a little daunting. I actually had no idea, which became my strength because I had to find my own way. I was extremely nervous and shy because I found out that Binod Pradhan was shooting and I was like, ‘I love Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. There’s no way I’m standing with the camera next to him because he’s going to be like, ‘Aise pakadta hai koi?’’
So, I used to hide behind places and stand at the back. I used to be more of an observer, in terms of watching what was going on and figuring my way. I just didn’t want to be in the way. That was my biggest fear: being in the way. There’s a camera, lights, and so much equipment, and everybody’s really possessive about their equipment. They’d be like, ‘Ye light ko mat hatao,’ or ‘Don’t sit on that box! That’s the lenses.’ I would wonder what to do. Should I just go and plaster myself on a wall somewhere? That’s where the whole thing became about me trying to be invisible or inconspicuous while doing my job – without being in the way, without being heard and without being seen.
I kept away from the stars because I didn’t know how to react or have a relationship with them. I would just quietly keep doing my work from the circumference, and slowly find my way maybe under something or in between a chaddar – wherever I wasn’t visible.
Smriti Kiran: We have a photograph of you coming from under the table! A still photographer can come out of anywhere.
When you were finding your way around that invisibility, there had to be some effort from your end to find a comfort level so that you could capture them in moments that you wanted to capture them in. How did you find your feet as a professional, and what are the things that you learned when you were working on Devdas?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I like documenting, to begin with. I came with that love of going out on the street or going randomly to someplace and then documenting it in a very photojournalistic way. I also thought I’d be doing wildlife photography somewhere, maybe at National Geographic. I always wanted to take things on the fly. I always wanted to catch a moment. For me, that was important, and that was the thing that I liked as a photographer. That’s what grabbed my attention, and that’s what differentiated that image from a regular image. Sometimes, you capture a moment which spoke a lot more to you and stayed a lot longer – that’s what I tried to implement on the set. It was about documenting this film, knowing what the film was about.
“I was lucky to have Sanjay Leela Bhansali as my first director. On Devdas, I realised how important it was to have an image that represented the film.”
I also started enjoying a lot of working stills. I realised that the making of a feature film was super interesting because there was collaboration and hard work, people doing things behind the scenes, which I felt, if not more important, were equally important to get as the visual on screen. I loved watching that collaboration. Sometimes, there was a certain sense of imagination that came from seeing the cameraman or someone behind the cameraman do something so that they got the shot and the actors were able to perform with ease. There’s lots that goes on a film set that I wanted to document. For me, it was also about getting the moment.
There’s a moment in the song Chalak Chalak, where Shah Rukh goes inside a tunnel and starts coughing, and that’s the first time he spits out blood. He sits down and gets that coughing fit. I was going nuts because I had gear, but it wasn’t the greatest gear: they weren’t the greatest lenses, they weren’t prime lenses, they weren’t fast, so I worked hard to get that shot because if you missed it, you missed it. It wasn’t digital at the time. I couldn’t shoot off that many more images on the fly. It was about getting it at that point.
So, I started pushing a little bit and realised that piche bhi baith ke kuch nahi hone wala hai. You have to find your feet; you have to move in gently; you have to befriend the cinematographer, which happens when you start having a relationship like that on set, where you start making friends, you start getting comfortable and you want to be near the camera. Then people notice you, although you feel super awkward.
I had a long lens during that shot; I got that moment, but it was hard because he was far: he was in a tunnel and there was fog around. If I wanted that moment, I knew I just couldn’t miss it. There was no way I had the guts to go and ask him to do the thing again – cough it out and what not. Even for Ash (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), she had to run down corridors, banging down chandeliers, and I desperately wanted that shot. Now, I was wondering how to ask her that I wanted it? Then I was like, ‘Just ask,’ and so we did it again.
You start building a little courage to get what you want eventually. You realise that you’re on your own; nobody’s going to do it for you. Vik was the associate there but I realised that I could either get in touch with the first AD and tell them that I needed stills, or I could directly ask the actors to reenact it for the stills. I realised it slowly after that; but for Devdas, it was more about getting the moment and documenting it, which were many throughout the film and its making.
Smriti Kiran: Ishika, when somebody enters a film set for the first time, you have to transition from being someone who sees actors on screen to someone who’s going to be documenting the actors. That becomes a very important part in the navigation of a film set. How do you balance work with a certain kind of starstruck-ness, where you forget that these are people who are big actors, and they become only subjects? What is the process of bridging that gap?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: Firstly, if you’re hired for a job, respect it for what it is. That’s what you’re hired for. You’re not hired to come in and be somebody’s pal or be the best of friends with somebody. You’re probably hired because of your work and because of what you can do. For me, that was the key component of staying on that ground. Maybe somewhere people see that and realise that you’re not just playing around, you’re not there to just while away your time, sit around and gossip.
There are some people who do get starstruck. There are some people who do get affected, and sometimes you have difficult directors or actors. I used to be extremely wary of who’s in front. For example, if I’d ever be in Shah Rukh’s eye line, I wouldn’t breathe; I would just be like ‘I’m going to put the camera here, stay still and not budge.’ I just wanted to stand behind a tree and not be visible because I didn’t want to be that person who was in the eye line. Then, eventually, I started asking, ‘Am I in your eye line? Is it a problem if I’m here?’ He’s so seasoned, he’d be like, ‘You’re fine.’ He could just look through me, look into the lens and be okay with it.
“I kept away from the stars because I didn’t know how to react or have a relationship with them. I would just quietly keep doing my work from the circumference, and slowly find my way wherever I wasn’t visible.”
But I know actors can ask me to move on the side. I get that and I understand why that’s there. You are another person to the camera. The cinematographer is behind the lens and the huge camera, but you’re visible. I get that. I had that difficulty with an actor, where I tried to hide behind a pillar, and even tried covering myself with a black blanket; I would hide in places, and yet she could hear it. It just didn’t work.
