It was sometime in the ’90s when Paris-based TV journalist-cameraman Christophe Prebois was travelling through Ajmer by car, with his wife and her sister. He passed by a shop, the window of which caught his eye. Its owner, Ram Chand, would, every morning, set outside the studio “some frames with plenty of pictures. It was his way of publicity, of getting clients”. The pictures seemed to Prebois, now 57, “incredibly good”. He stopped to buy photographs and kept returning to document Chand’s story.
Prebois’s first documentary Mr Ram Chand Photographer (in Hindi with English subtitles), was first shown, along with images Chand had clicked in the ’60s and ’70s, at JaipurPhoto 2018 at Hawa Mahal. The film comes to Delhi at the third edition of Habitat International Film Festival, from March 13-22. The festival will also feature last year’s award-winning world cinema and two retrospective sections — on Pedro Almodovar and 100 years of Federico Fellini. Excerpts:
Why make your first documentary on an Indian studio photographer?
I felt like I had to pay a tribute to Mr Chand’s talent. The young photographer, Sneha Trivedi, who interviews Mr Chand in the film, cinematographer Adrien Roche and editor Amrita David, all of us see photography as a means to document people’s lives. Since the first time I came to India more than 20 years ago, I’ve been documenting Indian photographers with a special interest in popular or vernacular photography and small portrait studios. I met many studio owners and learnt (some) Hindi. I also acquired studio decors and pictures when studios were closing down.
What came across as fascinating about the profession back in the day?
I was fascinated by the technique of colouring and painting the prints. Every studio at that time bore what I thought was a slogan: “Photographer and Artist”. I thought the photographer was the artist, both at once. Then I realised it meant each and every photographer had a partner — a painter who was in-charge of painting the photos. I was interested in this mix of photography and painting. In the movie, Mr Chand speaks about the painter who did the backdrop in front of which he’d shoot his customers. This “moody painter”, as Mr Chand calls him, had designed most of Ajmer’s studios’ backdrops. Some of them are still in use, but he’s dead. I want to make a portrait of him.
Was it any different in France back then?
In France, in the ’60s, more people had a camera at home, and would document their private lives. For important milestones, like marriage, military service, religious moments, etc, they would get photographs made by a professional. In India, people would go to a photo studio not only to get portraits for official documents or for social motives but also for fun. Mr Chand speaks of ‘villagers’, who’d come once a year to Ajmer and had their portrait taken as (gun-wielding) Bollywood villains, or wearing their most beautiful dress. At the studio, Mr Chand had props, decors and ideas too. It was a place and a time to escape everyday life, to be somebody else, to be rich or famous. This peculiar experience of photography didn’t exist in France to such a playful, colourful and powerful extent.
What hurdles did you face?
The film, shot in 2017, took more than a year to complete. Year after year, I returned to meet him. It wasn’t easy as I can’t speak Hindi and he couldn’t speak French. We had to use very simple broken English. When I wanted to make the film, Mr Chand’s studio didn’t exist anymore. It had been replaced by his son Gurumuk’s business of dry-cleaning. Just convincing Mr Chand about making a movie on him was difficult. Even when we landed up with the crew, the octogenarian wouldn’t budge. It literally was ‘how to make a movie about an old and reluctant photographer?’
(The film will be screened at 6.30 pm on March 16 at India Habitat Centre)
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