From the camera to the coffee table

Well known photo journalist Pradeep Chandra is a writer, painter and photographer who has worked with major dailies and periodicals including The Illustrated Weekly of India, and The Times of India, among a host of others. He has been invited to various art camps and group shows like the Camlin Art Camp in Hongkong and Macau, Gallery Beyond in Mumbai and the Thailand Avante-Garde 2017. His works include the RPG Group show commemorating 50 years of India's Independence. His books include a lavish pictorial tribute to the iconic painter titled, MF Husain: A Pictorial Tribute, on Amitabh Bachchan titled, AB The legend: A Photographer's Tribute, Aamir Khan: Actor, Activist, Achiever, and Abhishek Bachchan: Style & Substance.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, he traces his journey from a photo journalist to an author, the essence of good photography and his tryst with various celebrities.

How did your romance with images begin?
My brother Shiva Chandra, who was also photographer, was working as an assistant director in the Indian film industry when I was in school. I would often visit the studio sets after school to watch films being shot. Being an assistant director, his job was to clap and announce when the shot was ready to be filmed. Since one could not be an assistant director as well as a photographer, I would pick up his camera and start clicking pictures casually. My first picture, which appeared in Filmfare magazine was that of actress Waheeda Rehman. I was in fifth class then. Little did I realise that I would one day start working with the camera.

My father Jnan Chandra, who was a journalist, would end up getting a lot of newspapers in our house. I remember being fascinated on seeing the names of photographers appearing in print and wished to see my name too someday. From there on, I found my true calling in life which was to become a photographer. Luckily I managed to work with some of the publications like The Indian Express, Illustrated weekly and The Times of India group- - the latter with whom I was associated for a long time.

How did the transition from a photojournalist to authoring books on celebrities take place?
I did not start off as a photo journalist. One day, I was idly clicking some pictures randomly on the sets of a Rajesh Khanna film at Mehboob studios. I saw Rajesh Khanna sitting and went up to him requesting him to let me click some photographs of him. He readily obliged and was very happy with the way his photographs came out and wanted 300 copies of one particular shot for his fan mail.

In the meantime, the director of the film, Raj Khosla, was facing a problem with his still photographer and wanted to hire someone who would do the still shots for the production. So, my first job was on the sets of the film Do Raaste in 1969. My work was appreciated. However, people realised that while I could click good photographs, I did not have any studio infrastructure to do my lab work. So, Raj Khosla set up a dark room in his garage and helped in creating the infrastructure for me to work from.

One day he called me over to his place from my darkroom in his garage and showed me a book on some exquisite costumes of India. That was the first time when anyone seeded the idea of a book in my head. However, I was so engrossed with my work, especially when I started working for The Times of India, that the idea just remained dormant. It was during the time when I had a huge exhibition of Amitabh Bachchan's photographs for his 61st birthday, at JW Marriott, which Bachchan inaugurated, that the idea for a book cropped up again.

This exhibition gave me a lot of exposure and publicity and my friends suggested that I should write a book on Amitabh, considering the huge collection of photographs that I had of him. I toiled on this idea and one fine day I got talking to my former boss Pritish Nandy, who put me in touch with R K Mehra from Rupa Publications.

I was introduced to Mehra at a book launch where I signed my contract. After looking far and wide for writers for six months, I met columnist Shobha De who suggested that I should write the book myself.

Celebrities, and movie stars especially, are known to be quite fussy about their appearance. Considering that you have authored books on personalities like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, M F Husain and Abhishek Bachchan, did you as a photographer face any challenges on living up to their expectations?
It is not only film stars. All of us are quite particular about how their photographs turn out. Everyone feels the need to look good when they are in front of the camera. However, luckily for me, most people have been happy with the photos that I have shot. In fact, I remember the time when I did a feature with director Subhash Ghai when he was shooting for his film Saudagar in 1990. I wanted a picture of him to resemble the last shot of Guru Dutt in Kagaz Ke Phool. He was so impressed with the way the picture turned out that he said that this was not just a photograph but poetry in motion.

However, I did face one instance where I had gone to photograph actor Hrithik Roshan. He wanted me to show the pictures to him before I submitted them to my editor. Since there was a deadline, I was unable to do so and the pictures were directly uploaded on print. I recollect him being very unhappy with the pictures. I got an opportunity to shoot him again on the sets of Subhash Ghai's film Yaadein. I was initially hesitant wondering how he would react but Subhash-ji put me at ease. On the day of the shoot, he remarked in front of Hrithik how he liked the photographs of the actor that had appeared in Bombay Times. Hrithik was speechless, and after that things just eased up between us.

