Subrata Mitra (1930-2001) is perhaps the best thing to have happened to Indian cinema in terms of cinematography in every sense. He began his career as cameraman in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. He was known as the stormy petrel of Bengali cinema, forever involved in technical experimentations in every field of cinematography. To capture this talented, low-profile personality in a one-hour documentary on his life must not have been an easy job for young documentary filmmaker Arindam Saha Sardar. But he has done it. To make a biographical documentary on a technical artist in cinema when the person is no longer around to make his own statement, is even more difficult. Subrata Mitra has achieved this too, without bias or prejudice.
The film opens with a voice-over of a brief sketch of Mitra who rose from humble beginnings to milestone achievements in a career filled with historic landmarks in lighting. Then, it switches over to a nostalgic conversation between two cinematographers of two generations, Adinath Das, Dean and academic head at SRFTI, Kolkata and Soumendu Roy. They discuss Mitra’s struggle to attain excellence in his chosen field.
The film is stranded together with interviews with renowned stalwarts in technical fields like cinematographer Purnendu Bose and Ramananda Sengupta and editor Dulal Dutta. They recount their long personal interaction with Mitra at work, in experimentation and in real life, narrating anecdotes people would never have known if this film had not been made. An interesting fact the film reveals is that the middle-class Bengali environment Mitra was growing up in, did not stop his father from guiding his son to chase his dreams in photography and cinematography. When Jean Renoir arrived in Kolkata to shoot The River (1950), Mitra, who was only 20 at the time, approached the director asking for work. Renoir turned down his request. Then, it was Mitra’s father who requested the director to allow his son to be an observer during the shooting of the film. Renoir could not turn him down this time. Clips of Mitra, bespectacled, and with curly hair standing amidst the crowds during at the location cut into the narrative. He gained a friend in another young observer. His name was Satyajit Ray.
An interesting anecdote narrated by one of the interviewees recounts an incident in Darjeeling during the shooting of Ray’s Kanchenjungha, his first film in colour. A team from Mumbai was shooting Lekh Tandon’s Professor (1962) at the same time. Dwarka Divecha, the noted cinematographer who was D.O.P. for Sholay (1975) was the cameraman. The team was stuck for days on end as they could not shoot because of the moodiness of the mist in the hills. But Mitra continued to shoot Kanchenjungha in the same environment. A surprised Divecha invited him to his hotel room and asked him how he could manage to work within the whimsical moods of Nature. Mitra said that it was precisely the misty environment that he wanted and he got the visuals he wished within this mistiness. Kanchenjungha is a milestone in colour photography for cinema done in Eastman Colour, looked down upon by big production houses in Bombay.
The film flashes back again and again to show clips from Pather Panchali, Charulata, Aparajito to focus on the experimentation Mitra carried out with lighting to get the right effect on film. The film narrates how, ten years before Sven Nykvist, Mitra made his first technical innovation while shooting Ray’s Aparajito (1956.) His arguments with director Ray and art director Bansi Chandragupta about the impossibility of simulating shadowless diffused skylight inside a set built in a studio in Kolkata. When his arguments fell on deaf ears, he invented what is now known as bounced lighting which Sven claimed to have innovated! So instead of using direct lighting to illuminate the set, Mitra placed a framed white sheet over the set to resemble a patch of sky and arranged the studio lights below this to bounce off the fake sky. The result was a simulation of soft, diffused, shadowless light reflected from the artificial sky.
For Charulata, shot in relatively confined space in the studios with Bansi Chandragupta having designed period sets for the film, Mitra faced the possibility of multiple shadows created by the lighting that was needed to shoot the interiors of Charu’s home. After many experiments, Mitra got wooden boxes approximately 3’x 2’ in size. He got the box fitted with 27 household lamps of 100 watts each in three rows with separate switches for each row and a master switch for all the lights, a tissue paper covering the open side of the box. The whole box was then fit into a usual 2KW light stand. It was fascinating to see the quality of sophisticated, shadowless light that came out of these crude wooden boxes. This kind of lighting replaced the earlier form of bounce lighting and turned into a trend among cinematographers in Bengali cinema. The puzzling part is some scenes suddenly shown in colour while most are in Black-and-White.
The film also shows how Mitra, a trained sitar player, was roped in by Renoir for a scene in The River playing the sitar for the film both in front of the camera and behind it. Saha Sardar offers us glimpses of Mitra’s involvement with painting. Some of the paintings he did towards the end of his life are intercut into the film. Soumendu Roy mourns the delay in recognizing the contribution of Mitra to Indian cinematography that got him the long-overdue National Award for his work in Romesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times (1985). But this is compensated by the Eastman Kodak Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Cinematography in 1992. During the last decade of his life, Mitra carried on a one-man crusade to monitor and try t improve the quality of film projection in the theatres in Kolkata. Subrata Mitra is a good documentary that is an impartial tribute but is not a flattering celluloid celebration of a great artiste. The film should find its rightful place in the film archives across all film-producing countries in the world if sub-titles are included subsequently.
by Shoma A. Chatterji