At that time, I used to use a muzzle — there are these sound boxes that cover your camera today— but I wanted more manoeuvrability in my camera and lens. In terms of that, you just have to work the best you can, and then you have to take the help of the first AD, ask them what they can do for you, how they can help you get the still you want, and they do the talking. Sometimes, on international films, you have publicists on board. If you have trouble, you address it to them. You slowly get comfortable with it. I do know of some photographers who had real trouble. They have had the roughest time and they have nearly been in tears because sometimes you can be spoken to badly or rudely. In those moments, I would keep saying, ‘It’s not you. Don’t take it personally.’ But if it’s really hard, then by all means do what you need to do to make yourself comfortable. You don’t have to go through anything. But if you can, then block it off because it’s not you. It’s something that you have to do. Go ahead, do the job, take the help that you can and you do the best that you can at that time.
That starstruck thing does happen sometimes. Like for Extraction (by Sam Hargrave), we had Chris Hemsworth. He was so easy because he didn’t come with the entourage of I’m-this-person-I’m-a-star. He was just very laid-back in terms of coming through. He even shook my hand and introduced himself. And I was like, ‘Okay. Hi, I’m Ishika. Nice to meet you!’ There are some people who break the ice and come across as really easy. But of course, it is daunting; you have to find that balance and get what you need for your shot. I would definitely say that take the help of anybody on set to get the stills that you need. If you can’t, then that’s a production call.
Smriti Kiran: What were the learnings from Devdas that you incorporated in the equipment you carried and your manner on set for Veer-Zaara?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: For both of them, I was still shooting film. For Devdas, I had a very low budget. I think it was just one roll per day, or 36 frames, if I got lucky. Then, I would have a black and white camera on another camera body for my working stills, so that I won’t have to share too much. But you were extremely disciplined with the kind of photography that you did on set. You focused on what was important. While there were some things that you felt weren’t as important, you maybe took only one still of it – you didn’t go completely crazy while documenting it. On Devdas there was a certain quota of the film – this is all that you get. I worked with a camera that was essentially manual. I had a basic lens body: the wide to zoom, and the zoom to tele, between 20-300. None of them were really fast lenses, which meant that shooting in the dark was really hard. I had to make sure that my shutter speed was faster because I needed to get people in focus, especially during night sequences.
I realised at some point that I needed to up my game in terms of faster films, better lenses, and maybe a more automated sort of body. Strangely enough, there was also a meter which you could take your readings with. When I was on the manual, I would read it to get a faster shutter speed.
I still shot film on Veer-Zaara (by Yash Chopra). I probably had access to more rolls for the day, and I got a little more access to anything else that I needed. If there was a certain sequence that required me to get another lens, I had that access. If I’m not wrong, between the two of them I had the same gear. I just had a lot more access to rolls.
I also did a lot more working stills on Devdas than the imagery of the feature film, just out of my own thing. When I see it now, I see that I had a lot more black and white stills than I had colour negatives or transparencies.
On Veer-Zaara I had to consciously do the opposite: make sure I got the film stills. I made sure that I got a lot more of what the story is about, the essences, what Yash ji wanted from the film, what he was so passionate about, everything like that. There was a lot more documentation of the film itself. That’s what I took from Devdas to Veer-Zaara. Equipment-wise I don’t think I changed anything the same year.
After that, I moved to digital, which meant that I needed to buy another body. You don’t have the access and the money to just say, ‘I want this, so let’s buy it.’ We used to shoot in the day, and sometimes Vikram and I would share a roll of film, Velvia, which was for 540 rupees. We’d buy it and share it on the day of shoot. You didn’t have that much to go and shoot the whole day on Velvia. Slowly you started upgrading and realising that you needed to move with the times, of looking a little more. I don’t think we used Google to check any other person’s work as such. But you knew of other photographers, you’d heard of them, you saw some of their work around – whether it was in the paper or as part of the publicity or PR of another film. You knew what was going on, what other people were doing as well. You tried to move towards that, and you did it with what you could.
“For me, the main distinction between analog and digital is pure discipline.”
Once digital happened, I took a camera that was basic for me, that I could afford. But when it comes to publicity, there’s a big talk about which camera will work, if it is too big or small, iska megapixel bohot kam hai, all of that. Those are battles that you fight along the way, and then you do what you can. If you can’t, then it’s gone – that time is gone. But if you have people who really believe in you, they are willing for you to take a run.
On Veer-Zaara, they also gave me the entire publicity shoot for the film. I didn’t own a studio, I didn’t own lights, I didn’t own medium format cameras, yet they gave that to me. They gave me that opportunity and said that this was my baby; that I’d done the entire film and deserved to take this home. We did that. It was my first publicity shoot, where I got to hire the studio. It was a massive setup. I don’t think I slept for a few nights. But they let me do it. They made me do it. They got everything done. They had that faith and confidence in me that I could pull it off. That was my first big change to publicity stills, and being able to do that as well.
So, you keep moving as well. Now, you’re so much more aware of technology and cameras changing. I haven’t gotten a camera in years. I’m petrified of buying a camera and knowing that another one is on the market.
Smriti Kiran: Are the still photographers on set expected to get all the equipment on their own or do they also have the possibility to ask production for things that they feel they might need but don’t want to purchase?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: There’s a lot more friendly banter about the possibilities of what you need beforehand. You can say that since it is this kind of film, I’d need this, this and this. Therefore, this is my budget. Initially, you came with the gear you had. Sometimes, you may have even lost out on a job because you didn’t have what they thought was appropriate or what was needed for that job. I might have these requirements, but the cost of the film is theirs totally. That’s not my cost – that’s production’s cost. That’s their buy-in. But of course, if I needed something, I could ask for it.
