Interview with Divakar Mani by Maya Nelluri
The Inspirational Existence of Divakar Mani
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24 May 2018

In an era where much of the world is obsessed with amassing the latest gadgets, brands, or designer products, Divakar Mani collects life experiences. Setting him apart is another unique factor. While he has done everything from being an award-winning cinematographer, covering tsunamis, wars, and other life changing events, and shooting advertisements with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, and Ranbir Kapoor, one needs to force such information out of him. Even so, we’ve not only successfully uncovered details about the mysterious life of Divakar but also followed him around on one of his film shoot days. Read on.

A cinematography gold medallist from the Film Institute of Chennai, Divakar’s assisted ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan, the only director of photography (DOP) from Asia Pacific to be a member of the American Society of Cinematography, for 6 years. Since then he’s been a cinematographer for the Bollywood film Jugni, a Malayalam film directed by Priyadarshan, Ceylon directed by Santosh Sivan and a Telugu film Keshava directed by Sudheer Varma. His work in the later film was unconventional to say the least. The dark mood of the film was reflected in his work, very unlike the colourful style adapted by much of the industry. Nevertheless, and quite possibly due to this, his work for Keshava received rave reviews, some even labelled him Tollywood’s emerging star cinematographer. To top it off, Divakar was awarded the Best Cinematography award by the Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber for the same.

Divakar has simultaneously led a very eventful life, working on over 100 advertisements, numerous documentaries, and being a celebrated video journalist at NDTV for 7 years. He’s covered everything from the wars in Lebanon and Sri Lanka, to the Ferrari factory for which he drove around Germany, to documenting the naxalities of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand. The later, a documentary named Killing Fields went on to earn Divakar the Common Wealth Broadcast Asia Award, gaining him a fellowship to study digital film making in the New York Academy. It’s no surprise then that he’s travelled to 39 countries through the course of his career.

Currently he is working on his fifth project starring Sharwanand, Kajal Aggarwal and Kalyani Priyadarshan; directed by Sudheer Varma. Speaking of the film he said, “The portion we are currently shooting is set in Vishakhapatnam between the years 1988 and 1993. The mood, tone, colour, all have to replicate that period so a great amount of preproduction detailing went into it to get it right. I’ve personally taken a lot of effort to convince the director and producer not to use popping colours or the latest technology like fly-cams because they are not representative of the period. Seeing the 1980s in a birds-eye-view wasn’t normal so I’ve consciously stuck to the tripod, and track & trolley shots to ensure that the end result is authentic to the time period. We also stayed away from sudden swift movements for the same reason. The film also has a portion set in the current time which we treated totally differently in terms of cinematography.”

A Day in Divakar Mani’s Life

How does your day start?
My usual shoot days, like most other cinematographers, start when I get out of bed and open the curtains; say around 5.45am. I look to the sun to figure out the mood of the day; to see whether it’s going to be cloudy, moody, sunny, or clear. I aim to reach the set around 7.30am so I can get there before everyone else and at least 20 minutes before the director. That way I can process what we are shooting on the day and prepare for it. On a regular day we start shooting at 8am and finish at 6pm but there are many variations to the timings.

What happens once you reach the location of the shoot?
I tour the whole set to understand the area and how the light will affect it through the day. Since we don’t shoot sequentially, it is important for me to decide which scenes should be shot when to make the best use of the natural elements. During the preparation I discuss the same with the director. With Sudheer I have the flexibility to suggest what to shoot when to make the best use of the light.

How do you adapt your style depending on the type of film?
For a commercial film like the one I’m shooting right now the shoot starts post breakfast. But if it’s an indie film I prefer that the first shot commences between 4.30am and 5am. I and most DOPs like to shoot between 4.30am to 8.30am and 4pm to 6pm because those times have the best light. We have to realise that the sun cannot be manipulated so it should be respected and we must act according to its existence to get the best output. Also, while shooting a commercial film with a lot of actors, crew and labour, starting too early is not practical and it is important that everyone is fed and able to work the whole day before we start the shoot.

How do you plan what to shoot when?
I plan the scene list depending on various factors. If it’s a long scene and I know that it’ll take two hours to shoot but on screen it will come out to be two or three continuous minutes, I have to plan accordingly. The light will change during the couple of hours that we will shoot the scene so I need to decide before hand how to manipulate the light to keep it looking seamless and constant on screen.

How do you decide what lighting and camera blocks should be used?
The mood of the light and the frames/ camera blocks we use are determined by the content of the scene. For example, if you want to intimidate a character, say a powerful guy is warning someone, then we tend to put the camera in a low angle. In film language this angle gives the guy power because he is above the camera. It also shows that the person is larger than life or over powering. If the camera is at eyelevel then the characters are equal. Movement is another important aspect. If we have two people walking in the scene, rather than putting the camera on a static block we bring out movement through the use of track & trolley, steadicam, jimmy-jib (more advanced)/ crane (manual), or other equipment. We decide on the equipment based on the movement required.

I also have the responsibility of making the actors look good and making the scene work visually on screen. If someone dies, I need to create empathy. I need to bring out that feeling through lighting and camera which means that I can’t put bright lights and show roses blooming during the scene. The scene must visually convey the script.

