2000

               

SUBRATA MITRA

Born: 12 October 1930, Calcutta, India.

Died: 8 December 2001, Calcutta, India.

Education: [Architecture and Science].

Career: Started as still ph. Without ever having touched a movie camera, he ph Satyajit Ray's 'Pather Panchali'.

Mitra was a pioneer of 'available light' cinematography, and he popularized the Arriflex-Nagra combination, for image and sound, respectively, in the 1950s.

Was a member of the ISC & WICA.

Appeared in the doc's 'Creative Artists of India: Satyajit Ray' [1964, B.D. Garga] & 'Satyajit Ray' [1968, James Beveridge].

Awards: Diploma Honoris Causa for High Achievement and Signal Contribution to Indian Cinema [1981]; Silver Lotus Award [1986] for 'New Delhi Times'; Hawaii IFF 'Eastman Kodak Cinematography Award' [1992]; Bombay IFF 'Award for Technical Excellence' [1999].



Go to FILMS


'Subrata Mitra is perhaps the greatest ever Indian cinematographer who revolutionized prevailing aesthetics in Indian Cinema with innovations designed to make light more realistic and poetic.

Mitra was born into a middle-class Bengali family in 1930. Even as a schoolchild he would cycle with classmates to the nearest cinema to watch British and Hollywood films. By the time he was in college, he had decided he would either become an architect or a cinematographer. Failing to find work as a camera assistant he reluctantly continued studying for his science degree.

In 1950 the great Jean Renoir came to Calcutta to shoot 'The River'. Mitra tried to get a job on the film but was turned away. With the efforts of his father he was given permission to watch the shooting. Out there he used to make extensive notes and meticulous diagrams detailing the lighting and the movements of camera and actors. In fact one day the cinematographer Claude Renoir asked for his notes to check lighting continuity before doing a retake. Also visiting the sets on Sundays and holidays to watch the shooting was a graphic designer. Mitra became friends with him and would visit him every day and describe in great detail what he had witnessed at the shooting. The other gentleman was planning a film and one day he asked Mitra to photograph the film for him. And so at the age of 21 Mitra became a director of photography. The film he was to photograph - 'Pather Panchali', and the director - Satyajit Ray. 'Pather Panchali' was shot over four years in chunks whenever Ray was able to find funds. In fact for 18 months the production shut down entirely until Ray's mother talked to a friend of a friend of the Chief Minister of West Bengal who agreed to finance the remaining part of the film. 'Pather Panchali' led to a collaboration with Ray which produced 10 films in 15 years.

When Mitra started watching films in the 1940s and 1950s much of Indian cinematography was completely under the influence of Hollywood aesthetics which mostly insisted on the 'ideal light' for the face using heavy diffusion and strong backlight. But according to Mitra Hollywood also had rebels like James Wong Howe who was able to separate the foreground and the background with careful lighting in films like 'Come Back, Little Sheba' and 'The Rose Tattoo'.

Mitra made his first technical innovation while shooting 'Aparajito'. The fear of monsoon rain had forced the art director, Bansi Chandragupta, to abandon the original plan to build the inner courtyard of a typical Benares house in the open and the set was built inside a studio in Calcutta. Mitra recalls arguing in vain with both Chandragupta and Ray about the impossibilities of simulating shadowless diffused skylight. But this led him to innovate what became subsequently his most important tool - bounce lighting. Mitra placed a framed painter white cloth over the set resembling a patch of sky and arranged studio lights below to bounce off the fake sky. Apart from his brilliant work with Ray on films like 'Charulata', Mitra also shot four films for Merchant Ivory Productions in the 1960s - 'The Householder', where he photographed most of the film with six photoflood lamps, 'Shakespeare Wallah', 'The Guru', which was the first Indian film shot entirely with halogen lamps and 'Bombay Talkie'.' [From the upperstall.com website.]

[Right/top] with dir Satyajit Ray [1950s]

[Right] with dir Satyajit Ray & c.asst Soumendu Roy [c] - 1956

It's a strange moment. One I thought that would never see the light of day. I never thought that the light would go out of Subrata Mitra, for he in many ways showed me the light. He epitomized it, breathed it and lived for it.

Subrata Mitra became one of the greatest cinematographers of all times. A man known for his attention to obsessive detail as well as one known to terrorize actors, put the fear of god in all film laboratories and bring even the greatest directors to their knees.

In the days before instant video monitoring and digital gizmos, cinematography was the dark art and the cinematographer it's wizard; with his array of secret charms and spells he could bind you in.

Subrata was the Jedi Master, quite simply the best.

I got to know Subrata Mitra on Victor Banerjee's film 'An August Requiem' and for some unknown reason he decided to take it upon himself to draw me into his world of light and magic.

'What is the language of light?,' he asked me once. Looking at my blank face he answered, 'It's music.' 'How can a director and a cameraman really speak to one another?' Subrata proposed that the scale of seven notes correspond to seven shades of gray or seven scales of contrast. To an aspiring filmmaker like me, it suddenly made sense. He had shown me the light! Subrata also said, 'let color follow contrast,' and that's a ground rule I follow till today.

