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Akshay Kumar in a still from ‘Airlift’
Akshay Kumar in a still from ‘Airlift’

Priya Seth’s camera work stands out in ‘Airlift’

Priya Seth's work in 'Airlift' conveys enough tension without going over the top

New Delhi: Having belted an estimated 72 crore within five days of release, Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift is poised to cross the 100 crore mark soon. The film, based on the massive evacuation of Indians from Kuwait during the 1990 Saddam Hussain invasion, has also been garnering generous reviews.

Standing out among the taut storytelling and heartfelt performances in the film, reviews say, is the camera work by Priya Seth. Lauded for its raw, real, understated and non-melodramatic look for a film that deals with war, Seth’s work conveys enough tension without going over the top.

In an appreciative piece, Firstpost mentions, “Fifteen minutes into Airlift, in a very simple, quiet, slow motion sequence, a defeated looking, bearded Indian man drives past the burning city of Kuwait. Young Iraqi army men, barely in their teens, are out on the streets, guns in their hands, with the power of Saddam Hussein’s terror in their walk. The torturous sights of a city under siege continue to be seen in the rear view mirror of the car. One of the first thoughts you have as a viewer is that camerawoman Priya Seth’s story-centric cinematography is deeply compelling in Airlift."

Interestingly, Seth is one of the few female cinematographers in the industry today. Apart from Anjuli Shukla, who is till date the only woman to have won the National Award for Best Cinematography for her Malayalam film Kutty Srank (2010), the other women controlling the camera are B.R. Vijayalakshmi, Savita Singh, Pooja Sharma, Deepti Gupta, Fawzia Fatima and Ranu Ghosh.

Seth, who has never been to a film school, says the filmmaker wanted Airlift to be grounded and real. “Even in the action sequences, we didn’t want to do any slow motion or high-speed stuff with cars or people flying around crazily. In these kinds of situations in real life, before you blink, the action is over. That is one of the things we wanted to do by design and I’m glad we achieved it."

Seth and her team shot for about 50 days across 50-60 locations and prepared for nearly three months before that. References came from everywhere—journalistic pieces, books, paintings or from other members of the team who had ideas to share. The last of these explains why, in Seth’s words, the film had “a unifying visual and not eighteen competing ones". She also says her copy of the script resembled a scrapbook with one of the sides printed and another blank for her to jot down thoughts about visuals or stick pictures she may have found during research.

“The canvas is big and we’ve told a big story but this is not a massive budget film. It was very hard for all of us to deliver with that kind of pressure. So when we went on set, we knew exactly what we had to do. We didn’t start discussing stuff there or the night before, we had done it long ago." she said.

Seth has shot commercials for the last 18 years for brands like Pears, Parachute, Dove, Café Coffee Day and several others. She has worked with Airlift director Raja Krishna Menon on several of them, her first being for a car from the Ford company. The two also collaborated on Menon’s previous feature film Barah Aana that released in 2009. However, unlike the indie, Airlift was a studio film. And Menon had some serious convincing to do.

“He really fought for me to shoot this film," Seth recalled. I don’t come from a Hindi film background. I hadn’t shot anything big. But he was very sure from the beginning that I’d be able to deliver what he wanted from the film."

Menon said that he could trust Seth as a director who wanted his vision to be shared by his team. “I don’t really need to explain a shot to her," he said. “We share a great comfort level. She’s intelligent, she works and prepares very hard. Plus she’s always pushing herself. I lean on her abilities a lot."

The director says a less important factor was that he believed she, as a woman, would view violence differently than a man would.

Seth believes the negligible presence of women in cinematography today is a matter of opportunity, not talent. In her professional endeavours, she has never been treated differently from a man on a film set.

“There are tons of women cinematographers in India. You don’t hear their names because they aren’t getting opportunities to go upfront," she said. Traditionally, it’s been believed that technical jobs can be done only by men. “If Airlift proves that there is no distinction between the kind of films women and men can do, then to me that’s the victory of the film," she said. “We’re both simply standing there with a camera. If it were a 300 kilo thing, I couldn’t carry it, nor could any man."

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