You have your favourite shoot times; how do you make the most of other times?
I hate to shoot between 12pm and 3pm, which is a bad time lighting wise. Thankfully that’s lunch time! If it’s not break time then I prefer to shoot indoors between 10am and 3pm. I try to convince the directors I’m working with to come outdoors at 4pm so we can shoot an opening or establishing shot in the best light. The shoot day usually ends at 6pm but some days we go till late. Between 6pm and 9pm we do night scenes. I find shooting night scenes much more comfortable because I can control the light.

Tell us about the people behind the camera.
As a cinematographer I have at least 40 to 45 people working in my department for whom I am responsible so people management is imperative. Cinematography is a collaborative art so all their efforts add to the end result and reflect on my work. There are about 10 to 15 light men, 5 to 8 camera assistants (those who bring camera, put on the lenses, set up the tripod), 3 to 4 assistant cinematographers, and 10 to 15 grip people (those who manoeuvre the track & trolley, steadicam, or jimmy-jib equipment; any movement comes under the grip dept). Technically speaking the light-men are paid a set amount, around Rs. 850 per day, regardless of the quality of work. So, it is up to me to push them, keep their morale high, and to make use of the entire team. Consider that during a night shoot we might finish shooting at 2am, the team still has to pack up and finish tasks while I get a car and go home. They even reach the set before me, sometimes before 6am.

What do you do to keep your team motivated?
Apart from the creative aspect of cinematography, it’s important for the cinematographer to keep the entire unit energetic and enhance their work culture. To get the best possible productive output from everyone I have to be in a good frame of mind; they have to respect me and my work; and I have to be friendly but also commanding. I also make sure to respect my team and do my best to understand their issues. I get to know everyone’s names and like to joke around on set to ease the tensions and keep people laughing. At the end of the day we are all human beings who need to eat, sleep and be happy.

I also listen to my team. Even if the light man comes and tells me his perspective about where to place the light, I don’t brush him aside. Some of my team have left other opportunities to work for me in the current film because they like the way I work. Even when I lose my cool my team knows that it was just out of frustration and that I don’t mean it. When I get back in a good mood I make it a point to say sorry and neutralise things. Even with the ADs I like to get to know them and what they want to tell as stories when they make films.

What do you do after the shoot ends for the day?
During the shoot day whenever I get a break I review the previous day’s footage to see how it’s come out in terms of conversion and quality. Once we pack up I roughly discuss the next day’s scenes with the team so when I come in the next day I have an idea of what to do first and last. After that I go back to hotel, shower, call my mom, talk and sleep early. I need to have at least 6 hours of sleep on a shoot day because my energy levels need to be high the whole day.

What is the secret to your success?
I give 100% to what the scene or film needs. I am totally present and focused on the moment when I’m with my camera. Nothing goes out of my head. I know every single frame I’ve shot; I even remember the sources of light and glare in those shots. I don’t think about tomorrow, about what movie I want to do next, whether this shot will help my next career move and so on. Whether the film is a big budget one or it’s a shot without any actors my efforts are the same.

What were some of the most memorable moments from your career?
In terms of cinema all 4 directors of the films I shot offered their next film to me so I’m most proud about that. It’s truly is an honour.

Apart from that I believe that to be able to capture an image, whether its fiction or nonfiction is a gift. And I’ve been lucky enough to create scenarios through movies or capture moods in real life. I’ve witnessed numerous life and death scenarios in my career. I’ve shot in an interior village of Jharkhand where a pregnant woman was about to give birth. There were no hospitals nearby and she was in labour. We had a car with us so we took her to the primary health care centre. Once we got there we found that there was only a nurse stationed so it was essentially up to us. I took their permission to shoot, put the camera on a tripod and helped during her delivery. It is an incredible feeling to see a life coming through. Unfortunately I’ve also been the last person a young boy saw before passing away during the tsunami. He was buried under the rubble and died before the Red Cross could arrive with help.

I’ve also covered dangerous events like the Gujarat riots and got dropped into the Andaman’s by an air force chopper during the tsunami. On the other hand I’ve also shot fancy brands in France and recorded a half hour detailing wine manufacturing in the vineyards of Italy. My work is not always to cover the niceties of life. Life is grey and that’s how I prefer to capture it. And I’ve experienced both the dark and light in my life. In 2007 I spent the night in the Matunga Railway station while covering the Bombay train blast. We were shooting the entire night while dead bodies were still present. Just a week prior to that I was in Bombay to interview Aishwarya Rai and I was booked into the presidential suite of the Taj because the regular rooms were full. To me both types of lives are enticing; I like them both!

- Maya Nelluri

vijay jeedigunta

About Maya Nelluri: Writer, Artist, and Make-up & Hair Professional; but first and foremost - Telugu Cinema Addict! Previous work experience includes Styling for films and photo shoots featuring Shriya Saran, Rana, Saina Nehwal, Nani and many more. Also worked as Associate Editor for SouthScope and Copy Editor for Channel 6 among others.
Twitter: @mayanelluri

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