After filming an emotional scene in Phool aur Patthar (1966), Meena Kumari took a break to chat with the film’s still photographer, Damodar Kamat. Her chin rested on the back of a chair and her eyes sparkled with glycerine. Above her, technicians were readying the lights for the next shot when one of them accidently directed a spotlight on the actress. Before the tragedy queen could react, Kamat captured her in what became one of her most iconic photographs.
Magic moment: Meena Kumari with Damodar Kamat on the sets of Pakeezah (1972) "This picture was later used as a publicity still for the film," remembers Kamat’s son, Vidyadhar, who has teamed up with former banker Indrayani Dixit for a book on his father’s 70-year-old photo studio, Kamat Foto Flash.
Almost an institution in its time, the studio traces the evolution of Indian cinema through its massive archive of 1,00,000 stills. Damodar’s son Vidyadhar and granddaughter Neha had long wanted to pay a tribute to the studio, but nothing materialised until former banker Indrayani Dixit asked if she could write a biography of Damodar.
For this publicity picture of Guru Dutt from Pyaasa (1957), in which Dutt plays a writer, Kamat created the atmosphere of a library
“My father passed away when I was 13 and I hardly knew him as a person,” says Vidyadhar. “While researching for the book, we met a lot of industry veterans who knew him well, and it is through them that I am learning things about the father I never knew.”
Damodar Kamat left his home in Belgaum in his late teens to work for Bombay Talkies in Mumbai. A self-taught photographer, he set up Kamat Foto Flash in 1945 at Famous Studios, the hub of filmmaking at the time.
Photographers in that era were responsible for furnishing an album composed of the sets, artists, costumes and everything related to the film. “These would be shown to the financiers to justify costs and get sanctions for more funds,” says Vidyadhar.
Film stills had to be executed with the minimum interference to the film in production. And filmmakers like Raj Kapoor were sticklers for discipline on set. “He would ask my father to wait till a scene was completed before he could capture the stills,” says Vidyadhar.
Raj Kapoor was extraordinary when it came to framing shots like visualising the love triangle between Rajendra Kumar, Vyjayanthimala and Raj Kapoor in Sangam (1964)
"But my father despised staged shoots. He would be a fly on the wall, click images discreetly, and leave. The next day, he would hand the prints to a surprised Raj Kapoor." The actor was so impressed with Kamat’s work on Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) that he hired him for all his films.
Damodar Kamat shared a valuable relationship with most producers and actors of his time. An otherwise temperamental Ashok Kumar would cheerfully pose for him because he believed Kamat could make him look better. Meena Kumari knew Kamat would click her from above eye level to compensate for her wide jaw. But one actress who needed no special treatment was Madhubala.
In this scene from Bandini (1963), Dharmendra proposes to Nutan. Before his arrival, the shot has two dark walls meeting at an angle. Dharmendra, who gives Nutan hope, is shown in the light, symbolising optimism
"My father clicked most of her pictures and she looked exquisite from all angles," says Vidyadhar. "Once she asked for a close up shot and was so happy with the result that she gifted him a Rolleiflex camera. It was one of the most expensive cameras of the time."
This still from Bees Saal Baad (1962) was taken after the sets were dismantled so the ‘location’ had to be recreated. In the film, Biswajeet is searching for someone in a swamp at night, hence the play of light and shadow
Portfolios were unheard of in the 1950s, so producers would depend on Kamat’s work to measure the screen presence of an actor before he was cast.
The late Rajendra Kumar was one of the newcomers shot by Kamat. Kumar had played a small part in the 1950 film
where he was noticed by Devendra Goel, who launched him in
(1955). Goel sent him to Kamat for a look test. An awkward Kumar posed, but seemed too conscious of the camera.
“Rajendra saab told me how my father intermittently insulted him as he posed for the pictures,” recalls Vidyadhar. “He was taken aback, but didn’t feel it right to complain. It was only after the images came out that he understood that the insults were my father’s way of evoking expressions; from surprise to shock to resentment. Every emotion was locked in, even though the subject knew nothing about it.”
After his father’s death in 1967, it took Vidyadhar a while to take up the management of the studio. But his father’s legacy was enough to get him projects when he started in 1973.
While the book is still a work in progress, Dixit feels that this is the right time to document the hundreds of invaluable negatives that the Kamats have been preserving for the last seven decades. “They have a huge wealth of images and people should know about their immense contribution to Indian cinema,” she says.
From HT Brunch, October 5
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