Sholay Redux 05 – Dwarka Divecha aka the Lensman.
After seeing Sholay, the Australian cinematographer Tom Cowan exclaimed, “Maybe, you’ve even beaten Hollywood.” And Hollywood nodded. All the delegates who attended the Bombay Festival of Films International (1975) were dazzled by its technical brilliance, particularly the 70 mm cinematography.
Cinematographer Dwarka Divecha had always considered Hollywood as the ultimate in technique and must have been secretly thrilled at the pat, but he shrugged off the accolades with the typical nonchalance of a seasoned professional.
Born on March 19, 1918 in Bombay, Divecha first operated an obsolete hand cranked camera as a callow fourteen year old. A veteran of almost a hundred films, he chalked up a number of hits early in his career, displaying a preference for experimentation: Ratan (’44), Dillagi (’49), Solva Saal (’58) and Professor (’62) all bore his hallmark. With Chinatown (’62) he displayed compositional dexterity and deft lighting within the exalted domain of film noir.
“It was sheer pleasure to work with men like Kardar, Shantaram and Nandlal Jaswantlal. They conceived visuals through the camera lens – movement, build-up and the final cohesive whole formed of unconnected parts. Each knew what they wanted and how to get it in terms of motion on the screen.”
Generally rated an able technician and winner of the Filmfare Award for Yasmeen (’55), the film going public recognized Divecha only after the phenomenal success of Sholay.
The primary success mantra for Divecha was the total faith of his director Ramesh Sippy. Involved right from the start, they visualized scenes together and Sippy gave him the creative latitude he needed. There was no recourse to hasty compromise and every scene was shot at a specific time.
Citing the scene of Thakur’s family massacre, “Whenever the unit prepared to shoot this scene of sheer butchery there would be bright daylight with a clear blue sky, just the atmosphere for a love scene. Work was abandoned till the clouds gathered and the sky took on an appropriately eerie aura. And since the sequence was a long one, it was filmed in fragments, the entire schedule stretching over a year.”
Another incident concerned where Jaya was supposed to appear sad and sunken. Instead she looked really healthy because of her pregnancy. Divecha nudged Ramesh again and the unit was packed off to Bombay where it waited for Jaya to have the baby before returning to Bangalore for further shooting. As Divecha gushed, “Which producer has the guts to send back all the stars for such a seemingly trifling reason? The stars however packed without a word of protest: the project was too prestigious to crib over anything.”
Divecha often lapsed into ‘sholayloquy’ while reminiscing about the “assignment of my career”. Shooting started on 02 Oct 1973 in Sippynagar (or Ramgarh), the village set specially built 30 miles from Bangalore and cost chunk of the budget. The villagers were paid two years rental though the location shoot lasted year and a half. G P Sippy did not ask for reimbursement.
The Sippy lavishness was also recalled in the Holi sequence, “They bought off every pinch of gulal (dry color) and rounded up every available junior artiste. As a result there was no gulal in the Bangalore markets and no chorus scenes shot anywhere in Bombay during the eight-day shooting spell.”
Surprisingly, except the soft reflector papers and 70 mm widescreen used for the first time in Indian films, there was no other fancy imported technical gear in Sholay. These papers helped cut the glare from the reflectors, resulting in the artistes not blinking as often as they normally did while outdoors.
It is therefore with a fair amount of rancor that Divecha lamented the cuts which Sholay suffered. “Our stupid censors,” he fumed, “refused to pass the film unless the climax was re-shot. The original scene, a particularly gory one, was a superb bit of action and the ideal finale to the operatic violence that preceded it.”
On the sets, he had acquired the reputation of a no-nonsense stern task master who was apt to explode into fiery expletives if he found things going awry.
An unnamed director once pointed to a zoom lens lying unused, “It’s there, why don’t you use it?” Divecha promptly pointed to a nearby well and retorted, “It’s there, why don’t you use it too?”
He also broke off a long-standing association with producer L. V. Prasad when he insisted on using cinema-scope for a film which Divecha thought suited neither the subject nor the art director’s construction of the indoor set.
His rapture over Twelve Angry Men (1957, Cinematography: Boris Kaufman) was infinite. Shot in a single room, the camera beautifully captured the emotional tug of war reactions of the jury members.
Divecha dismissed any comparisons of such craftsmanship with work done by our cameraman as ridiculous but also defended his community, “How can you help it when the director wants you to shoot as many close-ups of the star before he can whiz off to another set elsewhere?”
In the never-ending debate about what exactly should the camera’s role be in film making, whether a superior form by way of superb photography did not really distract attention from the thematic content, Divecha commented, “What really matters is the end product turns out to be a great movie and the camera remains true to the mood of the story.”
Greatly impressed by “the restraint with which he handles his characters”, Divecha wanted to work with Gulzar. On a chance meeting once, he approached Gulzar without any formal introduction and stated point-blank, “I’ll work with you” upon which a startled Gulzar responded, “Why not!”
Divecha’s last wish died with him on 05 Jan, 1978 as Sholay became his swan song, an apt farewell for a master technician. He was only 60.