Award-Winning Cinematographer Aakash Raj on Art, Technique, and Continuous Growth

Aakash Raj Featured Image

Have you ever wondered why some videos instantly draw you in?

So did Aakash Raj when he would watch television shows as a child and try to sketch them. Now a rising star in the cinematography world, Raj has shot six feature films, nearly two dozen short films, and worked on hundreds of commercials, all in just eight years. His feature film, “Three and a Half,” is available on Netflix, and his most recent short film, “Arabian Alien,” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We sat down with Raj to learn about his work, advice for aspiring cinematographers, and how the rest of us can make our own videos look just a little bit better.

1. How did you become interested in cinematography?

“I was a shy kid and my favorite activity was to sketch the TV shows I watched. I had a deep love for arts and I always knew I would pursue filmmaking. I learned film editing right after my 10th grade, which helped me understand the filmmaking process. Since the artist in me was never satisfied with editing, my fascination with creating images led me to cinematography. Cinematography helped me express myself and made me grow as an individual.”

2. What do you think makes a cinematographer great?

“Apart from being technically sound, the cinematographers I admire most are great storytellers. Each person is the product of their own life experiences. For a cinematographer, it is essential to draw on these experiences to tell the story effectively. This personal touch helps them narrate compelling and emotionally touching stories.”

Aakash Raj Image 2
[Photo Courtesy of Aakash Raj]

3. Can you give us an example of a filmmaker who adds a personal touch to their cinematography?

“Andrei Tarkowski. His thoroughness with his craft makes it mesmerizing and even spiritual. He is a master of mise-en-scène, so he arranges scenery and staging beautifully, and loves to stay in a single shot for a long time. The greatest part about it is the way he choreographs his characters’ movements with the camera’s movements. This shows the characters in the right emotions without much editing. I was very much influenced by his work in ‘Ivan’s Childhood‘ while I was shooting ‘Three and a Half.'”

4. You have worked in both Bollywood and Hollywood. How do the two compare?

“In the Indian film industry, shooting a film might look disarrayed and full of mayhem to an outsider, but everyone knows their role and there is some sort of harmony in the chaos. Due to the large number of people involved in the process, it is impossible to maintain silence or give the actor their space to get into the character or build the right emotion. There is also more room for spontaneous creative changes. In Hollywood, the filming process is very systematic and planned in advance. The sequence is always Block, Light, Rehearse, and Shoot. Both systems have their pros and cons, as different methods of creating art.”

Aakash Raj Image 3
[Photo Courtesy of Aakash Raj]

5. What do you wish people knew about cinematography?

“Cinematography is not just camera movements and lighting. It is more than using the right equipment at the right time. It is an art of storytelling through a visual depiction of the characters and the story in the right emotion. People need to understand that cinematographic language can be very subtle yet create high emotions for the viewers.”

6. What advice do you have for aspiring South Asian cinematographers?

“With discipline and continuous effort, everything is possible. South Asian artists have done amazing work and there are many role models for us to follow, like the cinematographers Santosh Sivan (‘Dil Se…’) and Andrij Parekh (’13 Reasons Why’). We have a wealth of culture, music, and art that is very sophisticated and ancient. This allows us to bring a unique perspective to the stories we tell, and makes them shine.”

7. What about for the rest of us, who don’t aspire to be professional cinematographers, but regularly take videos on our phones?

“The basic task is to find the right light and the right camera angle. By learning about lighting, you can take your visuals a notch higher. Try understanding your preferences by watching good movies and seeing what master cinematographers have done. Then experiment accordingly. Editing your footage afterward is an essential step you should not skip, because you learn more quickly from your shooting mistakes. Whether it is for social media, your friends, or conference calls, my best advice is always: KEEP SHOOTING!!”

[Read Related: Filmmaker Sam Chatterjee on Tackling ‘Taboo’ Topics Onscreen for All Cultures]

8. What are you working on next?

“I am preparing for a dramedy feature called ‘Vintage’ which will be shot in New York. I also recently completed production for the feature film, ‘Thursday’s Child,’ and the pilot episode of the TV show, ‘The Human Experience.’ Both are in post-production now.”

9. Where can we find your work?

My recent feature film, ‘Three and a Half,’ can be seen on Netflix. You can find trailers to some of my features, commercials, and short films at I am also very active on Instagram where I post daily behind-the-scenes footage of what I am filming. You can get in touch with me if you have any questions on my handle @aakashraj1.

By Joy Batra

Joy Batra is the Founder of Quartz Consulting, and a passionate advocate for freelancers. Quartz has advised startups, venture capital … Read more ›

‘The Romantics’: Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Yash Chopra With Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra

The Romantics

If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking. 

I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.

— Smriti Mundhra

As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.

In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.

For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.


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At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.

In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.

By Nida Hasan

Editor by profession, writer by passion, and a mother 24/7, Nida is a member of Brown Girl Lifestyle's editing team … Read more ›