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July 24, 2024
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Of Lenses, Lighting and Lessons in Film: How an Indian-Born Cinematographer Is Changing the Game One Shot at a Time

The musty velvet curtains of the entrance to the cinema reveal a dank-looking chamber lined with seats. His eyes attempt to adjust to the cloistering darkness as he walks nervously down the steps. When he finally locates his designated aisle, the sari-clad woman in the adjacent seat eyes his frayed sweater curiously. But his eyes are now transfixed on the screen in front of him, drinking in every scene of the movie. After it ends, he rushes back home, opens his journal, and begins to write…

20 years later, Gurdeep Singh remembers that night as a turning point in his life. The movie in question would later become a massive hit, a Punjabi movie about hockey, India’s national sport. He recalls being so inspired by it that he decided to continue it in his diary. When he showed his friends his first attempt at a screenplay, Gurdeep could tell he wanted so much more than to be a science student in a small Indian city; he wanted to be a storyteller.

Gurdeep Singh Sidhu, best  known for his work on the short independent films Fenced (2019), A Family Barbecue (2019) and Paranormal Monster’s Society (2018), has become one of Indian entertainment’s leading new trailblazers. With years of documentary and film-making experience under his belt, and a knack for bringing out the best in every script, scene, and setting, Singh has cemented his place in the cinematographic landscape. Inspired by industry titans like David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Singh hopes to one day carve himself a niche in the world of filmmaking.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in filmmaking at the Punjabi University’s Centre for Advanced Media Studies, Singh started solidifying his place in the Punjabi music scene. His degree had allowed him to brush up on his skills, directing a number of short films and music videos on his Canon digital camera. And somewhere along the way, something clicked. He started working for some of the biggest names in contemporary Punjabi music, like Diljit Dosanjh, Jassi Gill, Miss Pooja, and Akhil. On average, some of these videos have gathered between 100M and 300M views.

Amid this newfound success, Singh realised he wanted to shift his focus from production to creating visuals, which led him to enroll in the New York Film Academy in 2016 to study cinematography.  Talking about his experience, Singh said, “I love the way they taught us cinematography, starting us off with an 8mm lens and then slowly building it  to 16mm and 35mm. Working with film is especially tricky; once it’s captured, there’s no turning back. It taught me to be disciplined, to plan each shoot meticulously, and to make sure I was selective and focused.” This limitation of using film cameras, in lieu of digital, seemed to have taught Singh the art of the perfect shot.

But while his time in New York had given him cinematic savoir faire, nothing came close to learning from the trenches. Soon after his graduation from film school, Singh worked with bigger and bigger production houses and honed his skills as a gaffer and grip. According to him, working with Brad Hamilton and Maria Quintana had been a film education in the truest sense, and the fast-paced nature of the professional work meant that he was learning shot composition from the best of the best.

“You learn a lot when you’re in the thick of all of it…I used to think a camera needed as much light as possible. Working with them made me realize it was more about taking the light away than adding more,” said Singh.

Singh would later work with Riyad Bin Muqrin in his film, The Soul, a crime thriller released in 2016. It was a totally different world for him; now, for the first time, he was the one leading the team and pulling all the strings. This led him to take up more short films in 2018, including Paranormal Monster Society, Turning Tables, and From a Barren State. These projects, according to Singh, were a crucial part of his cinematographic career. He learned how to coordinate and lead a team of creatives on set, how to execute and plan seamless shots, and prepare for the inevitable last-minute changes in character movement, dialogue, and blocking. On the Punjabi music front, things were equally as propitious; he worked as a cinematographer on projects with Davy M, Teji M, and Akal Inder, and was later made Production Manager on Sidhu Moosewala and Bohemia’s hit song Same Beef, which crossed 300M views.

And it appears he has no plans of slowing down. “I want to own my own production house, eventually. Work as a producer and cinematographer. I want to travel, find new stories, things that speak to people and are relatable.” With the kind of passion and verve he brings to every project, it is apparent that, for Singh, the light seems to never stop shining.

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