It is sad that the contribution of people in the world of cinema, who operate behind the camera and remain invisible on screen, remains invisible for the audience as well. Dilip Gupta is one such, a cinematographer who, despite a long and successful innings as a cameraman spanning more than three decades, is being recognized only through his centenary year. This too, is an exception because many ace film technicians are not acknowledged even then.
Though Dilip Gupta’s main claim to fame is through some of the best films in the Bimal Roy camp beginning with Biraj Bahu (1954) and ending with Do Dooni Char (1968), his work can be traced back to 1931 when he began his career as an assistant to Nitin Bose for Charu Roy’s Chor Kanta (Bengali). He passed through the phases of the more or less ‘ancient’ techniques that heralded the birth of sound to make a smooth transition to more modern techniques when he came down to Mumbai. He has spanned genres from dramatic love stories (Street Singer, Deedar) to family dramas (Teen Bhai) through period pieces (Yahudi), literary classics (Biraj Bahu, Kapal Kundala, Usne Kaha Tha), surreal love stories (Madhumati), to comedies (Do Dooni Char). He was a cinematographer for films in Bengali, Hindi and Marathi.
Born in Kolkata on September 4, 1911, the eldest among his brothers and sisters, Dilip Gupta lost his father at the tender age of six. His mother took on the responsibility of taking care of the children. There were no financial constraints because the Guptas lived in an extended joint family and his grandfather followed by his uncles took on the responsibility of bringing them up. He would often play with film projections on the walls of his house with an improvised projector he made himself with a shoe-box, a bulb and held a negative in front of the bulb to project the picture on the wall to entertain his brothers and sisters.
Fond of photography, drawing and painting as a child, Gupta chanced upon Dhiraj Bhattacharya, a known actor in Bengali films. The actor introduced him to director Charu Roy and the famous BN Sircar of New Theatres. Gupta would cycle to Dum Dum locations to observe the shoots. One day, he approached Nitin Bose, the most sought-after cameraman of the time. Bose was impressed with the young man and agreed to train him provided he did not expect any payment for his work. Charu Roy, directing Chor Kanta, asked him to step in as the second lead in the film. In between shots, Gupta would carry the camera and lights for Bose. But the film brought him so much notice as an actor that producers asked him to act in other films as well. But by then, Dilip Gupta had made his choice. His work for Chashar Meye as assistant cameraman under Nitin Bose was on a salary of Rs.15/month. With the coming of talkies, New Theatres followed Madan Theatres to make sound films beginning with Dena Paona followed by Natir Pooja (1932). Bose worked with three assistants – Yusuf Mulji, Dilip Gupta and Sudhin Majumdar. The entire day was spent on the shooting floors or locations and the whole night had to be worked out in the laboratory not once coming home to eat or to take a brief respite. During this time, he made friends with Bimal Roy who was also with New Theatres.
When Dilip Gupta was entrusted only with the lab work, Bose appointed Bimal Roy as third camera assistant. By this time, Gupta was preparing to go to the US for training, and he was earning the princely sum of Rs 50 per month! His uncle helped with a sum of Rs 1,500 for the ship ticket. In the 1930s, Gupta was among the first few from India to study cinematography in USA. He attended the New York Institute of Photography, worked at the Paramount Studios and got trained in animation at Disney’s studio. In 1935, when Gupta was returning home, in a cartoon personally drawn by Walt Disney himself – Mickey, Goofy and the Three Little Pigs sang a farewell song for Dilip Gupta. Gupta returned to new Theatres shooting films like Street Singer/Saathi and Kapal Kundala. In 1943, he migrated to Bombay. This marked a turning point in his life and career.
The three big milestones in his career as cinematographer are Street Singer/Saathi (1938), Madhumati (1958) and Gotama, The Buddha (1957), a documentary produced by Bimal Roy. Street Singer/Saathi, a New Theatres production in Hindi and Bengali, was directed by Phani Majumdar. It was a love story featuring KL Saigal and Kanan Devi in the lead with beautiful songs that have survived the ravages of time and public taste. There is a brilliant scene of a raging storm with rain and thunder in the climactic scenes of the film and Gupta managed it all bringing across the effect of real storm and rain. For the famous song Babul Mora, the temperamental Saigal insisted that he would sing the song live into the camera while the song sequence was being shot. So, the musical accompaniment went along with the actor as he belted out the song. This was the practice before playback was introduced. One can imagine the pains Gupta had to go through to keep the musicians and their shadows away from the screen!
Madhumati is a milestone for several reasons. One, it bagged nine Filmfare Awards a record that remained unbroken for many years. Two, Filmfare introduced the Best Cinematography Award the same year. Dilip Gupta won it for his evocative cinematography. Three, it remains the biggest box-office hit under the Bimal Roy Films banner. Four, it is one film many students of cinematography consider to be a model lesson in Black-and-White cinematography in its ideal best. In fact, KK Jaiswal, a faculty member of the FTII, Pune, saw Madhumati 14 times in a row when he was a student at the Institute. The two song picturisations – Suhana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen and Aaja re Pardesi are ‘next to impossible in terms of perfection,’ he says in a tributary note. It was impossible to say which shot was taken indoors and which was shot outdoors especially when the scene was supposed to be representing the exterior ambience.
Gotama, The Buddha was one of the few documentaries Bimal Roy produced under the auspices of Films Division while Rajbans Khanna directed it. It was a strikingly unusual documentary where the camera plays its magic on the murals, sculptures and art work narrating the life of Gautam Buddha without a single animated figure in the entire film. It was released by the government of India as part of the Buddha’s 2500th birthday celebration. It got an honourable mention on the film festival of Cannes because of its beauty and high morality. It is a black-and-white film comprised beautiful images of natural environments, archeological sites, reliefs and paintings, ancient and more contemporary ones. A voice-over narration by Partap Sharma revealed the story.
In 1997, Dilip Gupta was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Indian cinema by the Bimal Roy Memorial Committee with Sunil Dutt handing him the trophy and citation.
Dilip Gupta passed away in Chennai in 1999.