Saturday, October 30, 2010

Surendar Chawdhary's Rehearsals for his Diploma film

Surendar Chawdhary was preparing for the shoot of his Diploma film VILAAP and he used to discuss the script with his cinematographer R.S. Agarwal and associates Kasturi R Murthy and myself. His film was about a tree being cut in a forest and humanises the event by showing various incidents that happened under the tree. For the opening shot he wanted a leaf falling from the tree on to the ground. The problem was that he wanted the single leaf in tight closeup and follow the falling leaf's movement using a crane. It was a pretty tough task indeed and required precise operation of the crane as well as the camera. Since he very much needed the dramatic shot for his film, we decided whether it was possible to such a camera operation by conducting a trial during our practical class.

I did the trial using the Arri Blimp camera mounted on a crane and as Surendar dropped the leaf in front of the camera, the crane was moved according to the trajectory of the leaf's fall. When there was wind it just moved out of frame and we had to wait for the windless period.

Myself on the camera with Surendar

After several trials we were able to synchronize the fall of the leaf with the camera and crane movements so that the leaf was always in the frame till the very end. Thus Surendar was assured that the shot he wanted so badly for his Diploma film could indeed be taken .

The shot set up

Later on the actual shot was taken by R.S. Agarwal himself during the Diploma film shooting and was incorporated in the film. Such attention to detail and meticulous planning by Surendar paid rich dividends later 0n. Eventually his film won the Grand Prix of Winged-Ibex statue in the short film category at the First Tehran International Film Festival 1972 and several other honours.

Friday, October 29, 2010

AZAD and the BHANG Story

Azad had come back again to the Institute for the Convocation and he was staying as a guest in my room. He used to smoke beedi and some times smoked ganja also which was available at very cheap rates. Since I do not smoke he purchased some Bhang from a shop, for the first time and told me that this will take me high. Bhang is a preparation made from the leaves and flowers (buds) of the cannabis plant consumed with sweets or mixed with almonds,spices, milk and sugar as Thandai during the Holi festival season. It was also sold as green Halwa and sweets are said to enhance the kick of Bhang. These are not considered a drug, but a traditional sleeping aid and appetizer. Sadhus and Sufis use Bhang to boost meditation and to achieve transcendental states.

He had brought four Goli’s ( balls) of Bhang. Since I have never taken it before, I asked my friend Sahu on the modus operandi of taking Bhang. I gave one goli to him but I took only half a goli mixed with milk and sugar since I was cautious about this unknown substance. Afterwards we both went to Law College mess and had our Sunday lunch with sweets. While taking food I jokingly told Sahu that the Bhang had no effect on me.

But while we were walking back along the Law College road, I felt some changes taking place. The road seemed endless and I felt I had been walking for hours and still not reaching our hostel. After a while I found that I am watching myself on a screen in Mid Shot walking and walking with the background passing just like a back projection process shot. Somehow, I reached my hostel room and lied down on my bed. The room seemed to twist and take a distorted strange shape. I felt as if my body was made of plastic, then iron, ice and of different materials. Slowly I sank into deep sleep. Some hours later I woke up and I found myself normal as the psychedelic effect of Bhang had worn off.

Late in the evening Azad came to my room along with another friend Verghese who was working at the Film Archives. I explained to them the effect Bhang had on me. Azad laughed it off saying that it was because, I was a non-smoker of Ganja, Bhang had more effect on me. He and Verghese each consumed on goli (ball) of Bhang mixed with milk. After an hour of chit chat Azad again took the remaining half a goli too saying that this Bhang had no kick at all for a veteran Ganja smoker like him and felt it as a waste of money. If he had purchased Ganja instead of the Bhang, by that time he would have been floating on the clouds.

At that time a Hindi feature film shooting had been going on in our campus starring Asha Parekh and others from Bombay. We all went to watch the shooting taking place at the exterior of our sound studio. The lighting was being done on the exterior staircase of the studio. When it was over, the star of the day, Asha Parekh came and stood there in position for the final lighting corrections. Azad whispered in my ears that how many Asha Parekhs are there? I said, only one. But he said he was seeing multiple figure of her standing at each and every step! When he asked Verghese, he also confirmed that he too was seeing multiple figures. Both felt that something was happening to them and wanted to get back to the hostel room. As I was interested in watching the shooting going on, I gave them my room key and asked them to take rest and I will join them soon.

After some time, Sahu came rushing to me saying that something had happened to these two fellows as they were at the hostel calling police, police etc. Immediately I went there and on seeing me both of the rushed towards me and pleaded please help us, please. It was this "please" which was misunderstood as "Police" by the students who gathered at the commotion! I told the onlookers that there was no problem and it was the effect of Bhang. I took both of them in to my room and asked them what had happened.

