What do Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, and Nora Fatehi have in common? They’ve all graced the pages of the Kingfisher Calendar before they became bonafide movie stars, for starters. This iconic swimsuit calendar – so rare, you literally have to be on a mailing list to get it! – is now in its 19th year, and helmed by uber-lensman Atul Kasbekar, whose job – probably the best in India – has him shooting beautiful women in exotic locations all over the world. This year, he set his sights on Kerala – preferring a home shoot due to the pandemic – and the results are there for the world to see. We speak to him about what it really means to shoot India’s most famous calendar.
Congratulations on yet another Kingfisher Calendar – this would be your 19th – as you complete nearly two decades of shooting this iconic calendar, what do you think has been your relationship growth with UB, and of course, how has the calendar itself evolved?
My journey with Kingfisher Calendar is probably unprecedented in the history of Indian advertising. To my knowledge there is no instance of a professional relationship between a photographer and a brand for 19 years. I am really looking forward to the next edition to mark a clear two decades of shooting one of India’s most iconic photographic properties. I am genuinely grateful to everybody on the UB Group for their trust and support.
Normally you would see an advert in a newspaper or on a billboard and would not know who shot it. I must give the credit to the UB Group for unequivocally backing me every year and allowing me to express myself creatively. I take up every shoot as a challenge and do my best to produce imagery that is fresh and current. To sustain the level relevance after being on the same assignment for over two decades is certainly not as easy as it may seem from the outside.
Kingfisher Calendar is a location-driven calendar which takes inspiration from each of the beautiful and exotic locations we shoot at, and 2021’s edition was no exception. This year’s edition, is an all-encompassing visual journey that takes you through the lush vegetation and meandering water bodies of God’s Own Country – Kerala.
We have seen the calendar evolve over the years and also position itself as a property of much opulence. From its very first edition where we stayed creatively within the brand guidelines to now being seen as a veritable springboard for people to get a glimpse into the movie industry is definitely a breakthrough.
The Kingfisher Calendar has been far more effective in recent times for unearthing female talent than let us say beauty pageants. Be it Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Lisa Haydon, Yana Gupta, Nargis Fakri, Saiyami Kher, Esha Gupta to Nora Fatehi, they were all at some point in time faces of the Kingfisher Calendar.
Please could you tell us what cameras and lights – the brands – that you shoot with?
For over many years now, in terms of gear we have been using fill-flash for the outdoors. It has helped in creating a distinctive look for the calendar. We use battery-operated Profoto flashes extensively in almost every image. These are also at times used as a primary source of light especially when the sun acts like a back light, here is where the flash acts as a fill to avoid the inconsistency of fill cards.
This year we used the Sony Alpha camera system to shoot, and I was extremely ecstatic with the outcome. The visual asset produced left us all mesmerized. The range of lenses used was from 20 mm upwards to about an 85 mm.Kingfisher Calendar 2021 - Adline Castelino
The models are all stunning – what does it take to be a Kingfisher supermodel?
It’s a given that you need to be in great shape, but it’s a myth to think that you need to be skinny. In fact that is not the case at all. What you need to be is, extremely fit and athletic. A body that has been trained with the use of yoga and pilates lends itself to be in the best possible shape for a swimsuit image.
If the flair of the hips is high, then the legs automatically look longer so even the shorter girls with a height of 5.6 ft. and below look stunning. But of course if there’s someone like Gehna who is almost 6 ft tall in her proportions, then almost anything you do looks great.
And at the end of the day, it’s all about confidence. I firmly believe that people look at the eyes of the subject first, and so it’s the confidence that shines and captures the viewer’s attention.
This year, you have shot in Kerala, during the pandemic... was an Indian location an obvious choice? And how does shooting in Kerala differ from say Ladakh or Rajasthan, or Goa, in terms of teams, photography?
We actually contemplated for a while as to what would be logistically the best option to shoot this year. Luckily for us, Kerala opened its doors to visitors and it is genuinely one of my favourite states to visit. Mercifully, I had the opportunity to shoot here professionally and it was surely a wonderful experience.
It doesn’t require much to choose ‘God’s Own Country’ as a destination. We have shot in India before, and had left out Kerala at that time since we had decided that it deserved its own exclusive calendar. Inadvertently, it turned out that this was the year. There is so much to see and use as a backdrop in the state. From lush vegetation to various kinds of water bodies, and beautiful hotel properties that offer great hospitality and cuisine along with amiable people, is what made this place the perfect choice for the 2021 calendar.
My professional experience in Kerala was such a pleasure. The fact that Kerala has a thriving Malayalam film industry, our access to equipment and quality personnel to help us was a given. It is a delight to work with a noiseless and professional crew that make your workday efficient as well as fulfilling.Kingfisher Calendar 2021 - Anukreethy Vas
What were some of the most stunning locales you shot at in Kerala?
The shoot took place amongst a host of properties in Kochi and in and around Kumarakom.
From the converted Baker’s House (the Taj Garden Retreat) to the eclectic Coconut Lagoon and the tranquil Marari Beach, Kochi, the picturesque journey went onto a Victorian-style boatyard called the Brunton Boatyard, and finally to the heritage resort, Chittoor Palace.
We were extremely happy to have chosen Kerala for this shoot as it truly justifies itself as ‘God’s Own Country’. It is a sight for sore eyes!
Was Coconut Lagoon in the famous backwaters?
