Friday, April 20, 2012

Dada Saheb Phalke's Make Up Artist

As part of superb research done on Dada Saheb Phalke by the cult director Kamal Swaroop, I discovered this page on Sadashivrao Tapkire, Phalke's make up artist.

Kamal's entire work on Phalke is extremely valuable and can be found here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Death of the Archive

Papa Ajoba: 8.6.1921 to 25.7.2011

We celebrated Papa Ajoba's 90th birthday on 8th of June 2011. It was a small get together with very close family and friends. A month later on 8th of July I was passing through Bombay and for a reason completely unknown to me,I decided to record Papa Ajoba. He spoke passionately and coherently about the filmi mazdoor union and how the workers had organised themselves to form a union to make demands from their studios and producers. He said that the union had started at Famous Studio in Mahalaxmi, Bombay and the union had even produced a film. The conversation continued to other things like the Indian National Theatre (INT) and his theatre days. I returned to Bangalore only to go back the following week, for what was to be my last week with my grand father.

He contracted malaria and then pneumonia and passed away on the 25th of July at 8.30 a.m. 2011. It has taken me me three weeks to bring myself to post it on this blog. Mainly because of my own inability to accept the fact that he is no more.(If I have the courage to transcribe his last conversation with me, I will post that too.) But this morning as I woke up and read the news of Shammi Kapoor's death, I felt that this post had to be written. That this is a strange coincidence:two artists, collaborators, who worked so closely for over 30 years, spent many mad and memorable times on film sets, die less than a month apart. My mother had called Shammiji, informing him of my grand father's death, Shammji was not able to come to the phone due to his own ailing health. But his wife had said to my mother on hearing the news, "we have lost a family member".

For the next few days the TV channels will pay tribute to Shammiji and in the coming years, TV channels will dedicate several shows to Shammiji. I will watch those over and over again, for every image of Shammiji I see, I will see Papa Ajoba, standing outside the periphery, watching the shoot, cracking jokes with his co-workers, enjoying his work and doing what he loved most, making other people look good. Papa Ajoba was a rockstar and I miss him.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Raise High the Roof Beam- Waqt Ne Kiya, Kagaz Ke Phool


A.G: How did the famous Waqt Ne Kiya song from Kagaz Ke Phool with the light beam come about?

V.K: It happened just like that, one day around 4 or 5 p.m. we were sitting in the studio and from top where the ventilators were, we saw light beaming in. It used to happen every day but none of us had looked carefully. So one day myself and Guru Dutt were sitting idle in the studio and I saw this beam and I told Guru Dutt, “ dekhona yeh kitna acha lagta hai”( see how beautiful this looks), utna hi bola mai and suddenly Guru Dutta ne mujhe pakad liya, he said arre Murthy tum aisa karo na hamare picture mei. So I said mei kaisa kar sakta hoon, it is natural sunlight coming through that hole. Guru Dutt said,I don’t know how but I also like it and you are also appreciating, tum kuch karo. Yeh hamara das din ka schedule hai to tum kuch bhi karke karo, bring that effect. So he inspired me. I started thinking how I should do it. I thought maybe I will bring a huge light and put it through a hole. So I got a 10 kilo watt light from Shantaram’s Raj Kamal Studios. But I could not get that effect because that light gives a divergent beam and I wanted a parallel beam…kya karenge? I needed a parallel beam. Next day during lunch time we were sitting, me and Guru Dutt on a cement bench. Just then our make- up man was carrying a mirror in his hand, passing by. Are you getting what I am saying?

A.G: Ah! the make-up man, yes.

V.K: So the sunlight that fell on the mirror threw a ray like thing on the studio wall, so that gave me the idea, (claps his hands and says) I got it, mei bola. Bolo kya chahiye bolo, Guru Dutt asked me. I said, nothing I need two large mirrors. Dutt told the production manager, bring him the two biggest mirrors. We got two mirrors of 4 feet height and 2 and a half feet wide. One mirror I kept in the balcony, outside in the sun light. I kept the balcony door open. The light reflected from that mirror reflected on another mirror inside the studio that was placed on the catwalk.

A.G: So from outside to a mirror inside?

V.K: You see light is a straight beam no? Light travels straight doesn’t it? So we opened studio ventilator doors, kept a mirror there that captured the sunlight which was then reflected onto the mirror on the catwalk. The mirror on the catwalk was tied in a certain way to capture the reflection and then adjusted to suit my frame. Understood? Did you understand?

A.G: You basically channeled the sunlight from outside onto the mirror on the catwalk which was directed onto your frame, which we see in the sequence?

V.K: Yes, correct. We positioned the light as we needed and then we put some lubhan (it is like a large incense stick that produces smoke).

A.G: What did you put?

