Atul Kasbekar is a renowned fashion photographer who has worked with some of the biggest names in Bollywood. Today a celebrity in his own right, he also own a celebrity management company named Bling. Kasbekar recently donned the hat of a producer, with his first film Neerja, which was a commercial as well as a critical success.
In conversation with Guardian 20, Kasbekar talks about his passion for photography, and about why he thought the tale of Neerja ought to have been told.
Q. You started your professional career as a photographer with your studio named Negative Space. What made you want to become a photographer in the first place?
A. I was studying to be a chemical engineer in Mumbai. I realised that at the end of it all I’d probably be the world’s worst chemical engineer and had to do something else. A wise man advised me to do something that I enjoyed because it would never feel like work and I asked myself what made me truly happy. The answer was taking pictures, and that’s where when my journey as a photographer began.
Q. You have in the past worked with very senior models. What’s your view of today’s modelling industry?
A. I find too many of the models are clones these days, and very few of them have a distinct identity of their own and as a result you cannot tell one from the other.
I strongly believe that people who are a little bit different whether in look, personality and attitude are the ones who could break through and become supermodels from just being a model.
Q. How viable is photography today as a professional career?
A. After having shot for 20-something years, I find photography in a state of flux. On a broader level with the advent of the camera phone, and more sophisticated camera technology, the fact of the matter is that the photographic process is becoming a lot more democratic. At the professional level, photography has moved more and more away from the dark room on to the computer, and if your imagination permits it you can create the visuals. When I started, it required a certain amount of technical expertise to be able to create an image. When I say technical expertise I mean with the lighting on camera. If you have the prowess now in post-production, it compensates for any lack of technical knowledge at the photographic space.
Q. You took training for over a year in Los Angeles and worked with photographers like Dennis Gray, Ron Slenzak, James B. Wood and Jay Silverman. Do you think India lacks good photography training schools and institutions?
A. To be honest, India at least has photographic training schools and institutions now. I haven’t visited them to have an in-depth opinion about how good they are compared to the ones abroad. Having said that, I feel that any school is good enough if you want to take the best out of it. Case in point being some of the biggest names in Indian photography haven’t had any formal photographic training. For that matter, there are a lot of people who had training from exceptional institutes around the world and are unknown today. So there’s no guarantee that having gone to an institution will result in success or vice-versa.
Q. Nowadays, everyone seems to carry a camera and likes to click pictures. What is your take on it? And also your view on the art of the selfie?
A. I am really happy that more and more people are taking pictures and I just wish that even more people would create images. But there’s a difference here. The mark of a professional photographer is that you create more images
As far as the youth are concerned, the ultimate social disease is the “selfie”. I can’t believe that some people have actually lost their lives while taking them. At one level, I find it positively intrusive as a
Q. What would be your advice to young photographers?
A. To young photographers, I would just say one thing that photography is a passion-led profession. As a result, if you are not completely immersed in the process of creating an image then please don’t do this for a living.
Q. You have recently produced your first film Neerja. Why did you choose to become a producer?
A. The process of becoming a producer actually was fairly organic. Since we were already in the talent management field, negotiating deals for people — it made logical sense to produce a film. We were also quite fortunate that the right set of people seem to cosmically come on board and make Neerja happen.
Q. What inspired you to make a film on the story of Neerja Bhanot?
A. Neerja is the story of an unsung hero. This girl has been honored with bravery awards by three different countries: USA, Pakistan and India. She is the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra at the age of 23, and the first woman. The Ashok Chakra is India’s highest award for bravery during peacetime. So it bothered me at one level that nobody knows about her existence and very few people remembered her story and I am delighted that now the name Neerja Bhanot will likely not be forgotten.
Q. How has your response been to Neerja’s success? Did you expect such a positive reaction from the audience?
A. When I think back now, pre-release I took a piece of paper and wrote down every single department and input that had worked on Neerja. I realized that there was absolutely nothing that was lacking in any way in any department. So if you have given a 110% at every level, then there’s not a whole lot else you can do other then sit back and watch. From day one, I was certain that we would make a motion picture that we would be proud of. Nobody makes a film thinking that we are making an “important film”. The fact that Neerja has resulted in a popular conversation long after its release is extremely gratifying.