Thoda Left, Thoda Right by Anil Mehta
The 8th edition of BIFFES, the Bengaluru International Film Festival had an array of interesting workshops and lectures that were among the key highlights of the festival. Prominent among them was the Late V.K.Murthy memorial lecture delivered by noted Indian Cinematographer, Anil Mehta. V.K.Murthy, the renowned cinematographer and Dadasaheb Phalke Awardee is celebrated for his work in classics like Pyaasa, Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam, Kaagaz Ke Phool and many other films.
As part of the lecture, Anil Mehta spoke about the “Evolution of Realism in Cinema” citing examples of noted cinematographers who have created history with their ingenuity.
Here are excerpts from the lecture.
Thank you all for coming – and thank you for the invitation to speak on this occasion – actually if you ask me – getting a Cinematographer to give a lecture is a really bad idea. For a cinematographer to use words to evoke a ‘sense of his art’ is almost an inverse of what he or she really does on a daily basis – which is – ‘interpret words’ and ‘materialize them’ in a sense.
Let’s take a typical instance of a cinematographer at work, ‘he reads a script / screenplay/ ‘words’, which evoke images or ideas for images and has thoughts on how to achieve them. He then meets with the director and hears him out on the ‘look and feel’ of the film, many more words get thrown around at this stage, ‘Real-Very Real’ ‘Ethereal’ ‘Surreal’ ‘Gritty’ ‘Grungy’ ‘Glam’ ‘Edgy-Dark’ this list of words is long and varied…
All this while what is probably going through the Cinematographer’s mind is a list of numbers and processes; one stop underexposure and push process, 50% bleach-by-pass, only long lenses on this one, 40mm and above, 1/4 black promist 1/4 ctb, T 2.8 to 1.4… This is what runs through the cinematographers mind; these words, that mean so little to everyone else, is his form of articulation – his expression – his way of translating words into images. Is this really the person we are looking for, to deliver a Memorial Lecture in the Memory of an artist like Mr. V K Murthy?
Why then did I accept to be here? Well, first, because I can’t say no to Bhaskar Sir, he is a senior and like a mentor to me; more importantly, because no one else wants to talk about Cinematographers and Cinematography. In fact, so little is said about Cinematography that ironically we are compelled ‘to make some noise’ about it ourselves. Although everyone accepts that Cinematography ‘is an Art’, a ‘Refined Skill,’ a ‘Complicated craft’ that every Cinematographer imbues the film with his ‘personality’ – yet critical writing on the subject or thought or column space is negligible.
So please bear with me in my attempt to formulate thoughts into words.
Although the paradigm, around which I am supposed to ground my Lecture today, is ‘REALISM’, I would like to approach it from my own Reality as a Cinematographer, my own frames of reference.
The first and most impressionable influence is Subroto Mitra. Subroto da was a Cinematographer who, we as students had the privilege of interacting with on the FTII campus. The seemingly calm and composed Subroto da was a finicky perfectionist; more importantly, he was self-taught. What struck you right away about him was that for a self-taught professional, his grasp of the theoretical aspects of Cinematography were crystal clear – Sensitometry, Emulsion architecture, Lab Chemistry, Optics…
Subroto da was, in my opinion, a ‘Classic Realist’.
The workshop with him would not start with, “Let’s make Frames like Pather Panchali” but more like, get your Gray Cards, do an Exposure wedge, plot the H&D curve, determine Gama, determine ISO, basically start with Greek so that eventually your expression is Classical. It was painstaking but the foundations were solid.
Subroto da was, in my opinion, a ‘Classic Realist’. How to get the Film to behave in accordance with ‘his vision’ of capturing Reality, that was his quest. Charulata – 1964 – watching the movie as a student, summed up the Role of a Cinematographer for me – the film felt seamless – flowed from indoors to outdoors – set to location, it let you enjoy the movie without getting in the way by overstatement. It was subtle and articulate.
A large section of Charulata was shot on an Indoor set, inside a studio. It is now part of folklore that ‘Bounce Lighting’ was supposed to have been used on this set for the first time. The set was originally, to be constructed Outdoors but when it was moved into a studio, Subroto da was not very happy with the decision. He was going to have to simulate various times of day on an indoor set. A problematic situation even today (except if you’re Sudeep Chatterjee shooting Bajirao Mastani). That’s when Subrata da decided to cover the entire courtyard of the house with a large white fabric and bounce lights onto it for ‘Ambient Day Light’. This was only the starting point, soft light sources from windows, simulation of natural sources of light became the guiding principle. This approach was a big departure from the Classic Hollywood Style of Studio lighting. He was innovating in the Calcutta of the 60s where everything other than Chai and Politics was in short supply.
