Did you take note of that stunning bike chase in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero? Or the new-age war sequences in Aditya Dhar’s Uri, where the camera seamlessly switches between frantic dolly shots to hand-held? Bollywood’s new wave of young, audacious cinematographers believe in transporting the audience right in the middle of the action. Carrying the baton from veterans like Anil Mehta, Binod Pradhan and Sudeep Chatterjee, this young batch includes the likes of Mitesh Mirchandani (Uri), Pankaj Kumar (Tumbbad), Sylvester Fonseca (Manmarziyaan), and Siddharth Diwan (Trapped & Bhavesh Joshi Superhero). Among these talented (relatively) young men features Jay Oza, the eye of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy.
Described by his director as a ‘beast’ with a knack for intimate storytelling, Oza’s street-cred begins to make sense once you take a closer look at his impressive resume. He’s done pretty much everything from The Dewarists (documentary/reality show), MTV’s Bring On The Night & Ghoul (limited series), and then gone on to kick-start a film career with Raman Raghav 2.0.
With a mainstream Hindi film like Gully Boy being based in the heart of Dharavi, both Oza and his director understand the repercussions of an *outsider’s gaze* on their subject matter. “It’s my fourth film, and by now I know the importance of not having a ‘Bandstand gaze’ on the protagonist of our film,” says Akhtar.
Oza recounts how he, Akhtar and the film’s production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji had long discussions about the film’s colour palette, and their collective aversion to collapsible sets. All effort was aimed at making the storytelling as authentic as possible, without necessarily stressing on the paraphernalia. In a conversation over the phone Oza says, “I didn’t want to shoot in a way where it comes across as – ‘look at this bechara, doing cool things in a slum.’ It’s not a slum for him, it is his home. This could be Brooklyn, Paris… it just happens to be Mumbai. I think the theme of Gully Boy being about a boy’s ambition, who just happens to be from a neighbourhood called Dharavi, has a universal appeal.”
A lot of Oza’s prep for shooting Gully Boy, comes inadvertently from shooting his first feature film – Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 “I still remember something Anurag told me on the first day of that shoot, that he needs to be able to smell the place in my shot. I need to be able to capture the aroma of the locality in my visuals. I didn’t quite understand what he meant back then, but now it makes a little more sense.”
Filmed in guerrilla-style across slums in Antop Hill, Kurla, Dharavi to Kandivali, Oza started to look beyond the same-ness of the slum neighbourhoods. “There is fixed colour scheme of a locality, you know? A lot of the slums already have a distinct production design, where there will be an orange wall with a green pipe, and a little Ganesh murti in front of it. In fact, I would just tell my team that let’s just toss the camera in any random direction (of Dharavi), and wherever it lands will be our frame.”
From his days as an assistant director in films like Rang De Basanti & Jodhaa Akbar, Oza’s career has seen quite a steady progression. Disillusioned with his ambitions in direction and production, Oza decided to make use of his education in Art History & Aesthetics and immersed himself in a short course in cinematography in Prague. Fresh out of film school, Oza shot the behind-the-scenes for the first NH7 Weekender as a favour to a friend.
Jay Oza’s signature lies in the way he uses lights, and his disdain for making everything visible like in a mainstream Hindi film. “He’s confident about the way he uses the available light on location. Also, he has a great sense of mise-en-scene,” says Akhtar. It’s something Oza credits to his Dewarist-days, where he was mentored by a British cinematographer called Fred – “I believe in negative lighting. Which means, I rarely put additional lights to bring my subject into prominence”
Oza is a self-professed disciple of British cinematographer and Hollywood great, Roger Deakins. “Whenever I’m depressed or feel a lack of inspiration, I watch one of his interviews on YouTube. He constantly changes things up, and this constant need to update one’s ‘software’ is something I try to bring to my work too.” Oza states his inability to shoot Bollywood’s glitz-and-glamour songs as one of his biggest limitations – “I keep saying in my head that I will never do a ‘commercial film’. But I’m aware that it’s a matter of time, before I sell out.”
Shooting a film with two of Bollywood’s biggest stars in the country, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, it’s strange that Oza doesn’t consider Gully Boy a ‘commercial film’. Which he clarifies saying are still the Simmbas, the Welcome and the Dhamaal franchises. Those films, he says, require a completely different skill-set. Film personnel like Jay Oza will be integral to bridging the gap between commercial and art-house cinema, by what they choose to depict and how they choose to go about it.