Navroze Contractor (1944-2023): A life well lived

A multifaceted creative force, Navroze Contractor was a trailblazing filmmaker, teacher, and motorcycle enthusiast.

Published : Jun 23, 2023 12:50 IST - 7 MINS READ

Navroze Contractor interacting with students in Puducherry in November 2011.

Navroze Contractor interacting with students in Puducherry in November 2011. | Photo Credit: SINGARAVELOU T

If ever there was a man of many parts it was Navroze Contractor. What was he not?

He was, of course, widely known and admired as a cinematographer. Not only was he a rarity in the world of cinema, recognised for outstanding work in both feature and documentary films, but he also ventured into direction. He had studied both cinematography and direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and later learned advanced cinematography with Laszlo Kovacs in the US, as well as video production at the Sony Corporation in Japan.

While he was primarily associated with films seen as part of the “new wave” or “parallel” Indian cinema that emerged during the 1960s and 70s—including Duvidha (Mani Kaul); 22nd June 1897, Limited Manuski, and Devi Ahilya Bai (Nachiket and Jayoo Patwardhan); Percy (Pervez Merwanji); Hun, Hunshi, Hunshilal (Sanjiv Shah); Devarakadu (Pattabhi Rama Reddy); Pehla Adhyay (Vishnu Mathur); and Frames (Chetan Shah)—he also worked on a more mainstream Hindi movie: Lalach (Shankar Nag).

Besides a number of international documentaries such as La Ballade de Pabuji(Georges Luneau), Dreams of the Dragon’s Children (Pierre Hoffmann), Are You Listening? (Martha Stewart) and Last House in Bombay (Luke Jennings), Navroze also shot Indian documentaries such as All in the Family (Ketan Mehta), Famine 87 (Sanjiv Shah), and The Open Frame (Chetan Shah).

A major part of his documentary work resulted from his long and fruitful collaboration with his partner in life and work, well-known filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj. He made history as a co-founder and the only male member of India’s first feminist film collective, Yugantar, which produced four pioneering films in the 1980s: Molkarin, Tambaku Chaakila Oob Aali, Idi Katha Maatramena and Sudesha, about the struggles of women workers, the realities of domestic violence, and the life of a trailblazing environmental activist.

Among the other films they worked on together were What Has Happened to this City?, an early, revelatory film on communal conflict; Something Like a War, and The Legacy of Malthus, strong, radical critiques of population policies and family planning practices; The Advocate and Invoking Justice, highlighting the interface between human rights and the law; and We Have Not Come Here to Die, exploring the widespread movement against caste-based oppression triggered by the tragic death by suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula

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The ease with which he functioned in the all-women settings he often found himself in while working on documentaries with Deepa was not as remarkable as the way he managed to get himself accepted by women— including poor, rural women—even when they were discussing intimate matters like love, sex, and reproduction. A scene from Something Like a War is unforgettable in this context: at one point, while talking about desire and suchlike, Gyarsi Bai, one of the seniors in the group and clearly much older than the filmmakers, turned to Navroze standing behind the camera and said something along the lines of “Having seen Deepa Bai’s husband, I feel I want an old man like him!” Everyone else collapsed into laughter but the cameraman held his shot.

Navroze also directed two documentaries of his own: Bharat Parikrama, chronicling his historic circumnavigation of India on a motorcycle in 2005, and Jhadu Katha, an eye-opening exploration of the socio-economic and cultural aspects of brooms in Rajasthan and the people who traditionally make and use them.

Having studied art and photography at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Vadodara, and acquired further skills training with documentary photographer Bhupendra Karia, Navroze began his career as a photographer and continued his romance with still photography throughout his life. His photographs of jazz musicians are in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC, while his photographs of artist Bhupen Khakhar are in the collection of the Tate Modern, London. His most recent collection of photographs documented the dying culture of kushti (wrestling) in akhadas (traditional arenas where wrestlers train and practice).

Mentor, writer, and rider

Navroze was a natural teacher. He held photography and film workshops at several prestigious institutions across the country and even overseas. He enjoyed introducing primary school children to art, photography, and film-making. He was an enthusiastic and generous mentor, too, with a number of young photographers and filmmakers having benefited from working alongside him over the years.

Navroze was also a writer, regularly contributing to publications like CAR India/BIKE India, Zigwheels, Overdrive, Wheels Unplugged, and Fast Bikes. His book, The Dreams of the Dragon’s Children, based on his film-making experiences in China in 1984, was first published by Penguin Books India in 2003. He wrote a freewheeling column in Bangalore Mirror for a few years in the first decade of the new millennium, including one, headlined “What’s after all in a name?”, describing hilarious dialogues with random strangers in Bengaluru about his puzzling surname.

The fact that he was a major motorcycle enthusiast is now widely known, thanks to the tragic circumstances of his recent death: killed on Father’s Day (June 18) reportedly by drunken riders driving too fast on the wrong side of the road while he was out on his customary Sunday morning bike ride with biker friends. It is a poignant paradox that such an experienced and safety-conscious motorcyclist, who had travelled across the country and the world on bikes for more than 65 years, met his end in this fateful way.

“Navroze will live on in the incredible body of work he has left behind. Perhaps more importantly, he will live on in the fond memories cherished by everyone whose life he has touched, not to mention his near and dear ones.”

His very first motorcycle trip—as a 12-year-old pillion rider on his older brother’s new bike—was from Ahmedabad to Ajanta-Ellora (1000 kms!) in 1956. There has been no stopping him since. The only, small comfort now is the thought that he passed away doing what he loved.

Navroz Contactor in Alang in 1990

Navroz Contactor in Alang in 1990 | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Another important part of Navroze’s life was music. His lifelong love affair with jazz began while he was a student in Vadodara, when he would make weekend trips to what was then Bombay and already boasted several jazz clubs. But he remained open to other forms of music, too, interestingly developing a taste for Carnatic music in recent years. He passed on his passion for music to his younger daughter, Mana, who is now an accomplished musician/singer.

He was also a genuine sports aficionado, proven by the fact that, despite being a devotee of cricket, he followed other sports as well (including, evidently, kushti). He quietly but steadfastly helped nurture cricket talent in Bengaluru, involving himself in the Koramangala Cricket Academy and working alongside coach Shivanand to enable children from families with limited finances to excel in the game; one of the successful products of the Academy was cricketer Karun Nair.

A born storyteller

Navroze was a born storyteller and had a unique sense of humour. He had an uncommon talent for friendship, too. He made friends easily—but not superficially—across age groups, occupational groups, linguistic backgrounds, castes, classes, and communities. Warm, affectionate, and kind but also frank and forthright, brooking no nonsense, he was a loyal, reliable, and helpful friend. Children loved him and vice versa; some of his innumerable young friends today were children when they first met him.

He was a foodie long before the word entered common parlance. He enjoyed all kinds of good food, often carrying back special favourites from visits to different parts of the country and generously sharing them with gourmet friends. He would scout around for restaurants serving authentic culinary specialities and bars retaining real old-world charm, sometimes in the most unlikely of places, and eagerly introduce like-minded friends to his precious finds. It was always a pleasure to cook for him because he was such an appreciative epicure.

It was almost impossible to keep track of Navroze: he was here, there and everywhere all the time. And now he’s gone forever.

But no. Navroze will live on in the incredible body of work he has left behind. Perhaps more importantly, he will live on in the fond memories cherished by everyone whose life he has touched, not to mention his near and dear ones.

Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru.

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