It was the early 2000s. Ishika Mohan Motwane was on a flight from London, leaning over Yash Chopra who had a window seat, trying to take photos of the cotton clouds below. She had no idea whose private space she was encroaching; she rarely watched Hindi films. That she is a photographer was evident; that he is India's premier film-maker, the chiffon and champagne showman, would become evident in a while. Introductions were made, phone numbers exchanged, they parted ways. A year and a half later, she got a call from him, asking her to come to his office. The shooting of Veer Zaara would commence soon, and Chopra wanted Motwane to shoot stills on the set.
Walking dogs, studying whales and dolphins in the sun-kissed shores and rose tinted piers of Santa Monica, Motwane meandered till she fell into photography. She happened to take a class on the basics – how to pick up and hold a camera, exposure, aperture. It was all on film, processed in black and white, theory and experimentation. She thought she would shoot wildlife, tigers, and whales.
It is not hard to see the allure of photographing Bollywood. Fawzan Hussain had been capturing the industry in images for 12 years for his passion project – a coffee table book, The Silver Screen and Beyond. In the book he has stills of Katrina Kaif foregrounding the Gateway of India, MF Husain painting on set with Tabu overlooking, shots from Dev, Munnabhai, and even Sanam Re.
"I wanted to see Bollywood with my own vision. I entered the sets to do a book, and once the book was done, I was out of Bollywood."
Yet, he speaks about wanting to photograph the sets of Bhansali, and Ram Gopal Varma. The allure never fades, does it?
Devdas was an intimidating set to be on. Motwane walked into those sprawling sets, terribly unconfident. Binod Pradhan who shot her favourite film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, was also the cinematographer on this film. She was afraid to come closer to the camera. "What if he told me that I am holding the camera wrong, or some shit?"
But stepping back helped, "sitting at the back and just having your own time to observe gives you another perspective…moments that are not visible when you are smack in the front."
Back then, the pay was minimal. Now, even beginners can get up to Rs 5,000 a day. This can go upto Rs 30-40,000 too. "This is good because you really work hard, we really do," Motwane notes. She talks about lugging 15-20 kilos of cameras and equipment strapped on her for 12-14 hours every day. (Of course when I would speak to Hitesh Mulani, another behind-the-scenes still photographer who worked on Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, he would complain about how premier production houses pay still-photographers in 2019, what they were being paid in 2009. "Is this what we are worth?" he asks. The pay spectrum is quite stark.)
Since Motwane was shooting on film for Devdas, they budgeted for one roll film a day. A roll film would be able to capture about 36 frames, and they were pretty expensive. One had to be careful about what they wanted to shoot. (For reference, now, on digital she shoots about 200-1,000 photos per day. "It's a nightmare," she confesses.These numbers vary by photographer, by director, and by film. Mulani shoots on average 250-400 stills. He doesn't count the exact number of stills he shoots for a film because it depresses him. Over time he has acquired a discipline, he is not excited about every single aspect, knowing exactly what needs to be shot, and what would be useful as a publicity still.)
Tejinder Singh, who has shot on digital from the get-go, has about 45,000 photos from his work on Manmarizyaan. About 45 of them are in the public domain. That is 0.1% of his photos. The rest he says, (99.9%) rot in harddrives.
But Manmarziyaan itself was an anomaly. Abhishek Bachhan did an Instagram campaign, Road To Manmarziyaan, 30 days before the release. Everyday he would post one photo from the behind-the-scenes stills Singh had shot. Even Anurag Kashyap, the film's director, would routinely post images of the making of the film on Instagram.
The thing that made the difference was that they tagged him in the photos. "That film made my career." He muses about how most of his contemporaries are always lurking in the shadows, for the stars and films they shoot do not give photography credits. Tagging is a powerful tool, he tells me.
They did not have a seperate poster shoot. Even for Vikramaditya Motwane's films, still photos Ishika Motwane shot were used as posters. Vishal Bharadwaj (Rangoon) and Prakash Jha (for Chakravyuh) too use these set stills that Mulani shot for posters, not bothering for a seperate poster photoshoot.
These photographers tend to be lurking on set all day, capturing moments. However, sometimes the production house sits with the script, outlining specific scenes for which they need the photographer. Then there are also directors like Meghna Gulzar. Tejinder who shot with Meghna Gulzar for Chhapaak, notes how she takes these photos very seriously, often asking actors to do the scene again for it to be captured by the still camera. Hitesh who worked with Gulzar for Raazi, too, speaks highly of this attention to photography.
But there are also directors like Danny Boyle who hate photographers being seen on set. Motwane, who was shooting behind-the-scenes stills for Slumdog Millionaire notes how crazy it was – the speed of the shoot, grabbing whatever she could get, shooting on the fly, but also trying to be as invisible as possible. She uses a muzzle to make sure the kchh of the shutter is not heard, often holding her posture during a scene so her movement does not distract the actors, however uncomfortable, "half-bending, leg up… don't even ask." She is afraid she might be thrown out of the set otherwise.
When the film, Slumdog Millionaire, premiered at Cannes, they printed a catalogue for distributors. Motwane's photos would be used for that catalogue. Boyle later told her, "You helped sell the film."
From exploring photography with his neighbour's M82 Nokia phone Mulani's passions moved onto Kodak digital, DSLR, and now, a mirrorless camera that doesn't make the kchh sound. Hitesh does not have to worry about being thrown out of set; but he worries about being his diminishing value on set.
"I keep hearing Arrey dekho making wale aa gaye, Arrey dekho still wale aa gaye… there is no respect for still-photography in the crew."
But a real, more existential fear lurks underneath. He was told that Wazir was the first film to use screen grabs from a high resolution video, using it for the film posters. "If you can do everything from a screengrab why do you need a still-photographer?"
He then brushes the thought away. For now, he still has producers hounding him, asking every day for the "money-shot". But, the question remains, money for whom?