Azad explained to me that as soon as he reached my room and tried to open the lock he found the black iron lock shine like a diamond. When they entered the room the walls stood at odd angles and the room took a distorted shape. They both started singing songs to get away from the weird feeling. Azad went near the window and looked down and saw an Ambassador car on the road. Spontaneously he composed a Malayalam poem about the Ambassador car and started reciting it and they were having a nice time. Suddenly he was gripped with an unknown fear that he was going to die soon. He wanted to see his mother who lived in Kerala at least once before he died. Hearing that Verghese was also haunted by similar feelings of death and they both started crying holding on to each other. Then they came down from the hostel room and pleaded for help at passing students saying "Please. help, please!".

I pacified them saying that there was nothing to worry as it was all the effect of Bhang. But they could not be convinced and started to weep saying that there was something poisonous in the Bhang and they were sure to die. Before they die they wanted to see their mothers for the last time. However much I tried to convince them, they could not be convinced that it was just a passing feeling only due to the Bhang. Then I suggested that we will go and consult the Institute Doctor who lived near our campus. Holding my hands tightly from either side both of them accompanied me towards the doctor's residence. By the time we reached the Institute gate Azad asked me anxiously that how far still is the doctor's place since it had been hours since they have started walking. I could understand their feelings very well as I myself had similar experience in the afternoon while returning from the law college mess!

Finally we reached the doctor's residence and I explained to the doctor in detail about what had happened, while they both were waiting outside the consulting room. The doctor replied " Nothing can be done now. Let them take rest and sleep. In the morning it will be all over" On hearing the words " Nothing can be done" they thought even the doctor had considered them as a hopeless case and they were sure to die. Instantly they fell flat at the foot of the doctor and cried in Malayalam, "Yejamaane Rakshikkane" ( meaning "O Master Save us" ). Dr. Deshpande who was a Maharashtrian could not understand what they were telling. I whispered to the doctor to give them some placebo so that they will psychologically feel better. He gave them some vitamin tablets and warned them never to take such substances in future. They promised to him on oath that they will never ever have Bhang in their lifetime. I trust they kept up their promise and I too never had it afterward!

Monday, October 25, 2010


To promote students' awareness of things happening around the world and also creatively express themselves, a "Thought for Today" Notice Board was set up near the entrance to the Film Institute canteen. Students were free to post newspaper or magazine clippings, art work, posters etc of general interest to the student community.

Those were the days of Film Institute graduates getting their share of limelight in the closely guarded Bombay film Industry. They were also featured in the National Awards - Rehana Sultan won the Urvashi Award for the Best Actress in 1970 and K.K. Mahajan for excellence in Black and White photography in 1970 for SARA AKASH. Navin Nischal and Shatrughan Sinha had become recognised Stars! So when a film like UMANG starring many Film Institute graduates came out, it raised much expectations amongst the students. The film was brought to Institute for a screening and we had a disappointing ordeal of viewing it. Next day the reaction was out on the Thought for Today Notice Board - "UMANG" - Insulting & Infuriating. Doomed is the country if this be its youth! A Film to be banned!!

(L to R) Dixit, Raina, (unidentifiable)K.G.George and Surendra Chowdhary

K.G.George is all smiles!

Obviously the comments were put up by the Direction students and the Acting students didn't like it. They were keen on getting in to the film Industry by any means without caring for aesthetic values. So they were all praise for the Industrywallahs irrespective of their caliber. At the 8 th Convocation butter was liberally applied by these "Chamchas" which was intolerable. I reacted by drawing a cartoon and had put it near the UMANG comments, which you can see in the left bottom side of the board!

My Cartoon

As it was unsigned , many of the Acting students felt that the cartoon was put up against them by some Direction students who were jealous of Acting students getting all the attention and glamour! They did not know that I was person who authored it !!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

MT and P.N.Menon at the Institute

M. Azad who had passed out in Screen play writing earlier had started working as an assistant to the well known Malayalam Film Director P.N.Menon in the film KUTTIYEDATHI. The screen play was by the renowned Malayalam writer M.T.Vasudevan Nair, popularly known as M.T. Having worked with both of them Azad was instrumental in bringing them to the Institute for the first time. M.T.accompanied by Azad was there at the Institute as a Guest faculty for about a week interacting with the students and taking classes in screen play writing. He also used his spare time viewing some of the world classics at the National Film Archives. Azad being a very good friend and well wisher of me took particular interest in introducing me to these towering personalities from Kerala.