V.K: Lubhan, lubhan, woh lubhan dalne se smoke aata hai (Lubhan produces smoke) because if there is no smoke you cannot see the light beam clearly and lubhan smoke is good for health also. Thats how I got that shot, that became a historical shot in Indian cinematography in those days.

A.G: It still is!

V.K: There were many directors and cameramen, there was this cameraman for Mehboob Studio called Fareedoon Irani, he had seen me doing this and he asked me, “Murthy kya kar rahe ho?” (what are you doing?) So I said, “aise hi koi experiment kar raho hoon”. (I am just experimenting). He said “acha”, didn’t say anything more, he was a senior most cameraman. Next day, I wanted this shot to be immediately developed and processed since I wanted to see the results, how it looked. The rushes had come but I was shooting so it was sent to the projection room. You know what, in the meanwhile this Fareedoon Irani went and saw it! (Laughs)

A.G: Before you?

V.K: In the lunchtime I was so going towards the projection room, dekhne ke liye. Just then Fareedoon sahib was coming down the staircase and he said , “ arre Murthy, kya kamal kaam kiya re” ( Murthy you have done such fantastic work) and he came and embraced me and said that for so many years we were not able to do it but you have done a great thing. He said, “go go and see your own work, it is so beautiful”. That was the biggest compliment I got and also I was very happy. But I never thought it would become history. I thought the beam looks good in the studio. At that time it didn’t occur to me that it was such a great thing. Accidentally we did it and said chalo maja atta hai, issi liye kar diya. (We were having fun and we just did it!)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Light travels in a straight line- V.K .Murthy, the (legendary) cinematographer

I read an article in The Hindu last week on V.K. Murthy, the legendary cinematographer of films are like Pyasa and Kagaz Ke Phool. He has just been awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest honour for anyone from the Indian film industry.He is the first cinematographer to be winning the Phalke award. After reading the article I wanted to spend an afternoon listening to his stories. Given that Papa ajoba is in Bombay and I am in Bangalore, entries for this blog have been drying up.I was lucky that V.K. Murthy lives in Bangalore. After a few phone calls I got myself an appointment with Mr. Murthy for Sunday afternoon.

I spent over two hours listening to him. I will try and recount the interview in the next few posts, in the coming weeks.

PART 1: Meeting Guru Dutt

Mr. Murthy was the first employee of Famous Studio in Bombay. In 1948 Mr.Murthy had gone to meet its Marwari owner Mr. Rungta who had just taken over from Siraj Ali Hakim. Hakim who had wanted to start Bombay's first air conditioned studio, built Famous but had to leave India soon after partition. Mr. Rungta who had financed the building of Famous Studios, now had to take over. He knew little about the intricacies of film making but when Murthy demanded Rs.250 as assistant cameraman, the Marwari flatly refused. Murthy who had been sent there by Fali Mistry struck a deal with Rungta saying that if Fali-Sahib said he should be paid Re.1 he would agree to even that. Finally Rungta employed Murthy for a monthly salary is Rs.175. Murthy's first task at Famous was to double check the film equipment that had already been bought. Murthy says, " according to the list, there were supposed to 25 lights but there were only ten and four Mitchel cameras had been purchased but there was only one!"

For four years Murthy worked with Famous as an assistant to Fali Mistry, Jal Mistry. He says,"in those days one had to work with which ever producer worked with a certain studio.But later some people started bringing their own cameramen. So one day Dev Anand and Guru Dutt came to Famous. They had an understanding (Guru Dutt and Dev Anand) that whichever one of the two would become successful first, that person would help the other get work. So naturally Dev Anand being an actor became successful faster than Guru Dutt and he gave Guru Dutt his first opportunity to direct Baazi."

Murthy continues, " the cameraman for Baazi was Dev Anand's cousin a certain Mr. Ratra and I was to assist him.Ratra was a happy go lucky fellow. During Baazi I watched very closely how Guru Dutt worked, with careful attention to characters, script and I enjoyed working with him very much. While we were shooting Baazi, I made a suggestion to shoot a song interlude in a certain way. Guru Dutt loved the idea and asked Ratra to shoot it that way.But Ratra was hesitant to take that shot since it had complicated camera movement. I wanted to ask them to let me shoot it but how could I? But Ratra himself said since it is Murthy's idea let him shoot it. So there I was shooting for Guru Dutt. But before I started shooting I told them I would go on with as many takes as I needed to get it right. I was lucky I should say, since the very first take was OK and for safety we took one more. That evening after pack up Guru Dutt came and said to me, Murthy yourself and myself will work together from the next picture onwards, for always. So that's how I got a break...all Guru Dutt films I did, from A to Z."


Monday, February 15, 2010

Two Plays

I found the first page of two plays written by Yeshwantrao Tipnis on the IISC, Bangalore website. The preliminary indication of where his other plays might be.