This is what contributed in a big way to the ‘believability’ of a Real Location or a Real House. We have ‘lazy afternoons’ ‘evenings’ ‘late evening to night transition’ ‘stormy day break’ all simulated by Lighting. This layer of ‘Lighting’ in a movie is a narrative element that often goes unnoticed. Subroto da himself, told us a small charming incident, “After a rather successful screening of Charulata, his mother apparently called him to tell him that she really enjoyed the film and that she was particularly impressed with Bansi Chandragupta’s (the Production Designer/Art Director) work, of how the house looked so real, the attention to detail, the period authenticity, she went on for a bit till Subroto da interrupted her to tell her that if the Set had not been ‘Lit’ in a Naturalistic way, it may not have looked that good or so real” – but I don’t think she gave him much credit for the ‘look and feel’ of the film.
Even though Subroto da’s work is in the ‘Classic’, ‘Naturalist’, ‘Realist’ aesthetic mode, it never lacks expressiveness, the film moves from Lyrical to Romantic to Dramatic with deft and effective touches. The Track shots change rhythms as scenes develop. This is when you realise the Cinematographer is also a Co-Narrator. Composition, movement, lensing, lighting are his language and syntax.
There is an International context here too, that I would like to highlight.
The French New Wave, East European Cinema, Films of Ingmar Bergman from Sweden were all creating new spaces in the 60’s. The New Wave was doing away with the artifice of Sets and Lighting. Location shoots with available light were the new mantras, Raoul Coutard would not hesitate to sit in a wheelchair to do tracking shots with a hand held camera. Sven Nyqvist was beginning to work with Ingmar Bergman. Winter Light was a film that came out in 1963 and this is a quote from Sven Nykvist, “When Ingmar and I made Winter Light, which takes place in a Church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided that we should not see any shadows in it at all, because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. We sat for weeks in a Church in north Sweden looking at the light during the three hours between 11 am and 2 pm. We saw that it changed a lot. It helped Ingmar in writing the script because he always writes in the moods. I asked the Production Designer to build a ceiling in the church so I would not have the possibility of putting up lights or back lighting. I had to start with ‘bounced light’ and then after that I think I made every film with ‘bounced light’. I really feel ill when I see a direct light coming onto faces with its big nose shadow.”
That quote could have come from Subroto da. The same feeling for light at around the same time..
The New Wave was doing away with the artifice of Sets and Lighting.
Now let’s open another Studio Door… Quite literally in the first few shots of Kaagaz Ke Phool, a studio door opens. Top angle, wide long shot, harsh Specular Light blasts through it, a diminutive character walks in, an overlong shadow precedes, strong dark diagonal of the catwalk cuts across left of frame, Cut to, an over-bright mid shot, back to camera the character continues to walk, another diagonal of a crane arm across left of frame, Cut to, source of light, a shaft forms, then off, then on again, Eye level Long shot, dramatic shadows on Studio wall, dwarfed character walks amidst towering Film Equipment, Cut, Silhouetted film crew walks into studio. Can there be a more diametrically opposed approach to cinematography. Dynamic, dramatic and assured – that’s the voice of V. K. Murthy.
Subroto da and Murthy saab are both doing the same job, taking very different paths. For me Subroto da and Murthy saab represent an Arc under which we can still categorise the work of most Cinematographers. This is where the problematic ‘Representation of Reality’ takes a bend. Let’s just cut to a broader framework for the sake of extending the discussion.
I feel that there is a Western way and an Oriental way of Representation, quite distinct from each other.
In very broad strokes; the Western aesthetic derives from Rationality, Causality, Linear forms… Art and Literature reflect this Reality. It’s not as if all Western art works within the confines of this Realism but it does become the reference point or a point of departure so to speak, like Cubism will self consciously deploy multiple perspective as a stated principle.
