Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mani Kaul - A personal remembrance

Mani Kaul

While many Film makers made compromises for their existence, Mani Kaul till the very last breath remained an uncompromising, individualistic creator of films. His films were far ahead of their times which will be always cherished by connoisseurs of good cinema.

I was a student at the Poona Film Institute when he had come there to screen his debut film USKI ROTI in 1970. The film was really something we have not seen before on the Indian screen, consisting of lengthy static camera shots and used only one 28 mm lens for the whole film. Many of us didn't like it at all in the first viewing , because of the static lengthy shots and slow pace of the film. But a repeated viewing made us to study the film more deeply, made us to think and not remain as passive viewers. The carefully composed images of light and shade created by K.K.Mahajan in Black and White was another factor that contributed much to the film. I got introduced to him after the screenings and soon became a friend. During his visits to the Institute, which were quite frequent we used to meet along with K.G.George and other friends under the Wisdom tree or at the canteen. You are sure to find him always surrounded by admiring students. Such was his magnetic personality.

At that time he was having a love interest with a Tamilian girl Lalitha, (whom he later on married) and he asked me to teach him a few words in Tamil so as to impress her. He used to write down words like " Naan unnai kadhalikkeren " ( "I love you ") on a piece of paper and memorize it with proper pronunciation. Later on I have also visited his house "Janaki Kutir" at Mumbai and enjoyed his and Lalitha's hospitality. Though he was my senior, he introduced me to his wife Lalitha as his Tamil teacher!

Ravi Menon who was my batch mate at the Institute had done the lead role in Mani's Hindi film "DUVIDHA" before he made his debut in Malayalam films with M.T Vasudevan Nair's National Award winning "NIRMALYAM" for which I was the cinematographer. Ravi used tell me a number of interesting incidents from his shooting experience with Mani Kaul's team. I lost touch with Mani for a number of years after I relocated to Thiruvananthapuram. A few years back I happened to meet him during the International Film Festival of Kerala and that was our last meeting. He passed away on 6 th July 2011.

I have lost an old friend and great soul and Indian Film Industry had lost a Master Film maker!

I sincerely pray for his soul to Rest in Peace

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Farewell Party

Hailing from different parts of India as well the world, being together in the Institute for three years, sharing experiences we have developed bonds of unbreakable friendships that lasts till today. This uniqueness I have not seen nowhere else except the FTII-ians. Even I myself do not keep in touch with my college-mates from Loyola, Madras except one who stumbled upon me in Facebook after a gap of more than 40 years! The togetherness we were enjoying at the Institute was nearing an end and soon we will walk out of its hallowed gates to seek our fortunes in the Film Industry.

Myself and Murthy had to return to Poona for a few days from our shooting at Madras to appear for our Viva Voce examinations. Our old friends were back again together and we were all happy to meet each other after a short gap. When the Viva was over it was time to bid Adieu to our friends and the Institute.

We all organized a grand Get Farewell party and had a pleasant evening at a hotel in Deccan Gymkhana. Here are the memories from that night :

After dinner Group Photo

(From L to R - K.Ramachandra Murthy, Sushil K Jolly, Harish Gupta,
K. Ramachandra Babu, Prem Kumar Upadhyay, Naapo Gbande, Ramlal Agarwal, Venugopal Thakker, K. K.Jaiswal, Anil Dhanda, S D Deodhar and Surendra Sahu)

To see us off back to Madras not only our whole batch but also friends from other departments and also friendly foreign students turned up at the Poona Railway station.

At Poona Railway Station

Thursday, June 16, 2011


After our classes were over at the Institute my self and Kasturi R Murthy traveled by train to Madras to take up our first feature film assignment. Since Murthy had some relatives at Madras, he preferred staying with them. I joined John and Azad at their office at 49, Wallajah Road and was accommodated there for the time being. We did not have a separate room for ourselves and spent the day amongst the office staff and at night, we all slept in the settee and carpet in Producer Minnal's air conditioned cabin. In the hot and humid climate of Madras the air-conditioning was really a luxury. There was a nearby "Nair's Mess" at Triplicane which provided tasty Kerala type meals at very low prices. It was a small place and was always crowded and you have to wait for some time to manage a seat. The food and accommodation was quite comfortable.

