Enduring image

Print edition : August 10, 2007

K.K. Mahajan (right) with Mrinal Sen in a pharmacy in the director's neighbourhood during the shooting of "Ek Din Prati Din" (1979).-SUBHASH NANDY K.K. Mahajan (right) with Mrinal Sen in a pharmacy in the director's neighbourhood during the shooting of "Ek Din Prati Din" (1979).

K.K. Mahajan, who passed away on July 13, enriched Indian cinema with imaginative camerawork.

EVERY generation in cinema produces a cinematographer who helps a director express his vision with verve and precision. In post-Independence India, Subrata Mitra teamed up with Satyajit Ray and, from Pather Panchali (1952-55) to a d ecade on, helped create a body of work that continues to be called significant. In the next generation, there was K.K. Mahajan, who made a signal, lifelong contribution to the cinematic articulation of Kumar Shahanis creations and certainly the first two of Mani Kauls films, not to forget the films of Mrinal Sen and the early ones of Basu Chatterjee.

K.K., as he was affectionately called by friends and acquaintances, happened to be one of the first schooled cameramen in India, a product of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, which is located on the premises of the erstwhile Prabhat Studios. Modelled on the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique (IDHEC) in Paris, this was the first properly equipped film school in India, and it has a film archive (The National Film Archive) that is the envy of many.

Mahajan, no doubt, benefited immensely from watching world classics and was continuously and subconsciously influenced by the black-and-white work of Italian masters such as Otello Martelli, G.R. Aldo and even Gianni de Venanza. He had seen Raul Coutards work in the pioneering black-and-white and colour films directed by Jean Duc Godard, one of the creators of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), and was as impressed by them as he was by the black-and-white photography of b oth Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvst in Ingmar Bergmans Swedish films.

At home, only the work of Subrata Mitra caught his imagination. All these people worked with basic equipment, which they used with tremendous inventiveness.

The beautifully photographed Kasba (directed by Kumar Shahani) was done with an Arriflex 2C camera. Many directors have shot in Himachal Pradesh and have come back with glamorous views of the mountains and the surrounding environs. But K.K. managed to help Kumar Shahani invest the scenes with poetry, capturing the yearnings of the characters, which were not always positive.

He first worked with Kumar Shahani as a student on the latters diploma film at the FTII, called The Glass Pane (1965), which was about a couple returning home from a funeral. Both Kumar Shahani and K.K. were singled out for p raise for their respective work. Thus, a partnership was formed, and it endured over 40 years, surviving well-nigh-insurmountable obstacles. When asked a day after K.K.s passing away whether he and K.K. sang as one voice, Kumar Shahani declared emotionally: Oh, absolutely.

Soon after Char Adhyay (1998), K.K.s once robust body, which had survived a relentless assault of alcohol and cigarettes from his student days, began to send out danger signals. His fuse grew shorter and his frequent outburst s on the set unnerved even his assistants. But they stuck to him loyally because of his innate goodness and generosity and desire to excel. He never made unreasonable demands on the producer for expensive gizmos. He, like his hero Sven Nykvst, did wonders with well-maintained basic equipment.

In 1972, the Film Finance Corporation, now the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), held a festival of the films it had produced, at Regal Cinema in Delhis Connaught Place. The majority of the viewers, brought up on a diet of commercial Hindi cinema, were bewildered by what they saw. But they were unanimous in their praise of the photography in Kumar Shahanis Maya Darpan, where colour was used with great sophistication, and Mani Kauls Uski Roti and Ashadh Ka Ek Din and Basu Chatterjees Sara Akash, three films with exemplary black-and-white cinematography.

Thanks to the NFDC, Mrinal Sen was able to make a comeback in 1969 with a low-budget black-and-white film, Bhuvan Shome, shot in Saurashtra. Utpal Dutt, as a stern senior Railway bureaucrat out on a bird-shoot, and Suhasini Mulay, a s the teenage wife of a ticket collector he had just suspended, charmed the audience. But it was K.K.s camera that brought spontaneity and a sparkle to a slight tale, and without it no amount of thespian skill could have saved the film. Mrinal Sen, recognising his young cinematographers gifts, retained him for his next 18 films. Similarly, Basu Chatterjee, the cartoonist-turned-film-maker, after the success of Sara Aakash, worked with K.K. on his subsequent box office su ccesses in colour such as Piya Ka Ghar, Rajnigandha and Choti Si Baat.

Always outspoken, K.K. riled at Chatterjees lack of visual inventiveness, remarking: Basu Chatterjee is simply paralysed without the zoom lens. However, one must remember K.K.s visual contribution, simple yet eloquent, to the picturisation of the song Kaee Baar Yun Hi Dekha Hai sung by Mukesh for Rajnigandha.

Few cameramen in India or abroad used the awkward cinemascope screen format in conjunction with colour as K.K. did in Kumar Shahanis Tarang. It was a film of great perception and subtlety, about a Mahabharata-like power strug gle in a modern industrialist family; its articulation was certainly enhanced by K.K.s superb, unobtrusive camerawork.

Years later in Khayal Gatha, Kumar Shahanis controversial response to Hindustani music, particularly that of the Gwalior Gharana, the photography once again rose to the occasion. Memorable is a shot of a passing cloud casting its shadow on a stretch of undulating sand.

Earlier on in his career, K.K. had to work in commercial Hindi films to keep the pot boiling. Subhash Ghai, Ramesh Sippy and Ramesh Talwar were some of the other directors he worked with. He was unhappy about Hindi cinemas lack of aesthetics: They want everything nice and bright. He could not understand the pursuit of mindless glamour in the hope of attracting large audiences. He gradually distanced himself from the purveyors of bathos and song and dance although he did Buniyaad for Doordarshan in video (high-band), directed by Ramesh Sippy. K.K.s camera managed to invest the drama of loss in the aftermath of Partition with dignity. Buniyaad remains the most popular and, perhap s, the best made serial on Indian television.

K.K.s last years were difficult. He sold his flat in Saat Bangla in Versova, Mumbai, to move farther afield to Goregaon East. He was diagnosed with throat cancer and his voice-box was removed.

He went on to shoot a video, As The Crow Flies, in 2005 for his favourite director, Kumar Shahani. The shooting lasted a day, and the documentary was about the mounting of an exhibition of the painter Akbar Padamsees latest work. Despite the paucity of means, the quiet elegance of K.K.s camerawork was noticed, as was Kumar Shahanis taut, sharp and cerebral direction.

The cancer suddenly resurfaced and spread rapidly in the last few months of his life. Death came on July 13.

Cinematographers, despite the patrician appellation, are taken for granted in cinema, certainly in Indian cinema, and yet, without them there would be no film to watch. What would Guru Dutt have been without V.K. Murthy, Adoor Gopalakrishnan without Mankada Ravi Varma, now mortally ill and unable to speak, and Satyajit Ray without Subrata Mitra? What we remember about a film in the end are its images. But do we ever bother to remember the person who created them? Mahajan was one of the very few creators of enduring images in Indian cinema and he will be missed.

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