The right match.
Indians are undeniably obsessed with marriage. Our movies, our soaps, our songs, and in many cases our living room conversations/fights are about the contentious issue of marriage and finding the “right match”. Most recently, in the addictively cringey Netflix show, Indian Matchmaking, Sima Taparia takes viewers on a wild ride through this very topic. The show supposedly looks at the process from a 2020 point of view, but actually reveals that little has changed over the decades.
Published in 1993, Vikram Seth’s epic novel, A Suitable Boy, also holds marriage at its heart, centred around a mother’s search for a “suitable” match for her daughter Lata. But the sprawling book (at sound 1,350 pages, is one of the longest novels to be published in English), set in the fictional town of Brahmpur in the 1950s, also offers a picture of a young, newly-independent India.
The book has been recently adapted and released as a TV drama series, directed by none other than Mira Nair. Our dear friend Shreya Dube, a Bombay based photographer and DOP worked on the exciting project, and we asked her to give us some insight on working on this set, and shine some light on her journey in film.
M: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your relationship to cameras?
S: I was born in Calcutta, was schooled in the foothills of the Himalayas and later went on to study film and photography in Melbourne. After which I lived and trained to be a cinematographer in Paris. No matter where I was, somehow I always gravitated back to Bombay, which is where I live now. I guess my love for the camera comes from my love of images, I'm always trying to study light.
M: How has your journey been as an Indian woman working in a male-dominated landscape such as filmmaking?
S: I was brought up in a family filled with strong women and then went on to study in an all girls boarding school, so when I was younger gender really wasn’t a thing that I considered to be an issue while trying to achieve your goals.
It’s only later when I started working on bigger jobs where I noticed the imbalance. The generation of Indian female cinematographers prior to me have had it tougher, things are improving, and it's important not to be bitter. One needs to keep reminding yourself to focus on the work and then the rest will follow. Cinematography is an ever evolving medium, so I rather focus my energies on that.
M: What was your role in making A Suitable Boy?
S: I was a camera operator for Declan Quinn who was the director of photography for the series. I don’t normally work as a camera operator but it was an exciting experience working for Mira Nair and Declan. Once Mira had blocked the scene with the actors, Declan would light the set. From there it’s our responsibility as camera operators to work with Declan to figure how to best capture the scene. Once we’ve finalised what we want to see it then becomes my responsibility to try and capture the magic of their vision.
M: Is this the first female film director you have worked with? Can you comment on feelings that stood out in her style of leadership on and off set?
S: Actually this is the 2nd female director I have had the pleasure to work with. But honestly there isn’t anyone like Mira Nair that I’ve come across. She is a force and a loving one if I may say so. It truly was a pleasure going to her set every morning for months on end. She has an incredible power of making everyone feel like a family.
From a technical standpoint, she is brilliant at her background action. Among other things, her attention to detail is crucial, especially for a period series which is based in the 1950’s, where background actors only lift the illusion that we were trying to create.
Finally, Mira has a very strong visual sense so it was an incredible experience making soulful images with her.
M: Did you grow up watching Mira Nair films and if so what’s your favourite and why?
S: Yes! Monsoon Wedding was the first one I saw in the theaters, it was a breath of fresh air and finally a film that felt so close to home. Soon after that I discovered Salaam Bombay, that till date is one of my favourite films.
Namesake is a special film as well, being part Bengali myself. If anything, I think this film stands the test of time since these days we've been talking about identity so much. Also the combination of Irrfan Khan and Tabu is incredible.
M: What was the visual and creative process in re-creating a post-partition India without romanticizing or fetishizing the time?
S: You know so much of the credit goes to the brilliant book. Personally, I believe Vikram Seth’s novel is one the best pieces of literature to come out of India in the last 50 years. It is a beautiful mirror of India while it was trying to find its own identity; it must have been a confusing time to have been an Indian.
But I must say that there were times when we were shooting and I would be transported to another time. Arjun Bhasin, the costume designer, is phenomenal, and seeing the way he had dressed the actors at times I felt truly patriotic. It reminded me that I would have been an anarchist if I was born during the time of my great grandfather, who was a freedom fighter himself.
M: After watching the first episode of A Suitable Boy on BBC ONE (it’s out now!!) what was your first reaction?
S: I don’t think a series of this magnitude would have been made 20-30 years ago. To have a bbc production come over here and hire mostly Indian talent, shoot the whole series based in beautiful Indian locations is really fantastic to see. I think it shows that the audiences as well as the distributors are looking to invest and tell stories outside of their own immediate cultures. We're looking forward to its Indian Netflix release, this year.
Crew: Declan Quin (ASC), Tom Waldon, Mahak Gupta, Siba Mait, Arjun Nayak, Sachin Gupta, Milan Kumar, Nihal Mait, Sonu, Ganesh, Hritik Pandey
S: My first feature film as a Director of Photography (DOP) will always be very close to my heart, since it was my first long format film and it’s something I'm very proud of. It’s a black and white feature film called Cat Sticks, shot in Calcutta during the rains which is now available to watch on MUBI.
I suppose it empowered me in a way that allowed me to express my true visual self at that point in my life. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. I am nothing without my crew and cast.
It is difficult to find that perfect group of people to tell a particular story, and with Cat Sticks I found that. I worked with a director who trusted me to photograph and light a world that he lived in and wrote about. Theo Shivdisania, our producer, gave us the liberty to take many risks and that is very rare for first time filmmakers.
M: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers and camera lovers?
S: Keep shooting, try everything until you know what you are truly great at and if that means one needs to have the courage to fail miserably then why not.
Watch A Suitable Boy on BBC now.