As I was a novice in the Madras film Industry I had to learn m
any things about the procedures and working methods there. At the Institute you had all the equipments at your disposal and all you have to do is to write the list in the register and take them for the shooting. But here the equipments had to be hired from rental companies. Since Azad had worked in a few P.N.Menon films, he took me to Sujatha Movietone Unit, whom he said charge reasonably and had good workers. The camera we wanted was Arri IIC with option to use blimp as John wanted to use location sound recording. But the compact and portable Nagra recorder was not available at Madras as it was not considered a "Professional" equipment by the sound recordists there. Because of its small size and 1/4 inch tape they thought that it will create sync problems in lengthy shots. P.Devadas an alumni of the Institute who was at that time was with Chitralekha Film Co-operative Studio founded by Adoor Gopalakrishnan was contacted and he joined us with his Nagra equipment to do the sound recording.

We had planned to do our shooting in real houses instead of the usual practice of using studio sets using the household power supply. But to match the indoor light with the bright sunny out door light required the use of more powerful lights, such as 5KW or 10 KW. We could not use them as they would consume more power and the house connection will not
take up such heavy electrical load. Generators were rare and very expensive too; hence locations with 3 phase power supply were only selected if additional lighting is required. Apart from the usual Junior and Baby lights I asked for Colortron (USA) lights which I have used at the Institute and are known to give much brighter light out put. To my surprise I was given a Bombay made light which had a sealed beam spot light whose intensity can be varied step by step using a transformer and they called it "Colortran" light! Since it always produced a hot spot I asked for a few white boards to be made for bouncing the lights.

First Day of the Shooting

Having been brought up in Tamil Nadu, I haven't seen many Malayalam films. I have seen a few of them while we went to Kerala on summer holidays to my parent's place. I had seen Ramu Kariat's CHEMMEEN at Madras and P.N.Menon's KUTIYEDATHI ( Starring Jayabharathi ) and few other Malayalam films at the Institute. In fact I have never even witnessed the shooting of a Malayalam film either before I ventured into the film industry as Cameraman.

We were using ORWO Black and white negative film as Kodak film was much expensive and also hard to get and required and import licence. Since ORWO film was manufactured in Communist East Germany and was imported against Rupee payment it was freely available and cheaper than Kodak film. ORWO negative was available in two speeds, ORWO NP55 which was 64 ASA and ORWO NP27 which was 400 ASA but rated as 320 ASA.I used the faster NP 27 stock for indoor filming and the slower NP 55 for the out doors. Since we had white walls all around I did the lighting by bouncing a few units on the ceiling, the walls and on the white boards to get a soft day light effect.

I started the first day of my cinematographic career by taking a close up shot of Malayalam Actress Jayabharathi at a small house in CIT colony in T.Nagar. The scene we had to shoot was her interaction in the role of a school teacher with a few children, who were playing their role of her students. After the day’s shooting was over Jayabharathi called the Producer aside and expressed doubts whether some image will be recorded on the film as this novice cameraman had not put any light on my face. Instead he had focused the lights everywhere on the walls, ceiling, boards etc except my face. Having been used to the hot direct spot lights hitting her face in studio floors, it was but natural for her to think like that. Also I was very young (hardly 23 years old) thin and still not out of the Institute and an inexperienced hand. Having heard this doubtful remark from the Leading lady the Producer also started worrying about the results.

The next day I got a call from the Vijaya- Vauhini Laboratories asking me to meet the Laboratory Chief Mr. Sen Gupta. The reason was they were getting only blank film when they processed the test negative. In those days a 5 ft Test shot close up of a face is taken either in the beginning or at the end of the roll which will be processed first and after checking the density the duration of the processing is adjusted accordingly. Under exposed negatives will be brought up to required density by processing for more duration and over exposed ones for lesser time to obtain a uniform density final negative. Usually the density of the negative image is visually checked by experienced personnel and may vary from person to person. Also there will be a variation of the skin tone of the actor in the close up. In order to overcome this I took a Test shot of 18% grey card (considered to be equivalent average skin tone) and asked them to develop it and measure the density in the Densitometer and keep it as standard for the processing. It was the grey card that they found instead of the close up and that created the confusion.

The Laboratory Chief Mr. Sen Gupta agreed to my contention but requested me to have the face close up as test since the Lab technicians over the years are used to that practice. Finally when the rushes were printed and projected in the Lab theatre all anxieties vanished and the producer and the Director were fully satisfied with the results.