On Ta Ra Rum Pum (by Siddharth Anand), again, my camera got outdated. I realised that I needed a nice, good glass, and nice stencils. After doing two-three features, I realised that this was a big thing missing in my images. I could sense the clarity. I brought it forward. I wrote to YRF saying that they had to invest in a camera as it was important for studios to have their own cameras. So, I gave them a laundry list of things to buy. I said that I’d use them for the film after which they could then keep it.
It worked for them. They needed it. They were in-house. They were a studio. They had enough people coming in, enough projects coming in, so we did invest in one camera – two basic lenses and a camera body – bought it and used it. After the shoot, I, of course, gave it back to them. Then, there were other photographers who were using it. There’s no loss in that. It’s a good move. You’re giving them images in a quality that they would like. You come to that conjunction.
Now, it’s a lot more inbuilt in your budget. If we’re doing a feature film, I know I require these lenses, and the equipment which I’d need to rent, this is what I’m assuming would be my cost, so along with my fee, my budget cost comes into place as well for this time period.
Sometimes, we also do headshots on set. We did a couple of them for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (by John Madden), where we took the actors outside, did a couple of shots in daylight because there was no time for them to do publicity still shoots later on. They were flying back to England. You make do with what you can. I also did it in another film, where there was a small room dedicated to headshots. I had my equipment on one end of the room, and the actors were quickly ushered in and the shots were taken. That’s all doable. Enough people know that it’s production-friendly enough to maybe do this simultaneously. And if it is so, we could very easily use stills from the film itself instead of recreating the entire scene later. So, it works both ways.
Smriti Kiran: Working with analog is completely different from working with digital. Analog came with a certain discipline – you couldn’t go trigger happy with an analog camera because of the budget and the number of resources available to you. What is it that you miss about analog — if you miss anything at all — as opposed to digital, and do you still shoot analog at times?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I still have a roll in my film camera. It hasn’t gone beyond probably the tenth frame as yet. I love to shoot analog still. I don’t have the discipline to do it right now, though I really, really want to.
For me, the main distinction between analog and digital is just pure discipline. With analog, you’re a lot more focused about what your needs are, you’re more disciplined about the order of the day and restricting yourself to the allocated quota for the day, be it 36 frames, 2 or 3 rolls. That gives you complete control and helps you be more immersed in what you’re doing. You’re not clicking anything and everything you see under the sun. There’s a much focused, streamlined way of approaching the entire project. That’s what I miss.
Then there is digital: automation, faster bursts of frame, projects that are different and action-oriented, and the technology is changing everywhere, so you have to keep up with that and if you want to make sure you get that image or document that image, you know you’ll do anything. So you’re shooting that much more with digital. I go nuts after a point. Who’s going to come back and sort through 400-800 images – on a mad day a 1000 images – and reject and rate each one of them? It’s a lot of hard work. I miss that about film. I miss having that quiet discipline of being more focused. I also feel that you’re quieter.
Smriti Kiran: Do you try to bring the same discipline of analog to the way you shoot digital? Is it possible to do that?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I don’t think it is possible. I try. I always go in on the day and I’m like, ‘Today is the day when I will not shoot more than this.’ And I have come back on some days being in control, or what I have tried to do is I’ll click everything: lights, shoelaces, whatever. And then I’ve told myself, ‘Calm down. Who’ll see the shoelaces? Only you.’ I’ve started doing that to myself now. I’ve started realising the amount of work it takes to just streamline these images and sort them out, and say that boss itna time bhi nahi hai. So, that streamlining has started happening.
But it’s just not possible for me to come home with only 36 frames anymore unless I have fallen asleep on set or it has been a really bad day. Sometimes you have bad days on set, where you’re shooting and you don’t get more than 50-100 images. There are those days, but otherwise, it is very hard for me to not shoot that much.
I even start deleting them on set at times. ‘Let’s be smart about this. What are we looking for?’ I start breaking it down on set while I can, or in the car, or while taking backup.
Smriti Kiran: We spoke about how a still is the first image out of a film that anybody processes, that it will set some kind of expectation, mood, or evoke some kind of a feeling in you about the film. Things began to change for people who were doing still photography on the set when people started finding a proper place in the production pipeline, where it became extremely important for the still photographer to get the script to get a sense of the tonality. When did you start to see that change come in where suddenly it was important for the still photographer to be in on the action?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I wasn’t given the script during Devdas. Veer-Zaara was just Yash Chopra telling me ki main film bana raha hoon toh tu kar. The Forest (by Ashvin Kumar), I was given the script of. It was a two-month schedule in Corbett. Obviously, you want to make sure that you’re smart, and you cut costs where you can. You realise which days are not great for shooting stills. It’s not needed, it’s not viable. But some days are. I was given the script to read so that I could make sense of when I would be needed, when I would come back home, and when I would make a trip to the set. I made two trips. The Forest was the first film where I got a chance to read the script.
Slumdog Millionaire was the other one, where Danny (Boyle) gave me the script and asked me to read it. I said, ‘Is this for me? Can I take this home? I’ll get to read the script?’ He asked, ‘Why is everybody saying that?’ I said, ‘Because we don’t really get scripts to read. We are photographers. Bas aao aur shoot karo.’ But he told me to read it and to let him know what I thought. That was the first time I had met someone who was open to sharing work. People are very possessive about their work over here in terms of stories, somebody will have an impression about it before, or somebody will say something about it. That’s why people don’t give it out, possibly, or they don’t think you’re important enough to be given the script. ‘What will you do with it? You’re a photographer. You just have to come on set and click pictures.’
