Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi is now an Ace International Cinematographerby Opinion Express June 16, 2018 0 comments
Delhi’s Ace international cinematographer, Farhad Ahmed Dehlv is trying to change the whole scenario using simple equipment without too much digital jugglery.
When artist Tyeb Mehta gifted his grandson a point and shoot camera, little did he know that he would use it as his tool of expression and become a world class cinematographer. And emerge an artist of a different genre. Legacy is the inspiration for Delhi boy Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi, who recently made waves with a stop-motion short film called Mud at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
It is about a dancing man of clay who tries to escape his identity, only to later realise its true beauty. Dehlvi, who worked closely with colorist Matt Wallach, believes in old style animation to tell stories rather than going on a digital overdrive. “The clay was one of the exciting aspects for me,” he says, explaining that more high-tech forms of animation can be frustratingly abstract. “With clay, you’re in a tactile environment with objects that actually absorb and bounce light. It gives you a way to engage with the medium and maximise the depth of the story you are trying to tell,” he adds.
Dehlvi recently became the first Indian to win the Best Cinematographer Award at the prestigious Asian Films Festival held in Los Angeles, for A Crimson Man. He says that he tried to balance naturalistic, dramatic camera movement and shot-taking with an expressive, painterly lighting design. He thinks that this has resulted in a look that is unique and familiar at the same time, drawn the audience into the drama of the film.
The movie, directed by Mike Pappa, had to provide the protagonist, which has been played by a very young actor, a tangible environment to perform and hence, decided to limit the use of visual effects. Even the robot “Red” was not a CGI character, and was instead played by an actor in a robot suit! The production designer, location manager, costume designer and the special effects supervisor had to work very closely to make this happen. After months of experimentation with lights, colours and optical illusions, they finally came up with the vintage Japanese anamorphic lenses that perfectly fit. “We used small amounts of haze and smoke on the set to soften the details of the environment and to gently take the viewer from the real world into the science-fiction world of the film,” adds Dehlvi. To catch up on the evolution, he tries and familiarises himself with other work in his genre and other visual and narrative styles.
On being asked about the projection of robots as more human than their makers and whether it was a derivative of Bicentennial Man, Dehlvi says, “We sat down and watched a lot of films together at the beginning of pre-production, and this began our process of visualising the film together, and then, of building a visual language that would best serve the story.”
He continues to mention some of the references that were taken from the Hollywood sci-fi and action films of the 70s and 80s. “Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens and Jaws were some of our central references for how they created a stylised look while continuing to serve the narrative of the story. An intimate connection is needed with the director to share a common vision for the story and to evoke the intended emotion in the audience. Having now worked in several countries across the world, I see the common thread running through the various film industries. It is all about finding the emotional core of the story and then evoking this in the most effective manner. It is not always about cutting-edge technology. A small change in the movement of the camera, for instance, can have a profound impact on how the audience relates to the film,” says Dehlvi on being asked about his method to mix the technicalities and the emotions to capture the narrative.
Coming from a family of filmmakers, writers and artists and having spent childhood days hopping from set to set, Dehlvi knew that he wanted to play a part in creating this magical experience, of creating an illusion that sometimes felt truer than reality.
He shifted to Mumbai to study journalism at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai University, and also began working in Bollywood. Starting out as a production assistant, he soon found his way into the camera department of both commercial and feature films. Further, wanting to study cinematography, he moved to Los Angeles to study at the American Film Institute Conservatory. “The two years I spent there were instrumental in building my narrative voice and really honing my technical skills. The narrative emphasis at the school brought me full circle, allowing me to draw visual inspiration from the story, using all the tools available to bring the audience closer to the emotional reality of the film,” he adds. Two cinematographers who have influenced his aesthetic and his working style are Keshav Prakash and Tassaduq Hussain, both of whom he assisted when he had first started out. He also admires the work of Sven Nykvist, Greig Fraser, and César Charlone, and says that each of them has been an inspiration in some way.
“Working in the camera department, I was uniquely positioned to be at the centre of the action, able to watch the scenes take shape as the director worked with the actors, the cinematographer set up the lighting and the entire crew prepared to shoot,” he shares.
Dehlvi has clearly earned his stripes having worked with genius directors like Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and Vishal Bhardwaj (Kaminey). He says that though all of them had wildly different aesthetics, they were similar in the clear vision they had for their films respectively, and were able to empower the crew to make decisions that could bring that vision to life.
Recalling his days on the sets of Life of Pi, he tells us about his experience of being blown away by how beautiful and tranquil the scenes were. The director and cinematographer worked with the actors and crew, making the whole scene look effortless. “Watching their collaboration was like watching two dancers dance together perfectly, and I remember that being there in that moment, I decided to study cinematography at AFI and work towards becoming a director of photography.”
Dehlvi, who has also worked with numerous short films like The Last Marble, I See You and Pearl says that if the concept is done right, a five or ten-minute film can be incredibly impactful because it immediately gets to the heart of the conflict. A well-crafted short film, he feels, is a potent cinematic experience and can push the boundaries of his medium.
Asked to share some words of wisdom for aspiring cinematographers, Dehlvi says, “Don’t let anyone tell you that your story isn’t worth telling! Film is a universal medium, and we live in a world where we can share our images and stories with the audience across geographical, political and cultural boundaries and appeals. I want to use this to bring people closer together, to create empathy, and to build a common understanding of the world.”
Writer: Shilpi Seth
Courtesy: The Pioneer