Their SHOT at fame
The Rai Brothers, P. L. Rai and Viswanatha Rai, whose slick photography stood out in yesteryear films, share their experiences
Lakshmi in "Julie"... one of the masterpieces
IF BOMBAY had the immensely talented cinematographer duo, the Mistry brothers Fali and Jal, Madras could boast of another brilliant duo, the Rai brothers, P. L. Rai and Viswanatha Rai, who have several decades of experience and more than 100 films to their credit.
The story of the Rai brothers began in 1938, when P. L. Rai, the oldest of the two, left Mangalore for Bombay where he joined Ajanta Studios as an apprentice under Govardhan Bhai Patel, a leading cameraman of those days. "My father was dead against my having anything to do with the film industry; initially he was not even aware of my joining Ajanta," chuckles P. L. Rai, still dapper at 87. In 1942, he arrived in Madras with another cameraman Hari Bhai Patel and joined Sundaram Studios in Adyar. "What I remember most about working in those days is the sheer joy of learning the craft of cinematography," recalls Rai.
"As assistant cameraman, I was drawing Rs. 45 as salary. After paying Rs. 5 towards rent and another Rs 7.50 towards food, I still had money to save. So, you can imagine how life was then. It was only when I became chief cameraman in 1951 that I was paid Rs 1,500 as salary, a princely sum indeed." Six years later, Rai chose to leave Sundaram Studios (which had by then become Neptune Studios) to establish himself as a freelance cameraman.
It was in Tamil and Telugu films that P. L. Rai initially made a mark. He worked with H. M. Reddy, one of the earliest film directors in Madras, in the film "Nirdoshi Niraparadhi" and with Yoganand in the black and white historical, "Prithviraj Samyukta", starring M. G. Ramachandran and Padmini. L. V. Prasad's "Mangayar Thilakam" and "Bhagyavati", both starring Sivaji Ganeasn and Padmini, stood out for Rai's slick photography. "Luva Kusha", the first Telugu film in colour (1962) and directed by the redoubtable C. Pulliah, had Rai as the cameraman. The film was a super hit and ran for five years.
Soon, P. L. Rai's skills behind the camera became well known and film stars such as N. T. Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao began recommending his name to producers. "They were even willing to adjust their dates for my convenience," he says with pride. In Tamil, "Padakotti", starring MGR and directed by T. Prakash Rao, fetched him the South Indian Film Fans Best Photography Award.
P. L. Rai did several films 15 Telugu and five Hindi with Telugu director A. Subba Rao. The Hindi films, "Milan", "Doli", "Man Ka Meet", "Jwaar Bhata" and "Rakhwala" fared well at the box office. Other successful films include Dasari Narayana Rao's "Swarg Narak", Sethumadhavan's "Julie" and Sambhasivam Rao's "Swayamvar", all produced by Nagi Reddy. "When Rakesh Roshan was in Madras for shooting a film, he watched "Julie" and asked me whether I would accompany him to Bombay to work for his own production. I immediately agreed," reminisces Rai. "Aap Ke Dewane", directed by Surendra Mohan, was that film and Roshan and Rai have remained good friends ever after. In 1984, 46 years of hard work finally bore fruit. P. L. Rai bagged the prestigious Filmfare Award for Best Director of Photography for "Jaag Utha Insaan". Four years later, he received the Film Federation of India Award for completing 50 successful years in the film industry. He decided to hang up his boots after "Shankarabharanam" (Hindi).
As for Viswanatha Rai, he completed schooling in , Mangalore, and joined the Madras Christian College in 1951. But his passion for flying saw him discontinue college and join the Madras Flying Club. His dream it was to become a commercial pilot. However, fate willed otherwise. Due to an ailment relating to his ears, he had to give up flying. So he decided to seek his fortune in the film industry, inspired by his brother's success. He joined Neptune Studios' (later Sathya Studios) camera department in 1953. In 1958, Viswanatha joined his brother as operative cameraman. The following year, he got a break; he worked as an independent cameraman in R.M. Krishnaswamy's Malayalam film, "Dial Double Two and Double Four", starring Prem Nazir. Then he rejoined P. L. Rai as associate cameraman. It was in the mid-1960s after "Man Ka Meet" that Viswanatha Rai's association with director A. C. Trilok Chander bloomed, an association that continued for more than 30 years during which they worked in 25 films - Tamil, Telugu and Hindi creating a record of sorts. Most of the Tamil films starred Sivaji Ganesan. "Avanthan Manidhan" and "Dr. Shiva" fetched Viswanatha Rai the South Indian Film Fans Association Best Cinematography Award, as well as the Filmalaya and Sivaji Fans Association awards. He was also the cameraman for the first Ganesan-Rajnikant starrer, "Naan Vazha Vaippen", directed by Yoganand. "`Bhathrakali' was the most satisfying film for me, for, almost 50 per cent of the film, including two songs and the climax, was picturised with the help of a duplicate (after Rani Chandra's tragic death in an air crash)," he says. "Today, sophisticated equipment and computerisation have rendered camera work easier. Earlier, the director used to stand next to the cameraman. Today, he can watch the frame sequence on a monitor," explain the brothers. Cinematography is indeed an art.
The great black and white movies that we admire had a lot to do with the way they were shot. And the camera work of the Rai Brothers always stood out even in an average film, providing relief to the viewer Leading a retired life in Neelankarai, amid the awards they have won, the Rai Brothers delight in recounting the days of a bygone era.
"I still don't mind wielding the camera again," says the septuagenarian Viswanatha Rai.
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