V K Murthy – Subliminal Imagery
No video assist. No jibs. No DI. Only his eye and an unerring steady hand, made the shy, slight of build, V. K. Murthy one of the topmost cinematographers of Bollywood. Comparatively, the films he photographed did not total to even half of what many of his contemporaries did, yet he established himself as a highly skillful cameraman whose work can still be favorably judged with the results achieved by the ablest men in cinematically more advanced countries of the world.
Son of an Ayurvedic physician, Murthy was born in Mysore on 26th November 1923. Even before he matriculated from Mysore University in 1941, Murthy had already made an unsuccessful attempt to join films. Responding to a newspaper advertisement, he had landed in Bombay hoping to join a school of cinematography. When the school turned out to be a bogus affair, Murthy tried without success to land a job in a film studio, subsequently joined a radio manufacturing concern for a couple of months and then left for home after spending six frustrating months in Bombay.
As music was his optional subject in school, Murthy tried to take music seriously after his matriculation and took advanced lessons in violin playing which was his specialty. The Quit lndia movement of 1942 interrupted his musical training and sent him behind bars for five months.
After his stint as a freedom fighter, Murthy joined as violinist, the famous dancer Ram Gopal’s troupe and toured various places with him. Murthy left the troupe after six months, and then joined the Polytechnic Institute in 1943.
Murthy was one of the few flourishing cameramen of his day to receive a systematic training in their craft, being a diploma holder from Bangalore’s Shree Jaya Chamrajendra Polytechnic Institute where he studied cinematography for three years. From the first batch, his successful career in films served to prove the importance of training in the career of a film technician.
It was in 1946, towards the close of his diploma that Murthy, along with his fellow students, came to Bombay for practical training. Even with training and diploma in hand, Murthy found it difficult to get a job as he was rather choosy about the studio he should join. And the first bit of money that Murthy earned from films was not as a camera assistant but as a musician. He played the violin in a song ‘take’ and received one hundred rupees for the performance. “That was a big sum of money I had seen after a long time,” recalls Murthy.
Murthy then joined Jayant Desai Productions and became an assistant to cameraman Dronacharya. A year or so later, Murthy happened to see ‘Amrapali’ (1945) directed by the Nandlal Jaswantlal and photographed by Fali Mistry. “It was the best photographed film till that date,” says Murthy. Fali Mistry’s work impressed him enough to pursue his ambition to become his assistant at Lakshmi Studios. When Fali left Lakshmi to join Famous Cine Studios and Laboratories, Murthy followed him soon after. At the Famous Studios, Murthy worked as assistant cameraman on such films as ‘Mala,’ ‘Babul’ (1950), ‘Jan Pahchan’ (1950) and ‘Buzdil (1951).’
Then destiny brought together two artists who created a juxtaposition of light and shade seldom equalled in Indian film industry.
“I was working in Famous Studios as an assistant cameraman and Chetan Anand was shooting there. V. Ratra was the cameraman. I was assisting him from the studio side. Halfway through the shooting, I noticed a man who kept coming and going, almost every day. Dev Anand told me it was Guru Dutt.
One day Dutt was foxed for his next shot to cover the music in a song sequence. Murthy suggested a particularly complicated dolly movement shot though a mirror which came out exceptional. The film was Baazi (1951). Shooting had packed up. In the evening we were standing outside, Guru Dutt came and told me, ‘From the next film onwards you will be my cameraman, we will work together.’
Beginning with ‘Baaz’ (1951), Murthy cranked the camera for all of Guru Dutt’s films. The noirish atmosphere of crime thrillers Aar Paar (1954) and CID (1956) was perfectly complimented by Murthy’s chiaroscuro lighting.
“Dutt’s filming of songs and scenes was unique. Others just used to keep the camera fixed, have the actors perform the song, walking in or out of frame and have a few cut to close-up shots, that’s all. Dutt emphasized movements and that too in close-up shots. He used the 75 mm lens which was to focus accurately with a 75 mm lens, in a close-up, in a moving shot. But we managed.”
Then in 1957 came ‘Pyaasa’, the story of a failed poet at conflict with existing social structures. Though the narrative remained ingrained with the local flavor, the lighting inspired by German Expressionist movement of the 1920’s spoke volumes without uttering a single word. Expressionism attempted to reflect the psychological state of a character through costumes, set design and primarily, lighting. In one instance, framing the poet through back lighting almost suspended in a doorway in a crowded auditorium in the climactic song, “Yeh Duniya Agar”, Murthy made him symbolic of a persecuted Christ like figure attending his own crucifixion.
In 1959 he shot India’s first CinemaScope film, ‘Kaagaz ke Phool’ where the expressionist influence continued. The doomed love affair between a much married film director and his protégé cum muse was manifested in his ‘beam of light’ shots in the song ‘Waqt ne Kiya’. Shot using two mirrors on the top of the studio reflecting sunlight inside a darkened space, the separation between the characters is almost given a divine connotation of even God’s censure.
In Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1960), the qawalli mujra song ‘Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend’ has a matchless lighting scheme where only the lead dancer is lit up and the backup dancers, all visible but in silhouette as if commenting on the foul nature of the carnal deeds about to happen.
Talking about good photography, Murthy said that “it should not distract attention from the story. It should convincingly establish the time of the scene, whether it is day or night, and it must meet the dramatic and aesthetic demands of the story, but it should not be so as to attract attention to itself at the cost of the proceedings on the screen.” Murthy was also one of the first to shoot outdoors at night.
After finishing work on ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool,’ Murthy went to Europe to attend as an ‘observer’ on the filming of Carl Foreman’s “Guns of Navarone” which was photographed by the renowned Oswald Morris.
The sojourn abroad taught Murthy the seriousness with which the foreign film-makers approached their work and the strict discipline they imposed upon themselves during the shooting of a film.
After Guru Dutt’s untimely death in 1964, Murthy worked with Pramod Chakravarthy (Dutt’s assistant) in eleven films from Ziddi in 1964 to Deedar in 1992 and Kamal Amrohi in Pakeezah (1971) and Razia Sultan (1983). He also worked with his erstwhile assistant Govind Nihalani on the TV series Tamas(1987), and with Shyam Benegal on the Bharat Ek Khoj series (1988).
The first cinematographer to win the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for 2008, Murthy died on 07 April 2014.