It could have been called Kamat Photo Flash. There’s a story behind why the founder of the photo studio that shot the publicity stills for at least 800-odd Hindi films opted for the snazzier-sounding Kamat Foto Flash.

Damodar Kamat was a lover of languages. Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, Arabic – he knew them all, said his granddaughter, Neha Kamat. Foto, the German word for photograph, had a nice ring to it.

The company that Damodar Kamat set up in 1945 is an integral part of Hindi film history. For at least six decades, “Kamat Foto Flash” was a staple in a movie’s opening credits alongside “Costumes by Stylo” and “Processed at Filmcenter”. A reign that began during the age when photographs were shot on black-and-white endured through colour all the way until the advent of digital photography in the 2000s.

“We have at least three lakh to four lakh negatives in all formats,” said Damodar Kamat’s son, Vidyadhar, who now runs the agency. “I stopped counting after 1995.”

Production stills bring alive a movie’s look and feel, the major characters, the costumes, make-up and hairstyles. In the years before trailers were used to promote films, stills were the only glimpse fans had into a film’s narrative universe before it hit the screens. Months and years after the movies have come and gone, the images endure as historical records of their intent and ambition.

Chances are if you pick up a still from any major movie made between the 1940s and the 1990s, it has been taken by Kamat Foto Flash. Damodar Kamat’s clients included the leading lights of showbiz – Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, the Anand brothers’ Navketan, Mohan Segal, OP Ralhan, J Om Prakash, Sunil Dutt, Bimal Roy, the Barjatyas of Rajshri.

“I can’t even recollect some of the names,” Neha Kamat said.

These days, entertainment websites and social media platforms are awash with archival photographs from iconic Hindi films. The pictures that evoke joy, awe and the other fuzzy feelings associated with nostalgia are almost never credited to their creator – in all likelihood, Kamat Foto Flash.

The company has given up demanding attribution. “It’s not possible to chase people who sell or share images or even posters based on our photographs,” Neha Kamat said. “I don’t mind people using the pictures, but I am not happy that we don’t get credit for them.”

Neha Kamat. Photo by Scroll staff.

Damodar Kamat was born on November 27, 1923, in Belgaum. As a teenager, Kamat moved to Kolhapur, which was then a major hub of film production, and joined a photography studio. He soon realised that like magicians and chefs, photographers decline to share their trade secrets with their assistants, Neha Kamat said.

Bombay was the next logical destination – the city by the sea that would become the major film production centre for Hindi cinema in the decades to come. Kamat worked as a still photographer at the Bombay Talkies studio for a couple of years, but was restless to strike out on his own. In May 1945, he formed Kamat Foto Flash.

Producers hired Kamat to photograph key moments during a film’s production – a couple in a romantic embrace, intriguing portraits of the main characters, a dramatic scene paused mid-action. These pictures were used for publicity campaigns, provided the foundation for posters and adorned song booklets and the covers and pages of film magazines.

Often, producers used the stills as a measure to raise money to complete a project. “Getting finance for a film was a challenge, so a producer would create an album, a presentation of sorts based on a few days of the shoot,” Neha Kamat said.

The still camera was kept at the same height and angle as the movie camera, Vidyadhar Kamat explained. “We would put our cameras where the movie camera was and make the actors repeat the action. We would shoot options at different angles and with different lenses. For colour films, we used a ‘lily’ – a colour card kept near the artist’s face to make sure the processing laboratory corrected the image properly.”

In later years, Kamat Foto Flash also recorded muhurats – the inauguration ceremony of a production – and private events hosted by filmmakers.

Kamat and his team worked in tightly controlled conditions. But ever so often, a happy accident presented itself.

Vidyadhar Kamat recalls one such moment from 1966, on the sets of OP Ralhan’s colour film Phool Aur Patthar. Lead actor Meena Kumari was seated on a chair, her hand cupping her chin. A scene had ended and the lights were switched off. A light suddenly came on, casting a silver ring about Meena Kumari. Damodar Kamat spotted the effect, added another light and took a photograph that was later used in publicity stills and lobby cards displayed in cinema hallways.

Not every photo was taken during a shoot. Some portraits and stills were shot at Kamat’s office at Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi. For one such photograph for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), Kamat created the effect of the actor-director sitting in a library. A glass ash tray was kept on a table but out of focus to cast a glimmering effect on Guru Dutt’s face.

Damodar Kamat was involved in processing his photos too. As concerned with quality as his clients, he strove to be the “perfect photographer”, Vidyadhar Kamat said. “His specialty was that he could read a face. He gave dignity to the profession of still photography.”

Damodar Kamat received an award for Phool Aur Patthar. Courtesy Kamat Foto Flash.

The hard-working professional died early. In 1967, Damodar Kamat succumbed to a heart attack on his 44th birthday.

His death shook his family. His wife was advised to move back with their six children to Belgaum. Two of Kamat’s colleagues, Kamlakar S Wagh and Shantaram Samant, helped the family stand their ground. Don’t worry, we will look after the company until his sons come of age, they said.

