I was earlier the Director Photography for Forbes India and ForbesLife India. I have been a photojournalist since 1991, starting with a four-year stint with the Hindustan Times in Delhi, a place that I still call the best finishing school for photography. In 1995, I moved to BusinessWorld magazine attracted by their outstanding coverage of the emerging India. In 2005, I came to edit India’s leading photography magazine, Better Photography. When I am not working, I am a fan of the outdoors and road trips. I was able to combine all these loves when I did a series of motorcycle trips to the Himalayas to document the fragile ecosystem and its people. This culminated in a exhibition of photographs called “Endless Horizons” at the IGNCA, Delhi, in January 2000, along with two other photographers, Gurinder Osan and the late Pradeep Bhatia. I have enjoyed the role photography plays in what is an otherwise word-dominated profession of journalism.
Three hours after my colleagues and I landed at Mannat, Shah Rukh Khan’s (SRK) home, we were told the super star wasn’t feeling too well and that there was a chance he would be in no shape to be photographed. His publicist though assured us come what may, SRK would live true to his promise and make it for the shoot. When, was anybody’s guess.
Daena Sethna, (the stylist for the shoot), was there much before we were. She suggested I go through SRK’s wardrobe and try figure out what could possibly work best for the cover and the inside pages. I’d had a chat with Anjan Das, our design director earlier and the both of us reckoned black would work well on the cover. So between Daena and me, we looked through the options on hand. We finally settled on a Chinese collared shirt under a textured blazer.
For the pictures that would appear inside the magazine, I very badly wanted him to wear suspenders over a T-shirt and denims. Daena liked the thought as well. But she warned me SRK doesn’t like suspenders, and that he has never worn one for a shoot ever before. But that said, I thought I might as well give it a shot. If the big man didn’t want to, we’d look at other options.
Dabboo Ratnani, the photographer assigned to do the shoot and I went over the look and feel we wanted. I told him in graphic detail what Anjan and I had in mind.
I thought we had all bases covered and Dabboo’s assistants started to set the lights up. He fired a few frames using a dummy model to fine tune the lighting. It was intended to be classical and Dabboo was getting very close to what Anjan and I wanted. All we now needed was SRK.
Just when we thought we were ready, a bombshell dropped. We were told SRK was now very unwell and running 101 degrees. And while he’d still make it for the shoot, he perhaps wouldn’t be up to going in for a change of clothes.
Dabboo and I quickly convened and decided we’d make do with what we have on hand. It didn’t look like our plan to shoot him with suspenders would work. When SRK finally came in, he looked horribly unwell. And for the life of me, it was unfathomable how he was punishing his body with both a cigarette and a drink when feeling so hopelessly down. But that said, the man lived up to his promise.
I briefed him on what we were looking for. He heard Dabboo and me out closely and a few minutes later, got into the outfits we’d chosen, looking remarkably composed, and went to the spot Dabboo had marked.
The atmosphere quietened. When the make up team finished giving Shah Rukh the final touch-up, he looked the camera in the eye. What followed was a remarkable transformation. In a few seconds, he had morphed into the superstar all of us are used to watching on screen. In that instant, I knew we had latched on to a good thing.
Dabboo started firing away and Shah Rukh kept changing his expressions for every frame, but well within the limits of our brief. Between shots, he’d come over to Dabboo’s laptop to see how the images were turning out and check with us if things were going to plan. I said yes. But even as I said yes, I could see he was making notes in his head and when he went back under the lights, he delivered what was as close to the brief as was humanly possible.
Buoyed on by how he was going about it, I went up to him and asked if he’d be upto changing his attire and using suspenders. He heard me out. I told him traders on Wall Street like to wear suspenders and that if he did, it would go well in a business magazine. He heard me out, got the logic pat, and agreed to change.
Back on the sets, the next set of frames Dabboo shot was all the evidence I needed that these men had done many shoots together in the past. The atmosphere between them was easy going as SRK flitted between expressions with the ease of a trained dancer. The only problem as I could see was that most of these expressions were happy go lucky ones, and none of them would work for the opening image.
When SRK came to look at how the shoot had turned out, I told him that while each one of those images would have been magnificent on any other day, it was way off brief for what I had in mind. Like a thorough professional, he went back under the lights and like a magician, transformed himself into what I had in mind.
It was as if we were shooting a ruthless banker on Wall Street.
Shoot done, the “banker” went about looking for a doll to give Myra, Dabboo’s adorable little daughter, who was prancing on the sets, thrilled to bits that her hero was around. He found one, chatted with her a bit, the little girl was happy, and so were we. While Dabboo’s team wound the lights down, we got ready to settle down in his library for what would turn out to be a three hour conversation. And guess what was the first thing he told us? “I get very disturbed with still photography. I do it only for films. But not for magazines. I have a problem posing as me. I have no problem posing as a character.”