Interview with Cinematographer

“Truth about films is as elusive as the truth of life”Tanmay Agarwal is a renowned cinematographer who has been part of award winning documentaries such as Final Solution and Tell Them. Final Solution is a study of the politics of hate. Set in Gujarat during the period Feb/March 2002 – July 2003, the film graphically documents the changing face of right-wing politics in India through a study of the 2002 genocide of Moslems in Gujarat. It was banned in India by the Censor Board for several months. The ban was lifted in Oct.’04 after a sustained online campaign.

In this interview, he gives us his take on his films and the various difficulties faced in the making of the films. He also gives a word of advice to the FTII aspirants.

Q- Please give us your take on Final Solution? And as a cinematographer, what did it mean for you?

A- I can speak all night. We are living in an increasingly intolerant time. Films like Final Solution dig deep into our own prejudices and problems rather than pointing to the unsavoury other. It is therefore a joy to embark on such journeys. As a cinematographer on a documentary it is a doubly difficult journey for the truth has to be recorded on the fly, clearly and artistically. You have to be at the peak of your skills, alert and ready and human always human.

Q- Were there any specific problems which you faced during the making of the film?

A- I will leave that to your imagination. It was hairy, a few times. Mobs, police harassment, misguided missiles, sometimes well guided too, from both sides. The maw of the devil.

We had to shave our intellectual/Muslim-looking beards midway through the shoot to build up the comfort factor in some very suspicious times.

We were independent filmmakers shooting during the run up to Gujarat elections that year. Of course we stuck out like sore thumbs. But Rakesh [Sharma] had picked up a time for shooting when media has the full run of the scene and politicians are vulnerable to the chance of free publicity.

The best is that our countrymen can’t help talking. They are the people who give the truth between the rhetoric and the hyperbole.

Q- Had such a strong reaction in India against the movie been expected while the film was being made?

A- From the word go. Actually, it is one of the wonderful things about our country that films like Final Solution can be made and seen. In many parts of the world, we would have disappeared by now. It touched a chord with people across ages. It and other such efforts are sure to have contributed to a hard look by the Indians at the proceedings during that period. The events since then have only crystallized the stances of people, which is fine. At least there is less pretence amongst the fence-sitters that any one side is better than the other.

Q- Could you tell us about some of the other movies you have made?

A- There is Rakesh’s maiden film, Aftershocks, A Rough Guide To Democracy, almost a black comedy on the machinations of state owned mining corp to usurp the lands of earthquake victims who are sitting on lignite deposits.

Tell Them The Tree That They Planted Has Now Grown is a documentary on a native Hindus return to Kashmir after the 1989 exodus. Between it and Final Solution, I witnessed both ends of the divide. Then there is a little jewel in the rough, called Still Life which my friends still use as text book material to explain space and time in their film classes. Tell Them is available online at and Final Solution is available on Youtube in bits.

Q- Any message you have for those aspiring to go to FTII, and the youth in general?

A- All of you who are aspiring to get into film making via film school, it will do well to remember that truth about films is as elusive as the truth of life. Schools can only teach you as much. But there is something to be said about formal training. Work hard, watch and analyse fims like a man behind the scene. Have the patience to watch quality films. I find the plethora of viewing opportunities galling. I did not see Tarkovsky till I was in IIIrd year of Architecture. Now it is available at the corner store. But you don’t have the patience to see.

If you make it to the orientation course, be yourself.

They will spot you if you have it in you.

Compiled by
Shravya Jain