Rajen C Kothari, low-profile, modest to a fault and soft-spoken, was one of the most outstanding cinematographers in Indian cinema. Born on November 15th, 1952, his career CV is not very extensive in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality, he was an institution unto himself. His range in cinematography offers a panoramic genre of films and filmmakers ranging from Hip Hip Hurray through Ghayal, Damul, Mrityudand, Pestonjee, Ek Nodir Galpo, Zubeidaa, Welcome to Sajjanpur to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. He was also cinematographer of many documentaries, short films, ad films and music videos, winning awards from UPFJA, Filmfare and Uptron for Best Cinematography, and from the WBFJA for Best Film for Purush (1994).
Rajen’s grandfather, who dealt in cotton and oil seeds, came to Bombay with his family in the 1920s. When he incurred a huge loss in the business, it was left to Rajen’s father to use his hobby in still photography seriously as a business project to take care of the financial needs of the family. Rajen’s boyhood was spent in a home where processing, developing, printing inside a dark room was an integral part of his growing up. His uncle was closely associated with the Anandam Film Society, the only film society that was very active at that time and his association with this uncle and his father impressed him enough to take on photography as a profession which, unlike what usually happens in Gujarati business families, was never looked down upon.
As a professional photographer, Rajen’s father would subscribe to international photography magazines and this exposure to his father’s work and the beautiful landscapes he saw in the magazines must have played a significant role in moulding his sense of the visual – the use of colours, black-and-white, lighting and so on. But he once said that nothing was consciously imbibed. His earliest memories of watching films were Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films projected through a 16mm projector his father and uncle would often bring and everyone in the family would be roped in to watch. The first film he had the chance to watch in a proper theatre was Ben Hur at the Metro in Bombay and he said that he found it ‘quite frightening.’
Rajen was never the kind of cinebuff one would expect an ace cinematographer to have been earlier on in life. He would be taken to Sunday morning shows of films like Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Robinson Crusoe which he found very exciting and impressive but which did not grow into a cinema-going habit. But he did not inculcate any interest in still photography through his growing years at all.
The most deeply inspiring work that made a long-lasting impression on Rajen was watching a series of Prabhat films much before he decided to take cinematography as a career. He talked about Sant Tukaram, Ram Shastri, Sant Dnyaneshwar and Kunku which he watched in a row as the most significant films he had watched in his life. “These films remain important for me both in terms of their powerful narrative and technical wizardry. Visually these are very potent and therefore, they are very significant,” he once said in an interview.
Interestingly, Rajen became a cinematographer not out of choice but because circumstances made him choose cinematography. He did not get admission in medical school so his father said that this was not the end of the road and that he could pursue photography on condition that he got into technical training before stepping into the profession. That led to his FTII Diploma (1973-1976) that wrote the story of his life differently. FTII did not have any course on still photography so he enrolled for cinematography. Two very good friends who were practicing cinematographers he remembered are Keith Allams and BC Tarkas. “Getting into cinematography therefore, was not a conscious decision for me,” he would say.
During his years at the FTII where the students watched not less than three films a day, his experience and imbibing of great films began. Among the great films he recalled were those of Bresson and Godard, Ray and Fellini, Kurosawa and Ozu, Ghatak and Jansco, and Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. The images they created remained with him forever. “The whole of our perception of cinema in general and cinematography in particular were based on these classics. This, to me, was really the beginning of the formation of an ideology and it was this process that was being helped by a sustained and formal education,” he once said. The most important cinematographic team he admired from his FTII days was the Satyajit Ray-Subrata Mitra-Bansi Chandragupta team. “They complemented and supplemented each other so well that their style and their films have left an indelible imprint on our minds,” said Rajen.
His cinematography of Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985) is exemplary. The light in the Harijan basti is muted and natural – a glow here, a soft light there, the fiery flames consuming the basti and thereby heightening the credibility of the event or scene. The final shot shows the entire screen covered with a marbling effect from the blood-soaked palm of the zamindar, the camera moving in deliberate slow motion.
