Yet Untitled 002
Portraits and Pandemic Reading Habits
Welcome to those who just signed up. Welcome back to those who’ve been here since 001. Great so see you all!
This newsletter was born of an impulse to dive in unrestrained and create something quickly. It’s not the first time that I’ve had this flash at at the start of the year. Once, in the eon we call 2007 (it really does feel like the world was something else altogether then) I was living in a tiny rented room behind Babulnath temple in South Mumbai. I had a stack of Criterion Collections DVD lying in front of me and I had opened a page of a journal with the intention to write. Instead of writing, I started drawing, copying a likeness of Toshiro Mifune in full Samurai mode off the cover of Vagabond. Struggling to replicate the same atmospherics of the black and white cover image, I stated smudging the black ink lines of my drawing (putting this in the most dignified way I can) with my saliva, dragging them into shadows and grey tones! Then I experimented with flipping my fountain pen over and adding detail with the nib upside down. By the end of it, I had developed a style of my own. I still use versions of his methodology today, having replaced all body parts and fluids with a simple paintbrush and water.
I’m often asked about the nature of inspiration. I learned a lot from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk, where she speaks lucidly about the ‘lightning crash’ aspect of sudden inspiration, balancing it with the need to do your part when the thunderbolt strikes, which is the work. I also believe that we can learn how to instil practices that keep inspiration flowing into our lives steadily. Acting on inspiration without thinking too much about the returns has always held me in good stead. Which is why this newsletter was born and thrown into the world with such urgency!
Hope you enjoy this edition!
👁 It was his shirt that first caught my eye…
…then I asked if I could take his photo. That smile you see told me that he was happy to oblige. The universe aligned itself to give me the most fantastic light as a backdrop to his shirt. And then he told me his unforgettable name - “Dharamraj” - the Lord of Righteousness.
I’ve always feel uncomfortable asking strangers for portraits. I’m in awe of anyone who’s able to walk up to someone on the street, ask them for a shot and then take it -like my lovely, generous friend Craig Boheman who took me on one of his great Mumbai photo walks and literally flung me from the nest by half-asking someone for a shot then stepping aside, gesturing me to ‘come forward’. I got some memorable portraits that day because of Craig’s guidance, patience and generosity, and I would totally recommend one of his photo-walks in Mumbai as post-covid hope candy.
What I enjoy most about portraiture is the lovely dance between being ‘in’ the scene and being outside it. I tend to lean towards being on the outside, waiting for moments where people are being as much ‘themselves’ as possible. You know: doing their thing, bargaining, thinking about what’s for lunch and all that. The choice to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ as a photographer - while I feel that either is valid, it’s worthwhile to consider which will result in something that you’ll want to keep coming back to.
There’s that question : can we as photographers ever be outside the scene? Human beings are so receptive, whether they’re aware of it or not, and some elements of performance seeps in with even the slightest awareness of the camera, but ah, the performance is sometimes so telling! Dharamraj is surely performing for me in the picture, but his choice to perform something of himself through that smile…I thought it was totally worth capturing!
👁/📖 Leading on…
…I love my Amazon Kindle especially for the instant gratification it brings in the form of samples. It allows me to read a few pages of any book on its roster without charging me a paisa, which is great. It’s allowed me to become a more experimental reader and also developed what I feel is a healthier reading habit - i.e. making the choice to stop reading something that’s doing nothing got me.
Surprisingly, I think I read less during the pandemic than I usually do. In these past pandemic months, books have proved to be even more of refuge than before. If I found book that gave me comfort, I wanted to remain inside it for as long as possible. Of course - books end, eventually, so I leaned heavily on my Kindle’s sampling feature to find more refuges of the same variety once one was expended.
I discovered that a refuge doesn’t necessarily need to be warm and womb-like. It can also be vast and expansive. One pattern that’s emerged over the past year - I’ve been drawn towards writing about the American West - Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison, The Power of the Dog by John Savage and A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. I find it uncanny that all three are set in the vast openness of Montana. Of the three, I enjoyed Legends of the Fall the best, perhaps even more than the film. A very readable book.
It’s easy to imagine why these have been a draw. The uncomplicated-ness of nature; the predictability of seasons - I found myself drawing comfort from these certainties, ironically in stories where the lives of the protagonists were quite uncertain, again because of the vagaries the elements. Of course, it was nice to watch/imagine people moving unrestricted without bumping into concrete.
If you are looking for something to transport you away into the vast wide open, I would highly recommend watching Long Way Up on Apple TV +, where Ewan McGregor and his pal Charlie Boorman ride up the length of South America to LA on electric bikes. While the show makes great use of the big bucks from Apple to give us something visually stunning, what really carries it is the easy camaraderie between McGregor and Boorman; who do come across as two gents you’d go on a really ambitions road trip with.
✍🏼How does it feel to be writing this newsletter ?
Wow. Where do I begin?
This past week’s been tough. My daughters and I tested positive for Covid, and around me, the dreaded Indian Third Wave has been running its course. Social media feeds are full of doom (as usual). However, in the midst of all this, I’ve been thinking more about this this newsletter than anything else.
To clarify - I have not been an ostrich - kept an eye on the news and on my family’s health. But this urge to get my next dispatch right has filled my thoughts during those very times when they could have been filled with a lot of other debilitating, negative rot. For this, I have to be thankful.
I’ve even signed up for a Substack initiative called Substack Go to learn intensively about newsletter publishing, because a) I have an intuition that I’m onto something valuable for my growth and b) I’m all for interdisciplinary cross-pollination (that learning about photography makes me a better filmmaker and becoming a better filmmaker makes me a better writer and being a better father or partner makes me a better filmmaker etc etc). In my practice of Nichiren Buddhism I learn that “Nothing is Wasted in Buddhism”, and that “Buddhism is Daily Life.” Following the causality of that logic, I do believe with great conviction that Nothing is Wasted in Life.
There’s so much of my life as a screenwriter that asks me to be more of a carpenter than a sculptor. This is not to say that I don’t feel alive as a writer while writing for the screen - first drafts are a magical experience - but the daily grind is more to do with the 3rd, 4th or 7th drafts. More lathe, less chisel.
Even here, there’s a lot of editing and polishing to be done before I get the final product into your inboxes. Yet, the turnaround between first thoughts and final draft is much smaller. Very satisfying!
Also - we’re all doing a lot better now!
So, thank you again. I’ll end here.
Writing this edition brought out so much that I want to talk about and it was difficult to stop myself from packing in too much. I’ve decided to be a bit lenient with myself these first few weeks with my ‘rules’ - lead with one photo organically onto 3-4 other topics. Hoping that giving myself a bit of rope will help me come through stronger in the next instalments.
Do write in. If you liked what you read do consider subscribing, or share with anyone you think would like to read it.
Stay well. Stay safe. Stay hopeful.