Born in 1930 Subrata Mitra wanted to become an architect or a cameraman. When Jean Renoir was making 'The River' in Calcutta Subrata tried to get a job as a camera assistant but failed. Stubborn as he was, he would tell me years later, he didn't take no for an answer, hung around and followed the unit with his little notebook in which he wrote and made meticulous sketches. This paid off, for later the cameraman Claude Renoir was asking Subrata for his notes on the film to check on his own lighting schemes. It was here that he met a young illustrator working in an advertising agency and planning his first feature film - Satyajit Ray. Ray wanted to break away from the conventional lighting styles followed in the commercial cinema of Calcutta and looked towards the 21 year old science graduate to photograph his feature 'Pather Panchali'.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was there inspiration and while the two had appreciated the light and contrast in Cartier-Bresson photographs they had never seen any of this in cinema. In 'Aparajito,' Ray's second film Subrata introduced 'bounce lighting' in cinema. He achieved his special quality of light by stretching a white cloth across the open courtyard of the set they had built in a studio. Placing studio lights below he bounced them off of the cloth to simulate a diffused daylight feel. Bounce lighting was born and people who saw those early Ray films in the 50's and 60's were shocked by the look and photography; they had never seen anything like this before!

Subrata Mitra mentioned to me that it was in nature and life around him that he found his inspiration for lighting. He'd always look for a natural source; a window, a skylight, a lamp and then use that to light up the scene. But more than lighting it was the quality of exposure, the texture of the skin, a fine eye for details that were an inescapable mark of films that he waved his wand over.

Unlike others at his time he didn't keep this a dark secret either. His passion was to share information, to draw students, his crew and anyone else into his world. He'd take pains to explain his lighting style and in moments of doubt wouldn't hesitate to turn to his assistants and say, 'what should the exposure be?'

While filming 'Split Wide Open' [1999] before we would set exposure, I would often turn to doph Sukumar Jatania [his protégé] and ask, 'what would Subrata da have done here?'

I found the Bombay Film Festival incomplete, I was missing Subrata Mitra; a permanent fixture of any film festival. I missed his presence, his kurta, the thick framed spectacles from another era, his stubby pencil, his fat address book which he stubbornly used even though we had tested all the possible digital diaries available on this planet, the way he stirred his coffee; holding his spoon in his nicotine stained fingers, stirring, pausing and then stirring again. I missed someone who was passionate about films, someone who fretted about scheduling, about which films to see, about the quality of projection, of image, of lighting and about filmmaking itself. Someone who cared about every little detail that went into filmmaking.

Subrata Mitra was obsessive about details. 'God is in the details,' he would say quoting the architect Mies van der Rohe and also echoing what Satyajit Ray said, 'It's details that make cinema.' It was the attention to detail that made Subrata what he was. On an Indian Airlines flight he took a white plastic cup cut it in half, fitted it onto his still camera converting it into an incident light meter. It was as accurate as the professional one he had which cost him over $400!

In New York, Subrata Mitra was looking at a poster of one of the Ray films when a voice boomed from behind, 'I'd love to meet the man who shot this film.' Subrata turned around and said quietly, 'that was me.' He was immediately swept up in a bear hug by a man who kissed him on both cheeks and said, 'You are truly a genius.' The man was Vittorio Storaro.

Subrata Mitra, Subrata da or just plain old 'dada' was the Master of Light. [Film director Dev Benegal on the 'In the Spotlight' website.]



 FILMS

1951

Pather Panchali/Song of the Little Road [Satyajit Ray] b&w; filmed 1951-55; + composed add sitar music; first film in 'The Apu Trilogy'

1956

Aparajito/The Unvanquished [Satyajit Ray] b&w; second film in 'The Apu Trilogy'

1958

Parash Pathar/The Philosopher's Stone [Satyajit Ray] b&w

1958

Jalsaghar/The Music Room [Satyajit Ray] b&w

1958

Apur Sansar/The World of Apu [Satyajit Ray] b&w; third film in 'The Apu Trilogy'

1960

Devi/The Goddess [Satyajit Ray] b&w

1962

Kanchenjungha [Satyajit Ray] c

1963

Mahanagar/The Big City [Satyajit Ray] b&w

1963

The Householder/Gharbar [James Ivory] b&w

1964

Charulata/The Lonely Wife [Satyajit Ray] b&w

1965

Akash Kusum/Up in the Clouds/House of Cards [Mrinal Sen] b&w

1965

Shakespeare Wallah [James Ivory] b&w

1966

Nayak/The Hero [Satyajit Ray] b&w

1967

Teesri Kasam/The Third Oath [Basu Bhattacharya] b&w

1967

Dong fu ren/The Arch [Shu Shuen Tong] c

1968

The Guru [James Ivory] c

1970

Bombay Talkie [James Ivory] c

1972

Mahatma and the Mad Boy [Ismail Merchant] c; short/27m

1974

Yoga - en vej til lykken/Yoga - A Road to Happiness [Hagen Hasselbalch] c; doc/90m; cph: Dirk Brüel & H. Hasselbalch

1981

An August Requiem [Victor Banerjee] c

1984

Jawaharlal Nehru/Pandit Nehru/Nehru [Shyam Benegal & Yuri Aldokhin] ?; doc/?m; cph: ?

1985

New Delhi Times [Ramesh Sharma] c


 MISCELLANEOUS

1950

The River [Jean Renoir] prod asst (uncred) + played sitar title music; ph: Claude Renoir

1964

The Delhi Way [James Ivory] co-prod asst; ph: James Ivory