Into the Light: Japanese cinematographer Keiko Nakahara on shooting for Mary Kom

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Published:September 7, 2014 1:00 am
Keiko Nakahara at her Mumbai residence (Source: Vasant Prabhu) Keiko Nakahara at her Mumbai residence (Source: Vasant Prabhu)

While studying films at the School of Theatre, Television and Film, San Diego, US, Keiko Nakahara was confronted with a problem she had never anticipated. Being a Japanese, and having grown up on American movies dubbed in Japanese, she was unable to follow the dialogues in English when they were being shown in class. But her ambitious effort to get out of Kagoshima, an island in southern Japan, by forging documents to convince her parents that their daughter was going to the US to study linguistics, couldn’t have gone in vain. She had always associated herself with American movies, and not Japanese movies, so she had to make it work in the US. Knowing that she wouldn’t be able to learn English that quickly, Nakahara turned her disadvantage into a strength. She started to concentrate on the visuals, and how a film’s camerawork, colours and lighting carried the story forward.

Among the many people who discouraged her from taking up cinematography as a profession was a film school professor, who warned her of the physical difficulty a woman may face in carrying heavy equipment, some of which can weigh up to 20 kilos. It took Omung Kumar, the director of Mary Kom, by surprise, when he saw Nakahara using a hand-held camera during the shooting of the film in Manali and Dharamshala.

“The camera is heavy, but I tend to forget it once it is on my shoulders. I keep saying that using a hand-held camera is like dancing around,” she says, sitting in her apartment in Andheri, Mumbai. The interior doesn’t give away much about her, except a few Japanese artifacts here and there, and a couple of DVDs of films by a Bollywood filmmaker she doesn’t want to be named. “We are in talks for his next film,” she says.

Among the growing list of foreign technicians working in the Hindi film industry, Nakahara is one of the rare ones who plan to settle in India. “India was never even in my mind,” she says. Nakahara got her first Indian assignment through a French photographer friend who recommended her name to a producer in Mumbai, who was planning a film. After a few Skype sessions with the director of the movie, the 37-year-old packed her bags to shoot her first film in India. The film never got released.

Keiko Nakahara at work (Source: Vasant Prabhu) Keiko Nakahara at work (Source: Vasant Prabhu)


“I was hesitant to come here initially, given that I was already doing a lot of work in Los Angeles, but I came for the experience this opportunity promised, something I would never find in the US or Japan,” says Nakahara, who, until then, had spent her career as a director of photography in the US, where she shot several short and feature films.

She planned to go back to the US, but her second Hindi film, 3G: A Killer Connection, changed that course. During the shoot, she fell in love with one of the two directors of the film, Shantanu Ray Chibber. The “sudden, unexpected development” prompted her to stay back in Mumbai. The city’s extremes — the slums and the highrises — unsettled her initially, but she is slowly warming to the city. “People are friendly here, but communication is a huge problem,” says Nakahara.

So why did she never think of going back to Japan? Nakahara says the country’s movie-watching culture has degenerated over the last 20 years. In fact, one of the reasons she wants to work in India is that, like the US, the country has retained its “madness for movies”. “The other day, we were shooting an artificial rain sequence, and I saw 300 people cheering around us,” she says. Nakahara would love to shoot a traditional Bollywood film. “The song and dance is a very Indian thing and should be retained,” she says. Her next film, Guddu Ke Gun, directed by Chibber, is expected to release later this year.

Nakahara’s style is seeped in realism. She prefers using natural light as against artificial film light. For example, for lighting up Mary Kom’s bedroom — the low-ceiling, small rooms typical of the hill settlements — she chose a night lamp instead of any artificial light. Filming in such a small place would often leave her with no space to set up the lights. She manipulated the lights by hiding them under the shelves or the bed, as the situation demanded. “I wanted a look that would stand out from the clutter. She gave the warm, natural tone and colours that we see in Japanese and Chinese films, and at the same time, the craggy real effect,” says Kumar, who noticed her work in 3G.

It wasn’t just the excitement of working with a big banner, but also the protagonist’s emotional journey that drew her to do Mary Kom. The story of a small-town girl from Manipur against the wishes of her family to fulfill her dreams, resonated with hers. She would have never been able to convince her ex-Army officer father, strict and traditional, that she wanted to be in the movies. “It would have been difficult for me to become a woman cinematographer in Japan, it’s still male dominated, although things are changing,” says Nakahara, who has never worked in the Japanese film industry.

The perfect opportunity to tell her parents what her real profession was came 10 years after she left her country — when Samurai Avengers, an American film produced by a Japanese, travelled to a well-known film festival in Japan. “They probably still don’t know what I exactly do on a film set,” she says, with a laugh. They, however, know that she is doing films in India, but still believe she had left Japan to study linguistics.

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