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The Eyes Have It

A forgotten cinematographer,97-year-old V Babasaheb recalls five decades of his Bollywood career.

Written by Prajakta Hebbar | Published: December 1, 2013 10:51:01 pm

His eyes are his most striking feature. A keen glacial blue,they look like they can see through everything and everyone. On a warm Friday afternoon,V Babasaheb,

a 97-year-old cinematographer or director of photography,who has worked in the Indian film industry for over five decades,sits in his house in Miraj,about 180 km from Pune.

Dressed in a well-worn blue sweater and checked blue lungi,Babasaheb pushes his hearing-aid deeper into his left ear,as he tries to recall snippets from his past. Babasaheb worked as a cameraperson and cinematographer or director of photography for about 30 Hindi films,including Ganga Jumna,Leader,Aan Milo Sajna and Aapki Kasam.

As a young boy,Babasaheb would sketch and draw for hours. In fact,his first job was at a Miraj-based photo studio run by his drawing teacher. Later,his father,who was a railways employee,found Babasaheb a job with a telephone company,which required him to dig holes to get telephone poles fixed,from Miraj to Pune,in the late ’30s. When he arrived in Pune,he contacted his relative,E Mohammed,a noted cameraman of his time,who was working with the Prabhat

Studio,in the early ’40s. He moved top Mumabi and did several odd jobs at film studios,learning the basics of photography on the side in Mumbai. “I remember working with a young Bal Thackeray at Famous Studio in Bombay. He worked as a cartoonist with us,” says Babasaheb,who leads a retired life with his eldest son,daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Miraj.

The first big opportunity came his way in 1948,with Girls School,a film directed by Amiya Chakravarty,director,screenwriter and producer of films like Daag,Patita and Jwar Bhata. “The film starred Geeta Bali and Sajjan. After all these years of learning camera basics from my guru Surendra Pai,I

was ready to transfer my vision on screen,” says Babasaheb.

He went on to work in other Chakravarty hits such as Gauna (1949),starring Usha Kiran,Badal (1951) starring Madhubala and Prem Nath,and Daag (1952) starring Dilip Kumar and Nimmi. “In 1955,I wanted to shoot a scene for a song,which would look like it had been shot in the moonlight. I used special lights to bring about that cool,pristine glow,” Babasaheb says. It was for the film Seema,and the song was the iconic Tu pyaar ka saagar hai. The film featured Balraj Sahni and Nutan.

Babasaheb won his first and only award for the “direction of photography” for Ganga Jumna (1961). The thrilling tale of sibling rivalry with the two brothers on opposite sides of law was filmed by Babasaheb in several innovative ways. “I remember the scene,where I had to show the train winding down a curve. In those days,we did not have sophisticated cameras or the luxury of several takes,” he says. “I jumped on the engine of the train and fixed the camera on the stands and leaned it out of the first compartment in the train. It was dangerous,as it was a moving train,and there were no retakes,” he explains. Years later,in the film Sholay (1975),this scene was referred to for shooting the thrilling fight sequence in a moving train.

Babasaheb says that in the nascent days of the Indian film industry,directors of photography or cameramen were loyal to particular filmmakers. “I used to work with Amiya Chakravarty and J Om Prakash on almost all their films,” he says. Babasaheb has worked for several of Prakash’s films such as Aap Ki Kasam,Aashiq Hoon Baharon Ka,Aasha and Akhir Kyon.

Leafing through old,faded photographs on his bed,he picks up a group picture and gives a toothless smile. “Pinky,” he points at a young woman in the photo. It is the family photo of J Om Prakash,his daughter Pinky and her husband Rakesh Roshan,with Babasaeheb,all smiling at the camera.

A cataract operation and the ill health of his wife led Babasaheb to quit the film industry in the early ’90s. He even left all his camera equipment behind,at his Jogeswari home in Mumbai. The last film he worked on was his one and only Marathi film,Janmathep (1993),starring Ashwini Bhave,Nilu Phule and Sadashiv Amrapurkar. He settled in his family home in Miraj,and has been living a quiet life ever since.

Bharat Kanhere,a Pune-based photographer and a former Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) faculty member had met Babasaheb on the sets of the 1975 war film Aakraman. Produced by Jagdish Kumar and directed by J Om Prakash,the film had Ashok Kumar,Sanjeev Kumar,Rekha,Rakesh Roshan,and Rajesh Khanna in leading roles. “Babasaheb was such a warm,bubbling personality. He made everyone feel at home,” remembers Kanhere. After over 35 years,Kanhere decided to look Babasaheb up. “It was a gruelling task. Nobody seemed to know where he was,” says Kanhere.

He contacted some of his old students from FTII,who were living near Sangli or Miraj,and asked for their help. “Many of my students would send me snapshots clicked by them on their cameraphones of old men they thought were Babasaheb. I was getting frustrated,but finally,one of my students found the real Babasaheb,” says Kanhere.

The colour has faded from the once-bright walls of the house Babasaheb now lives in. “My father has always been shy. He never went after accolades. But we have experienced life both in Bombay and in Miraj. We can see the difference and we think that our father has not received his due in the industry,” says Sayeeda Syed Maqbool,Babasaheb’s daughter,who lives in nearby Sangli. “It is not that we want anything. But,the Indian film industry celebrated 100 years of its existence. And there was no mention of my father,who has been with the industry for over five decades. Even neighbours don’t know about his work,” she says.

Babasaheb picks up his great granddaughter gingerly and places her in his lap. Maqbool looks on fondly and says,“Till about a few years ago,the children would take him to see movies in theatres. His favourite actress was Smita Patil,and among the new lot,he likes Aamir Khan.” When asked about the last Hindi film he watched,Babasaheb says,Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

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