If I become a cinematographer, I could travel the world, is all that I knew: Mahen Simmha

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Have you ever wondered who is the camera artist behind the Kannada movie Tagaru? Well, I have an answer. These days he is in news for his farming adventures and also for his upcoming Prem’s cinema. Mahen as he is fondly called is an avid reader, music enthusiast, and farmer. He has worked with advertisement agencies before he hopped into the big screen business. He is quite a social media sensation. Here are a few excerpts with Mahen Simmha.

Do you call yourself a DOP or a Cinematographer? Could you tell us the difference between the two?

Of course DOP. The difference is how you apply yourself to work. There is no problem in both ways. The word Cinematographer depicts a work in a literal way. He takes moving pictures according to the needs of a director or a storyteller.  Some Directors have their style imprinted on their storytelling and they expect their cinematographer to toe the line. For example Wes Anderson, his movies are identifiable for its distinct look. There, a cinematographer’s challenge is to deliver what the director wants.  A DOP gets a little more freedom or due to his involvement, he is entrusted with some more tasks like breaking the scene visually, narrating what a director has written down into clear frames and visuals as his visual interpretation. There are some directors who are good storytellers and they leave the task of giving visual shape to the cinema to his cinematographer. Roger Deakins is one such master who works this way.

How did you get started in filmmaking? Did you start with film or photography?

Yes. I started as an Advertising Photographer. Then, moved onto cinematography when I got a chance to do a feature film.

Did you go to any film school?

Nope. Photography helped me. I just graduated from a single frame to 24 myself.

As a child what were your influences towards cinema?

Actually, not much. Even though my parents had a cinematic background but when I was growing up they had no connections with it. I grew up with minimum basic of two meals a day. So, watching the cinema was a luxury. There was no TV either. But yeah, the enigma of cinema made me look at it in awe. I wanted to do something in this field. All I knew was ‘If I become a cameraman I could travel across the world,’ that’s it.

How do you train yourself in new cinema technology?

I attend workshops from camera manufacturers like Arri and also, webinars from other influencers of the industry. Also, I’m not much behind in technology. I prefer updating myself creatively. Like reading more literature and watching more nature just does the trick. Once you are good at understanding the emotions of a situation and how light can make it look, you are updated. Once you fail at it, you are over.

Have you assisted anyone when you got into the cinema? How does assisting help?

Nope, I did not. Assisting will only help you understand the pressures of the situation. It prepares you for the situation when a big star is in front of your camera. Rest has to be your own talent. You can’t repeat what your boss did. Because the industry doesn’t need another copy of your boss.

How did your first project come about?

I was quite famous as an advertising and fashion photographer at that time. I had shot for many publicity photo-shoots of films. During one of those shots, a director asked me to handle his next project. I agreed as it was a simple storyline. And that’s how I got in.

You have worked for advertisements and now films. How different or similar are the two?               

Films are a 24frame challenge. You have to maintain the continuity in movie subjects with the ability to tell a story.

What is the most important factor for you to choose a script?

Well, as of now I’m not going too much by the script. I had a bad experience once when I got excited about the script. The script was something different when I heard it and was completely different by the end of the process. We were supposed to shoot in north India but, we ended up shooting within Bangalore. That was a disappointment. I could not work on my potential. So, at present, I’m choosing my projects based on the genres. How committed the director is to the craft of cinema matters to me. If he is broad-minded enough to give me my space and work satisfactorily, I will choose that project. I would leave the responsibility of pleasing the audience to the director. If the director is passionate enough to respect his team then I’m sure he is good with his script.

Could you touch base on briefly what are some of your responsibilities as a cinematographer for a film?

He is responsible for the overall look of the film. He gives the feel which the story requires. For example, a horror movie will fall flat if the lighting is flat and even. So a cinematographer shapes the film with light.

How important is the relation between the storyline of a movie and the cinematographic techniques, moods, and styles?

I’m not behind techniques. There is CG these days that will take care of those things. I will still go with a basic need for the story which is the mood of the film. If I can get it, then the rest is done.

I’m blown away by your textures in Tagaru. Are there certain techniques or philosophies you employ to achieve the same?

Thanks for that. I would share it with my whole team. Tagaru was composed based on emotions. It was sort of a street cinema. I based my work on street photography which I used to do earlier. I based my work on those images.

What are some of the challenges, individual or collaborative you encounter as a cinematographer?

Time and space. If these two are there everything is possible.

There are a lot of youngsters who want to become a cinematographer or a DOP just because they have a camera and for the lifestyle. What is your opinion?

They can. But, as the level goes up, just the technique won’t work. What matters is what he can bring in to the table of creative discussion with the director. There he has to evolve as a complete man with common sense. Besides that everybody can become a cinematographer and there are many already.

Now people are making movies on their phones. Do you agree with the trend?

I am open to anything and everything as long as the output moves the audience emotionally. Period.

Now that people watch films on TV and phones, do you think about that end experience when you are shooting?

Yes. We have to keep in mind a lot of things like the resolution of phones and TVs. We shoot high resolution to match the requirements, now. TV and phones are backlit media so, we have to light it up accordingly.

What is more important: light or shadow?

The objects which creates one.

What do you love about your job and what is that you hate?

I love that I can dream here. I hate that I have to come out of it once it’s over.

Do you have one piece of work of which you are most proud?

Yes, of course! The encounter scene in the movie Tagaru where Dr. Shivarajkumar talks with a paper boat in his hand. I love that scene for no reason.

What was the best piece of career advice you were ever given?

Stop this, this won’t work. Find some stable job.

Whose work as a filmmaker or cinematographer do you wait to watch?

Roger Deakins is one my favorite, and of course Christopher Doyle.

You are quite active on social media, how do you manage the time?

I am a social animal. I love to know what’s happening around. I love to know where I belong in terms of reality. I love to understand if my opinions are right or outdated. Social media helps me with it. I use it as a storytelling platform.

You have started farming these days, haven’t you? How did you develop the interest?

Farming is a basic need that nobody told us as we grew up. Our education system’s major fault lies here. We don’t tell kids how difficult it is to grow the meal they just wasted. We don’t tell who picks up the plastic trash we threw carelessly to keep the city clean. We don’t tell that the birds we miss these days flew away the day we picked up our phones. We hide the basic truth from children. And recently did I realize the same. So I’m trying to understand more. As simple as that.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years?

An old man with some good sense of humor.  A director of a few movies. Amen.

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