VK Murthy: Romancing With Lens and Light

The dateline: March 20, 2001. Venue: Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. The octogenarian VK Murthy in a blue-grey suit slowly stepped towards the dais to receive the ultimate honour for his genius on celluloid – the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke Award – from the then President Pratibha Patil. The packed auditorium gave him a standing ovation. This thundering applause was a proud moment for the entire cinematographer fraternity of the Indian film industry. Murthy was the first cinematographer to be bestowed the highest award for his distinguished contribution in this arena.

In his glorious career as cinematographer for half a century (1951 -2001), Murthy had all the Guru Dutt films to his credit, barring Chaudavi Ka Chand. When the era of colour dawned, he went to London to acquire skills in colour photography. During his training, he had an opportunity to work with the camera unit of the all-time classic, Guns of Navarone.
Venkataramana Krishnamurthy, better known as VK, was born in Mysore on November 26, 1923, in a lower-middle-class family. Son of an Ayurvedic Pandit, he lost his mother when he was barely nine. A childhood spent in poverty and hardship, the passages of Murthy's lifespan are stranger than fiction.
One of his cousins, a pit musician in an orchestra was instrumental in bringing him closer to the world of moving images. As a growing child, he was extremely curious to learn about these images on the big screen. It so happened that he came across an advertisement about a film coaching school in Bombay. In pursuit of his dreams, he wanted to join this school. And how? With great difficulty, he managed to raise 40 rupees and left for Bombay defying stiff resistance of his father. He embarked on a journey to an alien city where he didn't know a soul. Being completely oblivious of the local language was another handicap.
After reaching Bombay, he tried to locate the film school at the given address somewhere in the suburb, Andheri. Murthy's dreams were shattered, as no such film school exited in this locale as advertised. But he got the better of his despondency, and pushed his luck, trying to meet people in the film studios. No, go. He was never allowed to enter the studios by the guards at the gate. A dejected Murthy came back to Mysore and started learning violin. He practiced eight to ten hours a day playing Carnatic music, soon became proficient, and gained enormous popularity as a violinist.
In 1942, when Gandhiji gave a clarion call for Quit India Movement, like many youngsters Murthy also joined the movement and was imprisoned for three months. But destiny had something more promising in store. The grand old man and visionary Diwan of Mysore, Sir M Visweswariah, a leading architect of the water system in the Mysore State launched an institute of vocational training in Bangalore for aspiring youngsters. Named after the Maharaja of Mysore, Sir Jayachamarajendra Polytechnic was the very first institution of its kind in the country. Popularly known as SJP, it was also the beginning of the first professional authorised institute of Cinematography in India.
An excited Murthy managed a fare to Bangalore and faced the interview board. He passed the muster given his confidence, and the administrator asked him to join the first batch right away. Murthy had mixed feelings. He was selected, alright, but had no resources to pay sixty rupees for the fees. One of his childhood friends, Srinivasan, came to his rescue and the issue was resolved. Murthy waded through his diploma course with flying colours and once again landed in the city of his dreams, Bombay, with the certificate in his hands.
Although, he was a trained cinematographer, it was not a smooth sailing in Bombay. For immediate survival, his other passion came handy. He played violin as a background score for some films. Soon enough, he was spotted by producer-director Mohan Sehgal, who got him a job as an assistant cameraman to Dronacharya, the renowned cinematographer of those times, for seventy-five rupees a month.
Feroodin Irani, the cinematographer of Mehboob Khan, Fali Mistry and Dwarka Diwecha were much respected cameramen in the industry. Fali Mistry was looking for an able assistant for himself. He had trained scores of assistants. And Murthy swung this job as an assistant to Fali Baba, as fondly addressed on the sets. Mistry liked Murthy, and it won him a raise of fifty rupees. He joined Mistry for one hundred and twenty-five rupees per month.
In 1951, while still assistant to Mistry, Murthy met Guru Dutt on the sets of Baazi who was directing this film for Dev Anand. V Ratra was the cameraman of Baazi. Guru Dutt was shooting a song sequence, 'Suno gajar kya gaye,' and asked Ratra to take a particular shot through a mirror, as cabaret girls were singing and dancing with the heroine Geeta Bali. Ratra tried it a couple of times but didn't succeed. Since Murthy happened to be around, he sought Guru Dutt's permission to attempt this shot. He succeeded in the second take, and this scene can be seen in the film, where Dev Anand is standing in a bar watching the dancing girl in a mirror. Murthy followed Dev's reflection in the mirror in a close-up and panned towards Dev, who was moving towards the dancer. In these shots, Murthy used the tracking and trolley movements. After the pack up, Guru Dutt offered Murthy to work as his cameraman in Aar Paar, his home production.