Post Slumdog is when I started getting scripts and also started asking for them because I felt it was important for me to be passionate about the projects that I was taking up. I didn’t want to do something just because of kaam mil raha hai toh karein. I wanted to be excited about it, I needed to be engaged. It’s very hard to be on set and be a happy photographer documenting if you’re not interested in the project. What are you going to document? What are you going to get out of the picture, whether it’s a story, whether it’s an emotion, a moment or a scene? Something has to grab you to do something. For me, that’s what it started becoming. So, I slowly started reading.
I realised that when I read certain scripts, I started breaking them down in my head in terms of which scenes to document, when is a good day for me to come on set, when I should change my lenses for that day, or hire different glasses, or get a tighter lens, or whatever the requirement was.
I started using it as a sort of scheduling tool to help me be able to do the best that I could on that day. Sometimes, you want to do a project but you can’t do all the days. You then put it forward that why don’t I come for ten days and get the images for sure. ‘I’ll make sure that you have the best images for those ten days that I’m there.’ You are also starting to sell yourself and your work, and what you can do for a project based on that.
Smriti Kiran: Generous collaborators and directors really help because I remember Danny Boyle sent you a beautiful message because he was really happy with the work that you did. He actually wrote to you and said that your stills helped them sell the film.
Ishika Mohan Motwane: That was really cool. That was the first time I realised stills could do that. I knew that Devdas went to Cannes with copies of this beautiful brochure that they made for distribution there, and everybody kept talking about that brochure. This was something that I didn’t know existed, or that stills could be used to this level. I used to just shoot the images, colour correct them and upload them for viewing so that they got a feel of what I was doing on set, and whether I was looking at the film in the right way or not. Was I approaching it a certain way that I shouldn’t? I would do that simultaneously sometimes.
But Slumdog, too, made a brochure, and he said that I’d helped sell the film. That was not needed, but it felt really cool. It was lovely. So that’s the first time that I realised images can do that. Images can get eyeballs, images can tell a story, images can give an emotion. It’s also not moving, it’s still. That was the first time I realised that the first look can bring that excitement or awareness about a feature film.
Smriti Kiran: Ishika, you’ve worked a lot with Vikramaditya Motwane, a filmmaker who also happens to be your husband. You have also worked on films with other people. Once you gained significant experience, what are the first few things that you started doing on set, especially when you do not know the team at that point in time, to gather confidence and a comfort level so that you could do your job well?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: It’s definitely not the same. When I’m working on a film with him, it’s home ground. I have a lot more leeway in the sense that I keep asking the AD if I can take a shot here or there. They would just tell me, ‘You’re going to in any case. Why are you even asking?’
When you’re on another feature film, and you’re finding your footing, staying true to the reason you’re there for, staying very honest and grounded really helps. Like I mentioned earlier, you’re there to do a job. You have to have that in mind. You have to keep that as the key thing. If I want to go somewhere if I want to get my footing there, how do I warm up to these people? Who are they? Do they know others? These are questions I like to find answers to. That happens sometimes on international projects. They have a different way of working.
‘Are you encroaching?’ ‘Are you one of them or not?’ It’s a feeling that you have to gauge – the tension, the people. So, I would always take it slow. I would never impose myself on anybody. If I couldn’t get something, and I thought it was important, only then would I go and tell them that I really thought this still was important, and if I may have it. I would go through proper channels to get it.
“People don’t think you’re important enough to be given the script. ‘What will you do with it? You’re a photographer. You just have to come on set and click pictures.’”
There are ways to do it and ways to transition into the team. You move in your own way. You make sure that you get your standing for the job without pushing the wrong buttons, especially on the first day when things are going to be high, and your director is not going to be available. There’s a lot of those things going on. You can’t just sit and be like ‘I want, I want, I want.’ It’s about assessing the temperament of everyone around you, and watching yours as well; being a little slow into getting your feet wet. That’s what I would do. I know other people who would do the opposite.
If it is a hard shoot, with 50 degrees heat, and there are action sequences, you have to figure out what this crew is about: who is the boss, who is taking charge, where is your comfort zone, who can you liaison with, is the DOP friendly enough, can you get into that zone, and how is the first AD, since they are always grumbling. It’s hard for everybody. All of them are trying to go through the day. You’re just one person. Everybody makes fun of me by saying that you’re the head of your own department. It’s you who is the sole person making the day, making what works for you. It’s what I would do. Normally, I would warm-up and gauge who are my people.
Smriti Kiran: Does getting to know the script and having conversations with the DOP, the sound person, the first AD, having a rapport with them help in also having an innate sense of which moments to catch?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: For sure. You do your homework, in any case, so you know what’s there. I used to be the annoying one asking, ‘When are we doing that scene?’ and feeling like I have to be prepared for it. But you want to get into the zone, you don’t want to miss it.
There was an action sequence in Extraction for which they prepped for half the day in order to shoot. It involved a cop car chasing and then rolling. Now, they’d been practising for five months already, so their sense of prep work was phenomenal. They’d done the roads and they knew the sequences. There was a safety guy on set who said that nobody was allowed to be anywhere in the vicinity of the action. So, I was like, ‘Shot toh chahiye, abhi kya karu?’
I went on top of a bridge, which had a railway track, and squatted there for three hours. I had even taken a plant to camouflage myself – I just realise how absurd it sounds. One of the ADs did know I was up there. I told him that I’d be there for the next three hours, and every time I would get up to stretch my back while they were prepping, I would hear, ‘Who’s there!’ I’d go hide down again.
So you really prep for that, or you hide. You safeguard yourself to get the shot that you need and you make sure you know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen, so now prepare. Obviously, for that one, I had a long lens, ready and aimed for it. I made sure my battery was full and the cards that I had were intact. You have to gauge what is important and make sure you’re ready for that.
Smriti Kiran: Everyone’s crazy about black and white, and you’re one person who loves colour. What does black and white bring to the table as opposed to colour, and how does one take that call of going with either?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I love both. I think, sometimes, black and white can be an easy way to hide the floor or the distractions that are there, and make an image prettier because it starts narrowing things down and moving things that are not of concern, or those that are popping into your frame, away. It narrows the entire frame down to your subject.
