It might seem strange at first glance that Bollywood and Hollywood have become such cozy friends. The world’s two greatest film industries have always been independent of each other, with different aesthetics, storylines, actors and audiences.
But after more than a century running parallel to each other, Bollywood and Hollywood are now engaged in a symbiotic dance that has seen Slumdog Millionaire become a Hollywood success, Singh is King top the worldwide box office charts, and Spiderman in all its avatars win the box office in India. Aishwarya Rai does a juicy cameo in Pink Panther:2, Sylvester Stallone and Denise Rich do cameos in Khambakht Ishq, and Snoop Dogg is an enthusiastic item boy for the keynote song in Singh is King. Hollywood is now financing Hindi movies, while Bollywood finances Hollywood flicks.
Cultural Imperialism is dead. Long live cultural free trade.
Still, some things do get lost in translation, so the increasing cooperation between the two film industries has created a demand for people who understand them both intimately.
Vishal Solanki is a gifted, young cinematographer who has experience in both cultures and both industries. Solanki began studying photography initially at the Indo American Society in Mumbai and subsequently succeeded in enrolling at the over 150 years old historic Sir J. J. Inst. Of Applied Art, Mumbai (the most reputed institution for Applied Art in India).
While studying for his BFA, Solanki also spent a lot of time drawing, painting and studying all forms of artistic applications. Solanki graduated from Sir J. J. Institute Of Applied Art, winning 5 awards, including the State Government Bronze Award for best work, the CAG Bronze, and the John Walter Thompson ‘Big Idea of the Year’.
He returned to work as an apprentice to the renowned veteran Director of Photography Binod Pradhan on commercials, music videos, and one of the most successful movies in Bollywood history Munnabhai MBBS directed by Rajkumar Hirani. Solanki also assisted cinematographer Vijay Kartik on his famous Bollywood venture Taxi No. 9211, directed by Milan Luthria.
On the other side of the world, Solanki was the Director of Photography on Losing You, a feature film directed by Canadian director Ian Clay, which is slated for release in 2009.
Apart from feature films, he has created a stir in the Documentary genre, which is almost non-existent in Bollywood. His work on documentary Pashan Palvi has received immense praise and his work on female infanticide documentary titled ‘Sunaina’ is receiving a great response in film festivals in Europe. Here is Solanki’s conversation with Sparkle Hayter.
Hayter: When did you know you were going to be a cinematographer?
Solanki: It happened over time, so I can’t give you a precise date. I always loved movies, and was particularly drawn to the look of a movie. While I was studying painting at Sir J.J. Inst. of Applied Art, I took up a course in still photography alongside.
Soon I was assisting my seniors in lighting portraits and helping them out in the dark room printing black and white photos. I then took up photography as my specialization at JJ. I was 18 and during that time, I was looking at movies constantly to get inspiration for lighting. Slowly, I realized that cinematography would offer me avenues to discover both lighting along with emotions with the help of narrative. Devdas had just been released and the whole of Bollywood was stunned by the visuals created by Binod Pradhan. After that, I had no doubts that I wanted to work and learn under him. I called his residence for around fifteen days, non-stop, making friends with all his family, but he was generally out on shoots. Finally, one day he picked up the phone and allowed me to meet him on the set at Concorde Studios where he was shooting a commercial for Fair and Lovely cream. I would say that, after that shoot, I had no doubts that cinematography was what I wanted to do.
Hayter: Was there a formal connection between the institute and Bollywood? Did you know when you got out of college, you would work in Bollywood?
Solanki: Well I won’t say that there was a visibly formal connection, but at the same time people seem to trust students of JJ without any doubt. I was doing still photography when I was 19 and 20 for big clients like Airtel, Planet M, and a lot of advertising print media. Also, some alumni of JJ had emerged as successful filmmakers both in ad films and feature films. I just looked up to them and I thought that if they could do it, I could do it as well. I did not look at Bollywood as the only area of concentration since there was a lot of media like TV commercials, music videos, and documentaries which, in essence, is not always Bollywood but I still have a strong liking in creating such media.
Hayter: So your career began when you were still in school. What did you do then?
Solanki: I am very happy with the way things have gone. I was always the youngest no matter which set I was on. At a certain point, people advised me that I was young and that I had time for formal training. I then planned to leave for my studies in Cinematography and Directing. I received an Honors in both from the Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood.
Hayter: That’s interesting, how do you compare and differentiate between Bollywood and Hollywood? Did you notice a difference between the industries?
Solanki: Yes, definitely. There is a difference in almost everything; every thought; every way of doing things. On a larger level Bollywood is a film industry, whose psychology is primarily based on sentiments and beliefs of the Indian culture to a large extent and Hollywood is a more assorted basket as far as these beliefs are concerned. It is a more cosmopolitan mix of screenwriters, directors and other technicians who come along from diverse backgrounds. Also I think Hollywood films have a more universal liking than Bollywood generally because they are made for a wider audience whereas Bollywood aims at Indian audiences in India and the rest of the world, generally. Language also plays an important role in reaching larger audiences. Technically, there is also a difference in the length, pacing, and the structure in which the scripts are written. Also, it is important to note that Indian audiences are very different from the rest of the world. Very often it happens that a Hollywood film which does great in the US may not do as good at the box office in India and vice-versa.
Hayter: Who are your favorite cinematographers and why?
Solanki: I admire the work of cinematographers like Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall, Roger Deakins, Christopher Doyle, Dion Beebe, John Toll, Wally Pfister, Gordon Willis, Rodreigo Prieto, Dante Spinotti and Bill Pope. From Indian cinematographers, I am a big fan of Binod Pradhan, Ravi K. Chandran, Santosh Sivan, Ashok Mehta, and Anil Mehta. I think they all have great skills in lighting and composition of course, but on a higher level it is how they perceive a script and transform it into compelling storytelling.
Hayter: What was the most challenging job you’ve had and why?
Solanki: I cannot think of one now. I mean of course there are many challenging things in every project we do, but most of that is planned in pre-production stages. I generally shoot films in many languages. Releve had no dialogue, whereas El Buen Amigo was in Spanish, Pashan Palvi was in Marathi, and Losing You in English. India speaks many languages! This is a challenge for any cinematographer because in the end, he has to interpret the script and create his own language on celluloid which is based on lights and shadows; where every audience can connect on an emotional level. Also I have had the opportunity of working with good directors who knew exactly what they wanted so I cannot think of any anecdotes.
Hayter: What is the future of cinematography, and film itself? The near future? Long-term future? What new technology should we look out for?
Solanki: As everyone knows that film is diminishing, as in film stock, digital technology such as Hi Definition and Blu Ray are definitely the near future. The beauty of technology is that you never know the long term future, because technology always takes us by surprise! One thing is for sure, media will get easier to access, through the internet via cell phones, laptops etc. making viewing an easier experience.
Hayter: And what is the future of Bollywood-Hollywood co-operation and co-production?
Solanki: I think Slumdog Millionaire is a good example. See the blend of technicians in it! I think Bollywood and Hollywood joining hands will be a giant leap for both the industries. It will be a great fusion of different sensibilities and techniques, coming together to tell a universal story with emotions for a worldwide audience. Both India and the US are vast countries, with cosmopolitan cities and people from all around the world and different cultures. India within Indians itself, is so diverse with so many languages, dialects and cultural behavior. This is just the beginning and I am sure it is one of a breathtaking journey!
About the Interviewer
Sparkle Hayter is a gori novelist and TV producer who has worked in New York Television and in Bollywood, and has a TV series in development in Hollywood with Producer Lynda Obst.