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Shyam Benegal, ex-assistant Rajesh Khale remember KK Mahajan — death anniversary special

We remember the celebrated cinematographer, who ushered in a revolution in the use of lighting in Hindi cinema, on his 10th death anniversary today (13 July).

KK Mahajan

Keyur Seta

Cinema audiences are mesmerized by the visuals on screen. But many often do not even know who shot those visuals, making the cinematographer one of the unsung heroes of a film.

KK Mahajan was easily among the best cinematographers India has produced. With over 80 feature films with top-notch filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Kalpana Lajmi, Basu Chatterji, Ramesh Sippy and Subhash Ghai and a number of TV series and documentaries with the likes of Shyam Benegal to his credit, Mahajan remains one of the celebrated cinematographers from this part of the world.

Shyam Benegal

Benegal mostly preferred to have Govind Nihalani as the cinematographer for his feature films. But he has a special place in his heart for Mahajan, with whom he shot quite a few documentaries. He still remembers how he first met Mahajan. "I worked with Mahajan when he had just come out of the institute [Film and Television Institute of India, Pune]," said Benegal. "That was way back in 1967. Also before that, as a matter of fact, when he was still studying cinematography at the FTII. There was a documentary I was shooting. The director of the institute at that time said there were some graduating students and asked whether I would like to take one or two of them with me while shooting. I was shooting close to Pune. I said fine, why not? Mahajan was one of them."

Benegal remembers Mahajan as a very resourceful cinematographer. "Operationally, he was brilliant," he said. "His reflexes were fantastic. For documentary work, it was quite extraordinary. He had such fine reflexes. He could never lose a moment on camera."

The filmmaker recalled that in 1967, when he was making his first documentary film, Child Of The Streets, "we used to wander about with this child all over the city of Bombay. It’s not brilliantly made, but it certainly had excellent photography. That was largely because of Mahajan." 

One thing Benegal noticed about Mahajan was that he rarely looked at the exposure meter. "His light reading was really good," he said. "There weren’t too many cameramen who used natural light the way he did. He used to give exposures in a way that you could get excellent detail even in shadows. He was among the first in India of that kind."

Mahajan was an early student of ace cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who worked with the master Satyajit Ray himself, among others, and shot Basu Bhattacharya's Teesri Kasam (1966). Mitra used to be invited by the FTII as guest faculty to take classes for the cinematography students. "There was a certain style that Subrata had designed for himself, which, in many ways, was called shadow-less light," explained Benegal. "It was about not throwing long shadows. Of course, Mahajan later adopted it for himself. That was a great quality which Mahajan also developed."

Cinematographer Rajesh Khale, who worked as one of Mahajan's assistants in the 1990s, including on Ramesh Sippy’s Zamaana Deewana (1995) starring Shah Rukh Khan and Raveena Tandon, agrees that Mahajan's level of expertise remains unmatched. "He played a big role when modern lighting came," said Khale. "There have been a number of very good cameramen after that, but the first person is the first, after all. He was a magician with lights and camera. Cinematography flowed in his veins. We used to learn by just observing him."

Rajesh Khale at work

Khale, who remembers a time when people wanted only Mahajan for their films, credited the late master for most of the technical knowledge he possesses. "He always taught us never to be overconfident but to be sure of what you are doing, believe your eye, and have your basics very solid," he said. "And if you have any doubt, go through it again, don’t just take it for granted."

Khale also said Mahajan taught him never to compromise on lighting; "even if you have to, it should have an artistic look and the basic balance should not be spoilt. This is a very important lesson in cinematography."

He considers Mahajan a pathbreaker. "He brought in a new lighting system," he said. "For instance, sometimes there would be 200 lights on his sets. I remember he once called his lightman and said one of the 200 lights wasn’t working. When the lightman checked, that was exactly so. He had such strong eyes. But although there were a lot of lights, his work was simple."

Mahajan continued working with Benegal even after he got his big break with Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969). "He became Mrinal’s regular cameraman," said Benegal. "I never used him to shoot any of my features because at that time Govind [Nihalani] had already started with me. He remained my cameraman for a very long time; until quite recently. Only in my last 3-4 films Govind didn’t shoot because he himself became a director. But Mahajan would occasionally do a documentary for me."

However, the cinematographer's later years were tough. "He was addicted to alcohol," said Benegal. "Sometimes his hands used to shake. Then judgemental problems came in the way. He found it very difficult to give up alcohol. That thing eventually took his life. But his work at his best was really equal to everybody; to the best cameraman."

Khale believes Subhash Ghai's Saudagar (1991) is among Mahajan's best works. "There were some top-notch actors in the film," he said, referring to Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar. "There was no scope for wasting time. Only someone like KK could pull this subject off at that level. He had a command over everyone. Nobody used to take him for granted. Whatever he used to say [about camerawork and lighting] was the last word."

Khale also remembers him as an excellent human being, "a gem of a person" who would always ensure that his assistants and lightmen were paid on time. "He had this habit of calling us puttar [son, in Punjabi]," he recalled. "We never had to ask for our money. As we were his assistants, we too received respect. There were some cameramen later who were only concerned about themselves. But he wasn’t like that." Khale added that payment problems are rare now because the film industry works at a more professional level today.

Fame and success sat lightly on Mahajan who did not mind if any of his assistants found work with others. "He was very simple and used to wear a simple kurta," Khale said. "Someone who didn’t know him would never realise that he was such a big personality. He never had this ego that I am KK. He used to sit with us, assistants and lightmen, and share his knowledge rather than sitting with the artistes. And he never felt his assistants should stay only with him. If someone got an opportunity elsewhere, he was happy to see them grow."