The country’s most wanted stills photographer Avinash Gowariker takes stock of our film industry and the importance of creating an image.
There are many who have literally lit up the camera and I thought they would make it big. A few did and others fizzled out. It is all about that X factor. Something you immediately see in someone like Deepika Padukone. – Avinash Gowariker
The picture speaks a thousand words. Bearded and bespectacled Avinash Gowariker is seen showing his finished stills to Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao. His arm is slung over Khan, and the latter shares an easy smile. The shot indicates the camaraderie between the two that goes beyond the frame and the reputation the photographer has earned as the most wanted stills photographer in Bollywood. Gowariker, also known as Aamir Khan’s favourite lensman, shrugs off his position with, “It’s just that I don’t have a creative ego. I give credit to my personality for the simple reason that I can communicate with them so well.”
Getting a break
A college dropout who toyed with model portfolios from the age of 19, Gowariker’s big break came on the sets of his uncle, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Baazi. “Ashu wanted me to take a few stills of Aamir. Aamir was really impressed with those photographs. Then there was no looking back,” he says. Khan was his first celebrity client and from then on, Gowariker was on the priority list of every actor. From Amitabh Bachchan to Ranbir Kapoor, his list is impressive and they in turn tweet about his talent. A post from the Big B goes, “Finding delight in shooting with the affectionate Gowariker.” The most telling aspect of his CV remains the envious rapport he shares with the three Khans. “I just feel that they are the chosen ones by God. They are the ones who are looked upon. I won’t say it is mere talent. It’s an X factor and fascinates me. I can feel that aura every time I am with them,” he confides.
The movie connection
Interestingly, all his work is linked to movie stars. So even when he dabbles with fashion, it is for Bollywood’s darling, Manish Malhotra. “Fashion shots are creatively fulfilling as more than the face, it is important to bring out the beauty of clothes. All the elements come together one by one — the model, the crew, the make-up artist, lights, wires, stands and finally the camera. They create a momentary, buzzing self-contained universe,” says Gowariker, whose recent portrait of Ritu Kumar came in for much praise. Print ads are only for those that feature his select league of actors. For instance, Gowariker has been on board for all the four seasons of KBC’s ad campaigns.
“Shooting KBC with Bachchan was a challenge as each time, I had to bring out something that has not been done before,” he reveals. Then comes the many Khan collaborations. His rapport with Shah Rukh Khan extends to Gauri and the kids as well. Recalling Gauri’s first ad shoot with her husband for D décor furnishings, the lensman says, “Gauri was actually more difficult to shoot than Shah Rukh as she has very strong likes and dislikes. But finally it turned out to be fun.” For Aamir Khan, he has done the popular Samsung and Satyameva Jayate promotional ads.
His Coke ad campaign with Khan’s nephew, Imran Khan, is just as popular. That apart, he is excited about the challenge of recreating film posters. “There is a drama inherent in shooting genres like film posters as well as Portraiture, Editorial and Fashion, where human beings are carefully “arranged.” With posters, there is a thrill in recreating a scene from cinema. For the movie Chennai Express, Khan and Deepika had to recreate the fun element without making it look artificial,” he recalls.
Stars and others
Though he isn’t a trained photographer (he learnt on the job), at 42, Gowariker admits it is crucial to do a basic course in photography. “You can only learn theory but you cannot be taught composition or vision,” he says. Who is easier to shoot? A star or non star? “I would say it is easier to shoot stars more than ordinary people.With the former, you can get away with mediocre skills as a photographer,” he laughs. So what connects with these actors apart from the camera. “Simple communication skills. I handle them with care and try to be on the same page with them,” he maintains.
Catch them young
It is said that you have not started your journey to stardom, till you get your first portfolio shot. “It is the first time you see yourself on celluloid. But I think because of the camera phone and other mediums, it has become easier, compared to even 10 years ago. I would still say there was a charm and anticipation in waiting for those first prints to develop. I remember Ranbir’s (Kapoor) first shot, it was on my terrace. But I knew he was born for the camera,” he recalls.
