In 2015, Hemant Chaturvedi shot Brothers, starring Sidharth Malhotra and Akshay Kumar, and then “packed up”. But though the noted Hindi film cinematographer quit the profession that had earned him acclaim for such films as Company, Maqbool, 15 Park Avenue and Ishaqzaade, he wasn’t done with cinematography yet.

That year, Chaturvedi began recording interviews with older members of his tribe who had inspired him over his career. This was a way of comparing his journey to theirs as well as “answering questions for generations after me”, he told The result is Chhayaankan (The Management of Shadows), a tender tribute to some of Hindi cinema’s most experienced and well-regarded technicians.

The film profiles 14 cinematographers who shot Hindi films between the 1950s and the 2000s. All of them are men, reflecting the gender bias prevalent in those years. Nearly all of them have retired from filmmaking.

On the list are Peter Pereira, Govind Nihalani, Jehangir Chowdhury, Pravin Bhatt, Kamalakar Rao, Ishwar Bidri, SM Anwar, Baba Azmi, AK Bir, Nadeem Khan, Barun Mukherjee, Dilip Dutta, RM Rao and Sunil Sharma.

Ashok Mehta, VK Murthy and KK Mahajan would have been a part of the film too had they been alive, Chaturvedi said.

(L-R) Barun Mukherjee, Dilip Dutta and Nadeem Khan. Courtesy Hemant Chaturvedi.

“Between these people, they have shot more than 800 feature films and 15,000 commercials,” Chaturvedi said. “A lot of people told me, why didn’t you meet so and so, but the fact is that you have to create a parameter of some sort, or else there will be no end. I decided to keep it simple by including people whose films I had followed and whom I had approached for work at some stage of my life.”

Chhayaankan will be shown in Mumbai on Saturday by the Cinematographers Combine. The event marks the self-funded documentary’s first physical screening in the city.

While one of the subjects has passed away (Ishwar Bidri died in 2020), some of the others are in poor health. Peter Pereira, who is 94, is blind. Nadeem Khan has been in a coma after a fall since 2020. “When I heard about Ishwar Bidri and Nadeem Khan, I got my act together last June and finished the film,” Chaturvedi said.

The riveting 138-minute documentary covers a broad set of themes, including the formative years of the technicians, their experiences, their relationship with directors and stars, and their own favourites. Apart from providing a vital oral history of at least five decades of Hindi cinema, the deeply felt conversations help explain why cinematographers rarely get the recognition they deserve.

Nearly all the interviewees complain about the lack of attention given to the aesthetic aspects of filmmaking, which sometimes stems from rank ignorance about the role played by cinematography in setting a film’s mood.

From hilarious anecdotes about stars who know next to nothing about camera angles to directors who insist on flooding scenes with light, Chhayaankan clarifies why so many older Hindi films had an inconsistent look and sparkled only in sections.

“Shove your creativity aside and make do” was the norm for far too long, as one of the cinematographers says. Audiences didn’t care either and were happy enough to watch their favourite stars, the cinematographers point out.

(L-R) Ishwar Bidri, RM Rao and Jehangir Chowdhury. Courtesy Hemant Chaturvedi.

For 54-year-old Chaturvedi too, the catalyst for his decision to abandon cinematography, which he had pursued since 1985, was a failed project. “I had shot Brothers on celluloid, and it was a spectacular-looking film, but it flopped,” he said. “I thought, who’s watching this stuff anymore? After [Ram Gopal Varma’s] Company, I got 500 phone calls and after Brothers, I got two. You had a body of work, but people were looking for sasta and tikau [cheap and durable]. So I said, let’s get out of here.”

The lack of authority cinematographers have over a film’s final outcome is compounded by a high rate of attrition. Cinematographers might be indispensable to filmmaking, but they are also easily replaced by younger, cheaper talent.

One of the sections in Chhayaankan is a cri de couer against the Hindi film industry’s ageism problem. Despite being capable and willing to continue working, most of the veterans find themselves unemployed or sidelined. As one of them puts it, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Cinematographers could become redundant for a number of reasons, Chaturvedi noted. “It could be the fact that people don’t grow beyond what they are known for,” he said. “A lot of cinematographers have been doing the same thing over the years because that was what was expected of them. Keeping up with different styles is important, but they were not given the chance to experiment. I was the director of photography for the television show Rendezvous with Simi. Once it came on air, everyone wanted to hire me to shoot white sets. After Company, I was asked to recreate the dirty underbelly, but I said, I have already done it.”

