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Daddy and daughter dearest

When eminent photographer Raghu Rai’s little girl decided to make a film on her father, she found a whole other side to his personality

brunch Updated: Sep 01, 2018 20:39 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times
Raghu Rai,Saffronart,Dalai Lama
Raghu Rai recreates an old memory with daughter Avani Rai at his home in Delhi(Sanchit Khanna)

“Photographer Raghu Rai…is known for his panoramic, wide-angle shots that capture complex emotion in frozen instants...” That’s how art auction house Saffronart describes Rai’s work.

But the artist who shot people like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Indira Gandhi, as well as the horrors of the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Emergency, recently found himself on the other side of the camera as the subject of an award-winning film made by his own daughter, Avani.

For six years, Avani silently followed her father, observing him on his various photo trips over years and across locales. Her film was made when they visited Kashmir, a state enduring violence, but one which also shines with the hope for peace. The father-daughter duo photographed each other and their environment, discussing their lives, their craft, politics in general, and Raghu Rai’s art, backed with images from his archive.

A portrait of Mother Teresa taken in 1995 (Raghu Rai)

The film titled Raghu Rai, an Unframed Portrait, produced by Iikka Vehkalahti and Anurag Kashyap and co-produced by ARTE France and the IDFA Bertha Fund, premiered in February on Raghu Rai’s 75th birthday. Critics pointed out that the film was just as much about the father-daughter relationship as it was about the artist, so we decided to catch up with the two of them at Rai’s home in Delhi, and check out their connection for ourselves.

On Raghu’s relationship with Avani and his other children

Raghu: Every child is your jigar ka tukda. All children are loved equally by their parents, and it’s the same with me and my four children. However, my son Nitin, and Avani have decided to take up the same profession as me and that worries me. I have no issues about my eldest daughter, Lagan, and the youngest one, Purvai. Both of them are pursuing very different things.

Nitin and Lagan are from my first marriage and Avani and Purvai are my second set of children from my current marriage. When you become parents for the first time, you are busy trying to settle into your career as well, and don’t have much time for the children. However, by the time Avani and Purvai were born, I was settled in my career and had more time to chill with them. Both the girls are true to their names: Avani is humble like the earth, while Purvai is like the wind, always in a rush.

Avani: He never let his professional life overrule his function as a father. He behaves like a cool person, but he never lets us forget the hierarchy in the relationship. If I ever phone him and say, ‘what’s up bro?’, he immediately says, ‘I’m not your bro, I’m your father. Don’t forget that.’

The Dalai Lama photographed at Dharamsala in 2014 (Raghu Rai)

On learning about Avani’s decision to do the film

Raghu: I’m not fond of the idea of a son or daughter doing a book or film on a parent. I find it self-indulgent. So, when Avani came back from Mumbai and told me she wanted to make a film on me, I was taken aback. She hadn’t gone to Mumbai to learn filmmaking, after all. But she’d met people connected with filmmaking, and got this idea in her head.
Avani: No one suggested that I do this film. I thought of it myself. When I was in Mumbai, I met filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur and Anurag Kashyap, and asked them whether I should make a film on my father. Both told me to go ahead since nobody could know him as well as I do. That’s how Anurag Kashyap came on board as a producer.

On working with each other as professionals

Raghu: She used to come often to Delhi, and soon good cameramen and filmmakers started coming with her. That made me realise that she was serious. But there were other issues. I’m not the kind to keep repeating things. She would say, ‘Papa you have to repeat what you had said earlier’. I would say, “No, I can’t do that.’ And we’d fight. Also, I work at my own pace. For me, even breathing is a waste of time and even at this age I work at a speed of 300 kms per hour, while they worked at 60 kms per hour. And it’s not just Avani. Even Nitin is like that.

This was why, when I was asked by The New York Times to do a story on the Dalai Lama, I told her I’d rather she did not accompany me. She was hurt, but said nothing about it.

Foetuses that were aborted while escaping the Bhopal gas tragedy, photographed in 2001 (Raghu Rai)

But I still ensured that my daughter had some footage from this shoot for her film. Particularly of the time the Dalai Lama lifted off the cap I wear to hide my thinning hair and said he just wanted to see how much hair I had left. I had to do that: I felt really bad for Avani since I’d told her not to accompany me. But I’m a tough person to work with. Even for the film, I told her, ‘I’m not your father, just treat me like a character, and if you have come to me as a professional, you have to behave like one too.’ Nitin also used to say, ‘you are not my father because of the way you treat me’. But I will never pamper them unnecessarily.

Avani: I did feel really bad when he asked me not to come along to meet the Dalai Lama, but what he said was right. While shooting for the film too, he’d keep telling me to do things a certain way, but with that, I could tell him that this is my film, let me do it my way. He told me very clearly that if I wanted to be loved as a daughter, I should come back home and get that love. But he could not love me as a filmmaker. Still, once the film finished and won some wonderful awards, he was happy and proud: the doting father all over again.

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From HT Brunch, September 2, 2018

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First Published: Sep 01, 2018 20:17 IST