Jay Oza is an Indian cinematographer from Baroda who started as a set production assistant just to experience working on a film set and advanced to become an assistant director in widely acclaimed films like Rang De Basanti(2006) and Jodha Akbar(2008). Gradually, he developed an interest in the camera department and has since shot a multitude of television programs, web series, short films, and feature films, including Bring on the Night(2012), 24(2013), and Made in Heaven(2019). Jay has come a long way without having an industry background, which speaks volumes of his hard work and tenacity. He was also widely acclaimed for his cinematography in Gully Boy(2019).
You started as a set production assistant which is uncommon for people not inclined towards filmmaking, and then went on as an AD. Why did you choose this specific progression and how did your experience as a PA help in your role as an AD?
I am originally from Baroda, and I completed my graduation with a degree in Fine Arts. During my third year of education, I found out that my sister was working on a film project in Bombay, so I went there for my summer break and somehow got a meeting with the executive producer. He denied giving me a job on the crew but allowed me to witness the shooting. Luckily, I bagged the job of a set production assistant a few days later as a result of someone having resigned.
My journey began when one of the assistant directors on that project offered me a chance to assist her with an ads film; I worked as an AD and observed everything around me intimately. I knew I couldn’t direct or write, thus, I was introduced to the camera department. The equipment and the concept of cinematography were quite fascinating to me. As I had majored in Art History and Aesthetics, I had a knack for visuals. That’s when I thought of switching to videography after 3 years of being an AD. So even though the shift was unplanned, it was quite organic. My interest got me to do a fundamental course in Prague, and when I came back, I assisted a few cinematographers. Then I got a chance to shoot a documentary that led me to my first independent project as a director of photography.
What evoked your interest in cinematography? After being an AD of two successful films: Rang De Basanti (2006) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008), what made you choose cinematography as opposed to direction, production, or perhaps acting, moving forward?
I garnered a lot of experience in the 3 years I worked the lot in the making of conventional cinema. The whole process of shooting with a team, with grips, orchestrating camera movements, adjusting the types of lighting et cetera, fascinated me a lot, and my education in the arts helped me connect to the whole process on a higher level. Therefore, a very natural shift occurred. I just followed my heart.
I belong to an ordinary family with a typical upbringing. As a child, I hadn’t thought of pursuing such a profession but had always known that I wanted to do something creative. I’ve learned a lot in the past 14 years, and I firmly believe that one can learn something from everything they do. It’s funny but true: sometimes we learn more than we intended to from the vaguest of our experiences. I just went for doing things and enjoyed every part of whatever I was doing. Even with the camera, I just listened to my gut and went for it without knowing if I would be able to do it and would be good at it.
What is the philosophy behind cinematography and how does the process for shooting short films, ad films, web series, tv shows, and feature films differ?
Filmmaking is one of the most collaborative art forms. Many people with different skills are a part of the process. So to be a good filmmaker and not just a cinematographer, one needs to be a good collaborator. Films come with a lot of work involved in their making – logistics, finances, planning, and management – which sometimes might not go in sync with your thoughts, ideas, and opportunities. Therefore, everyone must be adaptable, honest, and genuine. Moreover, it is essential to be a good listener, decision-maker, technician, artist, and an overall good human being.
Shooting different formats has different processes, but at the same time, the process is invariable, because I collaborate with a director, production designer, and the crew. The approach to shooting remains the same since I believe in being honest to the story and try to take it a notch higher than the script demands. However, the process changes in terms of the budget, the number of shooting days, etc. Documentaries are the most fun to shoot because you don’t have too many resources there, so you have to make the best use of what you have and think on the spot. It should be the first step for every cinematographer, and to shoot fiction later.
Consuming a variety of content and taking inspiration for your own work is a simple rationale. How does a cinematographer not let that inspiration influence their work to an aggravating extent, such that it becomes unethical?
I don’t consume a lot of content in the form of movies or shows and prefer to get inspiration from life: real people and their stories. I like taking long walks and observing my surroundings and try to incorporate those elements into my films. Generally, observing natural light on a day to day basis helps organize the lighting on set to make it look much more real. I believe that even if I replicate the precise lighting along with everything else from a scene that I am inspired by, I won’t be able to do exactly what the DP of that film did because here, your originality comes into play. And rather than calling copying unethical, I’d call it paying homage to the cinematographer of that film.
After shooting Gully Boy with one of the country’s best directors: how do you think the director influences the cinematography of the film? How important is the narrative of a film to the cinematographer?
The director is the captain of the ship, which makes him the most important part of the film. However, every director is different. Some are technically involved while others trust you fully and give you total autonomy, which is why you must share a pleasant relationship with the director. Your relationship with your director should allow you to raise doubts, question, or argue with her/him, healthily and collaboratively. The director is the one who guides you to shoot the way you eventually do because it’s her/his vision that needs to be executed. The narrative is important in terms of the way you visually design it, logistically break down the shot, cut it, and the way you conduct the whole cinematography; it binds the work done by every department individually into one complete thread.