Hiroo Keswani : Delivering The Cinematic Vision

Hiroo Keswani is a phenomenal cinematographer with an impressive portfolio of work to his credit. Be it ad films, features, TV series… he has done it all. In addition, he also teaches at FTII Pune and is giving back to the community of young upcoming cinematograhers. He is one of the most articulate cinematographer I have met in recent times. Hiroo shares his cinematic journey in an exclusive interview with Broadcast & Film

Tell us about your journey as cinematographer… What inspired you to venture into cinematography?

In school and College, the leaning was towards dramatics, theatre.. During a summer workshop,with Bhanu Bhartiji, at NSD Delhi, I met an amazing bunch of NSD acting graduates., one of them, Sunil Sinha guided me towards the possibility of honing a specialization from FTII Pune and then the desire to do Cinematography from FTII was born.

1984 - 1987- the 3years when my film school FTII, Pune provided me with film making knowledge, with specialization in Cinematography,
`Anukram’ - my Diploma Film project for my batchmate Director Anik Ghosh It started then and is continuing till now, the pursuit for excellence in every project I took, to hone my talent as a Cinematographer, for every challenging opportunity, thrown at me by my various talented Directors...Giving visuals to their cinematic vision! Many Corporate films, Documentaries, various TV serials and Feature Films....(main DoP: Sssshh, Bhram, Oye Mama, The Answer and now Torbaaz ) and second unit DoP ( Munnabhai series, 3Idiots, Tasveer, Mausam, PK, Bang Bang to name a few)

It has been 25 and more years since one started and to add to the early achievements and laurels, the venture into Aerial Cinematography (corporates, car commercials, golf courses, marathons).. work on that has reduced to a trickle as tech changed and Drones came in. Shooting from helicopters is now considered a long drawn process especially in India due to excess of rules and regulations

'The Answer' was my fourth feature and the third outing with Pavan Kaul with whom I share a special bond as a formidable cinematographer - Director team. I won two International Cinematography awards for my work on ‘the answer’.

Latest is ‘Torbaaz’ starring Sanjay Dutt and directed by Girish Malik, released on Netflix all over the world.

I have also been part of three workshops on restoration and preservations of Films with Film Heritage Foundation helmed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur in guidance with Martin Scorsese and FIAF.

What are the top five works, which you feel, are your most challenging. Be it feature films, ad films, or any other genre. Tell us about the interesting challenges about any such project.

Focus has been more on Feature Films & before that TV channel work till one got a break..
Occasional Ad films kept happening in between.
The most challenging was my debut feature
‘Ssshhh’ directed by Pavan Kaul..
Before that the kind of work done on TV with Pavan Kaul and few others was quite challenging too.
I did two spots for Channel V shot on 35mm & 16mm respectively, which were directed by Kamal Swaroop and one of them, in which lighting it up was a big challenge, was appreciated by the channel too. The set was made at the Natraj Studio floor and it was fun lighting it up.
Every work is a challenge and every new day there are butterflies in your stomach. But if your homework is done well and you have ‘read’ the script well, ten minutes into the shoot day and you are flying. The day has to start well, to keep the momentum going so that you have a grip on your crew.

Tell us about the creative process you adopt with respect to lighting and photography. Is there any specific school of thought that you follow?

Whether there is actual source to be followed or an imaginary source of light, it governs the logic attached to it, as per the script. You have to understand the mood, the scene as it is written and convert it into a visual defined by the contrast as a deciding factor of why and how to light up those shot, the scene.
I do photography in my free time and enjoy practicing my exposures and compositions along with.

What do you prefer to shoot...more of feature films or web series….What is the difference in shooting either of the genres?

Working on TV series prior to feature films, what mattered most was speed.. but not at the cost of sloppy work. When work on features started, the speed which was helpful in the TV work, came in handy.. Initially the films one got were not big budget ones, but the work had to look grand. My debut ‘Ssshhh’ and then ‘Bhram’ both had its challenges and I had an able support from my Director Pavan Kaul.
I like shooting both .. a feature as well as would love to shoot a web series too. Your crew has to be in sync and your focus puller has to be an ace in his job!
I had both.. an amazing US crew and ace focus puller on ‘the answer’ shot in the US and in Romania. The look of the film was previsualized and we stuck to our shooting style on the set and tweaked it further during DI at the post production facility, Reliance Media Works and the films vfx was done by RedChillies.

How do you use the post-production stage to fine-tune the images? How has DI evolved over the years?

