A small, two-room apartment houses India’s largest archive of images from and about the Hindi film industry. More than 100,000 images and negatives, neatly tucked into butter paper envelopes, and arranged in paper boxes, lie stacked on the floors. The labelling in the boxes doesn’t conform to any logical sequence. Like most things old, Kamat Foto Flash largely runs on fuzzy logic.
The library doesn’t run on any archiving software, yet, if you ask the family for any obscure image from a film, they’re likely to bring the originals out in less than five minutes. The only form of technology here is a hi-tech scanning machine and stacks of CDs.
Ask 53-year-old Vidyadhar Damodar Kamat, photographer and owner of Kamat Foto Flash, what his most precious piece is, and he digs the original negatives of the publicity stills of Barsaat Ki Raat—a hit film from 1960, about a passionate young poet, played by Bharat Bhushan. The poet’s search for inspiration ends with the chance meeting with a rain-soaked young woman (Madhubala) one dark, stormy night, and he falls in love.
Raised against the afternoon light, the 47-year-old negative—slightly faded, with small brown spots on it, but in good enough condition to be reproduced—reveals the original of what’s become one of the most overused black and white stills of Madhubala. A profile photograph, which Kamat’s father Damodar Kamat shot before Barsaat Ki Raat was released. Other originals of famous profile shots are that of Nadira (of Hunterwali fame) in Shree 420 and Rekha in Umrao Jaan.
Since 1945, when Damodar started Kamat Foto Flash, the family has been documenting the workings of the Hindi film industry, with their on- and off-location publicity stills— from Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, Mother India, all of Raj Kapoor’s films and all of Amitabh Bachchan movies, to films of the 1990s and 2000s. Some of the older ones were coloured after being printed in black and white, such as Sangam.
To keep up with the times, Kamat has now switched to the digital format, and has two assistants to help him out—according to him, “a too comfortable place to be in”. The archive, now run by Kamat’s da-ughter, 24-year-old Neha Kamat, has been selling vintage images to media publications for more than a decade now.
Carrying on the legacy: Vidyadhar Damodar Kamat with daugher Neha. The archive, which was started by Vidyadhar’s father in 1945, has been selling vintage images to the media for more than a decade now
Reflecting on the changes in technology, Kamat says, “Sho-ots have become easy now. Although I love my job, I know that if I get the basics right, everything can be corrected with the right software. Earlier, it was a challenge every time, technically as well as artistically. For me, Kamat Foto is precious because along with the photographs, it also preserves the passion and meticulousness of the non-digital era.”
Of late, many film producers have approached the Kamats for reference images of old films that they have remade or are remaking—Don, Umrao Jaan and Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam are just three of them.
But, given the mass and wealth of the archive, it isn’t as commercially lucrative for the family as they believe it should have been. The importance of Kamat Foto Flash is more historical. It preserves the exciting and rich visual culture of Hindi cinema that has become a subject of academic study in the US and the UK. A few hundred images are being curated by the University of Manchester, for an exhibition at the university gallery in early 2008. An event the entire family has been invited to visit.
“I’m really looking forward to the exhibition,” says Kamat. “I waited for years to showcase the most re-presentative and best images in India first. I approached many people, galleries and film-makers to help, but here, Bollywood is such a part of our lives that we take it for granted.”
The only recognition that came Kamat’s way was when art marketer Osian’s awarded him the Osian’s 2007 Award for Excellence of Art and Design in Film. “And of course, the respect we receive from the filmindustry’s veterans because of my father. Even now, I can call up Dev saab (Anand) or Shammiji (Shammi Kapoor) if I need any help,” reminds Kamat.
For him, it was a more or less comfortable beginning. In 1974, he took over as the inhouse photographer of Kamat Foto Flash that operated out of a small ground floor space at the Famous Studio.
Damodar, a self-taught photographer, learnt the ropes of photography and printing by observing the work of a technician, Kaka Samant, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Kolhapur was then a culturally vibrant town, known to be the birthplace of many painters and photographers of yesteryears.
He came to Mumbai in the late 1930s and after a chance meeting with Ashok Kumar while he was working at the Bombay Talkies, India’s first public limited film company, got the break that was to make him the most sought after “action stills photographer” until the 1970s. “My father converted the living room of our tiny Dadar house to a printing room. It always used to be dark and my father would spend most of his times at home there,” Kamat recalls.
No wonder, the quick digital shoots continue to surprise him 62 years later.
For the third generation—Abhishek and Neha—Kamat Foto Flash is a family treasure they want to preserve, but not necessarily a profession they want to take up. Says Neha: “We hope to keep all the images intact for another 60 years.”
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world, a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org )