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From Devdas to Million Dollar Arm: In Conversation with Photographer Ishika Mohan Motwane

The talented photographer who has successfully straddled Bollywood & Hollywood

About her career, Star Wars, Bruce Lee, shooting on film…and lots more!

Ishika Mohan’s love for camera work began while taking photography classes in Los Angeles, but her entry into the world of movie still photography happened entirely by chance. Visiting the sets of Devdas in Mumbai’s Filmcity to meet her then boyfriend (now husband) Vikramaditya Motwane (of Udaan and Lootera fame), she was asked by director Sanjay Leela Bhansali to shoot stills on a trial basis. It took only a few days of her work to convince SLB that she was the woman for the job – Ishika was formally hired and continued to accompany the crew through the rest of the filming.

In the 12 years since that first break, Ishika ended up working on several other prestigious projects in Bollywood – including Veer Zaara, Wake Up Sid and her husband’s two films. She also got her big break in Hollywood with Slumdog Millionaire, and went on to work on Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the recently released Million Dollar Arm. With such a diverse portfolio of work, Ishika has firmly carved her niche in the world of still photography.

My Big Red Bag caught up with the bright and vivacious photographer to talk about Bollywood, Hollywood, why she loves shooting on film…and lots more!

The Beginning

I temporarily moved to Los Angeles in 1998 after completing my BA in Economics. While in LA, I enrolled at the Santa Monica College for classes in marine biology, environmental psychology and photography – with a dream to join National Geographic! It only took me a few months to fall head over heels in love with the medium of imagery.

I returned to Mumbai after finishing my course and assisted Atul Kasbekar, the renowned fashion photographer. Working with him taught me several aspects of fashion photography and I am eternally grateful to him for my first break.

After a year of working with Atul, I went back to LA for another batch of courses and did some small assignments on the side. When I returned to Mumbai, Devdas was being shot in Filmcity – you know the rest!

Life as a still photographer

The role of a still photographer is to document the film from beginning to end – the pictures I take are used for hoardings, PR shots, press releases, interviews, CD covers, marketing brochures – you name it. So most productions like to have the still photographer on set all the time. The biggest challenge in this is to capture the soul of a scene – be it anger, love, despair or flirtation – and do this as unobtrusively as possible. I know I’ve done a good job if someone not associated with the movie can hazard its essence simply by looking at the stills.

Being on set all the time also gives me the opportunity to take working stills – candid pictures of all that happens behind the scenes, from the cinematographer setting up his equipment to the choreographer pushing for yet another rehearsal. Film directors are a great subject for the candid camera – I really enjoy capturing their various moods and emotions through the entire journey of making the film!

On an average, I spend at least 12 hours on set in a day – and sometimes the producer might also request us to work overtime. I end up taking thousands of stills as part of a shoot – I go insane sorting and tagging them, and wish I could outsource this job to someone!

Lootera movie still Ishika Mohan Motwane

Approach to photography and artists she admires

My approach to still photography for movies is to ensure I have a bouquet of images that convey the spirit of the film. Mostly I like taking these images by wearing my invisibility cloak – basically shoot while the scene is being rehearsed or enacted, rather than asking the actors to hold the scene for a few extra beats. So you can say that there is an honesty to my stills – I capture the story as it enfolds rather than second guessing it in advance.

The list of people I admire will be longer than this article! I have deep admiration for the stalwarts of photojournalism – Henri Cartier Bresson, James Nachtwey, Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh and Sebastian Salgado. We photography students hone our craft by studying their work, and it is difficult not to be moved by their passion and devotion to photography. I’m also a big fan of Annie Leibovitz, and admire the earlier works of Dorothea Lange, Mary Ellen Mark & Margaret Bourke-White – all of them were pioneers in their own ways. Amongst my contemporaries, I really like what Anusha Yadav is doing with the Memory Project.

The most challenging film, and the most fun!

I’ve had a fantastic time on all the films I’ve worked on – each movie had moments that made it unique and memorable for the people working on it. But if I have to choose, then Slumdog Millionaire and my husband’s first film, Udaan, will be the ones that I found the most challenging – and fun!

Working on Slumdog Millionaire pushed me in so many ways – mentally, physically and creatively. It was a terrific learning experience and a turning point in my career. Representing the film at the Oscars was a fabulous moment – what made it even more memorable was a special screening of my stills at an art gallery in LA right before the awards, and I am grateful to Fox Studios for giving me the opportunity to showcase my work on an international platform.

My second most favourite film is Udaan. This was my husband’s first feature film so apart from playing the role of a still photographer, I was also helping him out in any way that I could. We had a gruelling schedule of 42 days – of which 21 days were non-stop – so it was physically exhausting but it didn’t end with the shoot; we would often be working back home too!

