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Chhayaankan: The view from behind the camera

Hemant Chaturvedi’s documentary Chhayaankan is a loving tribute to Hindi film cinematographers from decades past

A detail from the poster for ‘Chhayaankan’

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A century and some decades later, we can safely say that Indian cinema is terrible at documenting itself. This includes the lack of archiving, preservation and restoration of films but also the memories and wisdom of film practitioners, especially those who are not actors or directors. This makes Hemant Chaturvedi’s Chhayaankan: The Management of Shadows all the more valuable. In this 138-minute documentary, Chaturvedi, acclaimed cinematographer on films like Maqbool and Company, interviews 14 cinematographers he looked up to, from Govind Nihalani to A.K. Bir. It’s a loving tribute, the simple talking-heads format allowing space for the old pros to ramble, joke around and reminisce. The film screens at India International Centre in Delhi this week, and an extended version should be online later this year. Edited excerpts from an interview with Chaturvedi:

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You said at a screening that the film arose out of unanswered questions you had when you left cinematography in 2015.

My career was petering out for reasons I couldn’t figure. I had a good body of work, yet I was waiting for a year, two years to get a feature. Advertising was starting to become more and more corrupt. Everything has gotten diluted. I felt I needed to do more meaningful things, over which I had authorship.

I intended to do this film a long time back. I always felt cinematographers here had not been given their due. Of the 14 people in my cast, only Govind Nihalani has been interviewed multiple times, though more as a director as a cinematographer. I don’t think any of the others have been interviewed, at least not on video. So it’s something I always wanted to do, and my leaving cinematography was a catalyst to get my act together.

The 14 people are chosen for a very specific reason. These are the people I approached in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to work with. People have asked me, you didn’t include P.C. Sreeram, Goutam Ghose? I tell them, they’re not my people! The people I looked up to when I was 20 years old.

Of course, they all shooed me off and never gave me a chance to work with them. Over the years, they’ve become friends. When I told them about the documentary, they were all excited to do it.

We shot from December 2015 to January 2016. By and large, we spent a day with each of them. I also interviewed several elderly light boys, to understand how they see cinematographers. We wanted to do a 20-minute section on that, but it didn’t fit in.

When was the film completed?

I kind of lost my marbles for a couple of years in 2016 and ‘17. I wasn’t being able to come to terms with the big decision I’d taken. Finally in 2017 I got my act together. When Ishwar Bidri passed away (in December 2020) I simultaneously discovered Nadeem Khan had been in a coma for two years. When I heard of these two incidents, I thought, if my cast doesn’t get to see the film it would be quite shameful on my part.

All told, it took six years to finish. Der aaye durust aaye... I’m glad it happened when it did.

Did you have a common set of questions or ones specific to each person?

I had both. There was a series of 20-22 questions I asked everyone, and a small set of questions based on the specific work they’d done. I’d gone through their filmographies again, so I could question them on certain shots and sequences. When I sat down with Govindji (Nihalani), he said, “I have one request, don’t ask me anything in a chronological way.”

Nihalani has a great anecdote in this, about the fortune-teller who seems to predict his career in film.

Yes, and you might have noticed—everyone in the film is an accidental cinematographer. A Malaysian friend, who’s a brilliant photographer and documentary film-maker, wrote to me after seeing the film. He spoke about two things. His initial takeaway from the film was that the interviews were horizontal, by which he meant the interviewees were speaking to one of their own people, so they spoke freely. The second thing he spoke about was the Malaysian concept of ‘angin’—an inner wind that stirs inside you. S.M. Anwar talks about it in as many words—”I don’t know from where I got the energy to learn, learn, learn...”

This is also a tribute to film equipment and a kind of tactility that’s been lost. Anwar corrects you about a film he shot on a certain camera...

Talking of tactile, 50 years later he remembers the camera he shot on. I don’t think a single cinematographer today remembers which Alexa or Red One they shot on. That emotional relationship you had with your machine was something else.

Cinematographers like V.K. Murthy and K.K. Mahajan are referenced through the film, even though they aren’t in it.

Chhayaankan is also about the people who inspired the people in the film. Mahajan saab, Murthy saab and Ashok Mehta were the three people I wanted to interview but could not, because they died in the previous decade.

There’s a great quote about how film used to ask technology to come up with something new, but in the digital age it’s technology that challenges film.

Technology allows you to do a lot more, but without working harder on set. Entire skill sets used to exist for before a film started; now they exist for after a film’s over. Generations of engineers, carpenters, painters have now become three people in an air-conditioned room.

Was there ever a thought to use scenes shot by the subjects in the film?

No, never. It was always meant to be an intimate conversation. In the film, they aren’t talking about specific scenes; it’s more emotional, and I didn’t want to break that intimacy. Also, for the kind of budget we had, clips would be extremely expensive. They (rights holders) drive you up the wall, whatever hair I have would have fallen off.

I wanted to do a little sequence with my cast’s credits as assistants. I spoke to a couple of rights holders and they wanted 3,000, 5,000 rupees a second. It didn’t make any sense.

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Will the film be available for people to watch online?

It’ll happen before this year is over. Each interview was at least two hours long. The film is 138 minutes; with 14 people that means each one has 7 minutes to speak. I thought, since they have given me the time, each interview should be edited into maybe a 1 hour 20 minute capsule and made into a series of separate interviews.

Indian Society of Cinematographers (ISC) is going to help me put this together. It’ll be free—we’ll probably put it on the ISC site or on YouTube.

What other projects are you working on?

I’ve been doing a lot of still photography for the past seven years. Between 2019 and 2022, I have driven in excess of 35,000 km in my jeep across the country, photo-documenting single-screen cinemas. I shot nearly 1,000 cinemas across 15 states. It’s one of the biggest documentations on the subject ever done, not just here but worldwide.

If I find old 35mm projectors, and their operators, I do portraits with them. I’ve been photographing booking office windows, seats, auditoria, posters. In the old cinemas, to differentiate between male and female loos they used to have the images of the star of the moment. My favourite ones were Sanjeev Kumar in an abandoned cinema in Gujarat, and somewhere in Punjab I found Tabu on the women’s loo door. I sent her the photograph—she was vastly amused.

'Chhayaankan' is screening on 18 August, 6.30 pm, at India International Centre in Delhi.

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