The first play is called Shah-Shivaji (meaning Shah- Sivaji) and the second is called Sangeet Chandragrahan (This literally translated means A Musical Lunar Eclispse, however I must understand the context of the play to know what it is a metaphor for.)

My grand father's father

Recently papa ajoba, took a long road trip deep into the Konkan region of Maharashtra. He and the rest of his siblings went to Mahad. While some of his siblings had grown up there, Papa ajoba was going back for the first time since 1935. The occasion, the auctioning of their ancestral land. Mahad is a small town in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, best known as the place where Ambedkar delivered his historical speech, giving the Dalit movement an impetus.

Papa ajoba's father was Madhavrao Tipnis and his uncle was Yeshwantrao Tipnis, one a successful actor and the other a well known playwright and director had started their theatre company, called Mahatrashtra Natak Mandali in Mahad. The theatre company was well known for its socially relevant plays, that were often banned by the British. While my great grandfather often played women characters, my great-grand uncle was known for the explosive dialogues he wrote.

I found to my surprise on the Maharashtra Government website's Gazetteer Department page, the mention of Madhavrao Tipnis. It listed the men who had significantly contributed to the region called Kolaba, now known as Raigad District. It said :

Thus a vacuum was, as it were, created in the social life of Kolaba, and although a number of illustrious persons, who later distinguished themselves in Bombay, hailed from Kolaba, the region did not get the benefit of their leadership. The late Mr. Rambhau Mandlik of Pen (1881-1958) who was for many years a member of the Bombay legislature was known to be a fearless constitutional fighter against the British Government, and he often made the Government officers uneasy in their seats by his persistence in pursuing a cause once taken up by him. Amongst some of the men of literary fame, we may note the late Mr. Sankar Balkrsna Diksit of Revadanda, the author of 'Jyotir-vilas', the late Mr. Balkrsna Anant Bhide, a well-known Marathi Scholar of Murud-Janjira and the late Principal G. C. Bhate, an active advocate of social reform coming from Mahad. The late Mr. S. M. Paranjape, champion of revolutionary nationalism and the editor of a weekly Marathi journal 'Kal' belonged to Mahad and the famous actor of Maharashtra Natak Mandali, Madhavrav Tipnis also belonged to the same place. In recent years Dr. Am-bedkar made Mahad as if it were his home town and started his famous satyagraha of the untouchables in 930 for asserting their right of being allowed to take water from 'cavdar tale'. It was a historic incident. It may also be noted in passing that Mahamahopadhyaya D. V. Potdar, Mr. C. D. Deshmukh. the ex-Finance Minister of India, also belong to Kolaba district.

In an attempt to trace my past and family history I had started recording stories that my grand father told me. But what lies virtually undiscovered is the history of his father's traveling theatre company, the Maharashtra Natak Mandali. From now I will try to piece together the history of this company through the photographs, documents and of course (cell phone) conversations with papa ajoba.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Personal history?

When I started recording stories that my grand father used to tell me about his career as a make up artist in the Hindi film industry from 1941 to roughly 1995 little did I realize that the process would be so enriching. It was enriching not only because it added to my understanding of film history but also because it made me question my methodology to research. I would very often lose my patience with my grand father because he was someone I could lose my patience with: unlike a formal subject- researcher relationship. At the outset of the research project he had made it clear to me that he had to be the “hero” of the story and that I should not portray him as an also ran.

So I started with my protagonist, his stories and an old dictaphone. Given papa ajoba’s background in theatre, he would start acting, enunciating when I turned on the recording device. Many a times I would ask him to retell stories and he would repeat them verbatim, as if they were rehearsed. The facts he did not want to me to record at all, were the scandalous affairs that that various actors had. The gossip was kept out of his stories for as long as the dictaphone was on. Once I put it off, stories of how a glamorous actress’ husband came looking for her in the make up room because he suspected her of having an affair with a superstar of the time or how one day, a senior star after drinking too much ended breaking the bones of two brothers on the same night, came to the fore. I think papajoba was very conscious of the fact he must tell these stories “properly”.

I was able to take him to meet two of his favorite stars, Sadhana and Shammi Kapoor. The reason I wanted to meet these two was that I was interested in seeing the power dynamics between a ‘make up artist' and the ‘star’. With Sadhana, the camaraderie was obvious; in fact papaajoba hardly let her speak. He continued to tell his stories, many of which I had heard over the last several months. I was irritated at first but slowly through the course of the interview realised what he said to me at the beginning of this project, “I don’t want to be an also ran,” I realized that maybe for the first time he is centre of attention in front of her. This project is about him, she had to merely add to the stories not be the focus. It’s also the first time she realized that he knows a lot more technically and his memory is far better than hers, he is 85 and she is about 69. With Shammi Kapoor, the exchange was warm but he was clearly the ‘star’ and gave us just 30 minutes of his time and no more. He spoke to the point, offered us tea and packed us off after reciting a poem about himself written by Kamlesh Pandey, admittedly all very dramatic.

