Two striking frames bookend Avani Rai’s documentary on her father, the celebrated photographer Raghu Rai. The opening shot features Rai in a tight close-up as he quotes his mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, on the need to have a “cool eye and a warm heart” and the “silence inside you” while freezing the lives of others in snapshots.
Raghu Rai An Unframed Portrait is a fond and respectful tribute, but in the final frame, Avani Rai signals her independence from her subject. When advised to take a photograph in a particular way, Avani Rai does her own thing and frames her father in a long shot.
Screenings of the 55-minute documentary are now being organised in India after a premiere at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam in 2017 and numerous festival appearances. Raghu Rai An Unframed Portrait was recently screened by the Mumbai Film Festival, and it will also be shown in Delhi on August 3. The Indian leg of the journey has just begun for a project that casually originated in 2010, when Rai began filming her father at home and during their travels together.
“I had shifted to Bombay in 2010, and it was the first time I had left home,” the 26-year-old filmmaker said. “Because I was always interested in the camera, I began shooting memorable experiences with my parents. I had started gathering a lot of footage, and I felt that something bigger should come out of it. I felt that there was a bigger responsibility of the film – to tell the story of the country and of a photographer who has shot some of the most important events in this country.”
In 2013, Rai messaged the filmmaker Anurag Kashyap for professional advice. “He told me, I will back you, but you have to be fully honest, you can’t just make a pretty-looking film,” Rai said. She was eventually given a grant by the IDFA Bertha Fund, and a fund infusion from other sources, including Kashyap and Iikka Vehkalahti, helped her complete the documentary.
Eventually, she shot nearly 700 hours of footage, which took several months to trawl through. “We actually took a year before we even started the edit – everything was amazing for me,” Rai said. “But when I understood the structure over time, I know what was important and what to leave out.”
Despite early advice that the documentary should focus only on Raghu Rai, Avani Rai fought hard to be a part of the narrative. “Me wanting to be a part of the film and having an identity crisis while holding the camera, that’s what became interesting for me,” she said.
The resulting film is a double-weave of portraiture and self-exploration. While providing broadbrush sketches of Raghu Rai’s career highlights and philosophical approach, Avani Rai also tackles the theme of a daughter attempting to emerge from under a very large shadow. The film includes moments where Raghu Rai gives Avani tips on framing her shots, scolds her when he perceives that her attention is wavering while he is talking, and warns her not to creep up on him with her camera.
One memorable exchange captures the tension. Raghu Rai during a family gathering: “You want to sit next to your father and feel secure and keep shooting.” Avani Rai’s response makes it to the final cut: “Don’t talk shit, papa.”
After having declared early on in the film that “he expressed his emotions only through the camera, even with me, and I experienced life through his images”, it was important for Avani Rai to place herself at a distance from her illustrious father.
“The tensions existed even when I was shooting – they weren’t intentionally introduced into the film,” she said. “I was shooting so much and he was behaving in a particular way, and you can’t take that away from the character. My opinion is different from his, and I won’t take the shots he wants me to take. This is who I am, I am not you, I am your daughter with respect for you, but we are not the same – this happened on its own. Have I been able to tell my story through him and tell the story of India through his eyes? That was a tough balance.”
The film covers some of Raghu Rai’s best-known projects, including his documentation of the 1971 Indo-Pak war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, his searing images of the Bhopal gas tragedy, and his unforgettable portraits of Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa. There are also many scenes set in Kashmir, which, Avani Rai says, reveal as much about Raghu Rai’s continuing documentation of the Valley’s troubles as her own interest in the ongoing struggle for autonomy.
“When you make a film as a director and a daughter, the main character isn’t going to personally evolve that much, but you are becoming more and more aware,” she said. “Thus it became important to explore Kashmir in the film, since that is what connected with me. I realised, mera kya hai? What do I call my own today?”
Raghu Rai watched the film only at its world premiere at IDFA in November 2017. “He looked at the audience and looked at the screen and said, I must say, she has done a wholesome job,” Avani Rai recalled. For the 76-year-old veteran, “wholesome” was a weightier adjective that any other form of praise.
Followers of Raghu Rai’s work over the decades will not get the comprehensive information-led portrait they seek from Avani Rai’s film. Viewers fleetingly learn about Rai’s experience of the Partition – he was born in a part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan – and that he initially set out to be a musician. His first professional photo was of a demure-looking donkey shot in 1967 with a borrowed camera and used by The Times in London. The film has no information about his eminent photographer brother, S Paul, Rai’s role in shaping the photojournalism that was practised in India in the 1970s and ’80s, or his fruitful years at the India Today magazine. There is also no discussion of Rai’s photography techniques – such as his choice of lenses or his preference for black and white.
Raghu Rai does, however, give clues about his aesthetic concerns. “My process is to capture and leave it there,” he says. He speaks of a spiritual quest that underpins his work, and says that for him, photography is “not my profession” but “my love, my madness”. Photographs cannot be made without feeling for the subject and the moment – “through the physical presence of the person, you capture the inner aura of the individual,” he declares.
“This is not an exercise for students to understand the steps taken,” Avani Rai explained. “I feel that I have got the essence of the man, the understanding of why he makes what he makes, which overlaps with the history of India. I got a lot of, you have made it too short, you could have added a few more minutes. The essence is there, the iconic images are there, and I didn’t want to make it repetitive. Somebody else can make another film or write a book on the history of Raghu Rai, but that wasn’t the point of my film.”