The Oriental way is probably more amorphous – deriving from Sensory, Mystical, Cyclical modes, using codes that the audience is familiar with, so as not to be construed as Abstraction or Stylistics but as Reality. For example, in Indian Miniature painting although the appearance is of a flattened perspective – it actually has multiple perspective – is able to carry narratives within its confines through split screens, is able to mould space according to its needs… the top of the Frame in a miniature painting could be a dramatic gray cloudy night sky with lightning, the bottom of the frame could be a turbulent river with serpents and elemental fury, the body of the painting could be a Nayika bathed in a very different light, poised in an elegant manner, yet anxiously awaiting for her beloved to return.
While this form of painting was emerging in parts of Northern India, ‘Renaissance’ painting was the mode in Southern Europe. Renaissance painting with its near life-like representation, faithful perspective and naturalistic lighting and Indian miniatures with all their stylistic nuances. I feel that there is a very high level of sophistication in both forms; just the modes of telling are totally different.
I am not suggesting here that Subroto da was the Renaissance man and Murthy sab the Orientalist, I am just trying to highlight that there can be very different approaches to depiction in a work of art. If we look at our Folk Theatre forms and tradition…Pandavani, Burra Katha, Yakshagana, Nautanki, all these forms have a style of narration that is totally our own – where story – song – commentary – mythology – improvisation – all overlap to make the entertainment for the evening. I feel that our mainstream cinema draws from this tradition… I might be taking on too much here, too many threads to tie up. But let me just round it off by saying that perhaps Murthy saab’s work is more resonant with our own idioms – it tends to go more impulsively with the emotional content and has a flair which is more in sync with the drama of our movies.
Dziga Vertov’s work reflects upon the nature of Cinema as an art, and on ‘Reality’ as an aesthetic choice.
I want to take the argument of Realism in Cinema to another realm, again with a filmmaker who was an early influence, Dziga Vertov and the name of the film is The Man with the Movie Camera. His work reflects upon the nature of Cinema as an art, and on ‘Reality’ as an aesthetic choice. Dziga Vertov started as a Newsreel Director in early Bolshevik Russia, working on the Kino Pravda series of Agitprop films.
The Title Cards of Man with the Movie Camera read like a manifesto of film making ethics;
- Attention Viewer – This film presents an Experiment in the Cine Communication of Visual Events
- Without the aid of Inter Titles, without the aid of Scenario, without the aid of Theatre Sets and Actors
- This Experimental work aims at creating a truly international – absolute image of Cinema based its total separation from the language of Theatre and Literature
- Author and Supervisor of the Experiment Dziga Vertov
- Chief Cameraman Michael Kaufman
- Assisting Editor E Svilova
Dziga Vertov’s preoccupations are quite clearly stated here – he wants to Document Reality, with no layers or artifice in between. He wants cinema to have a ‘pure’ expression and so works towards developing a syntax for an Absolute film language – all this in 1929.
In fact what he ends up doing – is perhaps – the flip of what he has stated. He uses all the ‘tricks in the box’, which in this case, is the Camera to interpret reality. Split screens, super impositions, reverse motion, speed variations – even the narrative opens itself to interpretation by employing the various modes of Montage – the narrative of life in the city, the critique of the socialist doctrine of the time, furthering of the aesthetic concerns of the Constructivist movement in Art. It is a really bold – self reflexive work – and so retains interest for filmmakers even today. That is probably why the film was voted as the 8th most important film ever made, in the ‘Sight and Sound’ poll of 2012.
But is Man with the Movie Camera a Realistic film? Far from it, I feel, it is highly interpretative and individualistic. Metric montage, Intellectual Montage, Montage of attractions, all modes of Editing create association and meaning – that open up interpretations for the viewer. A far cry from his stated manifesto of ‘life caught unawares’, ‘life as it is’. Dziga Vertov in trying to further the understanding of his film also says, ‘the film is only the sum of the facts recorded on film – or if you prefer, not merely the sum but the product, a higher mathematics of facts.’ Critics in the meantime, went on to declare that Man with the Movie Camera was ‘not life as it is but life, the way, they DID NOT see it’. The Debate on reality, on depiction of Reality or Interpretation of Reality is as old as all Art. Cinema in that sense is a late entrant. I am tempted to take another detour here in an attempt to try and locate reality.
