As the BBC television drama miniseries A Suitable Boy gets set to stream in India on Netflix, one is seeing some rather evocative visuals emerge from the show—of Lata and Mann, essayed by Tanya Maniktala and Ishaan Khatter, respectively, playing Holi with reckless abandon, and another stunning one of Tabu as Saeeda Bai pensively strumming the tanpura. These instances of candid portraiture have been captured by a young Lucknow-based photographer, Taha Ahmad, who spent two months on the sets of A Suitable Boy photographing the actors.
It has been quite a journey for the 25-year-old, from hard-core documentary photography to working on a film. “I usually work on long-term projects,” says Ahmad. The shortest he has ever worked on was a series on Lucknow’s fading mukaish badla embroidery artists, which was shot over two years. Another one, titled 'A Displaced Hope', put together over five-and-a-half years, won him the prestigious Documentary Project Fund award in 2018, making him the first Indian to get it.
His journey with A Suitable Boy started with the producer Aradhana Seth looking for a photographer in Uttar Pradesh. She wanted someone who was not just into commercial photography but was also interested in shooting people. Photographer Akshay Mahajan told her about the work Ahmad had been doing as part of a mentorship programme by the US-based VII Photo Agency. Interested, she met Ahmad in Delhi.
Ahmad was initially wary. “I had had a really bad experience while working on a really big Hindi film. But Aradhana assured me that the crew on this film was very different,” he says. One conversation led to another and he met the series director, Mira Nair, producer Lydia Dean Pilcher and executive producer Will Johnston over lunch in Lucknow. His style of bringing out the human stories from the art forms impressed them a great deal. In fact, Nair wanted to cast a subject from his mukaish badla series. Ahmad was left stunned when Nair pulled out a moodboard, featuring photographs by Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai, for reference. “I have never seen a director do that,” he says.
Ahmad had to miss out on one month of the shoot since he was in Taiwan for an artist-in-residence programme. When he arrived on the sets of A Suitable Boy, one of the first challenges was to ensure the actors and technicians were comfortable in his presence. The film’s producers, Seth, Pilcher and Johnston, helped. “I also really liked Mira’s approach. Very few directors understand photography. She would direct me just like she would work with her cinematographer. At the same time, I had the liberty to shoot from my perspective and my way,” says Ahmad. She would often hold the scene after the shot so he could capture—she would even redo a scene for Ahmad.
A lot of time was spent conversing with the actors so they would be comfortable. He describes Khatter as an “energetic, cheerful and funny guy”, who would take time out for portraits. “We are around the same age, so bonding with each other came naturally,” says Ahmad. Tabu, however, was a little reserved initially. “She is very charismatic, with a strong personality, and is very particular about the way she is shot,” he adds. True to his style, Ahmad tried to create candid portraits, as opposed to simply shooting the scene as it was. Soon, the actors became comfortable with his approach and wouldn’t bat an eyelid even if he came within the eyeline while they were shooting a scene. “As a photographer, it is very important to merge with the space. Sometimes I would just stand and observe the scene. Soon, everyone got used to my presence,” explains Ahmad.
Nair was extremely strict on the set. According to Ahmad, she would get so involved in the process that she would get teary-eyed while filming a scene or burst out laughing while shooting another one. “I remember we were shooting at the Mahmudabad Fort, when she remarked after hugging me that the team says that she is sometimes a little harsh with me. I just laughed and replied that it has been a privilege to be mentored by her. And I meant it. Her guidance has not just helped me make good photos but also helped evolve my understanding of the nuances of photography,” he says.