VK Murthy | Wizard of light
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For even the most casual film buff, the name V K Murthy is synonymous with that of director Guru Dutt and the famous films Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool, which Dutt directed—and Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam which he produced. The more serious student of cinema will go into raptures at how Murthy, a cinematographer, captured a beam of light in the studio, bouncing it off two mirrors to fall on the floor, in the haunting song, “Waqt ne kiya, kya haseen sitam”. Indeed, the “look” of Guru Dutt’s films, with the haunting, poetic images they became famous for, would not have been possible without Murthy, who died, aged 90, on Monday.
Guru Dutt fans, and they are legion, usually tend to concentrate only on his latter films, especially Pyaasa and Kagaz ke Phool. But his skills and early genius as a storyteller were apparent much before, and right from the beginning Murthy was on his side.
Murthy had once said in an interview that Guru Dutt noticed him when he suggested during the filming of Baazi, Dutt’s first directorial venture for Navketan. The shot shows the camera pan from a reflection in the mirror to Dev Anand and then on to the floor of a club where Geeta Bali and her chorus girls are dancing to “Suno gazar kya gaye”. Murthy was then an assistant to the cameraman V Ratra. The smooth and fluid movement of the camera impressed Dutt who promptly took him on for his next film, Jaal, where again Murthy’s quality of using light and shade is apparent, even in the shoddy prints that are now available. From then onwards, Murthy was Dutt’s cinematographer, even moving with him on outside projects such as 12 O’clock, directed by Pramod Chakravorty.
The collaboration between Dutt and Murthy was not without bumps. In Nasreen Munni Kabir’s recent book Conversations with Waheeda Rehman, the actress talks about how both fought a lot even though they understood each other well. “When Guruduttji explained a shot he wanted to Murthy, he wanted the shot ready at once,” says Rehman. “But they were never simple—they often involved complicated angles, trolley movements, close ups, mid shots etc.” The result was an impatient Dutt badgering his cinematographer who would point out that he was working on it and occasionally it resulted in the director walking off the set. Kabir, who has also interviewed Murthy, says, “He was a sincere and wonderful man, full of wit and completely straightforward. He had a strong personality and wanted to experiment with lighting. His lighting in the song “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam” from Kaagaz Ke Phool, is entirely the result of Murthy’s ingeniousness. He was Guru Dutt’s eyes.”
But the final result was always worth it. With his profound understanding of how light fell, Murthy often lit up the set to give a chiaroscuro effect, so crucial in the early noir films that Dutt made, such as Jaal, Aar Paar and CID (which Raj Khosla directed for Dutt’s company.) In the last named one, the entire sequence of Dev Anand hiding first from a crime boss and then the police is reminiscent of early German expressionist and Hollywood crime films, which reflected the character’s feeling of being hunted. Even in happier, outdoor shots, such as the swimming pool scene in Mr and Mrs 55, Murthy came up with innovative trolley shots, done after much discussion with Guru Dutt.
But undoubtedly his three masterpieces were Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool (the first Indian film in cinemascope) and Sahib, Bibi and Ghulam, where Guru Dutt essayed the anguish and loneliness of the lead characters, Vijay the poet, Suresh Sinha the director and Meena Kumari of Chhoti Bahu, the neglected housewife. In Pyaasa, the shot of Vijay turning up at a function to commemorate his death shows him backlit and framed against a door, referencing a martyr’s crucifixion. In Kagaz ke Phool, the growing distance between the failed director and his one-time muse and mistress is beautifully brought while in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam Meena Kumari’s gradual slide into alcoholism and despair is heightened by the light and shade effect. The last two films won Murthy Filmfare awards.
After Dutt’s untimely death in 1965, Murthy found himself rudderless and worked mainly with Pramod Chakravorty, Dutt’s one-time assistant. Meanwhile, colour had driven out black and white films. The work was good as always, but it was not the same. Shyam Benegal used him in the serial Bharat Ek Khoj, based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India and in 1992, he retired to Bangalore. Official recognition came late with the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 2008, but lovers of Hindi cinema have always known of Murthy’s genius.
KU Mohanan, cinematographer of films such as Miss Lovely and Don, says, “His ability to use lighting and to create mood was amazing—most of the others were doing flat work in that period (1950s-1960s). Also, you don’t see that kind of beautiful and fluid camera movements during that period.”
Sidharth Bhatia is the author of India Psychedelic: The story of a Rocking Generation and Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story.