Female Idol Blog Series – Cinematographer Priya Seth: Smashing Patriarchy With Style

Priya Seth, a name that has become synonymous to breaking gender stereotypes effortlessly and with such style. Priya is the cinematographer of ‘Airlift’ – a high-action drama based in Kuwait, starring Nimrat Kaur & Akshay Kumar. Among other things, ‘Airlift’ was critically applauded for its brilliant camera work and seamless stunts – a feat that has taken the team months of planning and execution. In this exclusive interview, Priya talks about her work, opinions about the skewed ratio in the industry and much more. Read on…

priyaQ. Could you tell us about your childhood, your growing and working years and education?

I grew up in Amritsar until the age of six and then moved to Mumbai where  I have spent my life since then. At the age of twelve, I went away to a boarding school in Dehradun called Welham. College was back in Mumbai after which I went to NY to do a very short course as an introduction to filmmaking as I had no background in it whatsoever.

Q. Could you tell us about how and when the passion for cinematography began? When did you know this is what you wanted?

Every summer in college I would intern at UTV in some department or the other. If it was TV one year, then it advertising another. That is when my curiosity for film began. It was still too early to call it a passion. I needed to know more so I went and did that course in New York. It was there that  I realized that something was drawing me very strongly to cinematography.

Q. We are aware that there are fewer female cinematographers in our country, so am not going to dwell on that – instead, what do you think should be done about it? How can this imbalance be tackled?

That question isn’t only isolated to cinematography. Take any technical field in any profession. Actually, take the workforce in our country at large. This imbalance is systemic. It has to be addressed at a larger level and the corrections will percolate to all professions. I am completely against any sort of reservation for women in cinematography in any manner. Because, once you need to shoot a film, it is only excellence and that alone that is important. On the other hand, what we are trying to do here in India, with IWCC, which I’m sure you’re aware of, is have some sort of community which can foster and nurture women who want to come into this profession. It’s a long road. For the workforce reaching any kind of gender balance. But we’re on it!

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Q. So you have not just cracked into the on ground cinematography, but you are also one of the very few people who is an established underwater DP – how did it all start? Please share with us the fascinating story in whole.

120209-N-XD935-302 GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Feb. 9, 2012) Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shane Tuck, assigned to the Expeditionary Combat Camera Underwater Photo Team, conducts underwater photography training off the coast of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The team conducts semi-annual training to hone its divers' specialized skill set and ensure valuable support of Department of Defense activities worldwide. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric/Released)

For this, I owe all credit to Prahlad Kakkar. The Big Bossman! He not so subtly ordered me to learn diving about twelve years ago, as he thought it was an unexplored part of cinematography in India with barely anyone doing it at that time. He told me he was planning to bring equipment but there were no trained underwater DPs. I guess I listened to him and went and got trained. But it’s been a slow process as we have no infrastructure for underwater shoots in India and we were all learning as we went along. But I love it. It’s such a bonus to have the privilege to shoot something not many even get to see or experience. It’s a private little world that belongs to a few of us who are lucky to do this.

It’s such a bonus to have the privilege to shoot something not many even get to see or experience. It’s a private little world that belongs to a few of us who are lucky to do this.

Q. What do you think about the rapid change in “form” of viewership – people watching films on their mobile phones – how do you think it is impacting cinematography per se.

I think about this a lot. Even with films now, if they go straight to Netflix, how do we alter the shooting style. It is like shooting for TV. Big expansive wide shots would have no meaning sadly.  Lighting will change. We will have to shoot it brighter than we would for a cinema. What you can do with sound design will be altered.

The emotional rush you can get from a score or a song which is enveloping you in a theater is very different from what it would sound like on headphones. So, filmmaking techniques, on the whole, will have to adapt to this.

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Q. Is there a novelty factor that a female cinematographer can bring – to the final product?

I hope not. What I am trying to bring to a film is a vision for the film as it is required. Through my experiences and expertise. Certainly not the novelty of my gender.

airlift-akshayQ. Tell us about your experience shooting ‘Airlift’ – what sort of preparation went behind choosing the colour palette, where was most of the film shot – were there any references from any films you like?

In Airlift, the beauty of the process is that Raja Menon had picked a team who very much agreed on one vision for the film. The production designer Mustafa, Raja and I worked on the colour palate very intensively. So, every costume, prop, light and location all worked in concert to create this consistent visual palette for the film. There is a tendency sometimes for people to shoot all over the place and then expect the colourist to work miracles with completely incongruous visuals. We had a great collaborator in a person who I rely on tremendously to take me to the finish line. Rob Lang, my colourist.

Q. Please talk to us about ‘Barah Aana’ – have you and Raja Menon collaborated from your advertising time? And from Barah Aana to Airlift there was a gap of a few years – would you say that both your work and collaboration evolved over time?

Raja and my work have evolved tremendously over time. It would be worrisome if it hadn’t! We’ve been working together for atleast ten years now. We have very similar working styles. We do a lot of homework and a lot of prep together on the film.

barah-aana-wallpaperQ. Could you name some of your favourite cinematographers?

Subrata Mitra, Raoul Coutard, Gordon Willis, Harris Savides, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, Bradford Young

Q. What is the one camera you would love to use – given a choice? If it is from the film era, which digital equivalent would you replace it with?

I’m actually really enjoying discovering digital cinematography on the Arri Alexa. There is no point looking back.  This is where the future is at.  We would be better served in spending our time mastering current technology and equipment than being nostalgic for the past.

Q. What are you working on right now?

I’m currently involved in the DI for my film Chef which releases in July this year.

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