In 1942, a young man fled Burma as a World War II refugee with his family and went to live in Bangalore with an uncle. This young man later joined the same film school as cinematographers VK Murthy and Govind Nihalani and landed up in Bombay in the late 1940s. Like his peers, he joined a film studio and worked for a pittance. He picked up enough skills to become a cinematographer, but instead chose to join the photographic film product company Kodak’s Bombay office as a salesman in 1950.

In 1953, he went to London to be trained in processing Eastman Color Negative, and was tasked with carrying a box of the stock back to India. He would spend four decades with Kodak, earning him the nickname “Kodak Krishnan”.

Krishnan Hariharan was indelibly associated with raw stock, the material that is the very essence and distinct marker of the pre-digital celluloid era of cinema. Krishnan’s job didn’t just involve selling the world’s best colour negative, but also ensuring that film processing laboratories handled the stock well, cinematographers exposed it correctly, the set decor was done appropriately, the costumers and make-up artists matched their approach to the quality of celluloid.

Between 1953 and 1973, Krishnan went out of his way and helped set up over a dozen colour processing laboratories in India, trained technicians and conducted workshops for students at film schools. For inexperienced cinematographers, in particular, he was a godsend.

Colour film and red tape

Krishnan worked at a time when custom duties were prohibitive and there were difficulties in importing film rolls manufactured abroad. Eastman Color Negative stock, which was in high demand, could be purchased only in dollars and with an export replenishment guarantee.

Before commencing a shoot, producers who intended to use Eastmancolor had to show the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation that they could receive the equivalent of the film’s cost in dollars from a client mostly situated in the US or the UK. Once this was done, the producers applied for a letter of credit with their banks and submitted it to Eastman Kodak at IMPEC weekly meetings. Having received the LC, Kodak India asked its parent company to dispatch the stock. Only big producers with deep pockets could fulfill the terms of the export replenishment guarantee.

In this context, Krishnan’s intervention was vital for ensuring that independent filmmakers could get their films made. Several filmmakers who were part of the Indian New Wave movement wanted to shoot their films in colour. They could do so with ORWO film stock, which was manufactured in East Germany, and was cheaper and available through rupee payments. The problem with this stock was a lack of consistency from batch to batch. The film often had a greenish tinge.

Maya Darpan (1972).

In the early 1970s, Kumar Shahani set out to make his first feature film Maya Darpan. He got the budget sanctioned from the Film Finance Corporation – the predecessor of the National Film Development Corporation – but there was no way to get the export replenishment guarantee permit to shoot with the Eastman Color Negative that could do justice for the elaborate colour schemes he had in mind.

Shahani landed up at Krishnan’s office chamber seeking advice. Krishnan called up AK Roongta, the owner of Famous Cine Labs in Mumbai, and pleaded with him to divert the licences that he had for his machinery imports to help Shahani make his film.

Roongta agreed on the assurance that the film would be processed at his lab. Within a week, Krishnan had arranged for the stock to let KK Mahajan, the cinematographer of Maya Darpan, make Shahani’s dream come true.

Mani Kaul shot his third feature Duvidha (1973) in Kodachrome, a reversal film stock typically used by amateurs for home movies. When shooting with Kodachrome, you didn’t get a negative but a positive image directly through an additive process. This meant that the colour dyes were physically added or transferred onto the exposed roll in authorised Kodak labs that were situated only in big cities.

To balance it out, Kodak provided Ektachrome, another reversal stock that gave direct positives but through a subtractive process. All you needed was an E6 chemistry kit and you could develop the exposed film in a bathtub with the unwanted dyes emptied into the drain.

The world over, this was a big boon for new emerging colour TV stations. They could send off their journalists to gather news footage every evening for immediate telecast.

In the case of Duvidha, Kaul was shooting his colour-coded interpretation of Vijaydan Detha’s folk story about a ghost who takes on human form on a shoestring budget from the Film Finance Corporation. The film was shot by Navroze Contractor.

Duvidha (1973).

The initial edited length of Duvidha was 60 minutes. When Mani Kaul approached Krishnan to make the negative from the only positive print he had, Krishnan pointed out that the film’s length had to be increased to help it qualify as a feature.

Krishnan helped Kaul get permits for Eastman negative film rolls and then arranged for a copy to be made through the Oxberry Cinescan step-printer at Film Center Labs in Bombay. This step printer, in turn, belonged to Prasad Labs in Madras. The regular special effect technicians at Prasad, MA Hafeez and SA Azim, helped expose/transfer/blow-up 16mm Kodachrome to 35mm ECN frame by frame with the step-printer.

