Acclaimed cinematographer Rajen Kothari died of a heart attack on September 26, 2012. He was 60. Kothari had been at Whistling Woods International in Mumbai when he collapsed. He had served as the head of the cinematography department for years, and continued to be associated with the school even as he shot films.
Kothari left behind a heartbroken family, scores of stunned associates, friends and students – and a movie. Kothari and Dayal Nihalani had been directing a film titled Das Capital for much of 2011. Based on a short story and screenplay by Hindi writer Shaiwal, the movie was a pet project for Kothari, his son Pratik Kothari told Scroll.in.
Unreleased since Kothari’s passing, the film is finally being streamed on the Cinemapreneur streaming platform from November 20. Starring Yashpal Sharma in the lead role, Das Capital explores issues that have plagued rural Bihar then and now – low income, poor medical facilities and deeply entrenched corruption.
“He was determined to make a film on the story,” Pratik Kothari said. Rajen Kothari and the writer Shaiwal had gone back on forth on the adaptation for years. Sometime in 2010, Shaiwal told Kothari that a producer had finally been found.
While Kothari put together the crew, lead actor Yashpal Sharma assembled the cast. It includes KK Raina, Jameel Khan, Ravi Jhankal, Pratibha Sharma and Asif Basra, who died by suicide on November 12.
Das Capital was shot in November 2011, and post-production lasted well into 2012. Pratik Kothari, who later went on to make his own short films, was an assistant director on the production. Das Capital was almost complete at the time of Kothari’s heart attack. Its release was stalled partly because the producer was a first-timer who didn’t know the tricks of commercial distribution.
Besides, “we had lost one of the most experienced persons on the film, Rajen Kothari himself”, his son said.
Das Capital’s re-emergence is likely to rekindle memories of one of the most beloved figures to have emerged from the Film and Television Institute of India. These memories are doused in warmth and affection but also tinged with sadness over a life extinguished all too early.
“He didn’t have to go, no way, it was so shocking, so painful, he was so young,” said Prakash Jha, who had an extensive working partnership with Kothari, from the early features Hip Hip Hurray (1984) and Damul (1985) until Dil Kya Kare (1999).
Kothari’s career spanned the arthouse, mainstream and middle-of-the-road traditions. His credits include Dacait (1987), Pestonjee (1988), Ghayal (1990) and Aajacha Divas Majha (2013).
Prakash Jha remembers Kothari as being “very quiet and very sweet” – an observation echoed by other acquaintances. They met in the mid-1970s as students at the Film and Television Institute of India. Kothari’s batch mates were Nadeem Khan, Sunil Sharma, Virendra Saini – the “gang of four”.
Jha, who had enrolled for an editing course, was one batch junior. Kothari’s mother would regularly send snacks to the institute to feed Kothari and his permanently hungry friends. Jha got his first taste of Gujarati food during this time.
“When I seriously got into filmmaking, it was an obvious collaboration to have,” Jha said. Kothari’s ability to convey the script’s intent and the director’s vision served Jha’s realist dramas well. “I like to use cinematography as a more or less realistic representation of the ambience.” Jha said. “Rajen had a very solid style.”
The one film in which Kothari varied his style and created a more vivid lighting and framing set-up was Jha’s Mrityudand (1997). Starring Madhuri Dixit and Shabana Azmi in pivotal roles, the gender justice drama is one of Jha’s most well-regarded films.
“The way Rajen lit up and used the locations brought a lot to the film,” Jha observed. “One learnt so much with him. Today, I operate the camera and I know so much about cinematography and photography because of Rajen.”
They remained “friends till the end”, Jha said. “All those years, his house was my house – whenever I was wanted a meal, I would go over,” he added. “I was the first one to whom Rajen sent the script of Das Capital. I told him, why are you doing this, make a more positive film. But he was devoted to the subject and his ideology.”
Rajen Kothari was born on November 15, 1952. His great-grandfather was a cotton trader, while his grandfather, Chandrakant Kothari, was a still photographer for advertising agencies, Pratik Kothari recalled.
