Studio photographer Jethalal H Thakker would take a long time to get the perfect shot, sometimes making his subjects pose for a few hours. But the subjects did not mind. They were movie stars, some of them on the way up and others already at the peak, but they subjected themselves anyway to Thakker’s instructions, knowing well that the results would be worth it.
Thakker set up India Photo Studio in 1948 in Dadar in Central Mumbai, and scores of Hindi movie stars lined up get their pictures taken by him. A small selection of the black-and-white images that are suffused with drama and mood is pinned on the walls of one of the exhibition rooms of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The show Silver Magic Vintage Photographs of the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema includes studio portraits of Nalini Jaywant, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Nargis (more than half a dozen of them), Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari and Madhubala, among others. The show has been curated by photographer Ram Rahman, for whom Thakker represents a twinning of his interests in cinema and the history of photo studios.
“I first knew of Thakker through an article by Pritish Nandy in the Illustrated Weekly magazine sometime in the 1980s,” Rahman said. “The picture was of a young Raj Kumar with a cigarette. I had never seen him at that age, and I was struck by the photograph.” Several years later, artist Pushpamala N did a series of performance art photographs called Navarasa. Thakker took the photographs for the show.
Rahman has previously shown digital versions of some of the photographs at the United Art Fair in Delhi in 2013. Thakker died in 2003, and his son, Vimal, gave over gelatine silver prints to Rahman for the show. “I was completely astounded by the exceptional work,” Rahman said. “This kind of theatrical drama of creating character with an intense mood is very unique. Even in the studio photography tradition in India, there is nobody who has made pictures that are quite like these, with the dramatic themes and the careful lighting, and, of course, the fact that some of these actors were young and in the process of becoming the great stars of the 1950s.”
Almost all the photographs on display, which includes on-set stills, are from single negatives, meaning that Thakker worked on perfecting the shot. The photographer used something called the view camera, Rahman said. “It is very heavy and the focus would take a long time to set. Meanwhile, the actor had to stay in position. He would make the actors stand for many hours, and he wouldn’t make multiple images.”
Thakker succeeded in evoking an “emotional intensity”, Rahman said, because he had a connection with the actors. “Thakker worked with their sensibilities and he would get something out of them, just like a film director,” Rahman said. “The stars would come to the studio and hang out, they would bring costumes or pick up the existing props and things would be thrown together. They were creating characters.”
Since the photographs carry vague dates, it is hard to tell if the actors were bringing their screen personas into the studio or sharpening their attitude there before going back on the sets. The only post-1960s face in the collection belongs to Madhuri Dixit, who apparently went to Thakker because she had been told by people that she looked like an old-fashioned movie star. Could Thakker, who had photographed the actual celebrities, make her look like one? “She came with only one sari, so Thakker sent his daughter home to bring a few more saris that Madhuri could change into for the shoot,” Rahman said.