Murthy was an integral part of Guru Dutt's team. In fact, they were made for each other. Murthy had a kitty of sweet and sour memories of working with Guru Dutt in Jaal and Baaz. Guru Dutt was the co-producer and director of Baaz, and also made his debut as an actor. But this film flopped and he suffered heavy losses. Thereafter, he started Aar Paar, but wanted to complete the film in a short time. Once Murthy was doing the lighting when Guru Dutt lost his patience. He took the shot without a final okay from him. During the lunch break, Murthy didn't join the unit. When Guru Dutt came back on the set, he saw Murthy sulking and virtually in tears. He consoled him and said, "Murthy, I am in a tearing hurry to complete this film. Don't worry, I promise that I will make a film for you and you will get ample opportunity to do your best." Later, when Guru Dutt made Kagaz Ke Phool, he honoured his word and gave Murthy a free hand to showcase his talent.
After producing two crime thrillers and a light-hearted satirical comedy, Guru Dutt produced and directed his first classic, Pyaasa, which was close to his heart. This film had a triangle with three layers – a quest for life, longing for recognition, and a struggle against the social systems. There were black and white shades of stark reality. Murthy, indeed, got enormous creative space to play with lights and lenses. According to Murthy, "Guru Dutt was fond of close-ups. He would often say that an actor expresses eighty percent with his or her eyes and the rest is twenty percent. After taking the 'establishing shots', he would insist on close-ups."
Murthy vividly remembered three shots of Pyasa. When the protagonist Vijay (Guru Dutt) was wandering in red-light area, he asked Murthy to take the cutaways of dancing girls and capture their plight by taking these shots in haze. Similarly, in the shots when Meen (Mala Sinha) is confronting Vijay, his looming shadow says everything. And in the concluding shots, when Vijay and Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) walk hand-in-hand with their back towards the camera, it is a heart-rending silhouette.
In Kagaz Ke Phool, too, Guru Dutt gave full liberty to Murthy. Being a keen photographer himself, Guru Dutt knew a great deal about lighting. This poignant film is an epitome of black and white photography. Murthy made optimum use of lighting for the shots. For the beam shot in the pensive song, 'Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam,' Guru Dutt had to wait for days till Murthy finally achieved it. Murthy narrated an interesting anecdote about the premier of Kagaz Ke Phool, which was attended by the film fraternity in large number: "After the film was over, Shammi Kapoor shouted, 'Where is the hero of the film?' Someone pointed towards Guru Dutt, but Shammi Kapoor hoisted me up and went around the lobby screaming, 'Here is the hero of the film'." Murthy won a Filmfare award for this venture.
After the disaster of Kagaz Ke Phool at the box office, Guru Dutt took a vow not to direct a film. He produced Chaudavi Ka Chand and asked M Sadiq to direct it. Sadiq was known for successfully directing films with a Muslim background. But all the songs of this film were directed by Guru Dutt himself. After the roaring success of Chaudvi Ka Chand, Guru Dutt produced another classic, Saheb Bibi Aur Gulam, and entrusted the direction to his friend and writer of his films, Abrar Alvi. Once again, Murthy was at his creative best in this film.
In an interview, Abrar Ali revealed, "Once Murthy and I were not able to take a shot in which Chhote Sarkar (Rehman) and Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) were sitting on the bed. We could not find a suitable angle. Being the producer, Guru Dutt was always present on the sets. He suggested an angle and Murthy took the shot in one go."
Murthy also remembered one more shot of Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam: "In the mujra song, Saaqia aaj mujhe neend nahi aayegee, the dancing girls were not going well aesthetically with the main dancer (Minu Mumtaz). We had to take the shot the same day. I adjusted the lights and dancing girls were seen in a silhouette." Murthy received his second Filmfare Award for Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam.
After the demise of Guru Dutt, Murthy did some films like Love in Tokyo, Jugnu, Naya Zamaana, Barood and Suraj. When Kamal Amrohi launched Pakeezah, the original cameraman was Joseph Wirshing of Bombay Talkies. Unfortunately, he passed away and RD Mathur of Mughal-e-Azam fame took over. He also brought in Murthy for Pakeezah. Amrohi struck an instant rapport with Murthi and he was roped in for Razia Sultan, too.
Murthy belonged to the guru-shishya parampara. For his disciple Govind Nihalani, he shot the television serial 'Tamas'. He was also the cinematographer of Shyam Benegal's serial 'Bharat Ek Khoj'. Although Murthy served the film industry for half a century so industriously, it is sad that his services were not utilised by the Kannada film industry. Nevertheless, in 2005, a brilliant biography on his life and achievements, 'Bisilu-klu' (The Shaft of Light), in Kannada, was a tribute by Uma Rao.
A perfect gentleman, one would always hear Murthy's voice whenever he picked up the phone, "What can I do for you?" That warm and friendly voice was silenced on April 7 of 2014 at the age of 90. And so did an era of cinematography come to an end!



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