Celebrated cinematographer KK Mahajan (October 2, 1944-July 13, 2007) created a treasure trove of unforgettable images and moments over a career that spanned four decades. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Kewal Krishan Mahajan began his career with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome in 1969 – the beginning of a lengthy professional relationship that included such gems as Calcutta 71, Padatik, Akaler Sandhane, Khandhar and Ek Din Pratidin. Mahajan’s contributions to the cinema of Basu Chatterjee (Sara Akash, Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat), Mani Kaul (Uski Roti, Ashadh Ka Ek Din) and Kumar Shahani (Maya Darpan, Tarang) cannot be overstated.

The winner of four National Film Awards, Mahajan gave back to his alma mater by conducting guest lectures and mentoring generations of young talent. In 2011, the film institute in Pune recognised one of its most distinguished graduates by organising the KK Mahajan Memorial Lecture. The lecture was delivered by eminent cinematographer Sunny Joseph, and was preceded by a personal tribute to the institute and Mahajan by FTII alumnus Virendra Saini.

Saini, whose own illustrious career includes collaborations with Saeed Mirza and Sai Paranjpye, spoke movingly of his years as a student at FTII and his deep friendship with Mahajan. On the occasion of Mahajan’s 77th birth anniversary, we have reproduced a lightly edited version of Saini’s speech. The text and images are courtesy Praba Mahajan.

‘A dear friend and guide’

First of all, let me thank FTII from the bottom of my heart for giving me this opportunity to talk about someone who in my opinion, is the most illustrious graduate of the institute, KK Mahajan, before the presentation of the first KK Mahajan Memorial Lecture.

When I entered the institute, in the first few months of being here, there were two images that struck me like magic – two women walking, one with binoculars and the other with a lantern. One from Charulata and the other from Uski Roti. These two images not only made a lasting impression on me, but greatly influenced me.

It so happened, that God was kind to me. The makers of these images, for whom I had immense respect for, Subrata Mitra and KK Mahajan, became very close to me later on in life.

Uski Roti (1969).

It so happened that God was kind to me. The makers of these images, for whom I had immense respect for, Subrata Mitra and KK Mahajan, became very close to me later on in life. One became a guru and a mentor, and the other became a dear friend and guide.

I cannot put my feelings into words. I can only say that both have left me.

KK Mahajan was 10 years senior to me at the institute. I was in the beginning of my second year when he came as the chief guest for our seniors’ convocation. I shook hands with him, and the warmth of that handshake is still with me.

It was only much later that we became friends. Everyone called him Mahajan “sahab”, as is the code of conduct for addressing seniors. But I don’t know how, for me, the sahab got dropped. He’s always been KK for me, though he always knew how much I respected his work.

After graduating from Punjab University, KK was struggling within himself, as to whether he should join the Sports Institute (at Patiala) or the Film Institute (in Poona). The dice fell towards the latter, and the rest, as they say, is history. At that time when he joined the Film Institute, it was known only as “the Institute”. (It was much later that it became FTII).

In those days, we had to tell the autowallahs to take us to Prabhat Studio as they did not know the Film Institute. [Editor’s note: the Film and Television Institute of India was set up on the plot that previously housed the legendary Prabhat Studios].

KK often spoke about what he was like when he entered the institute and of how, after three years, when he left, he was a transformed person. It is a transformation that one cannot explain. One can only experience it. Something happens within you and you are literally changed forever.

KK Mahajan shooting Ramanagari. Courtesy Praba Mahajan.

For people like KK and many of us who come from small towns or villages with middle class backgrounds, who were not exposed to films and to much of the world outside, the institute is a gateway to a new world, where we see what we are capable of, and of what we can become.

KK was always thankful for the energy in this space.

Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969), Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969), Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1970) and Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972) – these were the defining films of the New Wave in Indian cinema. There was one common factor in all of these: KK Mahajan. I know Mani Kaul, Basu Chatterjee and Kumar Shahani personally, and they all admitted that these films would not have been possible without KK.

What amazes me the most is how KK handled all these directors, so different from each other, adamant, strongly opinionated, with different political and cinematic backgrounds and radically different thought processes. He understood all of them. It’s truly remarkable that he gave these directors the images that they wanted, images that are starkly different from each other, images that are sheer brilliance.

KK had become a star.

Bhuvan Shome (1969).

He firmly believed that he owed all this, his success, to the institute, and he wanted to give back as much as he could. That was his innate nature. That’s why he kept on coming back to the institute, to conduct workshops, give lectures, do work related to examinations and help out with the cinematography department.

