Sudeep Chatterjee, one of the most sought after cinematographers working in Hindi film today, remembers getting a “scolding” from director Vidhu Vinod Chopra on the sets of 1942: A Love Story (1994). Chatterjee was shooting the ‘making of’ video for 1942, his first gig in Bombay after passing out of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). But he had an ulterior motive; he started hovering around the film’s cameraman Binod Pradhan a bit too much, that eventually landed him in minor trouble. He was a fan of Pradhan’s work in Chopra’s earlier film, Parinda. (Chopra and Pradhan also went to FTII). For a generation of young budding cameramen like Chatterjee, inspiration in cinematography came largely from films made outside India. This was especially true for mainstream Hindi cinema. Chatterjee, who has shot films such as Chak De! India (2007), Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018), says he “decided to become a cinematographer after watching the film”.

“With the star system in Hindi cinema getting even more established in the seventies and eighties, the image lost its importance. Deewar, Muqaddar ka Sikandar are great films, but they are terribly shot,” Chatterjee says over phone. We lose each other twice due to bad connection. Chatterjee is on recce for Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s next film. He adds, “The audience only needed to see Amitabh Bachchan’s face, and nothing else mattered. It didn’t make much of a difference whether you saw the film in a pirated VCR or on the big screen, because the image was not enhancing the experience of the picture much. Parinda introduced a completely new imagery, started a new trend. People like Binod Pradhan, (and Santosh Sivan), have a huge contribution in that.”

“With the star system in Hindi cinema getting even more established in the seventies and eighties, the image lost its importance. Deewar, Muqaddar ka Sikandar are great films, but they are terribly shot… Parinda introduced a completely new imagery, started a new trend. People like Binod Pradhan (and Santosh Sivan) have a huge contribution in that,” says Sudeep Chatterjee, one of the most sought after cinematographers working in Hindi film today.

Coming nine years before Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya (1998)Parinda is of course one of the ancestors of the modern Indian gangster film. A tale of two brothers, the street bred Kishen (Jackie Shroff) and the foreign educated Karan (Anil Kapoor), who find themselves on different sides of a gang war in Bombay, Parinda was a mix of melodrama, realism, and style, featuring a larger-than-life villain Anna Seth (Nana Patekar). One of the shots in the film’s memorable opening montage shows a dead body being disposed of by a wood machine in a factory. Vanity Fair, in their list of influential Indian gangster films, wrote, “Film critics gush over the “low-angle tracking shots and swiftly changing volumes in the image” in this film by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.”

Parinda’s striking visual style came from its use of natural lighting. In indoor scenes, for example, the light came from the window, or a candle. The outdoor scenes at night shot in Kabootarkhana – an important location in the film, where Anil Kapoor’s character commits his first killing – were lit by the top central street light. Many of the day scenes were shot under the harsh sun. These seem par for the course today, but not when the film had released thirty years ago. “How could you make something so rustic, so grungy at the same time so beautiful, without being glossy? Parinda started a style that still hasn’t gone out of fashion” says filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who counts himself among the fans of the film.

I have interviewed Pradhan once before, for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). It was a rainy afternoon, and Pradhan had shown me the vast stretch of mangroves that is visible from his seventeenth floor terrace apartment in Lokhandwala backroad. We meet this time in the evening. The drawing room is lit by soft yellow lights. The dogs, furry and lazy, are still there, and are resting. Pradhan’s wife and mother, seated in the dining room across the hall, are on a video call with his grand daughter. I’m here because Pradhan has shot Kalank, the latest film in his forty three year career as a DoP (Director of Photography). He made time for the interview from the colour grading schedule of the film. But since the film is yet to release, we speak about other things, mostly Parinda.

Pradhan’s approach to way he shot Parinda came from the same dissatisfaction with mainstream Hindi cinema of the time that Chatterjee talks about. “Everything was lit in a certain way, shot in a certain way. Everything had to be properly lit. Everything had to be seen. It was very bright,” says Pradhan. He says Hindi films became visually weaker as colour came in, and films started following certain “rules”. “In the black and white era, they gave importance to visuals. VK Murthy saab and Guru Dutt had a great partnership. There was some kind of mood.”

