The Establishing Shot: an excerpt from “Shadow Craft” by Gayathri Prabhu and Nikhil Govind

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A young woman, unfamiliar with the city or its cinematic culture, has come to a film studio to return a coat that had been lent to her during a rainstorm. She is holding the coat and a card she found in the coat—on it is the name of a film director. The young woman steps through the studio doorway straight into the film set and is walking a deserted alleyway with lit windows. Silence. She is suddenly aware of nearly stepping on the only other person in that space, a man propped against a column (perhaps drunk, perhaps a beggar) who mutters something. She flinches, jumps back and her steps quicken. She has not noticed the dark wheels of a camera crane move stealthily towards her, but the viewer does, and we track across the frame to spy on this meeting of woman and camera. Her face, not far from us, turns up sharply. Her eyes dart in panic and she starts to move backwards. Coming towards her is the machine—a camera and its lens mounted on a crane, held by strangers. The camera glides straight ahead, unrelenting. Her face continues to retreat, eyes flickering like a caged animal, till her head rests against her own shadow on the wall. Cut, cut, cut! A cacophony of voices burst out. Who is this, and how did she walk into the middle of a shot being filmed? She explains—she has come to return a coat to the film’s director, the one sitting on the crane, his arm confidently stretched beside the camera (Fig. 1.1 to Fig. 1.5). Having offered her explanation, the woman walks ahead into the shadows of the studio and the camera continues to do its work.

 

 

Shadow Craft: Visual Aesthetics of Black and White Hindi Cinema, Gayathri Prabhu, Nikhil Govind (Bloomsbury Academic India, October 2020)
Shadow Craft: Visual Aesthetics of Black and White Hindi Cinema, Gayathri Prabhu, Nikhil Govind (Bloomsbury Academic India, October 2020)

Excerpted from “The Promise of Black and White Cinema in Independent India”, the introduction to Shadow Craft: Visual Aesthetics of Black and White Hindi Cinema by Gayathri Prabhu and Nikhil Govind (Bloomsbury Academic India). Republished with permission.

This scene in Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (Flowers of Paper, 1959) comes about twenty-eight minutes into the over-two-hour-long film. The metafiction of the script has been obvious to the viewers from its opening shot—a film about the making and unmaking of films as seen through its central protagonist, a director who has known cinematic success in his youth and destitution in his old age. However, this metafiction—the loving exploration of studio spaces, gliding vistas up and down the lighting scaffold, the buzz of a crew at work, conversations about the angst of making cinema—is yet to impact the viewer’s consciousness as it does in the third shot of the sequence described earlier (Fig. 1.3). This specific shot, after the young woman walks into the film set, after she looks up in alarm, is her point of view—a close frontal shot of the lens of the camera that is filming her. Even though this is the woman’s perspective, it is primarily an encounter of two cameras—one is a moving charged prop and the second camera is doing the actual filming as it emotes her fear. The prop camera, helmed by the director that is within the frame and supposed to be filming is in reality blind—whereas the woman’s point of view, supposed to be the captured and reactive image, is in truth the active image and meaning-making filmic vehicle. In this tight dark frame, where the large, black, looming camera descends towards the viewer, the viewer suddenly finds herself thrown into the frame, standing in for the second camera, defiantly returning the gaze. It is a moment of joyous self-recognition—the industry acknowledging its own craftsmanship, its moment of birth, promise and possibility.

The present study locates itself in the returned gaze of this encounter between two camera-selves and it does so in the light–shade visual aesthetics of post-independence cinema in Hindi.  The black and white cinema from the late 1940s to the early 1960s has been acknowledged as formative, especially in terms of thematic questions of a new Nehruvian citizenship. However, the present project is less focused on thematics alone and is more invested in the intersection of this thematic with a self-conscious and self-fashioning visual aesthetic that is concerned with the very construction of that thematic. The cinematic output of this period shows explicit concern with the process of film-making as much as the images that result and regulate the theme. These films explored themes in a richness, variety and boldness that has rarely been matched—and this exploration of themes has been correlated with equivalent confidence in the appropriation and creation of an apposite, precisely imagined visual language that scholarship has not yet adequately appreciated. The filming in black and white allowed film-makers an unprecedented array of exploration of pools of dark and shadow, of habitation, of texture and of location (studio and the nascent explorations of the outdoor). The sumptuous visual language gets mapped onto affective registers—for instance, the angst of the artist (Aag and Pyaasa), the loneliness of the neglected wife (Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), the claustrophobia of the woman prisoner (Bandini), the romance of haunted selves and architectures (Mahal). Oriented towards these registers, this book is anchored mainly around five directors—Kamal Amrohi, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi—and the earliest of the films that we study (Aag) was released in 1948, while the last in chronology is Bandini in 1963. The overlapping and bracketing of these dates with Nehru’s term as the first Prime Minister of independent India (1947–1964) becomes more than a coincidence and underlines the porous sociopolitical milieu that fashioned and impacted the aesthetics of the time.

For now, we return to the studio floor. The terse conversation between the director sitting beside the camera on the crane and the woman-intruder with the coat who is pinned against the wall—as much by the studio lights as by the collective gaze of crew and camera—ends with his suggestion that she sit down while he takes his shot (‘Main shot le loon, phir aap se baat karta hoon’). During this conversation that includes a view from over the woman’s shoulder, the camera mounted on the crane is again featured prominently (similar to Fig. 1.5)—it sits at the centre of the frame in a halo of light, ponderous, its lens resolutely looking down at us. Neither the preoccupied director nor the trespassing woman has registered that the camera has already filmed her and that the ‘wrong’ footage is effectively a screen test—the director later sees the rushes and decides to make her the heroine of the film.

As the woman walks out of the frame to take her seat, the shot is reminiscent of the earlier establishing shot of her walking through the film set. In this visual resolution, the giant apparatus of the crane and its wheels are silhouetted in the foreground even as several bent backs and skilled hands pull it back. The trespassing woman, also silhouetted, walks towards us as our vision tracks backwards—the filming camera (the viewer) is now entirely synchronous (in motion and perspective) with the mounted prop of the active camera. Deep in the lit part of the frame, a young man runs in with a clapperboard. The show is about to begin.


Gayathri Prabhu and Nikhil Govind are authors of Shadow Craft: Visual Aesthetics of Black and White Hindi Cinema