Having said that, the image has to work for being in black and white. There are times that I’ve shot something in colour with the intention of taking it back to black and white in post, and then it hasn’t work. It could be because of how I shot it, the lens that I used, the colour palette that’s working for it in the entire frame, and once I shift it to black and white, it starts to get monotone. It becomes flat, without any reference. It needs to be in colour so that it can tell the story that it is trying to tell. I don’t use film at all now. Most of the stuff I do is during the post.
There are certain images and films that will work in colour, even the working stills. Especially when you’re doing night sequences, they don’t work in black and white unless there is a certain mood that requires it. If I do something that I had originally done in colour in black and white, there would be nothing staring back at me; nothing would be grabbing my attention or highlighting anything. There are the silhouettes, the edge light that you get a sense of, and I’ve tried doing it on some images.
Certain images just work in black and white because sometimes colour can be a distraction. If you want to centre the story and get it down to it, then you take it in black and white and bring about your attention to that particular thing. For Lootera, I have done some working stills in black and white, only because I felt that that image worked better in black and white than in colour because there was too much happening in colour, and so I narrowed it down and centred it by converting it to black and white. Because it is a period film, it also receives primary attention. It evoked the feel of the era; it took you back there. I feel that it ultimately depends on the image that’s there.
Smriti Kiran: You chose not to have an assistant earlier, who would lug your equipment, because you realised that then you would not be invisible anymore. You would not be a fly on the wall. Is that a wise call to take?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: Physically, after all the physiotherapy and yoga sessions, no. For me, it really works. A lot of people ask me if they can assist me. I feel really bad because I don’t know how to say that I work on my own. I lug the 12-15 kgs on me every day. There’s a certain way which I like working in so that I can move around freely. I don’t want to miss the shot, so I’m always on my feet. I have everything on me: my lenses, my extra battery packs, my cards – everything. It’s so that I don’t have to wait or turn away or move away unless there’s a break. But even in the break time, you sometimes find things that are interesting. It was a conscious decision.
It wasn’t a conscious decision early on. It was just the way it was: you were that one person who had that one camera. Slowly, I realised that I could get help and get somebody to lug my stuff for me or keep it on the side, so then I could go and get it. But it just doesn’t work for me. I can’t mingle. I don’t want to be responsible for somebody else. Plus, I’ve always got that thing of what the other person is doing. Is that person staring at one of the actors and being completely starstruck? Then I’d have to do something about it. Are they taking a photo that they shouldn’t be taking on set? Are they following protocols? Are they out of the way, or in the way? All of those are an added responsibility that I don’t want on set. At that point in time, I just think about what I’m here to do. I like to retain my undivided focus on the job. That’s it. I can’t handle anything else. Even looking back, for that matter. I tell people that I have eyes at the back too.
Smriti Kiran: What is the natural progression for a still photographer? Usually, still photographers move to cinematography or advertising. What made you stay?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: The crazy, mad energy of being on set. Even I ask that question to myself sometimes. Earlier on, it’s not like you got paid. You did some things for fifty bucks or two thousand bucks a day, nothing that would make you come out super-rich in the end. You’re not doing it for that.
For me, it was just the energy of watching something coming together. I wanted to be a part of that. I know a lot of photographers move on to cinematography, some get into direction, some of them move into other aspects as well. There’s something about being a part of a team, being a part of so many creative people and projects, being a part of that coming together and having something to do with it, which really pushes me whenever I’m on set, even in the most horrible situations like intense heat, almost on the verge of a sunstroke, dripping with sweat, and asking yourself why you are here. ‘Why have I agreed to do this?’ At the end of the day, when you get that one shot, just that one shot, is when you realise why. This is what makes me happy.
When you watch the film on-screen or every time you watch it, it’s not yours: in the sense, you have not done the costumes, or the hair, or the makeup, or you haven’t been part of the lighting department or any of those technical things, but you are as much a part of that project than you know. It’s that energy and the creative energy of watching this film come together from paper to screen which I find beautiful.
“There’s something about being a part of a team, being a part of so many creative projects and having something to do with it. It really pushes me whenever I’m on set.”
I’ve met such fun and amazing people. So many of them are still some of my closest friends, from the first film onwards. With each film that you do, you take away and learn so much more. Each film teaches you a way to approach the next film. Another film may push you if you’re getting complacent. Suddenly, you start seeing things in a different way, and you realise that I could also shoot this way. But you take to another feature and do it.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve been working for almost two decades now. How do you stay relevant? How do you update yourself and your technique? How do you keep up with technology, with needs, with projects, with circulation?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I don’t think I do as much as I should. Especially post Akira being there, it’s not something that I take up every day. I probably do a film a year, anyway.
It’s that love and it’s that passion for doing what you do. If it’s there, it’ll come to you. You’ll be able to do anything for the next 1500 years if you have that love and passion to get those moments. It makes me happy. For me, to get that one still, or to have somebody say that you helped sell the film, or your images helped sell the film, or to have somebody say that they hate still photographers on set, but you’re really good, and hats off for getting it done and not being in their eye line, or somebody appreciates the images you have taken even after they have grumbled through the entire process of filmmaking and said that you’re fine, you’re perfect, validates the effort and the time that you have given to them or to the project.
To each his own, really. I know there are people who have moved to advertising, people who have moved to other projects and way bigger things, but for me, there’s just that love. I’m sucked in. I’m hooked. It’s very hard to not do it. Some days I think that I’ll do something else, get a little more creative and do something else which is not still photography. The moment I hear about any project, I get intrigued. I ask if I can be a part of it. It’s a challenge, as you grow older, to be able to stay relevant, push yourself and see if you still have it.
