Hemant Chaturvedi: The Man Who Left Bollywood to Return to the Cinema

Once a cinematographer, Chaturvedi’s most recent project is a documentation of single-screen theatres
Hemant Chaturvedi: The Man Who Left Bollywood to Return to the Cinema

In 2000, director Ram Gopal Varma discovered a new cinematographer. Or, in Hemant Chaturvedi’s words, Varma “plucked” him out of the world of television “and deposited me in a feature film”. The film in question was Company (2002) and for 34-year-old Chaturvedi, who’d been working in television, the opportunity to shoot a feature film was a dream come true. Before the shoot, Varma had asked Chaturvedi if he’d be able to handle the change of format, from video to film. Despite zero experience with a film camera, Chaturvedi had confidently replied, “It’s just a change of format, finally the language is the same.” Of course the moment he stepped out of the meeting with Varma, he phoned a friend with one question: “Dude, what do I do!”

The opportunity to shoot Company came 16 years after Chaturvedi had first written “cinematographer” next to his name. At the time, he was 18 years old and applying for a passport and the profession he wrote for himself was more an aspiration than reality. Before reaching for that dream, Chaturvedi would first graduate as a student of literature from Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. Then he’d do his Master’s in mass communication from Jamia Milia Islamia, only to find himself unable to land any job as an assistant cinematographer despite his degree (he recalls the alumni from the Film and Television Institute of India were a tight clique). The curious and expanding world of television in the Nineties embraced him as a cameraperson, but Chaturvedi held on to the hope that he’d be able to shoot films. Yet, after shooting 12 feature films, which include Maqbool (2003) and 15 Park Avenue (2005), he’d retire. In case you were wondering, he has no plans of returning. “I think I’ve tasted blood now,” said Chaturvedi, when asked about working independently. “I do things with my sensibilities and at my pace.”

Small screen to big screen

Although Varma’s Company was Chaturvedi’s debut film, his career in cinematography began when he was a first-year student at St. Xavier’s College and new to Mumbai. A friend from college said his uncle was in town to shoot a documentary and that Chaturvedi should work with him. The uncle turned out to be Ismail Merchant of Merchant Ivory Productions (best known for films like A Room with a View (1985) and Remains of the Day (1993), which were both commercially successful and critically acclaimed). Merchant was shooting Richard Robbins’s Street Musicians of Bombay (1994). Chaturvedi showed up whenever the team would shoot in Mumbai and watching cinematographer Jehangir Choudhary at work convinced Chaturvedi that this was what he wanted to do.

Years later, armed with his postgraduate degree from Jamia Milia Islamia, he became a freelance cameraperson for the state television channel, Doordarshan. Chaturvedi found himself filming everything from Rendezvous with Simi Garewal and Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) to Parliament sessions and table tennis tournaments. “After you’ve done the lighting and you’ve locked it, it’s boring as hell. You’re just sitting there and doing the same thing,” he said about shooting for television. With Rendezvous, it was entertaining to watch Garewal probe into the guests’ lives, but KBC was monotonous. The show’s producer and director Siddhartha Basu, regarded as the father of Indian television quizzing, would share a cabin with him. Chaturvedi remembers indulging in tomfoolery to “alleviate the boredom”.

Then along came Company and Varma, whom Chaturvedi describes as “the most democratic director”. On his first day of shooting, Chaturvedi remembers panicking when he operated the camera for the first shot and there was a noisy hum. “I had a meltdown saying, ‘What the fuck? What’s going on?’ My world was exploding,” Chaturvedi remembered, “but then I said to myself, ‘No stupid, it’s a film camera, this is what happens’.” He’d quickly establish himself as a cinematographer. Chaturvedi has worked with some of Indian cinema’s most respected directors, like Vishal Bhardwaj and Aparna Sen, as well as on films produced by the likes of Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions. “You work with people like Ramu [Varma], Vishal and Aparna Sen, and you learn a lot, and give a lot. That collaboration and exchange are very fulfilling,” he said.

Changing perspective

In spite of these successes, Chaturvedi found himself turning to still photography as “go-to therapy between traumatic movies”. The last feature film he worked on as a cinematographer was Brothers (2015). “I got bored, fed up,” he said. “India makes maybe three or four decent films in a year and I realised that if I’m not doing them, what’s the point? I also got tired of working with people who weren’t visually literate. I wanted to do something that was pure, meaningful and… I want to leave something behind for the world. Also, I wanted auteurship.”

Since his egress from Bollywood, Chaturvedi has made the documentary Chhayaankan (2021), featuring 14 veteran Indian cinematographers who have shot 800 feature films between them, over 60 years. Some of the people featured in the documentary are the ones who rejected a young Chaturvedi when he was looking for a job, fresh out of Jamia Milia Islamia. The most senior cinematographer in the documentary is 94-year-old Peter Pereira, who shot Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Coolie (1983). “You know how cinematographers are very often just forgotten?” said Chaturvedi. “Peter uncle felt that he had lapsed into history as an unknown person. After he saw the film, Lenny [his nephew] called me and said, ‘He suddenly feels like he’s been immortalised, he’s bouncing around the house.’ His self-worth had been pulverised by Bollywood, but it doesn't matter now because he’s there forever through the film.”

Chaturvedi’s focus for the last seven years has been still photography, which he first started doing in 1988. In recent times, he’s visited 17 cemeteries across the country for a series on British-era cemeteries. For the 150th anniversary of St Xavier’s College in 2019, Chaturvedi shot “everlasting portraits” of 55 retired faculty members and produced a video compilation which he put up on YouTube. “This AV [audiovisual] sparked the memory of college and the people who taught them. They [alumni] started reconnecting with their teachers, who started calling and thanking me. I created one little emotional deluge. I like doing that,” he said.

Returning to the cinema

His most expansive, photographic work is the Single Screen Cinemas Project, which began by chance during a 2019 visit to his hometown of Allahabad. When Chaturvedi learnt that 60% of the single-screen cinemas that existed in 1990 had been demolished, he decided to document as many of these vanishing structures as he could. He has since travelled 35,000 kilometres in his jeep across 800 Indian towns in 15 states, stayed in more than 200 hotels and taken photographs of nearly 1,000 cinemas. “I’m from a generation that grew up with single-screen cinemas and the hubbub of watching a movie with a thousand people. With the cheering, dialogue-baazi and the whole mela that happened in old cinemas…I wanted to capture that ecosystem,” he said.

In his quest for images, Chaturvedi has jumped through windows and over walls. He has slid through shutters and ripped his clothes. Goats have attacked him, as have Rottweilers and snakes. He’s had a bat caught in his hair and has been stung by a scorpion. While shooting in a supposedly haunted ruin in Goa, he has even been mistaken for a ghost. “Later, they offered me a Feni, which I accepted with great joy,” he said.

Although he’s officially left Bollywood behind, Chaturvedi remains, in his own way, entangled in the world of feature films. Both Chhayaankan and the Single Screen Cinemas Project are rich repositories of stories about the film industry, viewed with an archivist’s eye and the nostalgia of a long-time fan. “I seem to specialise in people and places that are on the brink of extinction,” he mused. “My whole life is dedicated now to what might lapse.”

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