This bizarre post-production process turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since the transfer was in Kaul’s control, he could now freeze frames and extend the length of each shot as he wanted. A 60-minute film became a 72-minute feature. When Kaul spoke, following his icon Robert Bresson, about accidents and contingencies driving his film, he clearly wasn’t just talking about his aesthetic approach.

It’s worth discussing another significant but expensive additive process called Technicolor. This system involved a camera that could simultaneously shoot on three high-contrast B/W matrices, each strip capable of outlining the primary red, blue and green colours. These three rolls were run through three separate dye-transfer processes in a laboratory. Besides looking rich and brilliant, these prints could be preserved for a considerably longer period compared to Eastman positive stock.

Despite being cumbersome, Technicolor was the preferred mode of shooting in Hollywood to ensure high-quality release prints. In India, films such as Aan (1952), Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), Mother India (1957) and Konjum Salangai (1962) were released in Technicolor prints.

Sadly, the ordeal of sending prints to processing laboratories in the United States of America or the United Kingdom and getting them back in time for their release in India ensured that Technicolor eventually faded from view in India.

Aan (1952). Courtesy Mehboob Productions.

After Maya Darpan, Shahani returned to Eastman Color Negative for Tarang (1984). Once again, Krishnan came to Shahani’s rescue. This time around, the problems were different. The IMPEC had been dismantled in 1978. By the early 1980s, Kodak was experimenting with new kinds of raw stock that could provide a fine-grained effect and use less lights on location.

The magical 250 ASA stock, which was called 5293, came to Shahani’s rescue. However, this type of stock needed to be processed under closer supervision. For one thing, it had to be processed at high temperatures. So delicate was its nature that every shoot required a different approach. Unsurprisingly, the 5293 was withdrawn around the world. Yet, its nuances produced the ethereal, eternal quality of Tarang.

Shahani’s epic about class struggle and the dark deeds of a business family stars Smita Patil and Amol Palekar. Patil’s character, the maidservant Janaki, allows for multiple interpretations. She haunts the businessman Rahul (Palekar) with her indomitable spirit despite his repeated maneuvers to exploit and frame her for his criminal acts.

We remember Janaki’s spectral quality, especially in the dreamy final sequence, shot on a desolate bridge. Rahul wants to make amends with Janaki and offers her freedom. An impassive Janaki rejects the offer, telling Rahul, go back to your destiny. I am like the first rays of the sun. I am hard to catch as the wind.

One of the most enigmatic scenes in Indian cinema is enhanced by cinematographer KK Mahajan’s magical low-key lighting and the foggy texture that only ECN could provide. The desaturated but distinct colors add to the effect.

Tarang (1984).

Kodak Krishnan’s interventions were not limited to the experiments of film school graduates. He had a long enduring relationship with many iconic cinematographers, including the brothers Jal and Fali Mistry, Raj Kapoor’s regular collaborator Radhu Karmarkar and NV Srinivas, the cinematographer of Subodh Mukherji’s Shammi Kapoor starrer Junglee (1961). The colour film had to be shot in snow-bound Manali, where exposures varied every minute.

Filming Shammi Kapoor cavorting to the wild song “Yahoo” that was set against an icy background, Srinivas remembers Krishnan telling him, don’t worry, do your best and ECN will take care of the rest.

Krishnan was also a close friend of Subrata Mitra, cinematographer for the legendary Satyajit Ray. When Kodak introduced Plus X Pan B&W stock in India in the 1960s, Krishnan encouraged Mitra to use it. Mitra conducted meticulous tests on the stock and used it in Ray’s Charulata (1964). The result is there for all to see.

Charulata (1964). Courtesy RD Bansal.

Enthused by the higher speed of the stock, Mitra met the challenge of lighting vast indoor sets with box lights covered with soft butter paper. Mitra placed 25 bulbs of 100-watt capacity inside these boxes, creating a soft and uniform light that mimicked the interiors of a spacious mansion with tall ceilings. Imagine the camera tracking a character walking from one palatial room to another, all built on an old Calcutta shooting floor and with no shadows being cast on the walls. This feat undoubtedly says volumes about Subrata Mitra’s genius. But somewhere in the soft shadows of Charulata, one can observe an unassuming Krishnan walking into his office room and looking forward to yet another challenge, one day at a time.

Swarnavel Eswaran is a filmmaker and Associate Professor in the Department of English and the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. His research focuses on Tamil/Indian cinema. His film Kattumaram (2019), a collaboration with Tamil director Mysskin, is on the film festival circuit.

Also read:

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

Duvidha’ revisited: Raissa Padamsee recalls ‘a beautiful adventure’ but also enduring dilemmas

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