Madhu who had by then been well known all over India for his role in CHEMMEEN was the leading actor in our film. On his first day in our set, unfamiliar with the formalities existing in Malayalam film industry I addressed him as "Mr.Madhu". He turned and gave a piercing look at me, a thin young man of only 23 years for calling a top hero like him in this manner. I noticed it and continued " Please come and stand in position for the lighting". He understood the nature of the Institute bred people as he himself was the product of National School of Drama and willingly came and stood in his mark for me to adjust the lighting. Later on I found everybody else on the sets were addressing him as "Madhu Sir" and I too followed it!

A still from the film

We continued our shooting in that house location and also in the streets of Madras for a few days. We shifted to a flat at Mahalingapuram which functioned as our production office as well as our residence and guest house. In the meantime the dates of our Viva Voce examination at Poona were intimated to us. So, during a break in the schedule myself and Murthy left for Poona.

Friday, June 3, 2011

John Abraham plans his first Feature film

When the strike at the Institute got extended for a long time, our parents were instructed by the authorities to take us back home, to cool our tempers. While at home I was informed that John Abraham is planning to direct a Malayalam film based on a script by M. Azad and both of them were at Madras. So I went there and met them. They had in mind to have S. Ramachandra as the Cinematographer for the film as he was a close friend and room mate of Azad. They have offered me an opportunity to work as an assistant cameraman in that film. Since I have still not completed the course and was looking for an opening to enter the film industry, I readily agreed to their proposal so that I can get familiar with the working methods in Malayalam films.

Azad and John in serious discussion

In a jovial mood

The producer was Mr. Minnal, who was running an AD Agency called Mars Advertising Company located at 49, Wallajah Road, Triplicane. The Malayalam film titled "VIDYARTHIKALE ITHILE ITHILE" was to be produced under the banner Mehboob Movies. At that time both John and Azad were staying there in the office itself and were working on the script as the dates of the shooting schedule have not yet been fixed.

After my return to the Institute the strike prolonged for some more time and finally ended as the Government had agreed to constitute an enquiry commission. Our courses were nearing completion and I was wondering about the future, whether to try my luck in the Bombay film industry or in the Madras film field. In those days Film Institute graduates had a tough time finding work as they were thought to have only bookish knowledge and no practical experience. They had to struggle for some years assisting the veterans in the industry before they get a break. Though I was offered a job at the Hindustan Thompson AD agency, I declined because the work involved was only making sample films in 16mm for clients to view and I was more interested in doing feature films.

I was thinking of going down south at Madras which was a much familiar city to me as I had done my graduation from Loyola College there. Also there was no language problem too as I had my schooling in Tamil medium. Then I received a letter from John and Azad saying that they have decided to give me a break in the film as the principal cinematographer! It came as a great surprise as I was offered this film directly without working as an assistant to anybody at any capacity in the film industry and that too before the completion of my final examinations. I was really lucky indeed to have got such an easy entry in films ! I asked my old room mate and batch mate Kasturi Ramachandra Murthy, who was also keen on going to Madras to work as my assistant in the film and he readily agreed to my proposal and joined me.

Letter from John

After a few days I received the official letter from the producer confirming that the shooting is scheduled from 5 th June 1971 on wards and I was expected to be in Madras on the 1st of June to attend the pre-production work.

Producer's Letter

My Practical Examinations and Viva Voce were not over when I started my career as a Cinematographer in the film industry. After shooting the first schedule of the film, myself and Murthy returned to Poona finish our exams!