Udaan Ishika Mohan Motwane

Favourite shot and story behind it

Some of the first few working stills of Udaan that we sent to Anurag Kashyap after two weeks of shooting are my favourite shots. These pictures were meant to convey the story and spirit of the movie, and I guess they succeeded because Anurag agreed to produce the movie ( Editors’ Note: Vikramaditya Motwane may be the toast of Bollywood today but he had a hard time finding financiers for Udaan – the movie got made when Kashyap agreed to chip in)

Working with Vikramditya

Vikramaditya and I are best friends who’ve known each other for such a long time that we understand every nod and tic of the other. I know how his mind works and I can often gauge what he wants even before he says it. I also think it’s a privilege to watch a director and his craft from such close quarters – I have the best seat in the house!

I am very honest in my opinions with him and I’m glad he encourages feedback from his crew – but I also respect that the final decision lies with him. With every film with him, I feel like I grow creatively too, which is great for my career!

vikramaditya motwane still

Advice for budding still photographers

The hardest lesson I have learned is that you are never done learning and with every film you learn a little bit more. To elaborate, I am always nervous before a film shoot. I know there will be some days that just don’t work out – you keep trying but don’t get a single good still. What I have gathered from these days is to keep trying – sometimes you break through the obstacle, and sometimes it’s ok to just let things pass.

It’s also important to remember that you are only as good as your last piece of work. I cannot hold on to old projects – however good they may be – nor can I afford to be complacent. Instead, I look at every new film as an opportunity to produce even better images. I guess this holds for everyone pursuing a career, but it often gets forgotten, especially by those who’ve tasted success.

Indian vs. International films

They are not that different from each other! Both have a common vision – to tell a story in the best way possible. What varies is the process of film making – and that has more to do with the personality of the director and his vision for the movie rather than his nationality. For example, director John Madden has a very British sense of humour, and I think it helped him bring together his cast of legendary actors on the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and many more). It was an amazing experience to watch them work tirelessly in the heat of Rajasthan with unflagging enthusiasm.

One difference is that Hollywood projects are crafted on bigger budgets and so offer better pay, but even that is changing now. Several Indian producers understand the value of a good still photographer and are offering very competitive salaries.

best exotic marigold hotel ishika mohan motwane

Other movies she loves

I really enjoy watching period films – especially in black and white – from both Bollywood & Hollywood. There was a sense of innocence and passion in the way movies were made then that I think we have lost over the years.

I love how imaginatively The Coen Brothers shoot their films. Two other directors who use colour really well are Wong Kar Wai and Terrence Malick – I was very moved while watching the former’s In the Mood for Love and the latter’s Tree of Life.

I also remember how stunned I was when I first watched The Thin Red Line – I felt I could hear the silence!

Wish list of Directors

So many of them! From Hollywood – Terrence Malick, Christopher Nolan & The Coen Brothers.

In Bollywood, Dibakar Bannerjee & Anurag Kashyap (though he’d never have me on set :-)

I also have a few cinematographers on my wish list – there is so much to learn from them during a shoot.

Some quick ones:

Bollywood or Hollywood?

Ooooooh! I enjoy watching movies from both industries and I’ve had so much fun filming with both – so I don’t think I can choose! One thing that the Indian film industry can learn from international cinema is the willingness to take risks and the desire to constantly push the envelope.

Lootera movie still Ishika Mohan Motwane

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Damn! How about the Old Star Wars and the new Star Trek 1.

Beatles or Elvis?

I like the Beatles but never got into them like I did with Floyd and Led Zeppelin. So if I had to choose, definitely Elvis!!!:)

Film or Digital?

FILM!

I miss shooting on film. Shooting on film requires tremendous versatility – taking extra care while shooting because it’s so expensive; switching between Black & White and Colour film or between transparencies and negatives. And knowing all the while that there are no second chances, no option to review and no software to correct – what is captured is the final product. It was a beautiful time and I really hope we start shooting film again soon!

Finally Ishika, if you could go back in time and have dinner with a person from history, who would that be?

I’d love to have a meal with Bruce Lee. He was my first hero when I began learning karate in the 5th grade. I loved his devil-may-care attitude accompanied by his agility, mental strength and sound teachings. All of these are qualities I’d like to have even today!

And there are so many other sportsmen who I’m dying to meet – especially football legends and tennis players. I’ve got tons of dinners to look forward to !! :-)

All pictures are the property of Ishika Mohan Motwane. You may link to the article and images but please do not reproduce without prior written permission.

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3 Comments on From Devdas to Million Dollar Arm: In Conversation with Photographer Ishika Mohan Motwane

  1. Hi Hina, Thank you for posting this interview. Quite an insight into the working of a still photographer in Bollywood.

  2. Hey ! Hina

    Liked The Way You Have Presented ! Appropriated !

  3. Thanks Hina for a lovely article.Thorouly enjoyble & true .I can proudly say I happen to be Ishika”s Dad & possibly indirectly she got involved in Photography as she saw me life time photographing any thing to everything. So right or wrong I am Proud of her prowess in Photography & what she is doing.WE had the pleasure of seeing rather organising the Exibition of Slum Dog millionare photographs in the Arts Gallery & later in Santa Monica College.Truely credit for that goes to elder sister Anjini Mohan At Los Angeles who pulled all the stops to ensure that it was a success . CommanderS C Mohan ,VM

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