Radhu Karmakar – Raj Kapoor’s third eye.
One of our most brilliant cinematographers, Radhu Karmakar photographed comparatively few films in his long career – some of them in two language versions – but almost every one of them revealed him as an enterprising technician eager to give a film all it needed from him plus a bonus in photographic value.
His career of sustained progress and hard work reached a peak with the release of ‘Sangam,’ the first color film of his career.
His stylish lensing of the film won recognition from Filmfare and the prestigious Bengal Film Journalists’ Association which declared ‘Sangam’ to be the best photographed Hindi film of 1964.
Born on June 3, 1919 in Dacca, Karmakar received his meager education in Dacca and then in Calcutta. At the time of his matriculation examination, he fell ill and missed the examination. Then he suddenly lost interest in studies. He felt no inclination, either, to follow the father’s vocation, who was a prosperous goldsmith skilled in making his own designs for jewelry.
As he recounts in his autobiography, published posthumously in 2005 titled ‘The Painter of Lights’, his years of struggle lasted from 1931 to 1938. “I struggled a lot under stress,” he writes. “All hell was let loose at home when I announced my intention of leaving the family profession of goldsmiths to go in for films where decent people did not work…my aim was to join the camera department of one of the studios within the next two to three years, before my lungs too got irrevocably damaged. The life span of those who worked in film labs was not too much. The acid fumes damaged the lungs and within seven to nine years, T.B. or some other disease affecting the lungs, was common.”
The first ten years of his career he spent in the ranks, hand-washing films in the laboratories in the pre-mechanized days, slogging on the sets as a camera assistant of varying denominations which reflected his minor but growing importance in the scheme of things.
Helpful friends and interest in films (which he traced back to the day when he was fascinated by some camera tricks in ‘Jaidev’ which he saw at the age of fourteen) then took him to Calcutta‘s Radha Films where he started his film career in 1936 as a laboratory hand. After three years in the laboratory, Karmakar moved to the studio floor as a camera assistant under Jyotin Das, the man who had photographed ‘Jaidev.’
One of the three big cameramen of his day along with Krishna Gopal and Nitin Bose, Jyotin Das was then photographing a film called ‘Probash Milan.’ Karmakar was second camera assistant on it. The first assistant was Ajoy Kar, who directed that distinguished film, ‘Sat Pake Bandha.’ When Jyotin Das came over to Bombay to shoot Circo’s ‘Swami’ with A. R. Kardar as director, Karmakar accompanied his chief. Over the next few years in Bombay, Karmakar assisted Das in a number of films, most of them made for Lakshmi Studios.
The two associates parted company in 1945 when, Jyotin left Lakshmi Studios to join Shalimar Pictures and Lakshmi gave Karmakar his first independent assignment in a stunt film called ‘Kismet Ka Dhani.’ His next assignment was Bombay Talkies’ ‘Milan’ (made in Hindi and Bengali versions) which was directed by Nitin Bose.
Karmakar then accompanied Nitin Bose to Calcutta to photograph a Bengali film, ‘Drishti Daan,’ which Bose directed for New Theatres. Returning to Bombay, he photographed one more film for Bombay Talkies ‘Mashal’ which too had a Bengali version.
He became a full-fledged cameraman in 1945 but the big surge of success in his career came about five years later when he joined Raj Kapoor’s R. K. Films to photograph ‘Awaara.’ Towards the end of 1949, Radhu Karmakar caught Raj Kapoor’s eye and went behind the camera for ‘Awaara.’ Since then he became a permanent part of R. K. Films. The ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ song stood out for its camera movement and fogged setting. Noticed for its deep and high contrast lighting, Awaara almost branded the distinct look which R K Films was to follow.
In Raj Kapoor’s system of work, time and money mattered less than the results. Small wonder, therefore, that Radhu Karmakar had no more than five films to show for the first fifteen years that he was in the Chembur jungle of lights and electric cables. However, In terms of footage exposed and experience gained his five films with Raj Kapoor probably equaled fifteen average films.
After completing “Awaara,” Karmakar went to England for training in Technicolor photography under the renowned British cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who also turned director and made ‘My Geisha.’ Karmakar stayed in England for six months and absorbed a lot about the technique of his craft. Returning he cranked the camera for ‘Shree 420’ which won him Filmfare’s 1956 award for best photography. He proudly recalls in his book the praise he got from Charlie Chaplin for the ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’ song sequence, when an outdoor feel was done fully inside the studio.
Earlier, he had visited the Soviet Union as a member of the Indian film delegation and used the opportunity for gaining an acquaintance with Russian cinematography as well as cinematographers including Edward Tisse, the renowned photographer of Eisenstein’s films. The next film Karmakar photographed was “Jagte Raho,” winner of the top award at the Karlovy Vary festival, which brought him the Bombay Film Journalists’ Association’s best photography award.
One of the things that he considered most difficult to achieve by even the most efficient cameraman was the simulation of a day exterior scene inside a studio: no man-made light could match the quality of sunlight. So he never advised shooting a day exterior scene indoors in a black and white film, not at all in a color film.
After “Jagte Raho,” Karmakar left the camera and picked up the megaphone to direct “Jis Desh Men Ganga Behti Hai” which won Filmfare’s best picture award for 1961. Though there were strong rumors of the possibility of his wielding the megaphone again, he asserted that his true love was photography and returned with his first color film, ‘Sangam. A man who believed that the work of Indian technicians compared favorably with that produced by their counterparts in most advanced countries, back in the days Karmakar complained about the restriction in the matter of equipment and technical facilities. “Indian cameramen,” he said, “make do with lights that, unlike in other countries, are quite limited both in number and variety, while things like electrically driven trolleys and remote-controlled lighting equipment are still unknown here.” He also insisted and encouraged improvements in the quality of work of art and make-up departments.
Then came Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili for Raj Kapoor. After the departure of Nargis from the RK camp following ‘Jaagte Raho’, a devastated Raj Kapoor went on a voyeuristic rampage. As more clothes were peeled off his heroines, Karmakar’s job became increasingly about making it artistically appealing and aesthetically acceptable.
Even after Raj Kapoor’s death, Karmakar was on board with director Randhir Kapoor for ‘Henna’ where he picked his fourth and final Filmfare trophy. And though he worked with other directors like Sohanlal Kanwar and B Subhash, Radhu Karmakar’s name will always be identified with the distinct imagery for R K Films just as V K Murthy’s is with Guru Dutt.
Like his wife Bani says in his autobiography, “Radhu desired neither fame nor fortune, and his ultimate ambition in life was to make a perfect film like Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’.
He died on 05 Oct, 1993.