There may be films where I feel that I did okay. I didn’t get magic out of it, but I did okay; where I think I’ve given it a hundred percent, but it’s okay. There will be those, and there will be prestigious projects, which will be a feather in the cap. That’s what eggs me on and keeps me going; and the fact that people come back and say that they are doing this and that they think I’d be great doing this instead of that – ‘You should do this, don’t do that.’
When Sacred Games Season 2 was starting, the first schedule was clashing with Extraction. One of the girls came and told me that you should do Extraction and not Sacred Games Season 2 for this section. That felt good. That was a big validation. They were willing to have me as a still photographer, a local rather than having somebody from Australia or UK. That’s what pushes me.
Smriti Kiran: Ishika, you said that what makes you stay and what has made you stick around is that you feel part of the projects that you do, but unfortunately, there’s a culture of poorly crediting the still photographer in films in India. There were so many projects you had worked on that I wasn’t aware of because people were really lax about giving credit. How does that affect one’s sense of belonging? What did you feel about this?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: For Devdas, my name comes in the end credits. When a film releases, the whole family has to go because they have to see the name at the end. They don’t care about the film and what happens in it. Everybody is just there for your name. Since there were so many shows running back to back, and Devdas is a long film, they started cutting the end credits out. There was a huge uproar that happened where everybody was like, ‘How dare you cut it!’ Everybody in the family was like, ‘Oh no! Next show.’ And I was like, ‘That’s just disrespectful.’ When I took it up with the manager of the theatre, he asked me, ‘Madam, did you work on the film?’ I said, ‘That’s not the point!’ That’s what happens. They are looked upon as just a bunch of names and they move on. That’s really sad and disrespectful for anybody. You’ve worked hard, you’ve worked on the film – yes, the HODs are more senior, they may be more permanent – everybody is putting in their hundred percent on the feature film, and you are going to give credit where it is deserved and where it is due.
Even for Million Dollar Arm, again, we went to watch the film, and we were waiting to see my name in the end credits, but it wasn’t there. That was a bit of a shocker. I remember getting in touch with the team and saying that it wasn’t done, that it was very uncool. But, of course, at that point, you’re just shying out from responsibility and pass the buck around. Maybe there has been a genuine mistake because they have come here, they have done a schedule, then somewhere else, but it’s not done nonetheless.
If the stills were printed on any platform, initially it used to be very hard to ask for credit; not because nahi dena hai but why bother putting it? It’s a picture. You would bother writing everything else, a headline, for example, it just takes that much time to write ‘photo by’.
I still do it; I still ask for credit. The problem is that I feel shameless. It is due, but I feel shameless asking for credit. Hopefully, that will change soon. I know there are people who do insist on it. I know Netflix does that. Where it’s due, they do use your name over there. But I’m also making sure that I have it on the contract. Safeguard yourself as much as you can beforehand, and then you can’t blame anyone later for anything. Get your groundwork done as much as you can.
I’m not greedy, but I also wonder why it isn’t on the poster. If it can have the names of the actors, the director, the cinematographer, then why can’t it have ‘photo taken by’ somewhere on it? Why do we not have Best Poster awards?
Smriti Kiran: It’s not greedy. That poster is your image. It’s the one place where the image is. So if you’re asking for it, I don’t think you can call yourself greedy.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Shefali Deshpande: As a photographer, or even as a filmmaker and screenwriter, the goal is usually to be able to tell a story with as little noise as possible: a frame or shot in a film being the smallest unit is meant to convey the emotion, theme, idea or story to the utmost. What is the process behind a photographer or filmmaker reaching the conclusion of using a particular frame/visual to convey the above elements?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing during Devdas. I didn’t know what work I was supposed to do. I remember just going in with the thought of documenting whatever was happening, and working stills was something that I enjoyed doing. I was always observing and looking, and it was something that was new, something that I’d done for the first time.
It also comes from somebody who is seasoned or somebody who’s got that eye or that experience, or has that knowledge in it. I remember Sanjay saying, ‘You come for two days, and do something.’ I went for two days. And then when I showed him some of the images, he said, ‘Stay on.’ Obviously, something that I did resonated with him and worked for him. I knew that good images are sharp, they look good and pretty. I knew when actors and actresses would look good and pretty, or when a moment worked, utna I could gauge.
That experience of him looking at a black and white shot of Shah Rukh standing against a pillar with a bottle, which I had taken in the interim – during the scene layout, during lighting change, Shah Rukh was just there, and it looked very interesting and quiet – showed who Devdas was: he was alone. But I think Sanjay had that experience to say that this is a great image; maybe this should be on the poster and we need to recreate it. I realised at that moment that images can bring about a certain emotion, that it can resonate, and sometimes it may be by chance, and sometimes it might take one person to recognise it. I didn’t know about that initially, but I know he said that.
Then for Veer-Zaara, it was a still of Shah Rukh and Preity (Zinta) hugging, which was taken during a song sequence shot at the fort in Delhi. I remember taking that image and showing it to everyone. Somewhere between Yash ji and Adi (Aditya Chopra) and the publicity company, Fayyaz (Badruddin), they figured that it resonated the love story of the two people: once in love, then separated, and now reunited. That’s when we recreated that image. That’s when I realised how images taken on set can represent a film or an essence or a moment.
I started consciously looking for that on a script basis. I started looking for that in conversations with the director, sometimes even crew members on set. You’re not sure who can be there, who you’re talking to. Sometimes you’re talking to people about what they love about the script or film, and you may find it.
