Shehnad Jalal's philosophy is to capture the purity and simplicity of an image. He won the State award for cinematography for his debut feature film.

Shehnad Jalal, who just won the State film award for the best cinematographer (along with cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan), creates images in exciting times when even reel purists are seduced by the digital intermediate world. A few days before Shehnad won the award for ‘Chitrasutram' the very first feature film that he shot, ‘A Pestering Journey' (directed by K.R. Manoj), the video of which Shehnad had shot on an Canon HD still camera, won the National award for the best investigative film. It's an intriguing coincidence, but Shehnad says that's all it is: a coincidence.

Intricately-crafted images

‘Chitrasutram,' which recently won the Padmarajan Puraskaram for its director Vipin Vijay, is an intricately crafted world of brooding, hyper-real images that reflect the dark, inner self of the protagonist. The visual universe of the film is unique for its comfortless palette of colours and shadows that wrap the viewer in a blanket of disquiet.

Thematically, it contrasts with ‘A Pestering Journey,' a creative inter-mapping of two very real ‘objective' tragedies: the inhuman outcome of aerial spraying of endosulfan in Kasaragod, and the use of pesticides in Punjab. But for Shehnad, the genre difference between documentary and feature film, or the subject as such, is of less significance. “It's the visual treatment that matters,” he says. “There's no real or unreal, it's what you create.”

‘Chitrasutram' (while shot on 35mm) consciously projected the hybrid visual world of our time, using digital video, webcam, and still camera in its brilliant experimental montages. In the morphing world of image-making, Shehnad remains, as he calls himself, “traditional,” preferring the film camera despite his command over newer languages. “There's that moment,” he says, “when something you shot on film gets projected on screen, and you see it for the very first time.” The answer, as conventional as it is, says a lot about Shehnad's artistic persona.

Cinema is in his soul. Born in Thiruvananthapuram in 1978, Shehnad says cinema waylaid him somewhere on the town's main road, on the daily circuit between the Museum and Statue Junction. It's an answer that's intelligible only to a few thousands, spanning several generations, who have since the 1970s been initiated into world cinema classics through Kerala's film screening societies. Thiruvananthapuram, then as now, was the hub of the film society movement, and many masterpieces would be screened in the Museum auditorium, followed by avid discussions down the street. That's how he began taking still photographs, a hobby that eventually weaned him away from a Commerce degree and, with his father's support, got him to the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata in 2002. At SRFTI, Shehnad found he'd already watched many of the classics, and what was new was the DVD scene where he found new favourites: directors Wong Kar Wai, Takeshi Kitano, Jim Jarmusch, and John Cassavetes.

It's not that 32-year-old Shehnad grew up without Bollywood or Hollywood. What remains integral for him is the idea of cinema as the “work” – the final finished revelation of pure perfection. The belief in the transcendence of the work as a whole makes this cinematographer both traditional and radical at the same time. “For ‘Chitrasutram,' every shot was set up, rehearsed, improvised, to get what we wanted.” It's the meticulous dedication to the “final work” – to the director's vision of the destiny of an image – that perhaps makes Shehnad's cinematography so striking at so many moments. “To capture the purity and simplicity of an image – that's my philosophy.” That distilled concentration gives the best of his work, evident in ‘Chitrasutram,' its peculiar trance-like quality.

It's then not surprising that Christopher Doyle, who shot Wong Kar Wai's ‘In the Mood for Love' and ‘2046,' tops his choice among international cinematographers along with Roger Deakins and Robby Muller. Among his favorite Indian cinematographers are Venu, with whom he worked as an associate for two years, Ranjan Palit, and Sunny Joseph.

Looking forward

Shehnad's shot everything from ads to promos, working on pace with the production at hand. “I look forward to new journeys, new people, and new experiences.” Arguably, it's that sensitivity to newness that has led him to take on very different projects.

Someone would have been very, very proud if he had lived to see the headlines. Shehnad's father, A. Jalaluddin, was well-known in the film society network, and it was his friendship with filmmakers and cinematographers of the time that finally persuaded him to send Shehnad to SRFTI. Shehnad remembers how his father gave him his film society membership pass, telling the organisers: ‘From now on, he'll see all the movies instead of me…'

Keywords: Shehnad Jalal