I first met Rajen Kothari in 1992, when I assisted Renu Saluja for Rajen’s directorial debut Purush. I met him for the last time on 24th September 2012, at Whistling Woods, where he taught cinematography to students who’ll definitely feel his loss. Had I known that this would be a final meeting, I might have lingered on for a while, but it was the usual casual lobby encounter. He asked me how I was, about my brother Onir and about my daughter. I remarked that he had lost a lot of weight. I don’t think he was unwell but he did look a lot frailer than when I had first met him. But that was twenty years ago.
Twenty years ago, I had been surprised at this man who didn’t fit into the image stereotype of the cinematographer. He didn’t yell – in fact he spoke softly, smiling as he spoke. He also didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He always made it a point to make sure that we had plenty to eat in the editing room, and one of my memories is of him getting us fresh vada-pavs for an evening snack. Rajen used to tease me when I’d check the time in the evening. “Kya, koi wait kar raha hai?” He never threw his weight around and what we thought about the film always mattered to him. I think Purush was a good film and it was a huge experience working with Renu and Rajen at the same time.
Soon afterwards, my husband Ashwini, Onir and I were making a music video. I told them that I would ask Rajen if he’d shoot it. Of course he said yes, even though we were all greenhorns, guiding us through the quagmire of Bombay locations, equipment hire, stock, labs, and even the lunch supplier! He got on board for us Art Director Sharmistha Roy and most importantly, always remained calm on the sets. Later he also shot a pilot episode that Ashwini directed and a music video for Onir. Onir and I edited Rajen’s delightful TV series Arjun Pandit.
Our friends, Arun Varma and Jatinder Sharma, both cinematographers from FTII, first assisted Rajen during that music video shoot when they were still students, and continued the association after graduating. I know many others – some of them also from FTII – have assisted Rajen and will remember the man with much warmth and respect. A gentle, unassuming man, who could also be firm when needed. A man who was a good teacher, helpful to newcomers, and loved to make films. A man who also connected you to his family physician if one was looking for a doctor and would recommend a garage when you set out to buy your first car, a second-hand one of course.
Rest in peace Rajen. You went away too young. You’ll be remembered not just for a rich body of work that includes films like Damul, Dacait, Pestonjee, Ghayal, Purush and Zubeidaa but also because you touched so many lives.