Being a lensman, is it easier to spot a star in the making? “It is not that easy to predict such things. There are many who have literally lit up the camera and I thought they would make it big. A few did and others fizzled out. It is all about that X factor. Something you immediately see in someone like Deepika Padukone,” he offers. And dealing with star tantrums? “I never had to deal with that. It is simple, either they like you or they don’t. So with me they never try it. Or they delay a shoot because of genuine reasons. For instance, Aamir Khan will not shoot if he thinks he will look tired or haggard in front of the camera. Stars are well adjusted,” he reasons.
Behind the scenes
Spontaneity: I would rate Deepika high on my list along with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan.
Memorable shoot: My first shoot with Aamir Khan for Raja Hindustani. It was shot on the Pune-Mumbai highway road.
Idol: I look up to Richard Avedon. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, from 1940s to 2000s, he has been radical. He is tuned to every period, even the digital era. It is his simplicity and his ability to pull off a shot without gimmicks. Then there is Gowtam Rajyadyaksha who takes simple clean images. And he gets along famously with all stars.
Favourite equipment: Nikon, Canon, all kinds of cameras. I am unemotional about my camera. For me, it is just a medium that is required at that point of time.
Location: I love good air conditioned studios with all creature comforts.
Best school for wannabes: Bhartiya Vidya Peet School of Photography in Pune.
Shah Rukh Khan: Extremely spontaneous and energetic without being cynical. He is open to ideas.
Aamir Khan: He doesn’t like surprises. He likes to be prepared well in advance and sits on the selection of pictures and is very finicky about how he likes to shoot himself.
Salman Khan: He is the third dimension to the Khan circle. He is supremely confident and he will only do what he wants and ultimately he will get it right. He is also technically intelligent. There is a subtle carelessness in Salman when he poses and he is not bothered about his looks.
R BURMAN – After training under some of the best lensmen in the world, he started shooting on his own in New York and worked with various publications and brands. Then he moved to Vogue India and it has been a spectacular journey since. He has photographed for most of the leading magazines and brands in the country. He has also shot some of the most renowned faces in Indian cinema. R Burman shares the joy of creating a great blend of art and commerce.
You have to have a mental connect. You need to know what they like and how they like to be seen, what music and food they like, since that defines their personality a bit. – R Burman
Most difficult aspect of professional fashion photography?
It is not the photography but in trying to convince the client. It is in selling them a concept, style and treatment that is unusual and different. Somehow, most of them seem to be averse to change.
You have captured a lot of top notch Bollywood actors, what do you find intriguing about them?
Although I have shot a lot of actors, I don’t approach them as celebrities at all. It’s more real and fun to shoot them as they are.
Do you think it is important to create a personal rapport with these stars to get the best out of them?
Of course. You have to have a mental connect. You need to know what they like and how they like to be seen, what music and food they like, since that defines their personality a bit.
Do photo shoots serve as a makeover for stars?
Sometimes, yes. The stars will want to show a different image of themselves. Or when they want to play a different character, they will work on that character. The images naturally will need to speak of that character.
What did you learn from masters like Steven Klein and Mark Sleiger in NY and LA?
The one major thing I learned from them was to always believe in shooting what I would believe to be a good picture. And never compromise. It has to make sense to me as a project. And somehow I have to keep my fire alive.
Where do you get your creative inspiration from?
My inspiration is from multiple things, sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s stuff that you see everyday on the street. I also involve heavily in researching other photographers and artists. I dedicate at least a good two hours every day on researching international publications and photographers.
What makes a perfect portrait?
Portraiture is a very sensitive space to photograph. There has to be a very unique space and vacuum that I need to create with my subject. It should be just me and them and nothing else should matter. That’s when we start getting good pictures
Most spontaneous face you have shot?
My favourite star to photograph has always been Sonam Kapoor. Her face is just perfect.
I love my Hasselblad but recently I have been using a Leica M9 and am in love with it.
I love London, somehow it’s so soft and there is so much character and variety in that city. But the the weather is awful.
What’s a signature Burman shot?
It will definitely have some blurs in it. It has to be a moment when the subject is at his or her most comfortable and natural self.
Most memorable photo shoot till date?
My first shoot with Vogue India.It was a tiny portrait that I had to do of Monisha Jai Singh, the designer. She later became one of my most loyal and loved clients.
Best college you will recommend for young aspirants to learn photography?
I went to Brooks institute, so I am biased. But yes, the best way is to assist.
- Neelima Menon