Your books have a lot of text content and revelations about film stars, besides their photographs. Considering how each actor or celebrity is complex in his or her own way, how challenging was it for you to get them to open up?
To be honest, Aamir did not give me an interview. However the others did speak to me. Most of the information was also obtained from the amount of research that I did. Also, when you go on the sets of a film, you tend to find a lot of people talking about them. So my books also contain anecdotes about the stars, which I obtained by overhearing people talking about them.

Coffee table books seem to be popular with a lot of business personalities and the armed forces producing them. Since you have come out some of them, could you elaborate more on the process of authoring one?
A normal book is a different ball game altogether. It's easier to get such books published as the cost of production involved is not as much as compared to coffee table books. Besides, normal books tend to make a lot of money.

It is difficult to find a publisher for coffee table books as there is huge money involved. The new trend today is for people to sponsor getting coffee table books published. While this may be affordable for large business houses, it is unfortunately not feasible for me. These are the challenges that exists in publishing coffee table books. I also feel that the armed forces probably have some allocations from their respective headquarters or the defence ministry for such coffee table books.

Abhishek Bachchan belongs to the younger generation of actors. Since your recent coffee table book was about him, how different was it working on such a book as compared to your earlier books on his father or Aamir Khan?
I did not know Abhishek all that well as compared to his father. I was doing a special stint for a film that Abhishek was shooting for Delhi 6 and that was where I had the chance to interact with him. I found him to be a very humble and down to earth. At that point I felt that a book should be done on a person whose journey as an actor was still ongoing. I found a lot of books being written on actors who have ended their career or who were no more. So, I thought why not write a book on someone when they are still alive and developing their career.

Abhishek came across as someone very stylish and knowledgeable. When I proposed the idea to him, he asked me why a book on him to which I replied saying ''Why not?'' My publisher agreed and that's how the book happened.

You authored a book on Amitabh-a superstar with stupendous success and one on Abhishek-someone who was almost living under the shadow of his father's success and constant comparisons. Was it challenging for you to highlight Abhishek's identity separately in a book?
As far as I am concerned, Abhishek is away from his father's shadow. I have seen fathers launch their sons in many cases. However, with Abhishek, he was launched at a time when Amitabh Bachchan was making huge comeback with Star TV's hugely successful Kaun Banega Crorepathi. So in that sense, Abhishek had his own identity and was trying to establish himself away from his father's shadow.

Abhishek Bachchan had his share of flops as well as hits. How did you find him during this roller coaster ride?
I personally feel that the film Delhi 6 was a huge let down for his career. There were humongous expectations from the film. Unfortunately, something went wrong somewhere and the film failed to strike a chord with the audience. However, despite these ups and downs, I always found Abhishek to be the same. He is always happy and in his own world. It is important that a person should be happy irrespective of the success or setbacks.

Coming back to photography, there are different types of photography such as wildlife, travel, food, etc. How would you describe the differences between them with regards to the kind of camera used, the entire process and the technical aspects?
Food photography requires everything to look sharp and beautiful for which technical expertise in lighting is needed. Or else it will end up looking like a photograph by a novice. One must feel like eating that particular dish by just looking at the photograph.

Wildlife photography is time consuming as it requires the photographer to spend days in the jungle to capture a bird or a beast. It also involves expensive lenses, which everyone can't afford. Besides such photographer's should be able to support themselves financially to survive in a jungle and most important should really have a feel for the subject.

Somehow, I was never interested in wildlife photography. People and faces interested me more. To shoot profiles, most cameras are good and these days all cameras are advanced. However I strongly feel that one needs to possess a good eye and composition for photography without which even the most advanced camera would seem useless.

What according to you does it take to become a good photographer? How does one identify a good photograph?
I feel that one should be genuinely interested in photography not take it up under compulsion or an alternative career because no other avenue is open. As for identifying a good photograph, I feel what is good or bad is very subjective just like with a painting.

There are authors who write several words to make a book, while coffee table books showcase more images. Would you say that photographs tend to convey a lot more than words?
I believe that words are equally important as photographs. To understand a photograph, one needs a caption and that caption is made up of words. So words have a lot of depth. I would say both photography and words have their separate roles and cannot be compared. In India there have been many who have made a huge contribution to photography. However there are two names, which stand out in my mind - that of Raghu Rai and Kishore Parekh. Their works have been phenomenally outstanding.

Who will you be putting between the covers of your next coffee table work?
I am working on a book on painter J P Singhal. He was known as the 'calendar king' of the country during his time and was a realist painter. The best part about his paintings was that they were visually very attractive. He would make sure that corner to corner his art was grade A. It was not the case where one part of the painting was attractive while the rest wore a bland look. He was rich in his style. He passed away in 2014. During his life he had created around 2,700 paintings. Unfortunately I am unable to find enough people to talk about his art.

I am simultaneously working on a book on late singer Mahendra Kapoor. Unfortunately I am facing a similar problem of finding people to talk about his works.