In a corner of Kolkata’s Image Studio stands an old film camera reverentially referred to as “that camera”. Stored in a locked room, away from prying eyes, its distinction is that it was used by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
The prized camera figures in a photo taken by artist Nandita Raman that was part of her recently-concluded exhibition Do Not Forget Me in New York. In the image, titled Manik-da’s Camera, the equipment appears thrice, enveloped in a haze created using an image-multiplier filter that was popular in Indian films for creating fantastical, dream-like sequences.
The image is testimony to Raman’s intimate connection with the world of cinema: her maternal uncles ran a single-screen theatre in Varanasi, where she grew up. Five years ago, Raman spent time in and around Kolkata, photographing film studios. “These studios had all the equipment lying in their [storage area], and it felt like being in the presence of tools which at one point created cinema history,” said Raman. “The [equipment] was involved in making silent films and movies that led to the very rich film industry we have now. I wanted to turn my camera on these iconic cameras and equipment and take their portraits.” Lights, cameras, projectors, trolleys, torn posters, now lying neglected and disused, take centre stage in her photos.
This is not the first time Raman has tried to reflect India’s cinematographic history. The artist, who has been living and working in Brooklyn for close to a decade, spent three years beginning 2006, photographing single-screen theatres. Titled Cinema Play House, the project was spurred by the realisation that while she was preoccupied with studies and work, Chitra Talkies, the single-screen theatre that was a part of her childhood, had shut down after a 60-year journey.
Do Not Forget Me was in some ways an extension of Cinema Play House. “[Here] the cameras and technicians’ tools used in making films became my characters,” she said.
Do Not Forget Me began as an “exploration of my curiosity” for the 38-year-old. After studying photography at the International Centre of Photography in the US, Raman returned to India in 2013 with a desire to understand how films were historically made in the country. She began her journey with a visit to the Technician’s Studio in Kolkata, founded by cinematographer Ramananda Sengupta in 1952, and went on to photograph around six more studios around Kolkata.
At the Technician’s Studio, where the sound mixing was done for films by Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Raman photographed the equipment used by these directors. At the Image Studio, she captured a chair used by Ray, standing in what looked like a derelict courtyard, wrapped in a tattered white sheet. Old projectors, lights, cameras, sound consoles and lenses are all covered in thick layers of dust or draped in old, fraying sheets and towels, suggestive of how these tools, once an integral part of filmmaking, now lie neglected, in areas that aren’t “fully functioning...located in passages used to get to one part of the studio to another, but never to hang around in”.
The title Do Not Forget Me was inspired by a short story by writer Alexander Kluge about German actor Harry Liedtke’s desire to never be forgotten. “Harry Liedtke, the German film star, aware of the ephemeral nature of people’s interest in fast-moving medium like cinema, constantly tried to protect the aura of invincibility that he conveyed to the audience…he wanted to be loved over and above popularity,” writes Kluge. The rusting and dusty equipment in the studios seem to have suffered the fate Liedtke was afraid of, largely forgotten.
Raman believes that while the people responsible for taking care of the equipment are “trying their best…these are not environments where they can be preserved”. “It’s not like they don’t see its value,” she said, “and they do associate it with iconic figures in Indian film history, but their means are limited.” There is a need for museums, she says, like the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai, which can adopt and preserve the equipment for future generations to engage with. “These things need more attention and a more controlled environment which is not possible for these individuals to create and invest in,” said Raman.