Heisenberg’s ‘Principle of Uncertainty’ states that if you locate a particle’s ‘position’, its ‘momentum’ becomes less accurate to determine. It’s almost as if the act of observing a particle introduces uncertainty into its Reality. If we are to transport this analogy to the act of filmmaking then the moment one places a Camera to record a Reality you have already altered its meaning and opened it up for interpretation. How then do you locate Realism. While in the Quantum realm, it’s also tempting to touch upon the Dual Nature of Light, as both particle and wave.
The Debate on reality, on depiction of Reality or Interpretation of Reality is as old as all Art.
A quote from Einstein, ‘We are now faced with a new kind of difficulty, we have two contradictory pictures of Reality, separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.’ (To have the most mystical forms of energy as your constant companion is the Cinematographer’s privilege, to put that energy to good use the challenge).
If for the moment, we were to use the duality of the nature of light as a metaphor, I feel it again bears down on all acts of filming, in the sense that the act of filming fixes/concretizes reality into an image and abstracts/opens it up for interpretation at the same time.
In the hands of a good practitioner both these forces come into play effectively and that’s what makes the work stand the test of time. Coming back to Subroto da and Murthy saab, it is not within my academic tutelage to analyse their work from this perspective – but when I watch their work, I do get a sense of an ‘internalised understanding’ of what a camera and film and light can do. Their response to a scene, ‘how to light it’, how to lens it’, ‘how to move the camera’, is almost an intuitive impulse.
These are just some of the thoughts that I wanted to share with all of you.
They may not have the rigour of a full academic enquiry and may not have the substance that this premise deserves but like I said at the very beginning, it’s not such a good idea to have someone who’s most often used words are, “thoda left, thoda right”, to deliver a Memorial Lecture. Before finishing I want to risk bringing in my own two bit experience from the set of a movie I worked on; it’s a risk because it’s a very banal example and yet I find it relevant to the everyday work that we do as Cinematographers.
So, once upon a time, long long ago, there was a movie called Lagaan. On that film everyone was on a journey – of how to tell this tale in the best way possible – the production team included. How to locate it, where to locate it, how to mount it … it all went on for very long before commencement of shoot. One day closer to shoot – when the village Set was ready, the Producer called for a meeting of the core team on Location. So we all travelled to Bhuj to have our final say. At one point late into the discussion, the Producer and Lead Actor of the film turned to me and said, ‘So Anil, how are you going to light this film.’ I was a little taken aback because to be honest, I did not have a straight answer, fact was I did not quite know yet, so I tried a clever answer like, ‘Ashutosh and I have been discussing the look of the film, we will try and capture the spirit of the script.’ But Aamir is smarter than to fall for that one, so he asked again, pointedly this time, ‘See, there are night scenes, there is no electricity, people are poor, there are just a few lamps, so how will you light those scenes?’ Basically what he was saying that – listen I hope you are not one of those ‘source – light – types’, ‘this film can’t look too ‘dark’, it’s a mainstream film that has to be seen in B and C centres. I still did not have a clear answer for him as I did not have a clear lighting plan in mind, but what I was clear about was, that the script would be my source of lighting and not necessarily the oil lamps. And that’s the principle I worked with.
Go for the spirit of the piece, get the feeling right and hope that it will connect with someone’s notion of Reality
For example, there is a festive, celebratory song set in the village square at night, ‘Radha Kaise na Jale.’ There are very few joyous occasions in the film so the mood had to definitely be upbeat. I thought an overhead ambient light should suffuse the whole space. Easier thought than done, I was on an outdoor set with not even an electricity pole in sight. Anyway my gaffer and assistants pulled of an engineering feat with local resources and in the middle of nowhere, I did manage a overhead rig with soft lighting.
Now it was the director’s turn to ask me, ‘So Anil, where is all this light coming from,’ ‘clearly it is not moonlight and nor is it the lamps.’ I was hard pressed for an answer again, except to say that we need to create a soft, pleasing, upbeat ambience for this song and this is the best way I can think of creating it. Anyway that’s how it stayed and I don’t think anyone’s asking ‘where is that light coming from’ anymore, although now, I do have a good ‘come back line’ which I read in a cinematographer’s interview somewhere; when his director asked him ‘where is that light supposed to be coming from,’ he replied, ‘same place your background music comes from.’
That’s the bottom line for me, go for the spirit of the piece, get the feeling right and hope that it will connect with someone’s notion of Reality.
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