Now Reading
The Forgotten Genius of Subrata Mitra

The Forgotten Genius of Subrata Mitra

Avatar photo
Subrata Mitra

This article pays homage to the renowned Indian cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, highlighting his influential partnership with director Satyajit Ray and his significant contributions to Indian cinema. It explores Mitra’s innovative techniques, such as bounce lighting and available light cinematography, which revolutionized the art of capturing visual narratives on film.

“We Indians do not celebrate our genius, that’s why we need a Richard Attenborough to present our Gandhi to the world. And, we do not appreciate technology as an art, that’s why Subrata Mitra ’s retrospective is celebrated in Italy, not here” – Ashok Mehta, National award-winning cinematographer

Cinema, as is the common belief, is a director’s medium just as the theatre belongs to the actor. However, it is the cinematographer, the cameraman, of the bygone era – who was and still continues to be the one who apprehends the director’s vision on film and creates the way for its accurate interpretation. He constructs the bridge between the director’s thoughts and the viewers. We often talk about noteworthy collaborations between a celebrated director and his lead actor, the likes of Kurosawa-Mifune, Scorsese-De Niro, John Ford-Wayne, and our very own Ray-Soumitra Chatterjee. However, the success of a cinematic piece of work depends on the entire technical unit, something that Ray had – Bansi Chandragupta as his Art Director, Dulal Dutta as his editor, and most notably Subrata Mitra as his Cinematographer. The creative partnership between Ray and Subrata is often considered one of the greatest in world cinema, along with Jean Luc Godard-Raoul Coutard, Ingmar Bergman-Sven Nykvist, and the Coen brothers-Roger Deakins.

A science graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Mitra took a keen interest in cinematography and was deeply influenced by the works of Robert Burkes, Guy Green, Boris Kauffman, and Wong Howe. He was also profoundly inspired by the naturalism illustrated in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography.

A wizard in playing with natural light, Mitra began his cinematic journey with Ray’s maiden film “Pather Panchali”. Ray had blind faith in the self-taught Mitra, who had only worked as a still photographer until then He had closely followed Claude Renoir’s work when his brother, the acclaimed French director Jean Renoir came to Kolkata to shoot for “The River” (based on Rumer Godden’s novel) in 1951. While he was there, on location in Calcutta, Mitra observed the Frenchman at work. Mitra endeavoured to get work on the film as a Camera Assistant, but was not discouraged by the resultant rejection, watched the lengthy shooting, making extensive notes and sketches and observing Claude as he created the stunningly beautiful images which became the distinctive features of the ‘Apu Trilogy’. This paid off, for later Claude Renoir requested Subrata for his notes on the film to validate his own lighting schemes. It was here that he met Ray, a young illustrator working in the advertising agency D.J. Keymer and contemplating on making his first feature film. Ray wanted to break away from the traditional lighting styles typically adopted in the commercial cinema of Calcutta and chose Mitra as his cinematographer. Although Mitra only had experience as a still photographer, complimented by a vast accumulation of experience through watching films like “Louisiana Story” and “I Confess”, Ray himself a debutant director, had immense faith in a young but exceptionally talented Mitra.

Subrata Mitra with Ray

Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay later recounted “He didn’t have the support system for the kind of realism he wanted to achieve at the time, so he had to do everything himself,” Mitra an ‘avant-garde’ used the bounce-lighting technique in Aparajito in 1956, a decade before Nykvist, who claimed to be its originator in the ‘American Cinematographer’ magazine. By the time Ray started working on ‘Aparajito,’ the Arriflex camera had arrived. Mitra, an astute visionary, introduced and made excellent use of ‘bounce lighting’ during the indoor shots in Aparajito. He achieved his special quality of light by stretching a white cloth across the open courtyard of the set they had built in a studio. He then placed the studio lights below and bounced them off of the cloth thereby creating a simulation of a diffused daylight feel. It was a stunning piece of innovation and people who witnessed it in Ray’s early body of work in the 50s and 60s were mesmerized by the ingenuous treatment of light.

Prior to Aparajito, bounce lighting was completely unheard of in the annals of Indian cinema. It was years later Even Bergman and Sven Nykvist leveraged on this technique while filming “Through a Glass Darkly”.

Mitra was without a semblance of doubt the ideal cinematic eye of Ray, the director. So well did he understand Ray’s thoughts, imagination, and visualisation that his camera interpretation of them was completely flawless. “Apur Sansar”, “Jalshaghar”, “Devi” and all Ray films (Till “Nayok”) bore the testimony of the inimitable Mitra school of cinematography. When Ray decided to shoot “Kanchenjungha” in colour, it posed a new challenge for Mitra. Without opting for too many special effects or other cinematographic chicanery, he used close-ups to arrest the regal panorama of the Himalayas. The resultant montage was breathtaking. In “Kanchenjungha”, Mitra’s brilliance once again shone through as he seamlessly shifted to the colour medium. Mitra managed to wrap up the entire shoot of the movie with just 29 rolls of colour negatives, an incredible feat considering the fact that any average Hindi film typically consumed 350 rolls of colour negatives. Mitra was par-excellence in “Charulata” as well, where he dexterously executed the first ever ‘freeze shot’ in Indian cinema. In the closing frame of the film, the viewers witness Charu and Bhupathi’s hands are extended towards each other, but they don’t touch. This sequence of freeze shots constructed by Mitra has been widely acknowledged as a tour-de-force in filmmaking. A pioneer of “available light” cinematography, Mitra single-handedly popularized the Arriflex-Nagra combination in the 1950s.

See Also
A scene from the movie Tumbbad where the picture describes the man and the boy approaching the goddess idol

The ground-breaking Ray-Mitra collaboration fell apart after 15 years, After Nayak in 1966, they parted ways. It was mainly due to creative differences. Mitra believed in certain visions that did not sync well with Ray’s, who himself had prolific knowledge of cinematography (amongst other facets of filmmaking). They drifted apart with dignity and never criticized the other openly. But Ray’s films after “Nayok” lacked the genius of Mitra’s cinematography, and though Soumendu Roy, Mitra’s erstwhile assistant and himself a gifted cinematographer, took over the mantle, Ray’s subsequent works visibly missed the magic of Subrata Mitra.

He subsequently worked as the Director of Photography for four Ivory-Merchant films, “The Householder” (1962), “Shakespeare Wallah” (1964), “The Guru” (1968), and “Bombay Talkie” (1970). “The Guru” happened to be the first Indian film shot entirely with halogen lamps. He later worked in Basu Bhattacharyya’s acclaimed “Teesri Kasam” and his final work was much later in the mid-80s with Ramesh Sharma’s “New Delhi Times” which won him the National Award for Best Cinematography.

Subrata Mitra once said in an interview that ‘it was in nature and life around him that he found his inspiration for lighting. He’d always look for a natural source; a window, a skylight, a lamp, and then use that to light up the scene. But more than lighting it was the quality of exposure, the texture of the skin, a fine eye for details that were an inescapable mark of films that he waved his wand over.

It is quite interesting to note that this supremely gifted cinematographer was a lifelong patient of ophthalmology as a result of an unfortunate tennis injury in his left eye, during his adolescence. Common hearsay also says that the retina of his right eye was damaged during the shoot of “Charulata”. Mitra was also an accomplished sitar player, who filled up for Ravi Shankar in certain places, in the absence of the virtuoso.

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
View Comment (1)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll To Top