He is not a celebrity. He is not mobbed on the streets. Rather, top filmmakers queue outside his home to have him as their director of photography. As we sit over Darjeeling Tea in a south Kolkata café, Soumik Haldar, the busiest cinematographer in the Bengali film industry, speaks exclusively to RBN about how he made this far, and his work ahead.
Whenever I watched a film in my growing up years, not that I got to see many, I used to read the credit titles with keen interest, especially the crew members involved in the production. The entire technical side of filmmaking—photography, editing, sound taking, makeup, and similar things—interested me.
I watched Vindu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda sometime after my class 10 board exams. It shook my entire concept of filmmaking. Parinda was real, dark, brutal, and a landmark film in India. It had some stunning camerawork not earlier seen in Hindi films. Parinda triggered my interest in motion photography and I came to know that the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) offers formal training on the technical side of filmmaking. I started inquiring on how to get into the institute.
Having made up my mind to go behind the lens, I started visiting film libraries. James Monaco’s How to Read a Film, widely considered the Bible for filmmakers, was the first book that I read. I joined the film club at Nandan which opened up the entire world cinema domain for me. Stagecoach, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Citizen Kane; the list is endless.
I met Amit Sen at Chitrabani, and seeing my interest in films, he allowed me to join his unit. I managed the crowd on my first day (laughs). It was a huge learning experience for me. I used to bunk my theory classes in college to work with Amitda, since I needed the practical knowledge to crack the FTII entrance exam. I worked in a number of corporate films and commercials. Amitda, an FTII product himself, warned me that passing the exam in the first attempt is a tall order. He advised me to shoot still photographs to create the ‘eye’ for shot composition. I bought a basic camera and started taking photographs.
The Goethe-Institut exhibited the best of international films all through 1995, to observe 100 years of world cinema. Kolkata was a film movement cauldron in 1995-96 with international masterpieces being shown everywhere. I got exposed to French and Italian neo-noir, and German expressionist cinema in those two years. I was extremely lucky to have seen the works of Sergei Eisenstein, Vittorio De Sica, Jean-Luc Goddard, and other masters right here in my city.
Cracking FTII in the first attempt
I sat for the exam in 1996 and cracked it in the first attempt. The still photographs that Amitada had advised me to shoot, was the clincher. These were very basic photos of street life in Kolkata that I shot at random. I was asked about the photographs and the technicals. The interview panel was impressed with my reply and allowed me in (laughs).
Senior cinematographer Hari Nair was a guest faculty at FTII. He was shooting Ram Gopal Varma’s Shool at that time and I joined him as an assistant during the summer holidays in May-June. It was a never-before experience and was the first time that I got directly involved in the making of a mainstream Hindi film.
Return to Kolkata
I was working in commercials in Mumbai after graduating from FTII. I met Abhik Mukhopadhyay there and he asked me to join him as his chief assistant in Kolkata. I was not yet qualified to work as a chief assistant. I mostly worked as a second or third assistant. But my father was not keeping well at that time. I planned to return to Kolkata, work for some time, and then go back to Mumbai. I worked with Abhikda in a number of films and commercials. Patalghar of course was the best experience at that point in my career. It fetched Abhikda the first of his three national awards.
I was already getting several offers and told Abhikda that I now wanted to work independently. Amitda offered me several ad-films and vis-à-vis I started working in telefilms. Senior production designer Indranil Ghosh (Chintuda) recommended me to Bratya Basu who was about to direct his debut film Raasta in 2002. It was to be my first film as a director of photography (DoP) Bratyada was not sure whether I would fit the bill. I showed him my FTII diploma film and later Chindtuda telephoned me and informed that I was in. Raasta was not a box office success but it was a very pragmatic mainstream film at that time. Since then I have worked in 64 films as a DoP.
The cinematic change of the 2000s
There was an overall creative bankruptcy in Bengali films in the eighties and nineties. Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh changed all that. Also, the telefilm movement at the turn of the millennium, played a huge role in the making of content-driven films. I worked in almost 14 telefilms and they were all carefully produced. Directors like Anjan Dutt, Kaushik Ganguly, Sandip Ray, brought back the aesthetics in filmmaking and created the audience.
Foreign film channels
Since 2001, foreign films on TV started beaming in our homes, and viewers were exposed to international cinema with superb content and top-class production values. The internet boom also happened around that time. The audience became more learned and films like Chokher Bali, Mr. Mrs. Iyer, Titli, started happening and became popular. Credit of course goes to Reenadi and Rituda for laying the foundation with films like 36 Chowringhee Lane, Yugant, Unishe April, Dahan, and others. I am extremely fortunate to have witnessed the change first-hand. Bengali films then turned a new corner with Srijit Mukherji’s Autograph which released in 2010. Rituda offered me Shob Choritro Kalponik which was a milestone in my career.
Prosenjit Chatterjee (Bumbada) is technically one of the strongest actors I have ever seen in Indian cinema. When he is there in a project, I know that I can wrap up the shooting ahead of time. He has a sound knowledge of the camera. Bumbada recommended me to several directors and urged Rituda to take me as his DoP. I had worked with Rituda earlier in a telefilm which Bumbada had produced. But Shob Choritro Kalponik was my first major project with Rituda. Earlier, I took just one shot in Khela. Working with Rituda was a relearning process on how to tell a story on celluloid using your lens.
No Mumbai, no regrets
I worked with Rituda in a series of short films in Hindi. I also worked with Remo D’Souza in Lal Pahare’r Katha in 2006, his first film as a director, and later shot several songs and music videos in Mumbai that he directed and choreographed. People started to recognise me as a promising cinematographer and I got a number of offers from Mumbai. I got married in 2007 and later my father passed away. I somehow couldn’t muster the courage to stay away from home. Yes, Mumbai is far more remunerative. But I never regret not working in Mumbai. Bengali films have given me recognition. My entire body of work is in Bengali. It’s far more homely here. I have never thought of leaving Bengal and settling in Mumbai.
Mishawr Rawhosyo, Chander Pahar, Yeti Obhijaan, and Amazon Obhijaan have been the most challenging projects in my career, because these were all adventure films and mounted on a grand scale. But if I have to single out one film, it will be Kamaleshwar Mukherjee’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. It was a difficult project, with several single-take handheld shots. We shot in Purulia in June with daytime temperatures close to 50 degrees. There was no scope for retakes. Every shot in the film was challenging in its own way and Meghe Dhaka Tara is a very important film in CV.
Guptodhoner Sondhane releases on 27 April. Shooting of the first Shonku film begins next month, followed by Reenadi’s adaptation of Ghare Baire in September. Pratim D Gupta’s Ahare Mon, Avishek Saha’s debut film Uronchondi, and Suman Ghosh’s Basu Paribar are in the post-production stage. Atanu Ghosh’s Mayurakshi was a huge hit and is a film very close to my heart. That aside Raj Chakraborty’s Katmundu 2 Cambodia is in the pre-production stage. Shooting will start from June.
Next year surely (laughs). No, I am serious about it. I have two scripts ready. One is a thriller, and the other a relationship drama.
Pics: Soumik Haldar