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On Lighting Warscapes
A cinematographer looks at war-torn Kashmir with his Scandinavian eyes.
How do you see a war-torn land?
There is both a political, and an aesthetic answer to this. (I wrote about the politics of depicting war, in a review of a show based on the Uri Surgical Strikes, Avrodh, that enthusiastically placed the military apparatus of Kashmir in the adulation-dripping front-center. A lot of the chest-thumping nationalists were pissed-off by the review, understandably. I didn’t a fuck, understandably, more-so.)
While the political question is dry and categorical (and also un-moored by reason or sentiment), I am more interested in the aesthetic question. It has been 15 years since Yahaan released, a love story between a Kashmiri girl and a Jawan (army person). Directed by Shoojit Sircar, it was shot by Jakob Ihre, a Swedish cinematographer. (He also shot the previous year’s celebrated HBO series Chernobyle that lit up Ukraine’s wintry greyness with radioactive sparks, silhouetting the cigarette smoke and exploding granite. One of the most beautiful shots of that show is when a group of families are by a bridge looking at the burning nuclear plant, with children in prams, worried in a way you would be if a nearby building is on fire. They don’t yet know what the disaster means, but its firefly like debris is cause for awe.) Yahaan was both Sircar’s and Ihre’s first film. Sircar met Ihre when the latter was in Delhi shooting a documentary for a European film-maker. He ended up shooting an ad for Sircar and then his first feature film. (Sircar would go on to find his unique visual and verbal naturalism in his later films. This one felt like poetry which he renounced for prose, seeing the former’s futility, narratively speaking.)
I was re-visiting Yahaan for a photo-essay on its frames which are unusually blue, as if saturation has been drained. (When I used to edit photos on Microsoft Photo Manager first, and then a pirated Lightroom, I loved the damp look of removing all colours but blue. The one below is one I took in Kolkata, standing on a wobbly rock between two streams of traffic, umbrella open and hitched between my ears and my shoulder. Though I love the photo, it is disconcerting how it reminds me, a bit, of the New York filter on Instagram, one I hate because it is so grainy and has been aptly described by Supriya Nair as “wet trash”.)
For me, this blueness was unusual because I was born and raised around untethered, abundant light. (Also never understood why ‘feeling blue’ was used for sadness, because the blueness I encountered were open cloudless desert skies which always evoked joy or boredom, never sadness. But then I learned about colonialism.) When I was reading Ihre’s interviews about Chernobyle, he spoke of using the sun for dramatic effect, and I was struck, how can you use something so mundane and freely available for dramatic effect? Which was when it hit me that he is Swedish, he has a different conception of lightness and darkness, and he brought in his lens of Swedish light, to capture that of Kashmir’s (which in films like Fitoor and Haider are seen alternatively as white during chilai kalan and red during pathjhad).
In fact, in a short film he was the cinematographer for, before Yahaan, Rasikan Re, his discomfort with Indian light and complexion is very obvious. The film alternates between black and white, and faded colour, but the sense of excitement in his shots of abundant light and sunlit silhouettes perhaps, in retrospect, betrays something Scandinavian.
This is an exciting cultural synthesis, bringing unfamiliar light into familiar landscapes.
It reminded of Madame de Stael’s book Corinne, a culture war between the South of Europe, abundant in light, passion, eloquence, and imagination, and the North of Europe, severe, melancholic, and cold (with the French as fools, stuck in between).
[T]he people of the South picture death in less sombre colors than the inhabitants of the North.
The fact is that our conception of life, light, and love, is so deeply rooted in how we have experienced life, light, and love. And so the act of cinema, by being a collaborative medium (as opposed to fine art or photography which is individual-centric), becomes radical: conceived by a writer given their imagination, directed by a person with their inherited unique take on the writer’s imagination, then captured by a cinematographer whose conception of light adds more individuality into this artistic potluck, and then of course, colour correction. (The recent brouhaha over Netflix making its Mexicos and Indias “yellower” in post-production, is a great example of how one’s experience, vicariously or otherwise, of foreign countries informs one’s art; there seems to be this idea of Indian light being jaundiced.)
This idea of different cultures seeing light differently exists even in art history. We have seen when Renaissance artists and their art from the North, with severe ideas of meticulousness (minuteness and precision was something it shared with photography that would come centuries later), mixed with or found an audience in the colourful lack of “painterliness” in Florence, the results can be quite ecstatic, such as those of Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck.
The blue-dappled frames of Kashmir, thus, feel to me more likely to reflect Ihre’s Sweden than Kashmir. (It also makes me think of how Poland and Siberia are passed of Kashmir in films like Fanaa and Uri, each of these countries with distinctive lighting, different from that in Kashmir.) It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think so, at least. But it is something that is rarely pointed out, or studied.
And to come back to the question I started with, how do you see a war-torn land? I have to come to believe, that it is through the stories told to those who tell the stories of war. (Storytellers are not just those who tell stories, but also those who are fed stories, and it is perhaps incomplete to look at the storyteller’s stories, without thinking of the stories the storyteller was told.) If you look at Sircar’s Kashmir without thinking of Ihre’s Sweden, then perhaps, the Kashmir you have absorbed, is incomplete.