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The work of a motion picture camera man

"In film-making, the motion picture camera man is very important and at par with director of the film. The coordination and understanding between them is essential — since this is what contributes to the making of the great film classics. It is the combination that Directors and Cinematographers make which proves the point."

V N Jatla : August 24, 2008

The coordination and understanding between a Camera Man and a Director of the film is very much needed. Their coordination and understanding can be compared with a musician and his accompanist. To make it more simple, Sitar Maestro Pt. Ravishankar for most of the time has been accompanied by his Tabalist Allahrakha Khan. Both are on equal wave lengths, same artistic temperaments and high on creativity. Because of these reasons both of them have created a great sensation around the world!

In film-making, the motion picture camera man is very important and at par with director of the film. The coordination and understanding between them is essential — since this is what contributes to the making of the great film classics. It is the combination that Directors and Cinematographers make which proves the point.    

The outstanding great personalities like Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra made a great combination — which helped them produce wonderful films like Patherpanchali, Devi, Charulatha, Jalsaghar etc.

Likewise Steven Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski made great film classics like Schindler's List and Artificial Intelligence etc. Their deep understanding with each other and high artistic temperament has become the backbone of their success!!

Another pair is Mani Ratnam and his Cinematographer Santosh Sivan. They made good films like Roja, Dil Se etc. Both have created a wonderful visual charm in their films, even though they fall under popular films genre.

Each Camera Man is having his own style and unique approach towards the subject. Some camera men are quite realistic in the approach towards the subject. Subrata Mitra’s approach is quite realistic and poetic towards the subject. Where as Santosh Sivan (another great Cinematographer passed out from the FTII) approaches the subject in a most stylistic way. It is quite evident through the films like Roja and Dil Se. Generally most of the camera men discard top light around the world. But Santosh Sivan is the only Cinematographer proved beyond doubt that top light (light falls on the heads) can also be used most creatively and effectively. He was nominated for ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) membership after the Organisation saw his work in ‘Dil Se'! Another cameraman who got the same honour is Anil Mehra — a graduate from FTII and batch mate of Santosh Sivan!!

The third example can be Janusz Kaminski. Who approaches the subject according to its content. He followed quite a realistic approach for films like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler's List. He got OSCARS for best Cinematography in the film. Another film titled Artificial Intelligence, where he followed totally a stylistic approach. The film ‘Artificial Intelligence’ with subject based on fantasy needed his stylistic approach and it worked best for the film.  

Here I would like to write about a few words about the membership of ASC. In our country any camera man can become a member of that particular association by paying prescribed fee and following other formalities. Where as in ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), the members of the organisation will see the works of outstanding cinematographers around the world and nominate particular camera men to become members of ASC!!

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story


Firstly I will analyse Shri Subrata Mitra’s work. He started his career as a still photographer. Later he became a cinematographer. His first assignment as a Cinematographer was Satyajit Ray’s PATHER PANCHALI. Later he worked with other directors like James Ivory etc. Subrata Mitra conducted work shops for Cinematography students at FTII, Pune several times. How fortunate! They are!!

Subrata Mitra was quite inspired by HENRI CARTIER BRESSON. Who was a French Photographer and considered as FATHER OF MODERN PHOTOJOURNALISM. Subrata Mitra’s approach is quite a realistic method of lighting. He was always looking for a natural source; like a window, a skylight, or a lamp. Keeping that in mind he was lighting up the scene. He was always in favour of realistic lighting. Above all his quality of exposure to respective scenes are highly remarkable.

Subrata Mitra rejected the so-called method of studio lighting, which were accepted world over. He introduced quite innovative and realistic lighting for indoors called BOUNCE LIGHTING. He was the first man to do this in the world. He cinematographed Satyajit Ray’s Patherpanchali in the year 1956. In the next year Subrata Mitra invented Bounce Lighting and used quite successfully in Satyajit Ray’s second film titled APARAJITO in the year 1957. He achieved this method of lighting by stretching a white cloth across the open courtyard of the set they had built in the studio. The studio lights were placed below, he bounced them off the cloth to SIMULATE a diffused daylight feel! Bounce lighting was born and people who saw those early Satyajit Ray’s films in the 50’s and 60’s were shocked by the look and photography!! People had never seen anything like this before! Subrata Dada had begun a revolution!!

Subrata Mitra cinematographed Satyajit Ray’s JALSAGHAR (The music room) in the year 1958. His cinematography was so good that it served as the textbook for cinematography students all over the world!! Before discussing the film in detail from cinematography point of view, I will give the synopsis of the film in a nutshell for better understanding.

The film Jalsaghar is based on a short story by a famous Bengali writer TARASHANKAR BENARJEE. Chabbi Biswas — the legendry actor played the main role.  

The Jalsaghar is a great music hall in the mansion of the main character Viswamber Roy who is a decaying Zamindar. Over the years his land has been slowly eaten away by one of the great rivers of Bengal. But he still has the trappings of aristocracy. He lost his wife and only son in a boat accident. He lives in his Hawali all alone except an old Dewan and an old servent named Ananta. In that Hawali, Zamindar Viswamber Roy can create his family’s past glory and still win a game of one-upmanship against Ganguli babu.  

Meanwhile Ganguli babu is up and coming. He is a business man — a new aristocrat, landless but cash rich! He gets electric lights for his house, he has got a motor car, the first in the region. The feudal system is going out and capitalisum is coming in. There is a clash between two. The Zamindar literally spends his last coin to meet the challenge of Ganguli babu.
The reality remains!!

Subrata Mitra has shown high skills of Cinematography in Jalsaghar. His Cinematography has captured the texture of walls of the Zamindar’s Hawali, which were in a decaying stage. Not only that good contrast in lighting in Black & White photography was achieved but it all contributed to the story in a big way. It was being a periodical film; the main source of light in indoors in the nights were chandeliers. Subrata Mitra has created the most realistic lighting in such a way that we feel the presence of chandeliers!!

His selection of lenses is perfect. Most of the time he used wide angle lenses only. Wide angle lenses are the ones with a focal length below 50mm. Such as 10mm, 18mm, 28mm, 40mm etc. These wide angle lenses have captured the hugeness of the Hawali and as well as
the loneliness of Zamindar.

I can mention the last scene, where lighting scheme is simply superb.

The Zamindar after spending his last coin of money remains in Jalsaghar in the late night. One by one the candles are going off in the chandeliers. The dreadful night is very well brought out by Subrata Mitra. through his lighting scheme! In the DAWN the sunlight peeps through the Jalsaghar and at the same time certain portions in Jalsaghar are still illuminated by almost exhausted candles in the chandeliers! One can not forget lighting which captures the mood of the audience and makes us remain there as a witness!!

Subrata Mitra Daa has won many awards including National Award. In the year 1992 he became the only Indian to win the EASTMAN KODAK Lifetime Achievement for Excellence in Cinematography.

(Author is a Cinematography Graduate from FTII (Pune) and a Hyderabad based Film Director featured in the Limca Book of Records)



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