Monday, January 31, 2011


At the Film Institute of India ( before Television courses were started), from 1970 onwards we had a “Thought for Today” Notice Board near the canteen where the students were free to put up any interesting matter for the benefit of the student community. It was also a forum for the free expression of student opinion. IBy that time Navin Nischal, Shatrughan Sinha, and Jaya Bhaduri had started making their debut in the closely guarded Bombay Film Industry and were emerging as the future stars. This made the Acting students at the Institute to behave with their heads in the clouds as if they have already become Superstars. It was seen in their arrogance and attitude towards their fellow students. An exception was their friendliness towards Motion Picture Photography students, for they badly needed our help in getting themselves beautifully photographed for their portfolios! Their arrogance towards other students caused a lot friction and loss of good will between the Direction and Acting students. As a result of that many of the Direction students started excluding Acting students from their Final year Diploma films by casting outside artistes in their place. When the Institute authorities insisted that the casting should be done only from among the Acting students, the Direction students cleverly overcame that by selecting the subjects in such a manner, so that a child or a very old woman / man or a tight rope walking street acrobat ( as in my Diploma film - JEEVAN) etc has become the main character. Such roles certainly cannot be played by the acting students and they lost out their chances in the Diploma films. As a result four of the acting students - Raza Murad, Deepak Dhar, Sushil Bhatnagar and Imtiaz Ahmed Khan Pathan did not get to act in any of the Diploma films! Hence four additional Diploma films exclusively for them were sanctioned to accommodate them. But instead of entrusting the Direction department teaching staff to direct those films, all the four films were assigned to the Professor of Acting - Prof. Raushan Taneja.
This odd decision by the Principal Shri. Jagat Murari infuriated most of the students including me, for, some months earlier Prof. Taneja was assigned to do an one hour feature film with disastrous results. The film was planned as part of the programme to showcase the Acting talents of the Film Institute students for the sake of the Bombay film industry. It was an one hour featurette to be shot during the Christmas vacations. The story, screenplay was also handled by the Acting Professor. A lot of precious raw stock was wasted during a ten day shooting schedule in Madh island and there were reports of some of the acting girls missing from location who were later traced to the flats of their seniors cum successful stars in the Bombay film world. At that time I had put up a poster depicting Prof. Taneja shooting in Madh Island and a ship unloading film rolls into the sea. It created some commotion among the acting students but they didn’t know that I was the person behind it.
Now again assigning Four of the Diploma films to Acting Department and to the very same Prof. Taneja infuriated many people. While the discussions were going on, I did a cartoon depicting Prof. Taneja shooting the four diploma films with the four actors and with 4 cameras simultaneously and it was titled “BEWARE - WILD SHOOTER IN TOWN - SHOOTS ANY THING AND EVERY AT SIGHT!" This cartoon I did on my own, but once again left it unsigned and at midnight when no one was around I pasted it on the notice Board.

The Poster that caused the strike
Next morning there was a big crowd in front of the notice board. Some acting boys tried to tear it off but were prevented by some others who had collected there to see it. There were lot speculations about who were behind this sacrilege as the Acting students had given the demi-God status to their Professor. Was it not he who created super stars out of sheer clay - the rank new comers who were taught the art of acting! When the sun went down, in their drunken stupor some of them shouted the choicest abuses and created a big commotion in the Men’s hostel.
Warning for those who dared to tear it!
A complaint was made to the Principal Shri Jagat Murari regarding this by the Student’s Union and in the evening a General Body meeting of all the students was called. A few minutes before the commencement of the meeting I was sitting in the canteen thinking how to deal with the situation. Certainly the Principal will be asking, who had put up the controversial poster. I thought that I will need some moral support from my fellow students. So I told a few of my friends that, it was I who had put up the poster and when the Principal asks for the hand behind it I will be getting up and they should support me.
Assured of their support I went inside to attend the meeting. After the usual introduction, the Principal took a pad and pen to note down the names and asked – “I want to know who had put up this Poster?” Slowly I got up and behind me others got up from different parts of the auditorium. The Principal stood agape frozen with a shocked expression. I turned back and what a scene! Except the Acting students all the other students including Foreign students stood in solidarity with me. I never expected that I will be getting such a massive support. It was just a spontaneous reaction of the suppressed anger of the student community over allotment of the films to the Acting Department.
Recovering from his shock, the Principal asked the students to be seated and then said, “I want to know, the talent behind this cartoon”. This time I stood up alone. Then there was mayhem by the acting students. At the top of their voice they shouted all sorts of things. To control the situation, I wanted to say a few words and I took the center stage. It was for the first time in my life that I was making a speech. I told the students “I know Prof. Taneja for the past three years. Many times I have worked with him in the Acting Practical as well as song picturisation classes. And he also knows me very well too. You are all saying that I have insulted Prof. Taneja. I want to ask Prof. Taneja one thing - Whether I have insulted him in my cartoon?” My strategy was if you ask such a question directly to the person concerned, he will definitely say that he was not offended. That was exactly the reaction I wanted from Prof. Taneja. He got up and told the students that he was in no way offended by it and saw it only as a humorous comment.
Hanging on to that point, I told the acting students that if Prof. Taneja is not offended, then why they are making such a hue and cry and concluded my speech. There was utter chaos and some one shouted that Prof. Gopal of Cinematography Department laughed at the cartoon. Then Prof.Gopal got up and replied that it was true that he had laughed. It was just a funny cartoon and so he had laughed and there was nothing wrong in laughing at it! Still they were not pacified and raised hell (in which department they excelled!).
Finally after much shouting by the Acting Students and some counter shouting by others, the Principal gave a big sermon on peaceful coexistence and ended the meeting by reciting the Shanti Mantra - Om Shanti, Shanti. Since no was action was taken on the erring acting students, it encouraged them more and that night the atrocities were repeated in drunken stupor more forcefully by beating up some of the students. The offending poster was also torn up into pieces.
This time the Student Union demanded stern action against those culprits. After due enquiry, the Principal Shri. Jagat Murari rusticated two students Deepak Dhar and Raza Murad and suspended Lakhan Pal and Susheel Bhatnagar . Immediately the Acting students went on strike protesting the action in front of the Principal's office. After a few hours the Principal withdrew the action taken against the acting students and their strike was withdrawn. This sudden and partisan decision by the Principal without punishing the culprits culminated into a longer strike which escalated to change the history of Film Institute for ever.