Hemant Chaturvedi.

Although beset by structural problems, the Hindi film industry also has an admirable professional ethic, best expressed in the anecdote in Chhayaankan about the renowned producer FC Mehra, who insisted on working even on the day his father died.

“The systems and practices of the yesteryear led to efficient filmmaking with scope for whimsy,” Chaturvedi observed. The cinematographers benefitted from an artisanal approach that allowed them to train as assistants for years before they could become professionals.

The interviews reveal a “guru-shishya parampa [mentor-student tradition] where you had to earn your stripes” and “people who worked with each other because they had relationships and not because they were cheaper”, Chaturvedi said. It’s not the case anymore, where anybody with a well-equipped digital camera can earn the much-vaunted “director of photography” designation, he added.

Despite the complaints, Chhayaankan isn’t a screed. Rather, Chaturvedi’s wide-ranging interviews tease out the individual personalities of his subjects. Through such statements as “My two eyes and my heart” (referring to the camera) and “It’s not the equipment but the thought processes”, the cinematographers express their love for and understanding of the moving image, which has barely dimmed with retirement.

“I didn’t want to make a film that appeared to be a rant,” Chaturvedi said. “Humour and honesty were very important.”

(L-R) AK Bir, Kamalakar Rao and Sunil Sharma. Courtesy Hemant Chaturvedi.

The documentary has been skilfully edited by Suchitra Sathe from nearly 39 hours of footage. However, none of the reminiscences is accompanied by clips from the films that the subjects are discussing. The decision was not forced by the difficulty and expense in procuring film rights from producers, Chaturvedi explained: “I wanted to keep the documentary as human journey.”

The lively narrations help us imagine the scenes being remembered. SM Anwar, who was the operative cameraman under Dwarka Divecha in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), reconstructs the shoot of the iconic moment when a train ploughs into logs placed on a railway track by dacoits. When railway employees refused drive the train because of the dangers involved, a lightman, who had by learnt to operate the engine, took charge .

The scene required only one take, Anwar says. Ramesh Sippy later told him, if we had flubbed the shoot, I would have been repaying the railways my whole life.

Baba Azmi, who shot Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987), recalls how he lensed one of the film’s most affecting scenes. Impoverished music teacher Arun has been unable to rustle up the money to feed the brood of kids he has adopted. His tenant Seema, who has been rowing with the children up until then, is moved by their plight and buys them a huge breakfast.

Azmi recalls that his soft lighting scheme for the sequence impressed Mani Ratnam, who pledged to shoot an entire film in that manner (some of Ratnam’s Tamil films from this period, including Agni Natchathiram, Gitanjali and Anjali, bear out his resolve).

(L-R) Baba Azmi, Pravin Bhatt and SM Anwar. Courtesy Hemant Chaturvedi.

The only non-cinematographer in Chhayaankan is the actor Waheeda Rehman. Among Rehman’s memories is being requested by Dwarka Divecha to leave the sets whenever he had to let off steam and cuss out his assistants.

“She was always close to her cinematographers, and I am close to her too,” Chaturvedi said. “She is a brilliant photographer too and speaks beautifully.”

The bits that were left out include interviews with lighting assistants as well as AK Bir and Govind Nihalani talking about working on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. “Whenever I have the time and money, I intend to put this footage together,” Chaturvedi said.

Alongside completing Chhayaankan, Chaturvedi has been pursing still photography. Among his most important projects is shooting movie theatres. From facades to ticketing booths and old projectors to projectionists, Chaturvedi has been recording for posterity the pleasure palaces that are the true home of cinema. “I have shot 950 cinemas in 15 states,” he said.

Raj Mandir in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Photo by Hemant Chaturvedi.

Chaturvedi’s other themes – what he jokingly calls “people on the brink of extinction and places that are about to go” include British-era cemeteries, abandoned idols and the Jesuit teachers and staffers at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, where he studied. Some of them might eventually disappear, but like the cinematographers in Chhayaankan, at least they won’t be forgotten.

Bharat Talkies in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh. Photo by Hemant Chaturvedi.

Also read:

Meet Peter Pereira, the man who made Mr India disappear

How KK Mahajan transformed the screen image and inspired generations of talent

Light of Ray: The Subrata Mitra-Satyajit Ray partnership led to cinema’s most unforgettable moments

Rajen Kothari tribute: Remembering the cinematographer who was ‘respected and loved by all’