'Kareena is boringly beautiful'
Sameer Belvalkar's (inset) story could well be what Bollywood stardust is made of. Having shot for big movies like Jodhaa Akbar, My Name is Khan and now, We are Family, it's impossible to believe that this 34-year-old photographer started his career only six years ago!
Belvalkar claims that photography happened on a whim.
"Photography was never a hobby," he says. "In fact, I gave up my job and then picked up the camera without any knowledge of how to use it. I referred to books, researched on the Internet; followed other photographers' work and in eight months, I got my first Bollywood film."
Belvalkar takes us through some of his great stills.
Image: Kareena Kapoor
'Pictures form an integral part of We Are Family'
Tell us about your latest film We Are Family.
I always wanted to shoot Kareena (Kapoor) and Arjun (Rampal).
In the film, Arjun plays an international fashion photographer and that by itself, gave me a large canvas. This demanded the characters' house to have numerous photographs displayed -- that gave me the rare privilege of doing numerous photoshoots with Kajol, Arjun, Kareena and the kids every few days in Mumbai as well as Sydney.
Each shoot was different as we needed shots of Kajol being pregnant, her younger days, college days of Arjun and Kajol and candid shots of Kareena which Arjun's character would have shot. The pictures form an integral part as the movie ends in a climax song, where big screens are put up.
Image: Arjun Rampal
'I don't think Aishwarya can do what Kareena or Kajol can'
You've shot with some beautiful women like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Kajol and Kareena. Tell us your thoughts and what you see behind the lens.
Apart from being any photographer's delight, all three of them are in a different league and genres. I don't think Aishwarya can do what Kareena or Kajol can in terms of fitting in the role and doing justice to it, and the other way around. They are immaculate from behind the lens. They know exactly how to pose, and how to get the best expressions and body language. So the photographer's job becomes easy. All I had to do was to direct them a little about angles.
They have perfect faces with perfect bodies and tons of experience doing this. So in a way, no matter how you shoot them, the pictures almost always come out well.
Jodhaa Akbar was a period film, with (Ash wearing) grand outfits and jewellery. She helped me get whatever shots I needed. She's a thorough professional and that's one reason why the publicity shots turned out so great.
Kajol, in My Name Is Khan and We Are Family, would give me most of the shots that I needed. This, despite the fact that I didn't think she was fond of still pictures. Working with her became even more special when I got to know that I no one has probably got as many stills of her as I did.
Kareena had always been my dream shoot. She is what I would call boringly beautiful! What I mean by that is that she looks stunning no matter how you shoot her. In spite of being such a big name, she has been the nicest person I have shot and interacted with. She loves to face the camera and sometimes would go through the pictures on the laptop. What more can any photographer ask for? Some of her black and whites shots have been my personal favourites.
Image: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
'Kajol will do whatever it takes to do justice to her job'
This is the second time you're working with Kajol.
My experience with Kajol has been really good. She is extremely professional, very punctual and a powerhouse of talent. She will do whatever it takes to do justice to her job. In fact, all my photoshoots with her were smooth, to the extent that I got a lot of inputs from her regarding clothes, backgrounds, the mood of the pictures etc.
I had worked with her on My Name is Khan so there was some comfort working with her again in We are Family.
'I froze when I was put in front of Hrithik with a camera'
You've worked with the best looking men of our times -- Arjun Rampal, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan.
Hrithik was the first big star that I shot and honestly, I froze when I was put in front of him with a camera. I could barely open my mouth to tell him about the shot, forget taking a picture! But in spite of being reserved, it was immensely easy to work with him and he was really interested in how the pictures come out.
Image: Hrithik Roshan
'SRK gave some of the best candid pictures'
SRK is God. I was never a fan until I actually met him for the first time when I shot the look test for MNIK at his house. I haven't seen anyone so composed, down to earth and humble. He has that aura of a superstar around him, and he totally pumps up the energy on the sets.
What I love about SRK is that he would always give great suggestions for pictures and have unique ideas. Once he got used to me taking pictures after almost every shot, he would actually call for me if he wouldn't see me around so I don't miss the photo opportunity.
I have actually got some of the best candid pictures of him and he wouldn't mind being shot off the set, not many actors prefer that, but with SRK I would be completely trigger happy.
Image: Shah Rukh Khan
'Arjun has a very peculiar laugh that is tough to miss'
Arjun Rampal is the dude! He is just so much fun on the sets -- always up to some mischief or pulling some pranks. He has a very peculiar laugh that is tough to miss.
Arjun is any photographer's delight. He was always ready to pose in between shots. Having ruled the ramp and the modeling world, he knows exactly how to pose and make it work for a photographer. I've shot numerous spectacular black and whites on the schedule of We Are Family and these are the ones that I have got maximum appreciation for.
Image: Arjun Rampal
'The biggest challenge of We Are Family was to break the ice with Kajol'
All your films have had a wide scale and very different from each other.
For films I prefer shooting outdoors, as indoors for days on end, could get monotonous. It also depends on your bent of mind. Also on a lighter note, when you are shooting outdoors when the sun goes down, you pack up... so no overtime!
Jodhaa Akbar, being a period film, I had enormous scope to just look around and shoot anything, anywhere given there existed a good frame everywhere. The grand sets, intricate clothing and jewellery made it even more special. It was a high energy film -- we shot three different war scenes with a few hundred extras, there were camels, elephants, horses, weapons... Such a film happens only once in a while.
The challenges were in shooting the action and war sequences where I couldn't ask a few hundred extras to redo the act only for the still shots. Also, the climax duel was difficult to shoot as it was packed with energy. I couldn't frame or focus or get a good shot without getting a blur because of the motion it involved.
MNIK was a delight to shoot -- Beautiful locations in the US, a lovely cast and a superb unit. Karan Johar was amazing to work and interact with.
Honestly, the biggest challenge of this film was to break the ice with Kajol because she isn't fond of still pictures. It took a while but then all went well. There were times where sometimes we would have two units shooting two different scenes in two different locations. Just knowing what's going on where, shuffling between two units and locations and deciding what's worth capturing was a big challenge.
We Are Family is close to my heart, as it demanded a lot from me. A debutant young director, a young and vibrant cast and a small but energetic crew set a completely different level for creativity.
The challenge here was low light conditions. Most of this movie is shot indoors, except for the songs. The Director of Photography loved using low soft light which looked beautiful for the film camera and gave it a nice shallow depth but it would kill me as I had to operate at really low shutter speeds. This meant hardly any candid shots. Neither could I shoot during rehearsals. It was quite a challenge.
Image: Karan Johar, Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan
'Karan was the best to work with'
So you have worked with three different directors with varied level of experience. Help us understand what they demanded off you from the film.
Ashutosh Gowariker knew exactly what he wanted and he had a say in everything. His support was probably the one thing that helped me get such good shots. When the stills are important to the director, the entire unit cooperates. Actors normally resist posing for the stills as they have got their shot and they quickly want to move on to the next scene. In spite of that, I got pictures for almost every scene in the film and ended up shooting some 40,000 pictures.
Karan was the best to work with. Anyone who works with him closely relates to him. He has the best sense of humour which would ensure an easy energy on the sets. He is one of those young directors who is not very difficult to understand professionally. He would give you complete creative freedom to think. I just had to tell him whichever shot was important to me and he ensured that I got it.
Siddharth Malhotra is almost my age and that makes it very easy to relate to. He was very clear that there shall be no compromise in the publicity of the film and that gave me good hand with the shots. He is extremely chilled out and had a lot of ideas about the shots. It helps when the leader of the group is telling you exactly what you want. It makes your job easier.
Image: Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan