the lede FILM

Shooting Stars

A candid look at one of Bollywood’s first paparazzi photographers

By Sayoni Sinha | 1 August 2016

On the afternoon of 18 May, Yogen Shah, a 54-year-old photographer, received a short phone call from one of his many informants across Mumbai. The informant said that Shah Rukh Khan was at Mehboob Studio, in the posh suburb of Bandra. As I sat across from Shah in his spacious office in the Yari Road neighbourhood, he cautioned me that the leads he receives can be inaccurate, or delivered too late to be useful. He decided to pursue this one anyway, and we set off in an autorickshaw on the ten-kilometre trip south to Bandra.

When we reached the studio, a band of guards in safari suits manned the entrance, standing before a cluster of about 25 paparazzi. Shah and I joined the photographers in time to hear one of them announce, to no one in particular, “SRK must be inside.” Soon, the gates opened, and multiple SUVs emerged. “Yeh kaun hai?”—who is this?—a photographer asked, pointing at a car. It had tinted windows, but through the windshield it was possible to see a man sitting in the back seat. “Yeh Apple-wallah hai,” came the reply from another, referring to Tim Cook, the CEO of the tech giant. Within seconds, the paparazzi began jostling one other, each trying to position himself for the best shot.

Shah lifted his camera overhead, but the angle did not yield a good image. In a last ditch effort, the photographer—a remarkably athletic man for his age—headbutted his way out of the crowd, rushed towards the car and scaled a concrete barrier across the road, clicking multiple frames as he moved. Shah had acted in the nick of time. The vehicles disappeared a few seconds later, and the photographers dispersed. Some jumped onto motorbikes to trail the cars; others set off to drink chai and sift through their shots.

Mumbai’s paparazzi are a major part of Bollywood’s celebrity-creation machine. They relentlessly pursue stars to photograph them in candid moments, and then sell their images to entertainment outlets—tabloids, websites and glossy magazines alike. Over his two-decade career, Shah, a pioneer of paparazzi-style photography in India, has seen the industry develop into a behemoth, embraced by some and maligned by others.

Shah got his start in Bollywood in the mid 1990s, shooting portfolios of students from acting schools in Mumbai’s suburbs. He soon shifted his focus away from such aspirants, since photographs of stars fetched more money. Shah became a fixture at mahurats, film parties and album launches, taking photos of celebrities there. “The competition was much fiercer back then,” he told me. “There were only a handful of entertainment magazines and newspapers that one could contribute to.”

At that time, entertainment photographers worked especially gruelling schedules. “Following the shoot, we would have to get the photographs printed overnight and take the early morning train to the various newspaper and magazine offices,” Shah said. “To contribute to a well-paying magazine, one had to queue up outside their office from 2 am. Often, the quality of the photograph was secondary to who was ahead in the line.”

In 2002, Shah first tried his hand at paparazzi-style photography. An entertainment magazine commissioned him to try and take exclusive candid pictures at the wedding of the filmmaker Subhash Ghai’s daughter. “The media wasn’t invited,” he recalled. “No one was allowed to go inside without an invite.” To get around this, he parked himself next to the hotel entrance and photographed the high-profile guests as they got out of their cars. Until then, Shah said, in Bollywood “there was no concept of candid photography as such. The magazine was thrilled with the pictures and was surprised that I had managed to cover the entire guest list without actually stepping inside the hotel.” He was hooked, and has been a paparazzo ever since.

On the day he photographed Cook, Shah also learnt that the CEO was the guest of honour at a party being held that evening at Shah Rukh Khan’s sea-facing bungalow, Mannat. At 8 pm, he began waiting in the alley next to the house, along with a few other photographers. He reaped the benefits of his punctuality when he took photographs of three high-profile early arrivals: the directors Farah Khan and Imtiaz Ali, and the tennis player Sania Mirza. Those photographs were published in many leading dailies, Shah later told me. (His shot of Cook, however, was only carried in one or two outlets.)

Shah has spent many nights opposite Mannat. A particularly memorable one came in 2009, when Khan threw a lavish party for the Hollywood actor Gerard Butler. “Most Bollywood parties usually begin post 9 pm, but I had reached early, as I had another assignment nearby,” Shah said. “While I was whiling away my time outside Mannat, at around 8.30 pm, a car with a few foreigners pulled up in front of the gate. I couldn’t recognise any of the passengers seated inside, but I chased the car and clicked their pictures.”

More photographers showed up later in the night, but were disappointed when Butler never showed. Later, just before Shah retired for the night, he searched the internet for images of Butler, and realised that one of the passengers he had photographed was the actor himself. “Needless to say, I was the only one to get his picture that night,” he said.

Successful paparazzi must be sharp—you “need to commit to memory hundreds of licence plates of cars, to know who’s pulling out of whose house, and who should one tail for a scoop,” Shah said. Speed and tenacity are also crucial. “You only have a few seconds to get your shot before the next photographer elbows you out. Competition is tough, and the one who manages the most clicks can sleep well at night.”

But, in many ways, Shah’s life is no longer as exhausting as it once was. He now has a small group of people working for him. Some help him take photographs, especially when multiple events happen at once. His other employees manage his database of about 20 million celebrity photographs—which, Shah said, is the only such archive in India.

The effects of the internet have been a mixed bag for Shah, though. He does not have to wait in line outside media houses anymore—he can simply email them. “Now, it’s just a race to beat the celebs from posting their own photos on social networking sites,” he laughed. But the advent of online media has caused him to lose money, because web outlets often circulate his images without paying or crediting him.

Shah believes that although the paparazzi are often written off as intrusive voyeurs, they also help humanise the demigods of Tinseltown. “When you catch a star, sans make-up and fashionable attire, going about his or her business—dropping kids to school, going out for dinner—you make them more relatable to the common man.” This ability to cause people to think, “Hey, they’re just like us,” Shah said, is “why such pictures are in demand.”

Sayoni Sinha is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on films, food and everything in between. In her 12-year career, she has worked with Times Now, Mumbai Mirror and Yahoo.

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