The other interesting thing I noted was that my grand father not only added ji before every actresses name but for all the men he added sahib so he called Shammi Kapoor, Shammi sahib, S. Mukherjee (the producer at Filmistan) Mukherjee sahib, the villain Pran was also called Pran sahib and on so on. The other technicians who were older than him or his seniors he referred to as dada for e.g. Mr.Paranjpye, the make up artist who papaajoba began his career with was called Paranjpye dada or the make up artist at Prithviraj Kapoor’s theatre, was also referred to as More dada. Mr.Jagtap the sound recordist at Filmistan again was called Jagtap dada. I think this differentiation was to do with class and stature and not so much just age or seniority. All the people he called sahib were clearly from a higher social strata and were actors, directors, producers. The term dada was more a term of endearment to someone he respected or was senior but either was a technician or from the same socio-economic background as my grand father. For e.g.Dhumaal the comedian who worked as a part of my great grand father’s theatre company was called Dhumaal dada. Of course with younger stars like Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, papa ajoba referred to them by their first names. This is my observation, that while he was at Filmistan this was some sort of an unwritten norm but after the studios started to close down and technicians became freelancers they didn’t have a strict protocol to follow.

I have no doubt in my mind that the process of recording the stories was extremely worthwhile and as it often happens with stories: we started getting an audience. And it would happen that my friends would drop by to listen to his narrative while I was recording. And sometimes they would continue sitting with papa ajoba long after I had finished my work and the stories would continue into the night. There was one on Rajesh Khanna’s chamchas, which my friends recall with pleasure and papa ajoba narrated it sparing almost no expletives in the Hindi language. The point is that this project was not researched in the conventional manner: in fact the idea of just listening to the story is what drove it.

There are varied methodologies that can be used and I have always found the more unconventional ones exciting. For example, I started my career as a production assistant with an upcoming filmmaker. In the initial months of my job I was sent to find C-grade film producers in the underbelly of Bombay. Not armed with much except the excitement of a rookie, I scavenged the streets of Oshiwara in Andheri where young ‘wannabe’ starlets frequented one-room-kitchen offices of production houses: that was my field for research and the books I was told to refer to were film trade magazines like Super Cinema, Box Office and of course Complete Cinema. This was in essence my first tryst with film research or serious research of any kind. Before this, the research I had done was for college projects, mostly from the library or the internet and a few interviews with ‘subjects’ for a student documentary.

I am indebted to my first boss for putting me through the grind of looking for material in the dark and sometimes dangerous world of the Hindi C-grade film industry. I could not have asked for a more challenging subject or a research methodology so different, where I almost always, had to take up pseudonyms while conducting interviews and more often than not lied about my motive. Those were days when ‘taking your subject into confidence’ meant nothing and a little cheating went a long way in unearthing the truth, well almost. Little did I realise at the time that this was my first brush with recording film history or my active engagement as a researcher of that part of the film industry that often gets overlooked for a more mainstream history.

It was this interest in recording a second rung film history that made me record my grand father’s stories. But I was concerned throughout the recording process of my relationship to my subject. At a level it was even worrying: was I doing what most documentary filmmakers do, point their cameras at the subjects and ‘frame’ them and pretend to tell their story? This was one crucial reason why I did not want to video record him but used a dictaphone instead. The idea of ‘framing’ my grand father was an uncomfortable thought. But the question that kept troubling me was: can one be a detached, unobtrusive recorder? In my case I was not detached but in fact passionately attached to my “subject”. I was terribly intrusive, always telling my subject to speak loudly, or speak in Hindi rather than Marathi and sometimes even forced him to recognise people in photographs that he could not. This was a conscious process (the bickering, the cajoling), the attempt at creating the ‘real’ relationship between me and my grand father, in this case also a researcher and her subject.

I also realised that because of the fellowship, I had given time to just listen to what an 85 year old man from the film industry had to say. I wish I had given that much time to my paternal grand father who worked for the railways during the British rule, who knows what insights one might have gained. Or better still what if I had chatted longer with both my grand mothers about feminism in their times or simply recorded their stories. It is these stories that start the construction of tradition. The idea that I have a tradition of theatre and cinema in my family shapes who I am today. But tradition is loaded word, even dangerous perhaps: who decides what turns into a tradition and what does not.

This is perhaps the reason tradition has to be re-looked at ever so often. It also needs frequent questioning in order to make place for newer narratives, lesser heard voices. I hope with my grand father’s story one has perhaps been able to add another voice from the periphery of the Bombay film industry. But this voice is not adequate in discovering a newer cinema history or even challenging the traditional film history but it is an attempt. This project is a start for me as researcher to probe further, look deeper for unexcavated stories from the past.

Finally this project has been a process of discovery of family ties, long lost homes and of course of forgotten people and their lives.