Since I am from the celluloid era( relic or old.. bah!) the discipline to use the eyes and the light meter continues. To accommodate what the eye saw while shooting an image either through a Film Camera ( negative film ) or a digital camera using a Sensor, the mathematics changes.. to see and record the same. To accommodate the large dynamic range of all the million colors and its contrast , available to us during shoot, called scene referred color space, the dynamic range is adjusted according to camera manufactures color profile assigned to their respective sensors. Then you get into two different aspects of image manipulation..finally finishing it for the display rendered color space and they are:
Color Correction - just balancing your image for getting the brightness, shadows and contrast right as you shot it
Colour Grading - more for the aesthetic reasons or you can say for creating that ‘Look’ of the film.
First one can be adjusted and corrected as you sit during digital image manipulation but the ‘color grading ‘ is a pre-planned, well thought of approach much like pre-visualisation prior to the shoot..
Lot goes into testing the color of costumes, to make up and production design decisions, to help constitute and finalize the look of the film and the key mantra is to just Test, Test and do more Tests.
Your Colorist is your Ally, your shrink.. you will have to own up your mistakes during shoot and even your good decision too, for him to show you the final result as desired. But unless you as a DOP have not done your homework and not finalized or worked on your ‘look’, there are no last minute solutions. Then it’s just guesswork and desperate attempts to give the image some kind of half baked tonal Looks, which clearly shows up as a mistake. I have learnt the DI process through mistakes as I was not able to get good post production set- ups in few of my initial films.
My debut film as a Cinematographer was ‘Sshhh’ directed by Pavan Kaul and produced by Cinevistaas. It was finished in post as a film print release and was a very satisfying experience, doing the negative processing and grading at Prasad Films , Chennai, one of the best in India.
On my second feature, I had to deal with uncaliberated monitors and no projector facilities at a post production place. I never gave up on it and continued to pursue to draw out the best possible results even though the process was a harrowing one. I still have a copy of an email from the owner admitting how much work I got out of them. That’s necessary because as a cinematographer I am answerable to my Producer and my Director as far as visual excellence matters.

Oye Mamu, too was planned to be finished traditionally as print release, but the delay in release saw a digital release rather than a print one.

Most satisfying was working on `The Answer',
helmed by Pavan Kaul and produced by Kavita Kaul and Kriya movies.
The DI was done at RMW, the same team which now works at COLORS, RedChillies DI facility. The look of the film was facilitated by the colorist Tushar Jadhav and Ken Metzkar according to the way the costumes, make up were used and also the way it was shot. I got two awards for Best Cinematography for `The Answer’ at two International film festivals, one in London and the other in LA.

The last feature that I did, `Torbaaz’ was creatively satisfying, directed by Girish Malik and produced by Clapstem and Wave Cinemas. It’s a Netflix release.
There the biggest learning was to try and break away from ‘good’ & ‘beautiful’ to a more rugged cinematography look. My work along with the content and execution of it by its director Girish Malik was appreciated a lot.

Bottom line : working on the DI of any film, the work really looks good if one has done the pre-shoot planning, testing and then the final tweaking of the images during color correction.

Have you been inspired by any international DPs?

Yes, the work put in by Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storraro Darius Khondji.. to name a few, is inspiring, superlative and stuck somewhere in my subconscious.

What are your upcoming projects? Which genre do you enjoy the most? Is it films, ads or web series…?.

The uncertainty during and after the Pandemic was an eye opener.. I took up the job of contractual faculty as Associate Professor Cinematography at FTII and during the lockdown phase, was deputed further to NFAI for their NATIONAL HERITAGE MISSION in helping them scan & digitize their 5000 plus celluloid acquisitions and also the student films of FTII, SRFTI and FILMS DIVISION respectively, shot on celluloid.
Scanning and restoration of films is indeed a very time consuming process. I have been a part of 3 workshops by Film Heritage Foundation and Martin Scorsese initiative on Film Restoration and Preservation.
I had helped restore 2K/ 4K versions of all Vinod Chopra films specially Parinda, which took 3 years to restore. This was prior to the FHF workshops as mentioned above. Later did Restoration of Chashme- Buddoor, produced by PLA films where there was a method to it as learnt during the workshops. I had a continuous support of producer Jayshree Makhija and DOP Virendra Saini.
I work on the restoration jobs as a designated cinematographer , basically a third eye .. and I insist on showing the final restored work to the actual DOP, before signing off the project. I also ventured into Aerial cinematography, owning the only stabilizer from Tyler Camera Systems, Tyler mini Gyro, the first in India.
The technology changed fast and now people prefer to shoot with Drones, as the permissions for aerial shoot from helicopters take almost 3 months by DGCA, the aviation authority in charge of aircraft flying movement within India. With the current Drone policy in place, registered Drone operators are given permissions easily to facilitate fast turnaround for aerial shoot

After the pandemic and lockdown, things are opening up in Indian filmmaking scenario and i am gearing up and getting ready for a couple of web series and a feature or two too. My liking is for the thriller genre, which has immense possibility for me as a cinematographer. The camerawork should not shine out but should visually justify the story idea and complement in its presentation by the Director. Filmmaking is a teamwork.
I hereby take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank each and every assistant and film making personnel like the light men, gaffers and AD’s and production assistants, who have worked with me in all my projects and also thank all colorists and post production houses for the time spent with them, learning the ropes while finishing the films for release. Could not have done without them.
With all the Directors I have worked so far, I have been fortunate enough to have gained their trust to safeguard their vision with my visuals. Look forward to more such associations.

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