Murthy by Mayank Chhaya
I met the great Indian cinematographer V K Murthy just once. It was on the sets of Shyam Benegal’s epic TV series ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ (Discovery of India) at a studio in Goregaon in Mumbai. It was sometime in 1987. I had gone to interview Benegal but Murthy was very much on my mind because of his remarkable work as a cinematographer.
For a cinematographer who had shot some of Hindi cinema’s most iconic images in ‘Kagaz ke Phool’ (1959-directed by Guru Dutt), ‘Pyasa’ (1957—also directed by Dutt) and ‘Sahab, Bibi aur Ghulam’ (1962—directed by Abrar Alvi) television was clearly a new and somewhat constricting experience for Murthy. The sweep and grandeur of cinema had to be unlearned by Murthy to be able to get into the more intimate, more immediate medium that is television. “In the end, any visual medium is always about light. So I will manage,” he told me.
Murthy, who died on Monday in Bangalore, was regarded as Hindi cinema’s finest cinematographer by many and if there was a single shot that earned him that honor it was the so-called “light beam shot” from the movie ‘Kagaz ke Phool.’ If a cinematographer was ever a single shot, it was this shot for Murthy. The whole song ‘Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam’ (The lovely vagaries of time), not to mention the theme of the film, lyrics and songs, together offered Murthy a once-in-a-lifetime canvas to showcase his eye as a cinematographer.
A detail that is often not taken into account by casual observers of great black and white cinematography is that real life is not black and white. For the director and cinematographer working on a black and white movie, the task of envisioning what a shot or a frame might look like on screen is particularly exacting. That is because they are seeing everything in color while they are setting up the scene that is eventually to be devoid of colors.
During my brief interaction with Murthy over 25 years ago it struck me that he saw his craft as the overriding aspect of cinema. There is a reason why it is called cinema and the one shooting it cinematographer. For someone of Murthy’s obvious talents it must have been hard to remain subservient to the will of the director. I asked him whether his vision clashed with that of Guru Dutt’s, his most frequent collaborator. Murthy said something to the effect that more often than their visions converged but he was always conscious of the fact that while Dutt visualized it in his mind’s eye, Murthy had to translate that into an actual visual on celluloid. That is an altogether an exclusive talent.
I also remember Murthy saying that oftentimes directors forget that shot visualization in mind is way easier than actually setting it up with camera positions, lights, lenses and so on. He said he could never forget that cinematography was a highly technical craft that required understanding of the science of light and angles.
The iconic light beam shot from ‘Kagaz ke Phool’ by V K Murthy
In Murthy’s passing Indian cinema has lost a world class craftsman whose talents should have been way more productively deployed than they were after his stint with Guru Dutt.