For Lootera, Vikram was really passionate about using on set images rather than recreating them. Actually, we did a full publicity shoot post the film, but it was really violent because it had images of Ranveer catching Sonakshi’s hair and pulling her, which was supposed to convey the passionate love story, and Vik was like that’s not the film. Those little things also sometimes come from the director, and if they are open enough and passionate enough to have that conversation with you, you can also bring it up, whether it’s the producer, whether it’s the director, and say that this is what you’re thinking. For Lootera, the scene where Pakhi falls sick in the car, which is on a winding road, where the isolation of these two people who are finally brought together by circumstance, caught in this moment – moving from the time that he had been avoiding her and she had been curious and flirty – with the love and attraction now obvious, became one of the poster shots. We actually, at that time, didn’t realise that it would be something that could be used in the poster, but something about it made Vik and I realise that this was it. We both looked at it, took a brief pause of 15-20 minutes, then I got my tripod out and increased the light a little bit more, and took the shot.
Sometimes as a photographer, you feel very intimidated asking for that time or asking for a little more light or what you think if something doesn’t happen. It’s okay to take that chance and ask. You never know what might happen. You might get shut down and told that there is no time, grab what you get, or you might have somebody supportive enough to say that you’re right, let’s do this, maybe we can quickly set up somewhere else while you do this. That happened. It does work out at times. While you’re shooting you recognise something that is giving you that. For a lot of films, it becomes like that. Sometimes you recognise onset immediately, and then sometimes you sense that maybe on the script level, you’ll be able to get that, where you feel that what is written would be a good image to capture.
On Sacred Games, for example, we were not sure what would be there, but that shot of Saif with the gun and that blood splatter eventually became the first look. I thought it would have been another image of him in a tunnel, bandaged up and holding the gun. But the one that resonated as an entire look, which I thought could be there, the one that actually happened, was more dramatic – straight-faced and blood splatter – which stayed with the series, and was synonymous with it.
It will come with time and by doing a lot of shoots. You can certainly try something, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. It may even be the absolute opposite of what you may think. There are times when it doesn’t work, like I remember for Ta Ra Rum Pum, I wanted a silhouette shot of Saif in a tunnel, where he is shown to be entering the stadium to get back to the field. I remember when the team was looking at the teaser shot, I was wishing that we’d used this as a teaser, which brought about the emotion of who he was to the fore. It was also unknown and mysterious. But the studio didn’t want that. They wanted something more commercial, more bright and visible. You go with it and use the discards for your portfolio later.
Pawan Khade: I’ve often seen you on sets with a two-camera setup. What’s the equation: is it one prime and one zoom setup? Also, how do you make your decision when you see the moment since it is in the fraction of a second time frame?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: Essentially, it’s not always a wide or a zoom. Sometimes, I’m not that smart, and I don’t safeguard myself like that, but what I do is hang around to see what the next setup is. Before we get into filming, I see what the next set up is. I see rehearsals if I’m allowed to and if I can. If I can’t, I hang from the tarafa, or I’ll go somewhere else where I can see something or hear something; or once the rehearsals are up, I’ll go and ask somebody about what happened, who was where, what is the equation, what was the camera movement and understand what the scene was, then preempt what I think I might need for the take. I do this little homework in advance, which is why I have all these aches and pains because I’m not really sitting on set, and I don’t really go away. Sometimes, I’m always present to see and hear what might be happening so that I don’t miss out on anything, because everything happens in a second.
I’ll also shoot rehearsals. Sometimes, the actors aren’t ready: some will have a clip on their hair or something else that won’t be the costume. I shoot it to get a sense of what the action is, what’s the movement, what’s the emotion, so that I know where or what I can be prepared for lens-wise. Sometimes, I have one body and I have other lenses in my system, so after one take and before we go in for the second one, I would literally switch my lens around before the take starts. I’m a little desperate like that, but you have to be a little quick, you have to gauge and preempt. It comes with a lot of practice and rehearsal. You also get a sense of what you might need to do.
Priyanka Shah: As still photographer on set, do you pre-plan a mood or an aesthetic you want your images to have or do you focus on individual moments that take place amidst the chaos and build the aesthetic along the way or post-shooting?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: It changes from project to project. If it’s a film with Vikram, he’s home with me, because we talk a lot about what he’s planning, I’m in his head. I know what he’s looking for. I know what he’s striving for. At least, while I’m getting into it, I already visually get a sense of what I want to do with it in terms of the approach, maybe the kind of lenses I would use. I’m always listening to what gear the camera department is using for the scene. Sometimes they go in with a lot of lenses that are flaring, then I know that there’s some drama to that. So I go in with that intention of making sure that I get some of that in some of the shots, because flare means focus, means background – all of that. There’s a lot at stake, but when you get it, it really works for you. If I’m able to know what the camera department and director and the DOP are trying to do with the film, it gives me a lot more of an advantage before we shoot or even on set. There’s that aspect of documenting on shoot.
While I’m shooting, also, there’s a sense of the way I’m exposing, which is not always what the DOP is doing sometimes. If I keep doing what he’s doing, I might have dark images with nothing to see, and then it’s really hard to lift it up. You’ve got grains, you’ve got shadows, how much are you even going to lift it up if the visibility is really low. There’s a sense of finding the ways to work around it, how you can get that image to maybe work on a still basis, which may look different as a moving image. I might lift it up a little more. I might expose differently. I also have a sense of the colour grading. I love colour correcting a lot of my images myself. I do. That’s because I’ve gone in shooting it the way I wanted it to look.
I come back and play around a little bit on my laptop; sift through the images to see what works. I take it this way and I take it that way. So, I play around with a lot of that as well on my own. In some cases, if I don’t know, and if I’m going on a set for a project and figuring it out, I would do the same. I listen in on the conversations about the gear that they are using, what camera, etc.
Now, with digital there’s a lot more that you can play with on post, aesthetically, but initially, when I was shooting film, I would find out what film stock the cameraman was using, what light is he shooting in – is it tungsten, is it day or night – because otherwise, I would end up with the wrong film for the wrong light condition, and my grade would be completely off. That used to be one thing that you had to be aware of and had to take stock of.
