Looking at the production stills
Ravi Vasudevan

I remember looking at a strangely revealing image in a tv programme about a film shoot: Juhi Chawla, in close embrace with a now forgotten male co-star, captured just the moment before the shot was taken. The camera crew, light boys and the heavy apparatus of image making surrounded the couple. The star's face was closed, reflecting no emotion, setting up an inscrutable mask. This naked image, at once shorn of any masquerade but determined not to reveal any interiority presented an impregnable surface to the relentlessness of public scrutiny. This is one, peculiarly hermetic instance of the many worlds revealed by the images which document the time before a film unravels on the screen. The array of stills available from the National Film Archives of India speak to that curiosity we feel when we wonder about the space beyon the image so carefully framed for our view. How ever it is to regard the most intimate of close-ups, expressing the most delicate of emotions, knowing that this image is carved out from a press of bodies and machines.

Even before we subject these images to an intensive reading, there is the business of simply identifying what they contain. At present many stills have not been labeled in terms of film, studios, actors or crew. But there is also the issue of what these photographs say, how they ask us to look at the cinema as a social and cultural institution, and, specifically, as a site of production. There are certain systematic features to this genre of photography. At one level there is a demystifying of the cinematic image. Perhaps there is nothing more tacky than displaying a painted backdrop. In the production still, these surfaces appear in a space before their narrativization into the cinematic image: they are not presented to evoke immersion in a character and the space that defines her. It is this humdrum quality that invites us to look at these surfaces, and the other objects composed in the photograph, as the material of production, just as the space can be thought of as one composed of labour undertaken by the anonymous people setting up the camera, directing the light, standing atop a camera pedestal.

Studio sets, painted backdrops, microphones, cranes, scaffolding for lights are placed in the bustle of everyday work. What motivates this kind of representation? Although we don't know very much about the circulation of these photographs, who they were intended for, can we hazard that the cinematic institution has to represent itself as work, providing gainful, skilled employment, thereby laying claim to being recognized as an industry like any other? Perhaps, given the often antagonistic relationship of the state to the entertainment industry. Whatever the rationale of the genre, there are rich possibilities here for looking at how a scene is physically composed for the camera, what decorative conventions and spatial organization were used, the forms of labour employed. For example, a still from an Imperial production of the late 1920s suggests that Ardeshir Irani's company worked with the limits imposed by the proscenium stage. Then there is the film apparatus itself; here are the residual traces, from these long-lost days, of the mechanical means employed by our film industry. When put together with the intensive interviews undertaken by the Raqs Media Collective with cinematographers, we have the possibility of scrutinizing these images for an evolving history of film technologies and techniques.

But the photos are not all of one type, documenting an anonymous labour and the material components of cinematic production. For one set of photographs, much more clearly of the genre of the publicity photograph, asks us to invest in the personality of the director. The recurring motif of the director placed next to a camera, looking at images through a view finder, suggest something of the issues at stake: that the mechanical apparatus needs to be personalized, be rendered through an identifiable figure. We may reflect that the epoch these photos document, from the 1930s through the 1950s, placed particular emphasis on the film director, not only the star. In this sense they generate a symbolic account of the process of cinematic production, an account of who represents the institution or provides a frame of authority, legitimacy and fascination for the public. The symbolism of this condensation has different resonances. The respectable gentleman professional is conjured up by a cameraman-director such as Nitin Bose. Bose is always shown directly involved with the apparatus, standing with a neat, professional demeanour, one hand resting on the film spool, perusing negatives, staring out at us with urbane transparency.

A succession of stills feature that iconic figure of the historical genre and costume film, Sohrab Modi, from late in his career. Something of the stolidity of Modi as an actor, a heavy theatricality of dialogue delivery and physical presentation, rendered his characters as visual and aural motifs in the ornate, somewhat ponderous heraldry of the Hindustani stage Modi drew into the cinema. The aging, portly figure we see giving actors advice in front of the painted backdrop conjures up the role of an elder statesman or a paterfamilias. In negotiating outdoor shooting on a boat, or straddling a platform sunken into the water to capture action on a pier, he suggests a strangely heroic image, engrossed in the physicality of film-making. The aura is different from that of the professional: there is something of the bada sahib, his head covered with a solar topi, in Modi's outdoor shoots. The umbrella which protects the camera from rain and harsh sunlight in the outdoors looks like a ceremonial chhatri when Modi is under it, something which could have come from the prop department of one of his historical movies. The `symbolic' of these photographs, what organizes them in terms of meaning, arises from such slippages in the signifier, from its location in the historical genre to its maker, suggesting his and the genre's impending passage into the past. Pathos is built into the Modi series, as the historical and costume genres with which he was associated were to lose their clout amongst audiences increasingly attuned to the omnibus genre of contemporary life, the social film.

Then there are Fattelal and Damle, (in photos identified by PK Nair), directors of the wonderful Sant Tukaram (1936). The photograph of Damle is particularly evocative of a relationship to the cinema that is exultantly immersive. The technical crew stand alongside the camera tripod, enjoying the spectacle of their director upto his neck in the water, a wide grin on his face. Those who have seen the film would know that this is the point when Tuka, under Brahmanical imprimatur, has to cast his verses into the waters; Tuka's beloved deity, Pandurang, causes the verses to miraculously resurface, leading to the conversion of the Brahmanical inquisitor to Tuka's non-hierarchical vision of the divine. In this production still, we are witness to another order of immersion in the realm of the transcendant. Director, camera and crew meld into a state of being which doubles the object, gleefully challenging the elements, the possibilities of dissolving into nature with the verses. But, to quote Tuka, all will find their way to the lord, and, indeed a way back to us, in the images which play before us at the cinema hall.