With movies like “Airlift” and “Chef” to her credit, cinematographer Priya Seth is breaking gender stereotypes in the Indian film industry.
This year marks the first time a woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar for cinematography—Rachel Morrison for Netflix’s “Mudbound.” Cinematography, which is essentially about a movie’s images and how these are captured through camerawork and lighting, was the only technical category in which the Oscars had never nominated a woman. But, after 90 long years, this glass ceiling has finally been broken by Morrison, whose works include “Confirmation” and “Black Panther.”
Halfway across the world, cinematographer Priya Seth is one of the women breaking these barriers in India. Seth, who has worked in the film industry for about 19 years, says the high point of her career was working on director Raja Krishna Menon’s 2016 film “Airlift,” starring Akshay Kumar. The big-budget Bollywood action movie, which was a runaway success at the box office, catapulted Seth into sudden, unexpected fame.
But Menon had to fight to hire Seth for the job. “There was a lot of resistance in the beginning,” says Seth.
In the spotlight
Cinematographers, also known as directors of photography, usually serve as the directors’ number two on set. The job requires artistic talent as well as technical knowledge to manage the lighting, shots and crew members for each scene, along with the ability to heft an unwieldy camera.
There were doubts about the ability of a woman to manage such a physically-demanding job. “But I pick it [the camera] up the same as everybody else,” says Seth.
Seth was pleasantly surprised by the admiration she received from critics and film watchers. “I got hired for that job, and it turned out to be quite a breakthrough,” she says. “It did extremely well. I was actually caught off-guard. Suddenly, I was getting a lot of attention. I guess, I was the first [woman] to shoot a major Bollywood film. But my work was what got the recognition.”
She says the film and its success finally allowed her to stop questioning her abilities.
“I was able to say, it’s not about a lack of talent; it’s about a lack of opportunity. Since then, it’s been different, to say the least.”
Her most recent project with Menon, with whom she has worked several times, was the Saif Ali Khan-starrer “Chef,” which was released in 2017. Seth has also shot commercials for brands like Dove, Mountain Dew and Oral B.
Lights, camera, action
Seth was born in Amritsar and moved to Mumbai with her family as a child. She studied economics at St. Xavier’s College there, before going to New York University (NYU) to take a six-month filmmaking course.
“Maybe, if I had any idea of how difficult it [cinematography] would be, I might not have done it,” she jokes. “When I decided I wanted to be a cinematographer, my NYU professor said, ‘I know this is gonna suck, but take it in the correct spirit—cinematography is not a career that women get into, even in the U.S.’ ”
Seth stuck to her plan regardless, and says her experience at the university was profoundly impactful. “It was fantastic, and was such a fundamental foothold and base, I think, into my formal study in film. I wish I had done much more than I did,” she says.
Seth was shown that a career in films wasn’t merely a job; it was an entire universe. “You don’t get to turn it on or off, whether you’re a filmmaker or not,” she says.
Getting the picture
When she returned to India following her time at New York University, Seth says she was fortunate to be hired by someone who specifically wanted a woman assistant cinematographer. She became one of the very few female assistant cinematographers in the country, just because someone gave her a shot.
“I think, if you have one half of the population whose voices aren’t heard, you get very skewed stories,” says Seth. “A story is about empathy at the end of the day. If you’ve got a woman shooting war, is she seeing it differently? What does violence look like from a woman’s point of view? Both sides need to be explored.”
Seth says she is hopeful that when women’s stories are told more, women will be able to watch or read them and think, “I’m not the crazy one. Other women feel this way too.”
Seth doesn’t expect immediate developments. Instead, she says, a larger problem must be tackled. “There’s going to be no sudden systemic change,” she says. “That requires changing the mindset everywhere. Not just film, but all over the country.”
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.
Women in Focus
Priya Seth is a member of the International Collective of Female Cinematographers, a collective of professional female cinematographers from around the world, including India and the United States, who provide each other with community support and industry advocacy. On the collective’s website, she is acknowledged as the “foremost underwater DP [director of photography] based out of India.”
In India, senior cinematographer Fowzia Fathima has created a similar network of more than 60 members, including Seth, called the Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective. Announced on International Women’s Day in 2017, it works to help other girls and women who are either interested in cinematography as a career or are already in it.
While there are online forums and other spaces for people to ask questions about cinematography, Seth says, women often feel they would be judged for asking these questions and be compared to men, who might ask the same questions with no pushback.
“We wanted somewhere that the young ones [in the field] could have someone to talk to,” says Seth. “They may not be able to go to their immediate boss, but we’re here. We’re not so much about helping people get work, but about creating a sense of community.”
The organization will showcase women cinematographers and their work, and allow members to explore questions and challenges through a telephone network, blogs, podcasts and discussion forums. It will also help women learn about related jobs in the industry. —C.Y.