Shantaram Samant “sat in front of my father’s photograph and said, don’t leave”, Vidyadhar Kamat recalled. He was 13 at the time.

Samant, known as Kaka Samant, was the secretive photographer under whom Damodar Kamat had previously trained in Kolhapur. When the Hindi film industry moved to Bombay, Samant approached his former assistant for a job.

“My grandfather gave Kaka Samant the office keys and said, if I get a wonderful technician like you, I don’t have to worry any more, I am free to go into the field,” Neha Kamat said. Samant repaid the favour in full. He stayed in the Mahalaxmi office all week and went home to Vasai in the distant suburbs only on weekends.

Kamlakar S Wagh, a bachelor, was similarly devoted to Kamat Foto Flash. Everybody was scared of the diminutive man with a non-nonsense attitude, Vidyadhar Kamat recalled. “He would tick off his subjects, whosoever they might have been,” he said. “If anybody disagreed with him, he would say, I have the script and I will shoot according to it. He was great in the laboratory too.”

If Kamat Foto Flash survived its founder’s demise, it was because of these two men, Neha Kamat said. By 1973, Vidyadhar Kamat was ready to take on the job of still photographer as well as expand the business.

Neha and Vidyadhar Kamat. Courtesy Neha Kamat.

The agency’s reputation grew over time. Until the digital medium replaced analogue photography and a host of freelancers entered the scene in the 2000s, Kamat Foto Flash ruled the roost.

At one time, the studio had 40 photographers on the payroll. Their movements and schedules were recorded on a blackboard at the Mahalaxmi office. When he wasn’t on shoots himself, Vidyadhar Kamat would hop into his car with film rolls and make the rounds of studios. He would ensure that his staffers were well stocked, as well as pick up completed rolls and return to the office to process them.

“The office was known as Dhobi Ghat because it ran 24 hours in two shifts,” Neha Kamat said.

The photographs were shot in both black-and-white and colour. After colour films became popular in the 1950s, Damodar Kamat devised a tripod on which he placed two cameras, one loaded with black-and-white film, the other with colour. Kamat’s first colour production was Raj Kapoor’s Sangam in 1964.

Kapoor had an in-house photographer for his RK Films banner until he chanced upon Damodar Kamat, Neha Kamat said. Starting with Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai in 1960 until Aa Ab Laut Chale in 1999, Kamat Foto Flash was behind the scenes of every Kapoor production.

Although Neha Kamat never met her grandfather, she has been collecting material on him for a book about her family’s legacy. Raj Kapoor’s legendary manager, Vishwas Mehra, told her that her grandfather was as shy in person as he was particular about getting the job done.

“Nobody knew when he came and clicked and went away,” Neha Kamat recalled Mehra telling her. When shooting Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai released in 1960, Damodar Kamat executed a difficult shoot of the lead actor Padmini twirling her skirt during a song sequence. “Her face is in focus and the skirt is in motion,” Neha Kamat said.

The negatives that serve as a vital record of Hindi cinema down the decades are stored in the family’s archive in suburban Mumbai. The oldest negative is of the actor Motilal from the 1948 film Gajre.

Motilal in Gajre (1948). Courtesy Kamat Foto Flash.

The Kamats have ploughed money and time into preserving their contribution to the movies. “We have an understanding with the producers, who own the copyright,” Neha Kamat explained. “We have invested a lot of money in the archive. The boxes in which the negatives are kept, the butter paper in which they are stored, need to be changed every now and then, for instance. We have to keep them moisture-free and humidity-free.” The family has also kept their cameras in two Godrej Storewell cupboards in their home.

The need for preservation became especially acute when digital formats replaced analogue photography. The digital medium has made still photography cheaper and less cumbersome, so more photographers entered the field. As Kamat Foto Flash’s monopoly weakened, the focus shifted to preserving their legacy.

The company’s work continues – a recent assignment was the Sridevi-starrer Mom in 2017. But the greater demand is now for archival photographs. Whenever television shows need to display stills from older films in the background – such as Indian Idol, a regular client – or when publishers commission books on classic movies or actors, they turn to Kamat Foto Flash.

Anybody can grab screenshots or scour the internet, but they won’t get the same quality or the stills that people remember from these movies, Neha Kamat pointed out. “We also have rare working stills.”

For instance, Dev Anand was supposed to lead Vijay Anand’s Teesri Manzil (1966). Shammi Kapoor was eventually cast in the role, but Kamat Foto Flash has visual evidence of Anand’s photoshoot for the thriller.

Apart from her own book, Neha Kamat hopes to digitise the archive in order to make it accessible to film students and researchers. “This is our heritage, which is why we have preserved the negatives,” said Kamat, who also works as a film producer.

The reputation built by Damodar Kamat continues to hold his enterprise in good stead. “My father once told me, always do full justice to your work,” Vidyadhar Kamat said. Chalta hai kaam nahin chalega – sloppiness won’t ever be tolerated. Proof of the founder’s philosophy is scattered across the lakhs of negatives in which are stored precious memories of the movies as well as the photographers who froze them for posterity.