Chandrakant Kothari was acquainted with Shyam Benegal, who made commercials before directing features. Years later, Rajen Kothari would lens Benegal’s films, including Zubeidaa (2001), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004) and Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008).
Alongside shooting and making a couple of films, Kothari was also instrumental in setting up the Cinematographers’ Combine in 1999 along with his peers, including KK Mahajan (who died in 2007), Virendra Saini, Sudheer Palsane and CK Muraleedharan.
“Rajen was everybody’s cameraperson,” Palsane recalled. “He thought about the producer, the actors, the expenses, the scheduling. He created a family within a film. He would even care about his assistant’s medical insurance, and tried to play active role in various associations. He was respected and loved by all. Nobody had any doubts about his selflessness.”
Shortly after Kothari’s death, the Cinematographers’ Combine produced a documentary tribute titled Rajen Sir. Apart from insights into Kothari’s dexterity with lighting, framing and movement, Rajen Sir contains anecdotes that reveal Kothari’s personality – soft-spoken, warm, hospitable, helpful, dedicated, and “a thorough gentleman”, as cinematographer Virendra Saini said in the film.
Kothari was a leading example of aesthetic approach of Indian arthouse cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, filmmaker Govind Nihalani said in the documentary. “The approach was very realistic, there was no effort to glamourise anything,” Nihalani recalled. “And the limited resources and limited technical facilities available to us added to the evolution of a particular style, which was the basics. You do the basic lighting and tell the story in a more simple fashion. That remained with Rajen all through. In fact, I think a realistic style of photography was his forte.”
In the film, Benegal contributed his analysis of Kothari’s approach: “When you show off, it means that you are telling somebody, look at what I am doing. It’s not what you are you doing, it’s what the narrative is doing. That is what you should be concerned about. On this Rajen and I had a perfect understanding.”
Kothari was equally cherished by his assistants and students. “He loved interacting with people and was very aligned towards teaching,” Pratik Kothari said. “Anytime I meet any of his students, they have some or the other memory of him.”
Whistling Woods International students interviewed for Rajen Sir remembered him as a “friend-teacher” and an “agony aunt”. Chandan Goswami, who shot Das Capital after assisting Kothari for 15 years, wrote on the website Upperstall.com in 2012, “He told me cinematography is not only about calculating the correct exposure or placing the lights in a correct angle but also identifying good people, and to remain permanently attached with them.”
Kothari also taught Goswami that “cinematography is not about what you show but more importantly what you don’t show”.
When Vinay Shukla made Godmother in 1991 – only his second film after Sameera in 1981 – Kothari’s calm temperament and mentoring skills proved invaluable.
Godmother, loosely inspired by Gujarati gangster and politician Santokben Jadeja, stars Shabana Azmi, Nirmal Pandey and Sharman Joshi. The movie won six National Film Awards, but not for cinematography.
“Rajen made a huge contribution to Godmother,” Vinay Shukla recalled. “I was doing a film I don’t know in how many decades. He instilled confidence in me.” Kothari had the same quality as water – it lacks flavour and yet is essential for survival, Shukla said.
The film was shot largely in Morbi in Gujarat, where the sand has a reddish hue. Kothari’s cinematography brought out the impassioned quality of the heroine’s quest for revenge and control of a criminal enterprise.
“There were times when I didn’t have to tell him what to do – he knew the best way to visually bring something out,” Shukla said.
As a child, Pratik Kothari knew that his father had something to do with filmmaking. “As children, my sister and I would go to the sets at times,” Kothari said. Shoots that were organised outside Mumbai doubled up as family vacations.
Kothari loved good food and was also a fine cook, his son said. There were days when he would throw everybody out of the kitchen so he could work undisturbed. In the documentary Rajen Sir, more than one person talks about how, during shoots, Kothari would seek out local eateries.
“It’s only after he passed away that I realised the kind of standing he had in the industry,” said Pratik Kothari, who is now 34 years old. “It was overwhelming to see the love people had for him. He touched so many people, and I was never aware of until he went away.”