Film was different. Film you had to scan; you could still use a computer to play around with, or then on the process of printing, where we’d be in the darkroom and change around as much as we could.
Knowing the tone is also quite important. I remember I did a song sequence for a film once. I graded the images a certain way and showed them to the director, who loved it. He said, ‘I’m going to shoot the entire film like this.’ It’s interesting to have an opinion, to know what you want to do as well. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
Siddharth Diwan: What kind of light levels do you expect from the DOP?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: I just want light. Not darkness, just light. They are just really hard. Sometimes I don’t even have the dial. Earlier your ISO could only go to 3200 or 6400. How much more could you even take it up? Now, of course, with digital, you can take it up a lot more. But there are times when I’ve pushed up to three stops while shooting on film. Just get me a little light, where I’m not shooting under 1.2, where I’m breaking the bank trying to open up the lenses as much while shooting in the dark. 2 would be amazing! It would be glorious. 2 would be sunshine.
Kanav Kapoor: How do you differentiate between the actor and the character that they are playing while clicking stills on set?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: Really interesting question because actors can switch on and off so fast. There are times that you’d be shooting, and the moment there’s a cut, they’d be off – they wouldn’t be the character anymore. But a really good actor will do that for you. As I was saying earlier, you are there for the prep work, you are there for the take, so that you can get what you can while filming is going on simultaneously, as long as you’re not disrupting shoot or causing any problem.
The other thing that you can do is ask. You set it up with the first AD a little later, and you ask them to recreate that moment for stills. You don’t have camera rolling, but you say, ‘Can we do this again for stills?’ Now, one is you can do just the pose, where the actors come together and hold the pose, whatever it may be, looking at each other, kissing or fighting. That’s where the character is not there. It’s the actor. So you have to actually ask them and get your AD to help you to say if we can recreate that moment. You run by the scene again, if you can, run by the part that you want, and ask them to go through it, and the dynamics of the scene, again, for the stills. So you move with them. Of course, if it’s an action sequence, something a lot more in motion, then you’ll have to be prepared to move around a little bit, but if it is something just static, you stand by, say action, and then the actors perform. Something like this is difficult. It’s on the fly. They are going to throw me off the set if I ask them to do this again.
For an action sequence in a film, I was really going mad because there was a camera on the other side looking in the direction from where a bike was to come out, and a second camera that looked in the direction of the first camera. I tried hiding behind the second camera because if the second camera came in the frame, they’d see ki uske piche photographer hai, so I at least wouldn’t get killed first. Hence you safeguard yourself and keep your distance.
The other thing is to recreate the scene. Ask them if they can go through the entire process again. We did that a couple of times with Ranveer (Singh) and Sonakshi (Sinha) for a fight sequence they were doing. Sometimes there are too many people on set: there’s a cameraman, there’s a sound guy, there’s a focus puller, there’s a grip fellow, making sure the camera guy doesn’t fall, and the director is there behind the monitor, and sometimes you’re doing a 360-degree motion. I get laughing fits when I’m doing 360-degree. It’s funny. Everybody’s running round and round, so how much are you going to hide. At some point, you just keep the camera over your head as you take your shots and hope that you aren’t caught in the melee. You’re going to have to find your way eventually and ask them to recreate it. Sometimes they’ll do that. If you can, you just ask them if we could try it another way, or a little slower, or a little more subtly. They’d realise that it’s not them acting it out or getting into character, per se, but if they are really good actors and they are keen to perform, as some of them love stills, they would do it again for you, and give it a hundred percent, replete with the feelings. But some you’ll know when they won’t.
Genesia Alves: Do you find yourself constructing a parallel narrative while a director is telling another story? Would you consider using that theme for an exhibition one day? Also, was there a still photographer whom you were judging on the sets of Awake that you acted in?
Ishika Mohan Motwane: You’re totally spot on! It’s been on my mind for the last couple of years. I keep thinking about having an exhibition. When they were doing one for the hundred year anniversary of cinema in India, I thought of doing it then. But I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have that many pictures. I need to do more work before I get there.’ I do think that I have an interesting and different body of work in terms of the working stills.
There are a couple of things that happen. One is film stills, which is purely different. You have to look at it a certain way, and sometimes to make it interesting you try to make it your own; you are going a different direction, you are not where the cinematographer is. So that’s your inner challenge – that you want to keep pushing and you want to get something that’s different. That is one narrative that you’re trying to do.
The other one is working stills. For me, it is joyous and beautiful to document working stills, and look at them year after year after year, because you get to know the team, you get to know what’s gone into the making of the film, what was somebody’s state of mind at that time. You suddenly realise that that one was having a bad day. All these things make sense later. You see things through a different eye. That’s the narrative that I’m looking at: of revisiting and rediscovering. For me, to visit an image, again and again, means it’s working. That is something that I look towards when I’m shooting working stills.
It’s not just about a great shot. I have also mentally started doing a series, where, say, I want to do silhouettes. Fun things have happened by chance, which I have caught in silhouette, and slowly I start feeling as if I can get everybody in silhouettes. You don’t realise it, but subconsciously through your films, you just start getting actors in silhouettes.
Or you’ve got people in the mirrors. Mirrors are great reflections of people and who they are. That’s another one that is a really interesting way to look at people and to see their focus and their concentration and their real self. So I think that’s definitely something that I want to do in the future. And I will!
Funnily enough, on our short film, we didn’t have a photograph on set because I was taking working stills from a phone half the time. I was having fun doing that. I did have a photographer at my wedding who was very stressed. He kept saying, ‘Madam, ye thik hai?’ I had told him strictly that if there was an issue with the light or composition then he’d have it from me. He was so scared. I just told him to stay in the background and not come close.
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