At the heart of great cinema lies great storytelling – and a monumental collaboration between masters of various fields. Cinematography is an absolutely vital and underrated cog in the process of filmmaking. Recent hits like Birdman did bring the beauty and skill of camerawork into the spotlight, but for the most part cinematographic accolades and appreciation remain firmly within filmmaker circles. An art form without which filmmakers cannot truly achieve their artistic vision, cinematography’s lack of recognition is a strange irony not lost on the people behind the camera. Especially given this paradox, a young image-maker like Shreya Dube and her work stands out in sharper contrast than ever.
Cinema has historically always told stories of women, with women, but rarely have they been told by women. It’s only in recent years that a global shift in cinematic sensibilities has occurred, with more and more female directors and writers carving space for themselves behind the camera as well as in front of it. The kinds of stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them are vital in determining how society will evolve.
Mumbai-based Shreya, a warm, vibrant woman and fearless artist, understands this well. In conversation and through her work, she consistently emphasises the importance of filming through a “female gaze,” challenging the traditional ways in which we view women on the big screen, sometimes even subconsciously.
“I am very particular with the imagery in my films – when there’s a lot of nudity, I want to do things differently. It’s so important for me to show women not through a male gaze – especially the way they fuck, or touch, or show their breasts,” she says to Homegrown, explaining that as a public we are so used to seeing women’s bodies in a commercialised and objectified way in most mainstream media. The intimacy and beauty of showing a human body, particularly a woman’s, is evident in her work as she consciously stays away from a fetishized and voyeuristic way of filmmaking.
Shreya’s visuals are breathtaking and evocative in equal measure – each frame is carefully thought out, composed with meticulous detail and maximised in its mis-en-scene. She has worked on two short films of her own, as well as a music video for Imaad Shah’s first EP. Mostly recently she worked on the Slamdance-nominated Cat Sticks, a black and white feature film set in the gritty, rainy Calcutta of the 1990s, directed by Ronny Sen. Over a freewheeling conversation about her journey as a cinematographer, we covered ground on everything from the challenges she faces in a field dominated by men to the immense joy she gets from pursuing her passion everyday.
“I’ve always loved cinema. I was obsessed with Hindi films when I was growing up. I’d force my sister to re-enact films with me – she’s a brilliant filmmaker herself now – but that’s where my love for visual imagery and photography came from,” Shreya reminisces in her cosy Bandra apartment. She tells me about an old curator friend of hers who suggested she might prefer to make diptychs or triptychs instead of single photographs – officially marking her transition into the moving image.
Shreya studied photography in Melbourne and went on to train as a cinematographer in Paris – influences that are prominent in her work. “I look for where I can capture the emotion in the shot in the best possible way,” Shreya tells me when I ask her how she creates her distinct aesthetic. “I think I have a high emotional quotient and every project for me has its own visual language.”
The uniqueness of film as a medium is predicated on its visual element, and cinematography is the visual language of poetry and imagination that transcends social, cultural and political barriers. It’s not surprising that Shreya has a diverse range of visual sensibilities but is still perfectly clear on what her personal favourite compositions are. “I love darkness, low light, silhouettes and blackness. I love my handheld camera and I love shooting on film, less digital,” she says, trying to put her striking, almost French film noir-inspired images into words, as she enthusiastically shows me clips from one of her favourite films, Sombre, as well as some beautiful male nudes from her work on Cat Sticks.
The way she frames her nudes in this film are particularly refreshing and different from most conventional cinematography. “It’s subtle, but the image has to work with or without the penis – that should not be the central focus of the frame,” she explains. It’s precisely for this reason that we need more inclusivity in the media industry. But in India and abroad, it’s still uncommon to see female cinematographers becoming household names. This, however, was not a trope that Shreya allowed to plague her journey.
“When I was young, I was never exposed to the ‘you’re a girl and it’s going to be a problem’ narrative. It’s always been an issue and we have to keep fighting for that kind of equality, but I am all about not getting bitter and resentful. I keep my head down and work really hard instead of getting stuck in feeling sorry for myself. If my work is good enough, it will speak for itself. It cannot be ignored,” Shreya says without hesitation.
Still, the journey within the Indian film industry was fraught with it its own kinds of challenges. “When I was starting off, it was super difficult for me to approach male DOPs if I had any technical questions or so. I was terrified about being judged and I was nervous,” she recalls, explaining that her confidence increased with time and the more experience she got, the more specific her questions became and the easier it became for her to ask them.
Last year, the Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective was created to showcase, encourage and support women in the field and to challenge the stereotypes and hardships they face, particularly for young women entering now. “It’s a really warm, ego-less space that helps me and so many others incredibly,” she says fondly, adding that there were likely many difficulties she faced without even knowing about them, because they probably happened behind closed doors. “The jobs I lost to men because of a ‘bro code’ or some implicit bias, I don’t know. It never happened face-to-face, but I’ve heard stuff. I don’t want to waste time thinking about it. Yeah, it’s a catch 22 situation – you need a portfolio to get work, but it’s hard to get a portfolio when people don’t give you the opportunity – but what I did was find money and keep working on my own projects.”
Making your own projects is no easy task, of course, with financial concerns being only one of many. Shreya tells me her idealistic 22-year-old self chose to come back to India from Paris to join a transformative generation of artists and activists who have been steadily emerging over the last couple of decades. “I was broke for a very long time. It has taken me ten years to be comfortable. I want to live in a humble way, I don’t need to be rich or anything,” she says frankly, emphasising the need to stay positive and pick projects carefully.
“I always chose to be broke rather than to overwork myself. I only picked projects that I could really contribute to, that resonated with me, rather than doing things I didn’t give a shit about just for the money,” she continues, adding that there are always good periods and sometimes incredibly bad ones. “Of course when you’re dead broke for six months and don’t get work even when you know you’re pretty decent… that’s rough. But that’s just what we do as freelancers. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Shreya’s candid reflections are sure to be relatable to a large number of budding freelancers across creative fields. I ask her if she has any words of motivation to get through the particularly difficult moments. “To me, the meaning of success is really getting to work with such incredible people,” she says with unmistakable passion as she praises each individual person she’s worked with. “You can’t do this medium by yourself. You just keep hustling, and remember that everyone is hustling. It took me a while to get here, but build on what you are best at, focus on it and become the best version of yourself.”
“Oh, and if you want to be a cinematographer, make sure you take care of your body and have a strong core and shoulders,” she adds with a huge smile. “You never know when you’ll be asked to run with a really heavy camera for ten minutes straight.”
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