Myself and M.Azad

This meeting with M.T. was to have a great impact on my career later on. When in 1973, M.T.decided to make a film based on his short story "Pallivalum Kaal Chilambum" as NIRMALYAM, he thought of me and asked me to work as cinematographer in his maiden venture as Director. Even though he had known many renowned stalwart cinematographers in the Malayalam film industry who were too happy to work with him, he had chosen me , a comparatively new comer as his cinematographer. Azad who was also the Associate director was instrumental in having all the key technicians from the Film Institute itself - Editor Ravi and Sound Engineer Devadas and a Key role played by actor Ravi Menon. M.T.'s trust in the caliber of Institute Alumni never failed him and it is history that the film NIRMALYAM was chosen for the Golden Lotus as the Nation's Best Film. My association with M.T.continued in more films directed by him - BANDHANAM, VAARIKKUZHI. I became a very close friend to him and his family members and he considers me as a younger brother to him.

Shooting NIRMALYAM- Devadas sitting with MT ( dark glasses)

Azad's maiden film VILKANUNDU SWAPNANGAL was also scripted by M.T. and naturally I was the cinematographer. A major portion of the film takes place in Dubai and it was the first ever Malayalam film to have the location shooting at the Emirates.

MT, Sukumaran, Me and Azad during Dubai shooting

Azad once again came to the Institute, this time with Director P.N.Menon and his film KUTTYEDATHI. The film was well appreciated by the students and everyone liked the raw texture of the film and the rustic personality of P.N.Menon. I was also meeting him for the first time and found him to be receptive to experiments. Already he had Institute Alumni Ravi as his Editor at a time when the film industry in general had an aversion towards Institute graduates on the whole. He also had Madras Institute of Film Technology trained Ashok Kumar as his cinematographer.

Later on I did the cinematography for P.N.Menon directed Malayalam film UDAYAM KIZHAKKUTHANNE and for his Tamil film DEVATHAI (along with Ashok Kumar)

P.N.Menon ( in dark glasses) behind the camera


With P.N. Menon

Monday, October 11, 2010

Actuality Coverage

As part of our Actuality Coverage Project, we cinematography students have to shoot and edit a news coverage short documentary on our own. We were free to select our own subject and were provided with Black & white 16 mm negative film. I was in search of some suitable subject when I was informed by our department that an important surgery was going take place at the Sassoon Hospital, Poona. A team of two British Doctors will be performing a comparatively new surgery - Corneal Transplantation. I was asked to cover the event as part of my actuality coverage project and I was also given two rolls of 16 mm Kodachrome reversal film as well.

I had my own doubts whether I will able to stand the sight of blood etc as I have never before stepped inside an Operation theatre in my life! Putting aside my fears I reached the hospital and before being allowed inside the room we were asked to change in to the hospital's sterile garments. Our instructor Mr.Ramanathan was also with us to sort things out with the hospital people. I talked with the doctor regarding the procedures so that I can shoot only the relevant portions without wasting film on unimportant activities. Fortunately for me there were two operations scheduled to take place that day. In case I miss some shots, I can always shoot them during the second surgery.

So first I concentrated on covering the surgery in full in close up as I can take the wider shots later. I mounted my Arri 16 BL camera high on a tripod to get a clear view of the eye being operated in tight close up. I took a light meter reading beforehand with the lights on to determine the exposure as it is very critical to have perfect exposure since I was using Reversal film. Once the operation started I was fully concentrated on getting the necessary images as perfectly as possible. My fears went away as there was not much blood shed, may be two or three drops in total. After the first surgery was over I took several cut-away shots and insert shots, long shots etc by mounting the camera on a shoulder pod and moving around without disturbing the doctors and the other personnel.

At the surgery - Mr.Ramanathan beside myself on the camera

In those days eye donation was not much in vogue in our country and the donated eyes came from Ceylon where they have many Buddhists who consider it as a noble act. I marveled at the rock steady hands of the surgeons who were doing the operation with the help of small microscopes fitted over their spectacles.

Another view

Finally when the rushes were projected many faint hearted students could not stand the sight on screen of a big close up of the eye and the eyelids being pierced by a needle and blood oozing out. Even I had a similar feeling though I had witnessed the real thing in person!

With Director P.G.Viswambharan & Actor Jayaram
FIRST BELL ( Malayalam Film)

Though in my later career, I had shot many surgery sequences in Operation theatres for feature films they were only enactments and not the real ones. Hence that day at Sassoon Hospital has a unique place in my mind!