The strike went on for months. The students came out from the hostel rooms and stayed in the open, putting up their beddings on either side of the road near the Main gate of the Institute. For the junior students who were missing their education, classes were conducted by the seniors. All negotiations with the authorities were recorded on tape and photographs taken and press releases were sent on a regular basis. Some of the local papers wanted to publish my cartoon, but the original was torn away by acting students. But, I went to the office of a Marathi tabloid and redrew the cartoon for their publication. I was also given the charge of the publicity department of the striking students, to paint the walls with slogans and cartoons – materials courtesy of the Institute Art Department! Once while painting a slogan on a wall opposite to the Principal’s office, he noticed it and summoned me to his office through his peon. I sent back the peon by saying that I do not recognize him as the Principal!

News in The Indian Express
We also celebrated the Silver jubilee day of the strike which was widely covered by the print media on a daily basis. One of the paper cutting is still with me - the news item published in The Indian Express dated 17 March 1971:

FTII students “celebrate jubilee”
Express News Service
POONA, March 16
The united students' body of the Film and television Institute of India yesterday observed the "silver jubilee" of their 25 days old strike. They held their classes for the first time in the open and teaching was resumed as senior students took the classes instead of their teachers.
They continued to wear "Mr. Principal quit" badges and kept up their "lie in the open strike with beddings spread in the open.
That we want to attend the classes and are prepared to be instructed by our fellow senior students is a proof that we are interested in studies and want to appear of the examination and "are not shirkers or bad students" said a student leader.
The campus-canteen walls run riot with slogans and proverbs adopted to suit their present agitation.
Some of them read "worn out engines become efficient breaks but we want a dynamic accelerator" or "this is not a struggle for the present, this is a homage to the microscopic good" or puns like “Mr. Principal we feel that you have to be replaced by a man of principle"

In spite of all our efforts the Principal remained adamant and stuck to his earlier decision and the students had no other option but to continue the strike. To break the strike, the Principal sent notice to the parents to take their striking wards back to their home immediately. Alarmed by the letter, my father arrived at Poona to take me home as soon as possible. I explained him about the strike and after pacifying went home with him. But when the classes were restarted, the strike also began with renewed strength!
One day there was a small crowd of acting students making a big noise under the Wisdom Tree. They were holding five large card board effigies – with the names Vinay Shukla, Surendar Chawdhary, K.G.George, Baba Majgavkar and Ramachandra Babu.written on them. They were beating the cut outs with slippers and brooms and were condemning us to be hanged by neck till death. Thus five of our effigies were hanged on the Wisdom Tree. (Though Vinay Shukla, Surendar Chawdhary, K.G.George and Baba Majgavkar were in no way associated with the Cartoon incident, it was presumed by the acting students that they must be the brains behind it). All their attacks were targeted at the five of us, and we were thus given the rare honour of being hanged on the Wisdom Tree!
Well, that was the story of our hangings and to the best of my knowledge no further hangings ever took place under the hallowed Wisdom Tree. The strike went on for some more time and ultimately brought a lot of changes to the curriculum of the various courses at the Institute!

Update 26-July-2017:  
A recently found photo from Surendar Chawdhary's  Blog:
Effigies hung up  on the wisdom tree...

Vinay Shukla, T.N.Mohan, Nirad Mohapatra  and Surendar Chawdhary