When Modhura Palit received an email from the Cannes Film Festival notifying her that she’d won the second Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography Special Encouragement award — the first Indian to do so — she was inclined to dismiss it as spam. For, ever since she began work, she has had people expressing doubts about her ability to work with bulky cameras, given her diminutive size and the fact that cinematography has largely been a male bastion. “The mindset is deep-seated,” says Palit, 28, who is currently shooting director Arghyadeep Chatterjee’s upcoming film Pori Jayee, “that only brawny, hulky men can bear a camera’s weight. That’s not my only job. Cinematography isn’t running around with a camera on your shoulders, it’s about technicality. No bulky male DOP wields a camera for 14 hours to take one shot.”
Palit, in fact, chooses her cameras based on the requirements of her projects. After graduating from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), Kolkata, in 2017, Palit shot parts of director Amitabha Chatterji’s experimental indie film Ami O Manohar (Manohar & I) — which won the FFSI KR Mohanan Award for Best Film at the 2018 International Film Festival of Kerala — on an iPhone. “Your craft decides your equipment but the phase before you hit the floor is difficult. It’s usually the directors who are sceptical. The technicians are not judgmental, though they can smell it if you’re technically not sound. I wanted people to un-see my gender. Once I reach the floor, I have the confidence of owning it. There, I’m the boss.” says Palit, who was the only girl pursuing cinematography in not just her SRFTI class but in three batches before and after her, too. “Very few girls are interested in it. So, there are a lot of things you have to break into,” she says.
While still a student at SRFTI, Palit was part of some international projects — an unreleased Indo-British VR project, the Chinese film The Girl Across the Stream (2015) and a Korean short Meet Sohee (2015, screened at the Busan International Film Festival). In the early days of her career, finding work would be difficult. With recommendations from her teachers and friends, she bagged a few projects, and then, as word about her work spread, things began to change.
For Palit, training started early. Both her parents, Shaswati and Partha Kumar, are professional photographers. “My first memory is of Baba letting me hold his film camera when I was in Class IV or V, and Baba is very protective about his camera. The world looked very different through the lens, more magical, beautiful. The subject was a bird and the whole lens split into two. It was fascinating how two rings had to be aligned to get the focus,” says Palit, who would spend hours in their dark room, watching her father develop photographs. “All I could see was the radium glow of his watch. It was magical as images emerged when he immersed the white paper in water,” she says.
Her mother rewinds to the time when, while watching a Hindi film, as the hero dies in an accident, four-year-old Palit turned towards her, deadpan, and exclaimed, “It is only the back-projection!” Not contained by traditional courses of study, Palit was, however, a voracious reader and a prolific artist. “It’s crucial to study your craft. Going to a film — and not to a film school — is important. Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Jean-Luc Godard didn’t go to film schools. It depends on how motivated you are. You can read, watch, ask or assist someone,” says Palit, who taught at the Itanagar branch of SRFTI for a while.
In the two years since she turned professional, she has worked in a range of low-budget films such as Aniket Mitra’s The Paper Boy (2015), The Last Rain (2016), Aator (2017), Arghyadeep Chatterjee’s Rhododendron (currently in post-production), Sampurak (shown at 2018 IFFI’s Indian Panorama), besides web series, TV commercials, music videos. It is her job, she says, to ensure that the end product doesn’t betray its production cost. “I choose a project based on the intent of the director and if I connect with the content. It’s an instinctive process,” she says.
Palit says part of her confidence in her craft has also come from her association with the Indian Women Cinematographer Collective (IWCC), officially formed last year, which boasts of over 100 women cinematographers from across the country. “Across the world, there’s scanty representation of women in technical jobs in films. As a close-knit, pan-India support group, we are trying to make a difference,” she says. Often, discussions in the group range from technical questions to emotional and practical support — “I’m shooting in this situation, I’ve taken these shots, what should I do?”, “So-and-so production manager isn’t paying me, how should I legally go about this?” or, simply, “I’m on my periods, what painkillers work best on shoots?” “Had it not been for the IWCC, Angeniéux wouldn’t have noticed my work,” says Palit.
The jury at Cannes, who surveyed websites of young and upcoming cinematographers the world over to make their selection, said, there’s a “certain feel, temper to the way Palit” — who’s still searching for her visual language — “approaches images” that they wanted “to explore”. For Palit, the only unifying approach is “to tell the story as truly as possible to its essence — the feel of the film, its philosophy, and poetics of the imagery,” she says. The hope-filled eyes of the boy in the greyscale frames of the short film Paper Boy is reminiscent of Ray’s Apu (1955, Pather Panchali). The last scene of Ami O Manohar — one long take — is an example of her intimate gaze and the masterful play of light and shadow. It’s the scene she screened before the award ceremony at Cannes. Among the audience was this year’s winner of the main Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography award — the noted French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel — known for his innovative use of lighting in films like Amélie (2001), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), etc.
Actor-director Anindya Pulak Banerjee, who gave Palit the camera job of his 2017 German Expressionist film Watchmaker, and is working with her again for his upcoming film, Covet Letters, on the NRC, says the young cinematographer’s strength is her flexibility. “There’s a cerebral hunger in her, a mental involvement. The award has created possibilities for her. It’s her responsibility now to be selective about her projects. Her style may not fit the masala format of a Srijit Mukherji or a Kaushik Ganguly film, nor the commercial format of a Dev-starrer or a Raj Chakraborty potboiler,” he says.
Palit begs to differ. “Our medium is dynamic, you have to be, too,” she says, “Work is work. I’m not picky. If I pick and choose and it turns out to be good, only then will it be a win-win. I enjoy a Quentin Tarantino or Coen Brothers film as much as a Rohit Shetty-directed Singham (2011). You need both arthouse and masala cinema for balance. I want to do different kinds of work. If I get a good opportunity or project in Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil or Kannada films, too, I will take it up,” she says.
The current scenario in films in Bengal often leaves Palit disappointed. “The same industry that produced Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, is not passionate about our cinema any more. A film like Soukarya Ghoshal’s Rainbow Jelly (2018) returned to the theatres only on audience demand/request. If authorities/ audiences don’t support, how will indie films survive? Look at how Malayalam or Marathi cinema has flourished. The film fraternity in Bengal needs to introspect,” she says.