A small attempt at a redress for those who did interesting, innovative, things but remain forgotten by the establishment

VK Murthy’s demise brought forth a number of justly deserved tributes, and many of them focused (rightly) on his work with Guru Dutt. They spoke about the visuals in Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool and the title song of Chaudhvin Ka Chand (not directed by Dutt, but produced by him). However these films are regarded in the future, there will be no debate about Murthy’s work in them.

And yet, in one corner of my mind, the part that likes to play devil’s advocate, I began to wonder if Murthy would have been as respected, as worshipped, if the filmmaker he’d collaborated with most frequently had been, say, Raj Kapoor. This isn’t just about Murthy. What I’m trying to say applies to someone like Subrata Mitra as well. Had Mitra, who was Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer, done all those innovations (“bounce lighting,” and so on) for a crass Bombay filmmaker, would he still be spoken about in hushed whispers of awe?

So this is about a number of things. It’s about what gets singled out to be enshrined in popular culture, the wheat versus the (perceived) chaff. It’s about the gatekeepers of culture, the arbiters of taste, those who decide that Guru Dutt’s cinema is “worthier” than the cinema of a more overtly commercial-minded filmmaker, as a consequence of which the cinematographer of his films is deemed “worthier” than those who shot the films by the other filmmaker. It’s about these evaluations that get transformed, over time, into Holy Writ, unimpeachable truths. It’s about narrow (and sometimes dangerous) notions of “quality,” which almost always conform to Western ideas of good and bad. (Ever see the films of a profoundly “Indian” filmmaker like Shantaram in discussions of great movies? My point exactly.)

A note, first, on why I mentioned Raj Kapoor. What I’m saying here could be said by taking the films of someone far less “respected” — say, Subhash Ghai — or even someone relatively unknown, and whose films featured interesting cinematography (or song picturisation, or editing). But I chose Kapoor because he was an auteur of sorts. And he’s someone who has, over the years, lost a bit of his reputation. He’s seen as too simple, too sentimental — and the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Who talks about how well-shot his films are, the way Guru Dutt’s films were?

So this is my small attempt at a redress — not just for Raj Kapoor’s cinema, but also the cinema of all those who did interesting, even innovative, things but failed to impress the establishment, as a result of which those interesting, innovative things remain forgotten.

Take Kapoor’s second film, Barsaat. Towards the end, a man who spurned a woman’s love begins to repent his cruelty. He tells his friends he’s going to make amends and steps out of the house, into a floodlit street. (The light comes from a streetlamp.) Expressionistically speaking, it’s a Gothic-looking frame — he’s bathed in some sort of heavenly glow, behooving his transition from sinner to saint. He walks out of the house, past the streetlamp, and towards the camera — and the transition, the cut, comes about as he walks so close to the camera that he blacks out all light.

The shot continues as he continues walking, with the camera now behind him. Again, there’s heavenly light around him, falling in lambent shafts, as he reaches a house and knocks. A woman opens the door. Her face is in the dark, and when she comes closer, into the light, we see that it’s not the woman he wronged but her friend. The woman he wronged is dead. A little later, we get a shot of him walking towards the camera with her body in his hands. He’s in the distance — a speck, dwarfed by gigantic clouds, hinting at the rains to come. And he keeps coming closer to the camera. Remember the shot that introduced Omar Sharif’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, where he’s a speck dwarfed by the skies and he keeps coming closer? This shot in Barsaat came more than a decade earlier.

So this is about acknowledging Jal Mistry, who shot Barsaat. It’s about acknowledging all those others who we don’t talk about anymore. It’s about looking beyond what the gatekeepers keep asking us to look at. It’s about understanding that pop-culture appreciation is not just about the great and the good but also the bad and the ugly, even if one aspect, just one aspect, turns out to be beautiful.