Meet Rajesh Khale: The man behind the camera for Lagaan and Dhoom

Cinematographer Rajesh Khale shares details about the biggies in an exclusive interview.

Keyur Seta

The director is the captain of the ship. But the audience watches a film through the eyes of the cinematographer or director of photography (DoP). Rajesh Khale has been behind the camera for 30 years in Hindi and Marathi cinema. He was also part of the crew of the magnum opus Lagaan – Once Upon A Time In India (2001) and the first Dhoom film (2004). In an exclusive chat with, Khale speaks about his journey and shares his experience on these landmark films. Excerpts:

How did you enter cinema?
As a kid, I was good at visualising and making stories out of collages. My father had a black and white camera, which piqued my curiousity. We used to stay in Dadar. So I used to hear a lot about Ranjit Studio and Dadasaheb Phalke. We were Dev Anand fans, so we went to see Guide. I couldn’t understand much due to my age, but I was fascinated. I used to wonder how they brought such colours and lights on screen. As I grew older, the standard of my collages went up. It became a means for pocket money. 

Meanwhile, I did well in essays and gained interest in reading, especially Alfred Hitchcock. My parents used to buy books for me for Rs15, which was a lot then. After graduating in science, I got a temporary job in the advertising agency Lintas, where I got to closely observe ace photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha. This reminded me of Guide. I started interacting with people from the industry and got an entry in Dev saheb’s Navketan Films for Avval Number, starring Aamir Khan, as an apprentice in the camera department. We started receiving Rs15 for travelling to Mehboob Studios after completing six months.

You come from a non-film background. How did your parents react to your decision to enter the industry? 
My father was surprised. In those days, people used to consider this field unusual. My mother stood by me like a rock and gave a lot of encouragement. During my low phase, my son Abhijeet has always supported me. He keeps saying that it’s fine; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

You were also part of the classic, Lagaan. Tell us something about that.  
It was a beautiful experience. It had a big star cast and unit. It was more interesting since a lot of talented people from different parts of the world had assembled for the film. It was professionally so well organised by Aamir Khan Productions. We used sync sound even during the cricket match, which was a big thing then. I still consider it an achievement. 

How challenging was it to shoot the cricket match in a realistic way?
It was challenging. To manage the crowd, record the actual noise, and take the actual cricket shots — it was very, very difficult. But Ashutosh Gowariker, main cinematographer Anil Mehta and chief assistant director Apoorva Lakhia made it so easy that I still feel it went off quite easily. We shot the match with 6-7 cameras. 

While you and the team were shooting the film, did you ever expect it to become a classic and enter the top five in the foreign language category at the Oscars? 
No, we hadn’t thought that. We were expecting it to be successful because we knew it was a brilliant film. This was possible because our team was superb. It was a pleasurable moment for all of us that it got selected in the top five at the Oscars.

Were you sitting with your fingers crossed when the Oscars were announced? How disappointed were you when the film didn’t win the award? 
Oh, yes! Who wouldn’t want a film that has his name in the credits to win an Oscar? I wasn’t disappointed. I think I would like to repeat what Aamir said — we lost to a better film. 

Since you were an integral part of the production, can you tell us why there wasn’t a single left-handed batsman or left-handed bowler in both teams? 
(Laughs.) I have never thought about this till date. I realised this just now as you asked. As we were technical staff, we never gave it a thought. 

There was no technical reason? Wouldn't you have had to move the camera to the other side of the pitch for left-handers? 
No. I have no idea about this. I will need to watch Lagaan again just for this reason (laughs). But I don’t think there was any reason for this. I will definitely watch Lagaan again. 

There were reports then that Aamir Khan had a rule that the team bus wouldn't wait if someone was late....
Yes, absolutely. His sole intention was that nobody from the unit should be left behind. It was a sense of responsibility that if the bus is supposed to depart at 5 o’clock, it definitely would. So in case you missed out, you would realise that the shoot was stalled because of you. It never used to get stalled though as there were enough people. But it was necessary to be so professional. The credit goes to Aamir for his corporate way of managing everything. This was the first time I saw such professionalism in Hindi cinema. 

You were a part of Dhoom too. The action scenes involving bike racing weren’t common at the time....
It was tough. The most difficult task was for Chopra saheb [the late Yash Chopra] to create such a production and get such bikes. They bought two models of each bike just in case one broke down. Coming to the shooting aspect, although we were professionals, it was very risky. We kept the camera in a jeep which used to run at the speed of 100 kph. It was surely thrilling. At times, we used to get tense due to the high-speed chases. But Allan Amin, the action director, did such a good job in taking safety into consideration. Abhishek Bachchan, Uday Chopra and John Abraham took bike-riding training before the shooting. 

From which film did you graduate as director of photography (DoP)?
It was with the film Hota Asa Kadhi Kadhi (2008). It was a Marathi film directed by Niranjan Joshi [and produced] by Outreach Media. 

Your film Jana Gana Mana (2012) was well appreciated. 
It was an interesting experience. We started shooting in November in Kolhapur. It used to rain a lot at that time. Our director, Amit Abhyankar, used to tell me that I would manage. So I had to say yes and I did manage. In the film, there is hardly one scene where you can see rain. We had to manage a lot technically through lights. As a cameraman, you can say humari haalat kharaab ho gayi thi [we had a tough time]. But it was a memorable experience. It was good to see Nandu Madhav, our actor, rehearsing with the kids and making them feel at ease.

How important is it for a director to know about cameras? Does it affect the task of the DoP?
It matters a lot. More than the technical aspect, it is important for him to have knowledge of lensing and angles. Having such knowledge is a big plus for every good director. 

Don’t you think the DoP deserves more credit, especially in reviews, since we see a movie through his eyes?
As a DoP, I surely feel he should get more exposure when the film releases. It is the DoP that shows you someone’s vision. The director is the captain of the ship. But his vision is understood by the DoP and he shows it to the audience. However, nowadays I have observed that people are slowly becoming curious about the cinematographer too.