Going beyond gender to tell a story

Going beyond gender to tell a story

With movies like Airlift and Chef to her credit, cinematographer Priya Seth is breaking gender stereotypes in the Indian film industry, writes Candice Yacono

Priya Seth

This year marks the first time a woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar for cinematography — Rachel Morrison for Netflix’s Mudbound. Cinematography, which is essentially about a movie’s images and how they are captured through camerawork and lighting, was the only technical category in which the Oscars had never nominated a woman.

But, after 90 long years, this glass ceiling has finally been broken by Morrison, whose works include Confirmation and Black Panther.

In the spotlight

Halfway across the world, Priya Seth, a cinematographer, is one of the women breaking gender barriers in India. Seth, who has worked in the film industry for about 19 years, says the high point of her career was working on Raja Krishna Menon’s 2016 film Airlift, starring Akshay Kumar.

The big-budget action movie, which was a runaway success at the box office, catapulted Seth into sudden, unexpected fame. But Menon had to fight to hire Seth for the job. “There was a lot of resistance in the beginning,” says Seth.

Cinematographers, also known as directors of photography, usually serve as the directors’ number two on set. The job requires artistic talent as well as technical knowledge to manage the lighting, shots and crew members for each scene, along with the ability to heft an unwieldy camera. There were doubts about the ability of a woman to manage such a physically demanding job. “But I pick it (the camera) up the same as everybody else,” says Seth.  She was pleasantly surprised by the admiration she received from critics and film buffs. “I got hired for that job and it turned out to be quite a breakthrough,” she says. “It did extremely well. I was actually caught off-guard. Suddenly, I was getting a lot of attention. I guess I was the first (woman) to shoot a major Bollywood film. But my work was what got the recognition.”

Dabbling in film-making

She says the film and its success finally allowed her to stop questioning her abilities. “I was able to say, it’s not about a lack of talent; it’s about a lack of opportunity. Since then, it’s been different, to say the least.” Her most recent project was again with Menon, with whom she has worked several times. It was Saif Ali Khan’s Chef, that released in 2017. Seth has also shot commercials for well-known brands.

Seth was born in Amritsar and moved to Mumbai with her family when she was young. She studied Economics at St. Xavier’s College, before going to New York University (NYU) to take a six-month filmmaking course. “Maybe, if I had any idea of how difficult it would be, I might not have done it,” she jokes. “When I decided I wanted to be a cinematographer, my NYU professor said, ‘I know this is gonna suck, but take it in the correct spirit — cinematography is not a career that women get into, even in the US.’”

Seth stuck to her plan regardless and says her experience at the university was profoundly impactful. “It was fantastic, and was such a fundamental foothold and base, I think, into my formal study in film-making. I wish I had done much more than I did,” she says. Seth was shown that a career in films wasn’t merely a job; it was an entire universe. “You don’t get to turn it on or off, whether you’re a film-maker or not,” she says.

When she returned to India following her time at New York University, Seth says she was fortunate to be hired by someone who specifically wanted a woman assistant cinematographer. She became one of the very few female assistant cinematographers in the country, just because someone gave her a shot. “I think, if you have one half of the population whose voices aren’t heard, you get very skewed stories,” says Seth. “A story is about empathy at the end of the day. If you’ve got a woman shooting war, is she seeing it differently? What does violence look like from a woman’s point of view? Both sides need to be explored.”

 Seth says she is hopeful that when women’s stories are told more, women will be able to watch or read them and think, “I’m not the crazy one. Other women feel this way too.” Seth doesn’t expect immediate developments. Instead, she says, a larger problem must be tackled. “There’s going to be no sudden systemic change,” she says. “That requires changing the mindset everywhere. Not just in film but all over the country.”

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