Veteran cinematographer Vyas Kumar Shenoy created a name for himself in Oriya films. A look at his rare collection of photographs

Vyas Kumar Shenoy was one of those early cinematographers from the State who ventured to experiment and explore the possibilities beyond the small world of Malayalam cinema. This he did at a time when the number of cinematographers from the State could be counted on one’s fingers and very few dared to experiment.

Unsung, unheralded Shenoy, 81, who shuttles between his hometown Alappuzha and Kochi, where his two daughters have settled, worked in some of the famous studios in Bombay, with some of the legendary cinematographers, directors and actors, before working on some landmark documentary and feature films in Oriya.

After his schooling from the Government Boys High School, Cherthala, Shenoy managed to convince his parents on his choice of joining the cinematography course at Sri Jaya Chamarajendra Polytechnic, Bangalore. “I passed out with a first class,” Shenoy says proudly with a smile brightening up his creased face as he shows you the certificate. “As part of our study we were taken to studios in Bombay and Madras. My decision to work in Bombay was taken then. Immediately after passing out some of us were contracted on training at a few of the studios in Bombay. I was at Shree Sound Studios at Dadar. Watching the greats like V. K. Murthy, Ratan L. Nagar, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Waheeda Rahman, Ashok Kumar and many others was an experience in itself.”

Shenoy went on to become one of the assistants of Ratan Nagar. “For many films I worked as his assistant. At times we assistants were ‘loaned’ out to other film makers at other locations. One film for which I must have done more than half of the work was Kalpana, directed by R. K. Rakhan and had among others Padmini and Ragini in important roles,” Shenoy pauses as he shows Padmini’s photograph shot on the sets of the film. “It took almost two years to complete this film. Only two or three shots were canned every day. Arranging the lights, getting the right shot was an elaborate process.”

Family responsibilities forced Shenoy to return home. “So many things happened all on a sudden. Films had to be given a break.”

That was a phase when Shenoy almost gave up on cinematography. Life’s twists and turns made him turn to business. “This was in the early 60s. I knew I had to do something on my own. I approached and held discussions with officials of the Small Industries Service Institute, (SISI) Extension Centres at Alleppey and Thrissur. They put forward a lot of proposals. I was inspired by the idea of manufacturing metal labels by photo anodising and anodised hardware.”

With an initial investment of Rs. 3,000 and a tailored project furnished by the ideas of SISI Shenoy approached the Rural Industries Project Officer, Alleppey for help ‘in purchasing machinery worth Rs. 22,000 on hire-purchase.’ “Banks came forward to provide finance; the SISI gave me fabricated dies, jigs and fixtures. In 1964 I made a modest start with Actino Industries. We manufactured all types of anodised aluminum hardware fittings, metal labels etc.”

Just when Shenoy was settling into his new role as ‘industrialist’, things turned topsy-turvy. His business ran into rough weather and had to be closed down. “I could have gone back to Bombay. But frankly I could not surrender myself to the commercial exploitation of the films made there. That’s when my friend Ghanashyam Mohapatra contacted me. He was making a documentary, the first in Oriya, and asked me if I could handle the camera. I jumped at this opportunity and travelled to Orissa.”

Shenoy’s work in the docu-film Maa-O-Sishu, a film on mother and child welfare, was appreciated. “I stayed back to work with Ghanashyam for his feature film Kanakalata.”

This black and white feature film, made on a shoe-string budget, with a devotion and passion more than compensated for the inevitable technical flaws of such a venture. “It was a challenge working for Kanakalata like placing the camera in tiny village rooms. But I think I succeeded in getting the lighting right with reflectors and photofloods.”

Kanakalata went on to become a landmark in Oriya film history. The State tourism and cultural affairs conferred a special award to the producer, while it was one of the six best Indian features selected by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, to be screened to the Members of Parliament at the Vigyan Bhavan on May 4, 1975.

Shenoy cranked the camera for a few other documentary films, some of them in colour, like the much-acclaimed one on Odissi dance, the first Eastman colour film in the language. Shenoy achieved wonderful things, laid the ground rules for shooting and strove constantly to achieve realism without sacrificing beauty. As a cinematographer he was obsessed with the effects of generous exposures and reflected light, and the realistic look it could give films.

He returned home never to venture into films again. Shenoy dabbled in still photography and had a small studio. “That was when flash cameras came into vogue. It was mostly wedding photography. I did photo features for some of the prominent magazines of those days like The Illustrated Weekly of India and cover photos for numerous regional magazines.”

Shenoy recently conducted exhibitions of his photographs at Alappuzha and Kochi and still loves to travel with his camera in tow. He has an amazing collection of his photographs dating from his institute days, stunning visuals of Bombay and Orissa in the early 60s and a visual record of the State, its landmarks, natural beauty, most of which has vanished today.