Pradhan’s main inspiration for Parinda was Gordon Willis’ shadowy cinematography in The Godfather. By then, influenced by Subrata Mitra’s work in the Satyajit Ray films, he had also started putting diffusion materials — a piece of white cloth, or tracing paper — in front of the light to make it softer, and more natural. “I told Vinod that if it’s a shadow, it has to be a shadow. It can’t be a shadow, and everything else is well lit – as was the case in Hindi films at the time. I told him we can try and see how we can make it look different. He agreed, got excited and backed me totally,” recounts Pradhan.

Now celebrated, the lovemaking scene between Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit in “Parinda” met with adverse audience reaction at the time of its release.

Pradhan went all the way with his ideas in the climactic lovemaking scene between Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit — a stunning interplay between human bodies lit in the rim with thin blue light. Pradhan says the primary intention was to find a way to “not make it look sleazy”; he recalls having seen a film at FTII – which had a similar scene with “sensuous lighting”. “We decided we’ll just stream light to show the rims of the body, and confuse the viewer by showing things that are not really what they are,” he says. A celebrated scene now, it had disappointed some theatre going audience at the time. Pradhan remembers being told that in some theatres the audience couldn’t see anything. He suspects it could be bad projection, but isn’t too sure. “They probably wanted to see more, and we didn’t show more,” he says.

Pradhan doesn’t remember some of the things about Parinda that Chopra does. For example, they looked at the paintings of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and da Vinci, to “figure out the kind of texture” they wanted for the film (a ritual Chopra follows to date to decide on the look of the film, even with other cinematographers). Chopra says that the natural lighting of the film was also a function of working with limited resources. “We couldn’t afford the luxury of too many lights and too many elaborate equipments. The budget of the film was 12 lac,” he says. Pradhan was one of Chopra’s closest collaborators at the prime of his directorial career (the other being the late editor Renu Saluja). Apart from the ones already mentioned, together they made such films as Khamosh, Kareeb, Mission Kashmir, and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS.

Binod Pradhan and Vidhu Vinod Chopra on the sets of “Parinda”.

Which brings us to how, of all the players in a filmmaking team, directors and DOPs often forge the closest of bonds. Chopra calls it a “marriage”.“In any other department, you can have differences. Even when Renu Saluja used to edit, and I didn’t agree, I did another edit. But with the cameraman you can’t do that… Whatever is shot is shot. You are just together in it,” says Chopra. For Rakeysh Mehra, in such films as Rang De Basanti (2006), and Delhi 6 (2009), Pradhan was the most important collaborator along with AR Rahman. The choice of lenses in Rang de, which gradually moved from 35mm to 100mm, was key to how we feel the story of “DJ” and his friends from Delhi University. In the first half of the film, the characters were almost always shown in a group. It went with, as Pradhan puts it, the “happy go lucky” tone of the earlier portions. As the film progressed, and things became more serious, we started getting more “lone close ups”.”Now this is taking theory to a very anal level,” Pradhan says, “But I would like to think somehow this is how the viewer will look into the film.”  

For Mehra’s next film, Delhi 6, which dealt with religious intolerance, he wanted to treat the camera “as an observer”; he wanted to make the camera seem like it was “always floating, as if on zero gravity.” Pradhan worked out a way to achieve it by suspending the camera in bungee cords, mounted on small cranes. This gave the camera, both, a hand-held feel as well as a steady sway. Mehra, who worked with Pradhan in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag as well, describes their equation as “more of a partner and co-conspirator than a collaborator”. He even has a nickname for his friend: “Bin Gough” (as in van Gogh), because of his eye for painterly frames. They are discussing the script of one of the next films Mehra is directing.

Pradhan’s new film, Kalank, is also his second film with director Abhishek Varman, with who he has worked on 2 States (2014). Pradhan says his main work in Kalank was to show scale, for which he largely used wide angle lenses. On a set that was built over three months, Pradhan had more than one fifty men helping him with the lighting, and twenty five assistants. Two of the sets — a Haveli, and the Hira Mandi bazaar — were bigger than anything he has worked on.

