Tech improvement after 1991 was no illusion

Liberalisation made it easier for filmmakers and studios to import the latest equipment. This has led to the look of films undergoing a sea change.

DOP Rajesh Khale at work

Keyur Seta

When finance minister Manmohan Singh set in motion the economic reforms programme in 1991, he changed India’s trajectory. Twenty-five years on, the change in the film industry is just as visible as it is in the country in general. While the reforms opened the world markets to Indian films, the bigger benefit has come in the form of improved access to technology.

How Indian cinema went global after liberalization

When liberalization changed film production and distribution in India

Liberalisation made it easier for filmmakers and studios to import the latest equipment. This has led to the look of films undergoing a sea change.

Director of photography Rajesh Khale, who was an assistant on Dhoom (2004) and has shot some Marathi films, explained, “People like Dwarka Divecha, VK Moorthy and Fali Mistry, who are my inspiration, didn’t get great equipment to work with. They used second-hand cameras. But after liberalization, the import duty on professional equipment was waived. SM Anwar, who shot Sholay with Divecha, used to show us a camera with 120mm zoom. Now, we have cameras with 500-1,200mm zoom. The quality of cinema has become a lot better. This is not to say it was bad earlier.”

Another visible improvement was the finishing process called Digital Intermediate (DI). “Earlier, we were able to control only red, green and blue colours in the negative print,” said Khale. “But after the arrival of DI, we were able to tweak the print digitally. In today’s films, we see a glamorous touch. Earlier this was possible only in a 30-second advertisement.”

Shekhar Sartandel, director of Ekk Albela (2016), said, “Digital cameras have solved the problem of costly film reels by doing away with them. They also allow us to enhance the visuals in post-production. In the old days, a cinematographer had to be a painter. He was able to contribute little in post-production. Today you can change the colour of someone’s shirt. In fact, if a person wants a more chiselled face, you can even cut his jawline. Or you can change the colour of the sky.”

Referring to import rules, Sartandel pointed out that in days gone by, Indian filmmakers had to wait for at least 10 years before they could get their hands on a technology that had caught on in the West. “Now we get the technology almost immediately,” he said. “Digital technology has become comparatively cheaper. For example, a medium-sized digital studio can be created here in Rs50 lakh, which isn’t a big amount. Earlier, we had to bring equipment from abroad.”

Sartandel mentioned 1942: A Love Story (1994), Barsaat (1995), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), Virasat (1997) and Jeans (1998) as films that are testimony to the technological improvement after 1991.

The magic of special effects
When Ketan Mehta was making Maya Memsaab in 1991, a story about an adulterous woman and her mysterious death, he struggled to arrange a single VFX sequence. A visit to Hong Kong for the purpose also bore no fruit. Ultimately, Mehta set up his own visual effects company, Maya Digital Studios, that year. Curiously, this coincided with the start of India’s economic liberalization.

“I felt ashamed that we are the largest film-producing country in the world and yet, as a filmmaker, can’t I have one shot I am happy with? Fortunately, at that time the digital revolution was beginning. Digital visual effects were becoming possible as technology was becoming available. India was opening up. Deepa [Sahi, actress and Mehta’s wife] and I thought we could realise our dreams the way we visualised them,” Mehta recalled at the inaugural Lonavala International Film Festival of India (LIFFI) in September.

Mehta soon realised that implementation of the idea was not as easy as its conception. Setting up a studio was one thing; finding people with the requisite skills to work there was something else. “So we started training animators,” he said. “Nobody in the film industry knew anything about it [at the time]. So we started India’s first science-fiction TV series Captain Vyom [which was telecast on the public broadcaster Doordarshan] to teach ourselves and the animators.”

In the quarter century since, animation and VFX have gained immense popularity in the film world. Pankaj Khandpur, creative director of the VFX studio of Yash Raj Films, yFX, believes that the end of the licence raj was a boon. “It opened the field for anybody who wanted to get into animation,” he said. “Before that, you had to get licensing and you had to be accredited with the ministry of information and broadcasting. And you needed a licence to import anything.”

Khandpur, who was earlier with Tata Elxsi, has been involved with the VFX work on a number of successful Hindi films like Dhoom (2004), Swades (2004), Rang De Basanti (2006), Taare Zameen Par (2007) and Sultan (2016).

A comparison with Hollywood is inevitable and Khandpur believes the Indian film industry is on a par with the West in terms of technology. “In terms of skills, we are getting there,” he said. “There is a lot of training required to get an artist up to his peak. Just because you have the same technology doesn’t mean you can do the same work. When it comes to the skills to create something, we are, maybe, 4-5 years behind. If you take a film like The Jungle Book, can you make that in India? Yes, you can. Can you do that in less time? Maybe not, because we don’t have enough skilled artists. This is because we don’t have formal education in this discipline.”