In Zubeidaa (2001), apart from the opportunity of exploring the recreation of fictionalized ‘history’ for the film, Rajen’s work stands out in his use of black-and-white film for that single song-dance sequence the son is searching for. The film reel is a beautiful image that captures an age that in some sense is still with us. Paradoxically, it has lost its function in an era of sophisticated music systems and television and has therefore, become an ‘outsider.’ At the same time, looked at from another angle, it is an ‘insider’ in that it offers a telling comment on human callousness and indignity towards things that are of no practical use except as a lost slice of life found at last by the grown son of a mother he never knew. In Zubeidaa, the image of the old film reel has all three values – indexical, iconic and symbolic. It is iconic because it designates antiquity. It is indexical because it hints at something that cannot be forgotten and is carved in memory, something that has transcended the boundaries of time. It is symbolic because it represents both the passing of an age and nostalgia for it.
In Samir Chanda’s Ek Nodir Golpo (2008), Rajen’s cinematography is low-key and captures the village ambience with its browns and ambers most aesthetically. Shot almost entirely on location along the banks of the river Bhagirati, in a village called Naliapur in Burdwan district, the film is a rich visual experience. His brilliant cinematography holds us in thrall in the way it represents the river in all its manifestations – as physical reality, as an integral part of the lives of those who live near it, as a metaphor for the anger presented through high tide, as a vehicle of death, as a soother of the mind, as a carrier of dead bodies, as an indirect upholder of the human spirit; and finally, the river as a symbol of Darakeshwar’s dead daughter.
Rajen believed that cinematography demands unstinting concentration, swift reflexes and undaunting hard work under extreme situations for days and months. He felt that no cinematographer could afford to lose his cool at any moment and should keep his antenna alert every second he is at work.
Rajen also worked alongside other committed cinematographers with Cinematographers’ Combine (a forum formed in May 1999), “to create awareness of the contribution of cinematographers to the filmmaking process, and to stress the need for achieving the highest standards in all aspects of film production.” Over the years, several well attended workshops and seminars have been held by the forum.
Apart from photographing other filmmakers’ films, Rajen shot and directed an incisive film based on a famous play, Purush, authored by famous Marathi playwright Jayant Dalvi. It was a hard-hitting film about the dirty politicking that goes on in a small town where the slightest questioning into the corrupt practices of the local politician can wreck the life of an entire family. It was a powerful film that was also a scathing indictment of the vulnerability of young women. But the film did not do well commercially. Many years later, he directed one again; this time, a comedy called Panga Na Lo (2007) starring Satish Shah and Om Puri and photographed by Arun Varma, but this too, did not do well at all. A third film, Das Capital Ghulamon Ki Rajdhani, shot by his assistant Chandan Goswami, is complete but sadly, unreleased till date.
Though he was sad about Purush not having done well commercially or critically, Rajen did not allow this to cow him down. “Purush did not work at various levels. In retrospect, I think it was because it was an issue-based film released soon after the Babri Masjid demolition on a very wrong scale and post haste. Not getting selected in the Indian Panorama or winning any National Awards, the producer Shivanand Shetty, in desperation to make whatever money he could out of it, doled it out to the first buyer that came along.” The violence in Purush, specially the dramatic scene in which Ambika emasculates Gulabrao is extremely graphic. When this critic asked Rajen in an interview why he showed such graphic violence, he quietly said, “Real life is much more graphically violent than what I have shown in the film, believe me,” he said. I was stunned but the conviction in his voice was indisputable and Purush remains one of the most scathing celluloid indictments on political corruption that crosses barriers and exposes the aggressive violence women at all levels are subjected to.
Rajen Kothari passed away in Mumbai on September 26, 2012. He was not yet 60.
Header Photo: Pratik Rajen Kothari.