Cinematographer/Filmmaker Shanti Bhushan Roy on the Importance of Aesthetics in Journalism
Reported by Tarini Mehta
In the midst of figuring out the equipment required for his shoot the next day, Shanti Bhushan Roy managed to squeeze in an hour to share with us some tips, tricks and pearls of wisdom that he has gathered so far during his journey as a cinematographer and filmmaker.
Over the course of his illustrious 15-year career in the world of films, he has worked on more than 20 fiction and non-fiction feature films, including the Oscar-shortlisted “Ballad of Rustom” (2012), television shows such as the widely acclaimed “Satyamev Jayate” and “24,” and innumerable advertisements, music videos and short films. Committed to constant exploration and learning, he is currently expanding his areas of expertise to include the latest digital technologies – virtual reality and augmented reality.
This software engineer-turned-cinematographer believes the secret to his success is the discipline of keenly observing everything, even when you cannot fully comprehend what you’re seeing. “My eyes and ears are always open, and there’s a continuous coordination going on between the three faculties of eyes, ears and mind.” In imbibing this and learning the basics of his craft, he gives the maximum credit to his alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.
“I remember our first exercise there was an observational tour to a mortuary. We were immediately put in an uncomfortable situation in which we all had to challenge our belief systems, fears, insecurities and upbringing. Later, we had to write a report and read it out in front of the class, and I was so jittery! But it taught me to be conscious and aware all the time, and to be able to narrate and write down everything I experience. These good practices have stayed with me ever since.”
Observational skills must then translate into an ability to use the camera as the mind’s eye to capture a moment or life as it is, Roy said. He also shared the three most important questions to ask oneself when telling a visual story and attempting to encapsulate its mood:
i) where is the story happening, i.e., landscape;
ii) who is it happening to, i.e., character; and
iii) how is it happening/how am I capturing it.
It is in answering this third “how” question that the storyteller’s own consciousness, judgements, beliefs and perceptions are revealed.
“The experience for the audience is created by the dynamic that exists between the gaze of the filmmaker and the gaze of the person sitting in front of the camera being videographed. The camera is a very powerful tool – it either threatens the character or opens a Pandora’s box inside of them. When you, as a filmmaker, show genuine interest without judgement and approach the person with a compassionate demeanour, they will open up,” Roy said. “People want to be heard. You will be able to form a bond irrespective of their deeds or opinions, and see the larger picture. But you can’t put a microphone in their face and force them to tell their story. I was aghast to see this back when I was covering the Gujarat riots as a student.”
He emphasised the importance of training ourselves, even as print journalists, in basic visual storytelling techniques and principles because this is the future while print is on its way out.
“The lines between cinema and journalism are blurring and they have almost become intertwined. Technology has democratized the access to filmmaking such that journalists too have the power of the audiovisual medium in their hands. They don’t have to depend on anyone else, and all they need is their regular cellphone to record. Empowered with a little knowledge of cinematic tools, they can drive their visual stories any way they want. Audiences are not interested in high value filmmaking but in high value stories, which journalists already have access to. If you write and make your story well, people will definitely watch it.”
When telling journalistic stories through videos, the distinction between a feature/opinion story and a simple news report must be kept in mind, Roy cautioned. While in the latter your complete loyalty must be to the incident and its holistic and factual representation, there is space to take creative liberties in the former. You can present your point of view, create your composition, and experiment with the camera movements and filmmaking style. This decision – whether to exhibit a particular point of view or just present facts as they are – must be based on the larger good that will come of it.
“As long as you’re upfront and don’t hide your intentions, there is no problem. Even photographers … sometimes they choose to accentuate the misery or passion in an image and create an effect that will impact the viewers. But you need to know where you can take cinematic liberties and where you cannot. It’s like making a choice between eating vada pav, sandwich, or aloo paratha. Just because vada pav satisfied your hunger once doesn’t mean that you should eat it all the time!”
This creative process and decision-making must also consist of dialogue, communication and acceptance of different points of view among team members, because filmmaking, and any kind of narrative storytelling, is a collaborative exercise after all. Brainstorming sessions and an accommodating attitude are absolute necessities, he said.
With a big warm smile, he concluded, “The world today desperately needs thoughtfulness. Let’s not stay silent, and let’s not be aggressive either. We have to keep spreading goodness in whatever way we can. Take a stand, and do it with compassion. Don’t fall for pettiness. Then your journalism will become like sone pe suhaga (icing on the cake)!”
As Roy said (light-heartedly, of course!), “People behind the camera hardly get a chance to talk so when we finally do, we keep going!” In keeping with this, he did indeed say a lot more about visual storytelling techniques and using the same to inject emotion in our journalistic work. Please watch the full conversation given above.
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*(The “Story Matters” series features storytelling practitioners who have been part of StoriesAsia’s unique editorial meetings as special guests. StoriesAsia believes that literary and cinematic techniques used by novelists and filmmakers are the best tools journalists have to tell real-life stories – stories that will generate empathy, helping our audiences to connect with the “other” at the most fundamental human level without cultural, religious, class, racial and geographical barriers. The series seeks to start a conversation about a possible collaboration between journalists and storytelling practitioners.)
(Tarini Mehta is a multimedia producer at StoriesAsia. Based in Delhi, she covers politics and culture.)