Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee is on a roll. He has won two National Awards in recent years (Chotushkone & Bajirao Mastani) and is best known for bringing Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s vivid imagination to life by creating frames that look nothing less than paintings. The beautifully choreographed song sequences, the dramatic performances and the awe-inspiring war scenes – all hallmarks of a Bhansali film – are perfectly captured for the big screen by Chatterjee in Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani. Unfortunately we don’t known as much about him as we should! Beginning this month, Film Companion will celebrate the work of one film technician every month to highlight that there’s more to cinema than actors, actresses and box office numbers. We begin the series with Chatterjee.
Alma mater: Batch of 1993, FTII
Notable works: Iqbal, Dor, Chak De India, Guzaarish, Dhoom 3, Chotushkone, Baby, Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat.
Camera of choice: Mostly Alexa. Sometimes RED too.
Why we need to know about him: He’s been a pioneer in Indian cinematography. With Chak De India he brought the thrill of a hockey game alive on the big screen. By going digital for Dhoom 3 he paved the way for other Indian cinematographers. With his last two films, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, he’s set the benchmark for Indian cinematography high.
On His Early Years
I was born and brought up in a suburb of Calcutta in a family of teachers. I was exposed to a lot of theatre, music, and films right from my childhood by my father, who was however averse to mainstream Hindi cinema. Despite that, I was fascinated by Amitabh Bachchan and was a big fan of his without having seen any of his films. On a trip to my cousins, I stole out to watch Kaalia and Satte pe Satta and realized this was it.
On His Love For Visual Storytelling
As a kid I would continuously draw sketches of ideas that I had in mind but I wasn’t really good at it. But when my dad gifted me a camera in class 10, something clicked. I started realizing that the pictures I was taking were my own, that I could actually create an image of my own, that I could look at things differently and create something unique. As I spent more time with the camera I realized photography was something I loved doing and wanted to make a career in. But it was only when my brother joined FTII did I realize cinematography was an option.
The First Job
When I was in FTII, Vidhu Vinod Chopra had come to the institute and seen a film that I’d shot. He liked it and when he was making 1942: A Love Story and he asked me to shoot the making of the film. Coming straight out of the institute I found myself on such a huge set with some brilliant people. They took me in and it was great experience being around guys like Vinod, Binod Pradhan (DOP) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali (assistant on the film). That’s where I first met Sanjay and I would hitch a ride with him to the set to save on the auto fare.
On His Partnership with Bhansali
We have great chemistry and I really understand what he says. He’s very open to ideas and gives everyone a lot of freedom. When he gives me a script, he doesn’t give me any references. He wants to know what I have in mind. His briefs are often very abstract and then sometimes he’ll tell you things that’ll blow you away. Like his brief for Kashibai’s house (in Bajirao Mastani) was that it’s a place of purity, the kind of place where you want to remove your shoes and sit on the floor. That’s as wonderful a brief as one can get. Who does that?
Also with Sanjay you have to be open to changing your plans because things can change radically. Sometimes he improvises to a large extent with the actors, how the scene is pitched and how it is choreographed. I love responding to those changes and Sanjay works his way around to absorb them if it suits him. With him great is not good enough. That’s the best part of working with him.
What Inspires Him
I get inspiration from the life that I see around, from the images I see. I find it fascinating to meet people. You get stories from them, you can imagine stories just from looking at their faces. I travel a lot, seeing the world is very inspiring. That apart, I read a lot and a lot of my inspiration comes from literature. My dad used to say that when you read you form a picture in your mind and I think that’s a lovely way to keep the mind alive.
I also listen to a lot of music, all kinds of music. A lot of jazz, a lot of Hindustani classical, western classical, some rock and old Bengali and Hindi film music. I take my music very seriously. I put it on, shut my eyes and quietly sit there listening to it. I need to do it every day.