When we are here as students at the institute we are insecure and wary of the outside world. We do not know what will happen when we get out. In his workshops and his interactions with the students, KK wanted to give them confidence and the assurance that they would do fine – that the world outside was not so bleak.

Over the years, KK and I often met with each other, in each other’s homes. Over drinks together, we talked a lot, about the institute, about cricket (a passion with both of us), about cooking and about life in general. Strange as it might appear, KK and I very rarely talked about cinema. I think he kept that for his interactions with the two directors he was closest to, Mrinal Sen and Kumar Shahani.

Shooting Mrinal Sen’s Chorus. Photo by Subhash Nandy.

We used to speak about that very first time that we took a train from a small town in Punjab to come to the institute for our interview. It was during the monsoon. It was so memorable – that journey from the hot dusty North, that ride through the hills, the lush green ghats, as we made our way to the institute in Poona. A journey with so many emotions.

There was anxiety, hope and excitement. We had come from small towns, and did not know what to expect, what would happen if we did not get selected. That memory of reaching the gate to the institute, entering it for the first time… it was a very important journey which would change the course of our lives, forever.

KK shared a deep bond not just with the institute per se; he loved this space itself.

In the mid-1990s (I do not recall the exact year), a student strike was imminent. GRAFTII [the FTII alumni association] asked KK Mahajan, Saeed Mirza and I to go to the Institute, talk with the students and try to sort out their problems.

The evening that the three of us arrived at the Institute, the students were sitting at the gate. The strike had not yet started, but the students were bent on going on strike. All we knew for sure was that if there was to be a strike, the biggest loss was only going to be for the students. We tried hard to talk to them, convince them, but they held on to their opinion.

We left the institute and booked into a hotel nearby. KK and I shared a room. Very early in the morning, while it was still dark outside, I saw KK at the window, smoking a cigarette, with his signature style of holding it with the ring finger and the little finger. I asked him why he was up so early. He said, I couldn’t sleep. I was waiting for you to wake up. Let’s go now to the institute and see if the students have not yet gone on strike. We can still try and convince them and persuade them against striking.

This was his love for the institute.

Virendra Saini.

In the mid-1960s, when KK emerged from the institute, it was not easy for anyone from there to get work. The institute was barely known, and the mindset in the film industry at that time was that cinema cannot be taught. You have to go through the so-called grind of working with the establishment, the industry.

He was the first to shatter that myth. The cameramen at that time used to hide the finer points of their craft even from their associates and their assistants because they were so insecure. KK was the complete opposite. He used to discuss with his assistants even about what he had not tried out himself. He’d say, let’s test this and see what happens.

The large number of FTII graduates who worked with him as assistants (and the many who became independent cinematographers with his encouragement) will vouch for this. Because of him, people in the industry began to know about the institute. He literally opened the studio doors to us and the generations which followed.

He dabbled in all forms and formats. He did not differentiate between them. He did art films, mainstream features, documentaries, advertising films, TV serials. He put equal amounts of passion and hard work into all of them. He shot 84 feature films, about 100 advertising commercials and over 20 significant documentaries and several TV serials. It is remarkable, the huge body of work that he has created and left for posterity.

Piya Ka Ghar (1972).

KK was not happy with the existing trade body of cinematographers. He felt that they did not discuss the basics – the creative part, the image. They only concerned themselves with financial issues, who has not been paid, etc.

In May 1999, he, along with a few younger cinematographers, set up the Cinematographers’ Combine. We held our inaugural seminar over three days at the Russian Cultural Centre in Mumbai. The focus of this momentous seminar was ‘Towards a Better Image’. It was an avenue where we could discuss anything, from the creation of the image to the other end, the projection of the image.

Anybody could join. We had architects, painters, art directors, writers, special effects professionals and make-up artists, among others, who would talk about their fields in relation to cinema. When he took this small initiative, he would not have visualised that 10 years later, it would become a much larger forum reaching out to a wider range of people concerned about cinema.

In 2010, Cinematographers’ Combine held a seminar addressed by the President of the American Society of Cinematographers. They brought the CAS (Camera Assessment Series) with them; this was held at the IMAX theatre in Mumbai, with so many in attendance. And it all started with a small seminar at the Russian Cultural Centre.

In the end, all I can say is that KK is gone. He has left me alone. I really liked him, respected him and I miss him. But somewhere here, in this space, he is present. I cannot believe that he is not. Not physically, but he’s here and will always remain with us.

Also read:

Even in the darkness, he dreamed of lights: A tribute to renowned cinematographer KK Mahajan