A hundred permutations cross Varinder Chawla’s mind every time the flight board at the Chhatrapati Shivaji international airport flips. He mentally calculates several routes a celebrity will take as they walk out of the arrival gates. These nights, Chawla is nursing an old curse. Clicking the portrait of a “happy family”. “It just happens to be Rani Mukerji and Aditya Chopra this time,” he smiles. “With their newborn baby.” Chawla, 33, a freelance celebrity photographer, has spent several nights at the airport. “Rani did travel this month. But he (Aditya) was nowhere to be found. That first exclusive photograph will be a huge billing. Whoever cracks it,” he says.
In the world of celebrity photographs, a full-length photograph of stars departing or arriving at Mumbai’s international airport are usually big scoops. From the days when Varinder’s father R T Chawla would round studios in scooters and click frames of actors (there is a frame of all the three Khans playing cricket inside a studio, to another of Ajay Devgan getting a shave), celebrity-spotting has a different appreciation these days. “And certainly a different venue,” corrects Varinder.
With events mostly promotional, it’s celeb-spotting at airports that now has a new rate card, he reveals. “Our mobile phones are full of vehicle numbers of celebrities. We know the drivers, the bodyguards and, in most cases, it’s the publicists of the actors who tip us about their appearance,” reveals Varinder.
Till the 90s, the photographs were mostly inside studios or at events at Sun-N-Sand and Sea Princess, or at premieres. Soon the frames became pedantic, always linear, always smiling, always behind a table. Then came clicking photographs of celebrities seated inside their cars, courtesy Aamir Khan, when he married Kiran Rao. The trend continues till date with “high-speed flashes” used for peeking inside tinted cars. “Then there are some ‘events’ which confuse us. Imagine our plight when we were told news offices need photograph of Rakhi Sawant with a fan. She was protesting against suicides. Such events are confusing. I often wonder why should such photographs even be published,” he wonders.
But, it’s the frame of a celebrity — often in comfortable clothing, walking on the airport promenade that makes a ‘night shift’ successful. “We have our tippers. CRPF men, staff at stalls and the airport staff,” he says. With social media onslaught — Varinder says his clients mostly are blogs and websites which rate celebrity dressing. “Imagine they must be analysing every cloth in detail. Then there are news frames,” he says.
Today, with growing demand for “airport celebrity fashion slugs”, he has recruited a team of eight under him who take the same brief. Shoot a celebrity at sight — at airport gates.
The nights are also fully planned. Photographers like Varinder and his team spend their dark hours on a bike preying between Juhu and Bandra, before they settle at the airport gates till early morning.
It’s usually a cat-and-mouse game — which starts at Olive, Bandra, with the photographers sneaking around the gates of “party homes”. “In recent months it’s Arjun Kapoor. Every season has a crowd. The gates of Shahrukh and Amitabh and Salman are a must visit. Then there are a couple of homes, lanes where we park our bikes, look for “mahaul” (ambience). Usually you look for cars outside the gates, or that frantic watchman on an overdrive.”
But the last stop at the airport is the finale. “Ranveer Singh is the most chilled out. He has no bodyguards and he loves to get clicked. There was a time when Shraddha Kapoor was the most traveled. Sonam Kapoor is always a delight as she always poses before she gets into her car,” he says. The only actor whose bodyguard gives them a tough time, according to Varinder, is Varun Dhawan. “He just blocks the view,” he alleges.
Airports and night photography are also where exclusives go viral. The photograph of Aishwarya’s baby girl outside the airport was “one such exclusive”. These days, there are cameramen trained to identify star children, who might be “walking behind the star fathers or moms”. “It’s a difficult job. Sometimes, even we ask ourselves if this is too much. But then the news media and publicists are a viscous cycle,” he offers. “Today, an actor threw a fit after we clicked him with his girlfriend. Airports can be difficult entries.”