His is the one call that most Bollywood stars eagerly wait for around the month of December every year, because most upcoming actors accept that very few glamour photographers in the film industry have his vision or talent to transform a routine photoshoot into something iconic.
Dabboo Ratnani, the man behind Bollywood's most iconic glamour calendar, gives us some behind-the-scenes gossip on this year's spread that celebrates 16 years of his work.
What was it like working with Ranveer (Singh) for the first time?
I’ve worked with Jacqueline (Fernandez) and Shraddha (Kapoor) before, but not for the calendar. But I hadn’t even met Ranveer before, and I’ve heard quite a few stories about his quirky shoots. But the stylist reassured me that he is excellent to shoot with. And shooting with him was an experience! Not only was he full of energy, he gave excellent sound bytes, worked out before the shoot – there was a lot of effort from his side.
Shooting actors vs models: what’s the difference?
Everyone is really quick! The actors have done this so many times, over and over again, so they are really fast at grasping what the camera wants from them. If you tell them about the mood and the shot, they will give you different versions, all of which can look 10 times better than what you had originally planned!
Mr. Bachchan, for instance, plays a double role in this calendar of a fan admiring a superstar. He must have given me 20 expressions when he was posing as the fan, and finally I couldn’t choose! I had to send him a couple of options, and he made the final selection because he knew what would work best.
So, do they also contribute to the shoot?
I am very open about feedback from whoever is present at the shoot: stylists, Manisha, my wife, the actors. For example, Farhan’s a professional singer. My spin on this was showing him as a bathroom singer. I wanted him to wear a black suit, but he told me he’d like to wear a salmon-pink suit with a bowtie to make the shot really pop. That pink has suddenly changed the shot. Another great example is Shah Rukh (Khan)– we’ve done so many body shots of his. But each one looks different because the subtlest change in his expressions.
What’s Shraddha’s best feature?
I have seen Shraddha wearing sexy, Indian clothes, but no one knows how versatile she really can be. She has a stunning body, so we focused on hot and sexy. I have done very few shots focusing on bare backs in my calendar over the years: She’s seen holding a blanket while her back – which is absolutely fabulous by the way – is in focus. She’s very expressive.
Which one’s your favourite calendar over the years?
Oh, this one is for sure. Every time I look back at the calendars I have shot over the years, I always feel I could have done something better, shot something differently. It’s a matter of besting your previous effort, so I always feel the newest is the best.
Anyone you’re missing out on this year?
The actors are wonderful - be it a newcomer or someone I have been shooting with forever. There’s no Katrina or Salman this year. But I have realised the value of shooting a conceptual picture instead of using a stock photo (like I did for my 10th anniversary where we featured 48 actors).
How hard was it to get Jacqueline in a towel?
There are many ideas I have penned down that are not realised. Shooting Jacqueline in a towel was something I wanted to do for the last two years. After skipping 2013 and 2014, it’s finally happened this year. Jacqueline kept saying that she was incredibly happy about getting a space in the calendar! We did a shot where she’s jumping on the bed wearing only a towel. We must have done more than 100 jumps, and it finished in half an hour! It was quite the cardio workout for her, but she was very sporting.
Have you experimented with anything new?
Lots of equipment, angles, and lenses. I tried a top angle shot from atop a 30-foot crane. Abhishek (Bachchan) (who is notorious for his height) was shot at zero ground level so I could make him look like a giant.
Anushka’s (Sharma) shot was a tight close-up with a 200mm lens used by sports and wildlife photographers. She’s lying down and I shot her against the setting sun, using natural lighting with just a couple of reflectors.
With Farhan the bathroom singer, I used a wide-angle lens that gave a comical feel to the picture by distorting the walls.
What are the limitations you face with the calendar every year?
There are a lot of concepts and ideas that never make it on paper. And it’s a huge financial cost, but one that’s necessary. As an artist, I have to push my limits and challenge my creative expression, not limit myself.
December is kept free only for this shoot, so actors can call when they are free to shoot. And no one charges me for hair and makeup, but even so with the post production and equipment it takes enormous funding. Sometimes, an actor will name an exotic location. I have shot out of Mumbai (with Shah Rukh in Wai, a seven-hour drive from Mumbai) but flying down an entire crew to another city, let alone another country is very expensive.
What’s the best part about the calendar?
After 15 years, it’s always a challenge to do outdo your previous performances by pushing the envelope, and it’s one that keeps me fired up! The best part is that with a shoot like this, unlike commercial ones, there are no creative limits! Even the actors want to experiment because everyone wants to acquire great creative satisfaction.
And we’re all one big happy family here. My kids and wife are around so I can spend time with them, unlike other professions.
Catch some behind-the-scenes shots of Dabboo Ratnani's extended Bollywood family.