Kalank stands in sharp contrast to Pradhan’s first film, Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), which was made by a Filmmakers’ Cooperative — a group of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduates with socialist beliefs that “a film should not have an author”. Pradhan shared credits with Rajesh Joshi and Manmohan Singh. The directors included Saeed Mirza and Kamal Swaroop, and the titular character was played by Om Puri

Kalank stands in sharp contrast to Pradhan’s first film, Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), which was made by a Filmmakers’ Cooperative — a group of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduates with socialist believes that “a film should not have an author”. Pradhan shared credits with Rajesh Joshi and Manmohan Singh. The directors included Saeed Mirza and Kamal Swaroop, and the titular character was played by Om Puri: all of who would become key figures in the New cinema movement in India in the late-seventies, eighties. It was a radical, political work, made in the wake of the Emergency. Inspired by the films of Hungarian auteur Miklos Jancso, known for his long single takes, the last shot of Ghashiram Kotwal was eleven minutes long. It’s amazing to think of the same man shooting Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan (in Kalank) and Tiger Shroff (in Baaghi). Pradhan is perhaps the most experienced cinematographer working in Hindi film today. “I’ve been around for donkey’s years,” he says.

Pradhan is a man of few words, and my understanding of cinematography is limited. As we switch back and forth through his vast ranging career, he patiently answers my questions, sometimes briefly, sometimes matter-of-factly. When I ask him if there is anything he cannot do anymore because of age — cinematography is a physically tough job — he says he is “still an active DoP in terms of age”. He doesn’t mind all-nighters; he had worked over two fifty nights for Bhansali’s Devdas, but now he dislikes working beyond twelve hours. He considers Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron as the most physically exhausting experience, where some of the schedules stretched up to twenty hours. “All we ate was rice, daal, and doodhi. There was non-veg, maybe, once a week,” he sounds disturbed by the food more than anything else.

Pradhan shared cinematography credits with two others in his first film, “Ghashiram Kotwal”. A radical, political work, one of its shots was an eleven minute long take.

When I ask him if there is an actor who he remembers enjoying lighting up the most — and Pradhan has worked with many a star, from Shah Rukh Khan to Aamir Khan, from Madhuri Dixit to Aishwarya Rai — he talks about the crease on Naseeruddin Shah’s forehead in 1984 thriller Khamosh. “I was fascinated by it, and very often I found myself trying to enhance that. So I lit it from the top, from where it will look for obvious,” he says. The part of photography that interests Pradhan the most is lighting. It’s little surprise when he says that he prefers shooting indoors, where one has more control over the lighting (I’m thinking of the shadows created by slanted windows in Devdas). The only exception is when he is shooting in the mountains, which fills him with “a feeling he can’t explain.”

Pradhan is from Kalimpong, a hill town in West Bengal. He got interested in still photography because his father worked in a photo studio, and later started one. Pradhan says he might have been the only one at the time in his hometown who wanted to pursue photography seriously. “Professional photography meant taking pictures of customers or marriages. There was no enthusiasm for candid photography, or landscape, apart from the basic kind which was required to sell a postcard. For me it was a little more than that,” he says.

He pored over photography books, and carried out his own experiments. Once, after reading about a transparent fluid found in the bladder of Ox that improves the quality of a photograph, he went to procure it at the butcher’s. Pradhan remembers finding it difficult to explain it. “He thought that probably I wanted to take a picture of someone. But he gave me the bladder, which I took home. I used it on the picture after it was processed. It gave an amazing shine,” he says. One of his enduring memories is that of an old gypsy woman. She would visit Pradhan’s neighbourhood, and the families would give her rice and oil. “She was very old, full of wrinkles. She used to roll tobacco and smoke,” he says, “One day, she was sitting in our house, and the sunlight came in through the door. I got visually arrested by that. I used to take a lot of pictures of her.” Pradhan had kept them in his previous flat in Mumbai, in a loft, which happened to be over the washroom. One day, when the tank overflew, it destroyed all the negatives and prints. “I felt bad about it, but theek hai. At least I can romanticise about it,” he says.

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