The Coconut Lagoon is a tropical delight that is accessible only by a boat ride, through the backwater canal system. It is a backwater destination that is nestled amidst canals, paddy fields, and lush natural life, and is located upon the Vembanad Lake, which is one of India’s largest inland lakes.
How was everyone at ease despite shooting during a pandemic?
Given the current circumstances and situation, we worked in a relative bubble to ensure safety. The team was not allowed to go outside the hotel, and meals were strictly monitored at closed-off buffet areas. The cutlery was well sanitized. The wearing of masks was mandatory at all times, as so was social distancing. We made sure that only a few people boarded the buses and cars at a given point of time than would have been the capacity of the vehicle otherwise. The properties ensured temperature checks at all points as a precautionary measure, and hand washing and sanitizers were everywhere.
Beyond that, we each took it upon ourselves to follow strict protocols. In any case, the cities we were shooting in were mostly closed, so we were restricted to the confines of the hotel properties. All in all, we also crossed our fingers and toes hoping we came through the experience unscathed and without a COVID-19 casualty. Thankfully, by keeping all safety measures in complete check at all times, we were able to successfully go through with this shoot with no COVID scare.Kingfisher Calendar 2021 - Gehna Mahiarya strikes a pose
About the models - Gehna is your discovery - where did you find her, and what are her attributes?
Gehna Mahiarya is an absolute sensation, she is 6 ft tall and is drop dead gorgeous. She understands how to work the camera and that’s what makes her even more stunning. Her movements are not clouded by a number of photoshoots and there is an innate fluidity in her body language. I believe that she has a lot of potential to reach the acme of success in the modelling industry and she should eventually move abroad to further her career. Her height and features are truly mesmerizing and can make an artist do wonders with their work.
If you can tell us just one line about the other models – Krithika, Anukreethy, Adline, and Sumita – about their best features?
Adline Castelino I realized was a mini internet sensation after she bagged the title of Miss India. She is extremely confident like all pageant winners and knows exactly how to work the lens in a manner that flatters her immensely.
Sumita Bhandari flew in from Delhi and brought with her a consummate ease to the shoot. She has a terrific poise coupled with an easygoing attitude that radiated wonderfully for the lens.
Krithika Babu has been modelling for many years in the South and we were looking forward to working with her this year for the Kingfisher Calendar. Deemed as a qualified yoga instructor, she has an extremely fit and proportionate structure that translates through the lens. She has an ability to just ‘be’ in front of the camera, which very often makes less is more.
Anukreethy Vas is a stunner and was crowned Femina Miss India in the year 2018. Her ever so phenomenal personality is what makes her look so effortlessly gorgeous in front of the lens.
You have likened the calendar as a cross between the Pirelli and the Sports Illustrated – would you say it's more towards Pirelli – in terms of rarity?
Pirelli shoots women with different photographers every year, but the copy is not available commercially for sale. And with Sports Illustrated, it is always swimsuits but you can acquire it at any bookstore or through an online purchase. Hence, I would say Kingfisher by design from its inception has been a cross between the two.
What was it like to work with stylist Allia Al Rufai and her fashion – she brings some nice brands to the table and styles accordingly... and your makeup artist – have you worked with each other before?
I think it is wonderful to work with a stylist when you are in sync at a style level. She is completely in tune with my sensibilities. Allia firmly believes in the philosophy of ‘Less is more’ which has been my ethos throughout my photography career. We both prefer to keep things subtle and I almost never have to change things that she has put together. We had an exceptional team put together along with Flavien – on hair, Maniasha – on makeup, who also saw and believed in the same philosoph
And what was the beach like – was it isolated, and how was it in terms of topography? How does water play such an important part in fashion photography?
Marari Beach is quite fabulous and it also pretty isolated which means that there are no gawking bystanders to disturb your shoot. We also found the waves to be quite aggressive and this gives you a nice break in the water. Our oceans here unfortunately do not give us the blue and green that one is used to seeing like in The Maldives. But I suppose ruining the colour of our seas, is our own doing.
How was your stay at Chittoor Palace – what is it famous for?
For Chittoor Palace, we did two images, which includes one of my favourites that is now seen on the back cover of the calendar. It is hard to imagine that this is termed as a “palace”, per say since it is so inherently modest. This makes it intrinsically part of South Indian culture. So we did two images here – apart from the one at the backwater jetty, we also shot in their internal pool which had been recently refurbished with laterite rocks.
What are some of the light-hearted and fun moments you had during the shoot with your team?
I came across something unique while we were at Kerala. When we were invited to lunch at Taj Malabar, we had to take speedboats in order to reach the place. However, while we’re in Mumbai and there is a lot of ocean around us, we don’t tend to opt for the waterways that often and rather choose to live the ordinary city life by taking the road! I found this concept quite interesting and all of us were rather amused!
How does one get a hold of a Kingfisher Calendar?
The only way you can get your hands on a copy of the calendar, is when your name makes its way into the mailing list of the UB Group.
Atul, some would think you have the best job in the world! How does one become like an Atul Kasbekar?
I have had the good fortune of being involved with what has been touted as “The best job in India” for the last 19 years. I suppose I was the one who picked the short straw, to be this lucky for almost two decades.
Where are you hoping the 20th anniversary Kingfisher Calendar will be shot? The most exotic locale?
There have been ongoing discussions on where is the next shoot destination. The idea is to go someplace that is much further away from the normal. I am hoping we do either Brazil, but my dream destination would be Cuba.
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