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Interview Hindi Marathi

Dad was too much of an artist: DoP Rajen Kothari’s son Pratik

On the ace cinematographer's fifth death anniversary, son Pratik Rajen Kothari speaks about his father’s work and the respect he still receives in the film industry.

Keyur Seta

The late Rajen Kothari was one of the more sought after cinematographers who started off in the early 1980s. His strongest body of work came with filmmakers like Prakash Jha and Shyam Benegal. Some of his notable works are Hip Hip Hurray (1984), Damul (1985), Pestonjee (1988), Ghayal (1990), Mrityudand (1997), Samar (2000), Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), Welcome To Sajjanpur (2008) and Tukaram (2012). 

Kothari died on 26 September 2012 of a heart attack. On the fifth anniversary of his passing, his son, Pratik Rajen Kothari, an aspiring actor and director, spoke about his father’s work and the respect he still receives in the film industry.

Pratik Kothari directed one of the short films (Hell O Hello) in Shor Se Shuruaat (2016). He also played an important character in his father's film, Das Capital: Gulamon Ki Rajdhani. Excerpts from the conversation:

How would you describe him as an artist?

He was, according to me, too much of an artist (laughs). He was very much immersed in his craft. Everything else was secondary. You know the work ethic that he had. He was involved heart and soul in his projects. He would go out of the way to even support a project which he liked or felt for without expecting much in return. This is how he was as a person. Generally what I have heard from people is that he was very soft-spoken and treated people with love and respect. 

Which are his best works, according to you?

It’s a coincidence that I was watching Ghayal (1990) yesterday. I had seen it as a child. It was like a growing-up film. But there were no cinematic sensibilities then. That is definitely one of his better works. Then I would say something like a Damul (1985) or Mrityudand (1997). If you compare Ghayal and Damul, they are poles apart. I mean, the ease with which he shot both films... Ghayal is not a work of someone stuck in parallel cinema. It has its commercial aesthetics in place, yet each and every frame is artistically shot. This also goes for Damul and Mrityudand. I have seen Mrityudand several times and it had that impact. I also liked Zubeidaa (2001) in terms of cinematography. Then also Tukaram (2012). It had a period very difficult to create in today’s times.

One of his rare works which very few people would have seen is the late Sameer Chanda’s Bengali film Ek Nadir Galpo. It had a different genre and treatment. It was situated very much in the visual palette that a Bengali audience would relate to. I think a couple of years ago the film was finally released. We saw it on the big screen after a long time.

He worked in both hardcore commercial cinema as well as parallel cinema. Which did he personally prefer?

I think he was known more for what is called parallel cinema. Something Prakash Jha sir used to do 20 years back, or what Shyam [Benegal] sir’s cinema is. But now the gap is reducing day by day, like Shyam sir also made something like Welcome To Sajjanpur (2008) and Prakashji made something like Raajneeti (2009). It has those cinematic aesthetics, yet it is commercially made. But I think his heart went towards films like Damul or films by Gulzar saheb or Shyam sir. Films where there is aesthetic storytelling. But then he also did films like Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe (2002), Dil Kya Kare (1999), etc. So, he was more like people who have institute training, who feel more comfortable where art is given preference. 

Rajen Kothari

But as serious as he was, or as serious as his films were, he had a real appetite for comedy films. He had his own sense of humour too. I remember laughing it out with him while watching films like Padosan (1968), Sadhu Aur Shaitan (1968), Munna Bhai MBBS (2003) or Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films. I would laugh more because he would laugh out loud. Because of his sense of humour, younger students connected with him. It was not merely teaching. It was beyond that.

He worked most with Shyam Benegal. How was his rapport with him?

Earlier it was Prakash Jha. Then if you take the last decade of his work, it was Shyam sir. Samar is a National award-winning film. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see it yet because the DVD we have is of poor quality. The print is only available with the National Film Archives. They had a screening at Whistling Woods, but somehow I wasn’t able to make it. I was shooting for Shyam sir for Sanvidhan. Shyam sir speaks highly of Samar. But as I haven’t seen it, I am not able to place it among his best works. 

They had a deep understanding of what to expect from each other. This is what even Shyam sir used to tell me, that after a point they did not need to explain the shot to each other or the lens to use. You get familiar on how the director is interpreting the scene.

Apart from Shyam sir, he was fond of working with Gulzar saheb. Manmohan Singh was the DoP of Hu Tu Tu (1999) and Filhaal (2002). Unfortunately, he couldn’t be present for some part of the shoot. So, a lot of the scenes of Hu Tu Tu are shot by dad, and Filhaal also. Then he also did Gulzar saheb’s TV series Tehrir Munshi Premchand Ki. He used to tell me that once you listen to Gulzar saheb’s narration, you understand everything and you can visualize the scene. If he didn’t have the time to go through the script, he would just go to him and request a narration and understand the scene in five minutes. 

His last film as a director, Das Capital: Gulamon Ki Rajdhani... unfortunately, he couldn’t see its release. 

I can go on and on with that film because there are so many things related to it. That was my first major film both as assistant director and actor. Somebody else was to be the first AD, but he got some other assignment. So, having spent so much time on the prep and knowing the script in and out, I became the first AD by default.

As an actor-director and as father-son, we were sharing the same room, as it was a tight-budget film. We also used to have fights (laughs) as I was also managing the schedule. If we couldn’t complete the scenes in a day which we were supposed to, I would nag him, asking what do we do now, and requesting him to extend the shoot. He would say there is no extra budget, how do we extend? 

Rajen Kothari with Shyam Benegal

There was a scene where he was giving me instructions off camera. He had lost his voice almost. I saw that he wasn’t giving such behind-the-camera instructions to anyone else. And why he is yelling despite losing his voice? This hurt the actor’s ego in me. So, in between the shots, I said just cut it please. I was actually a bit rude to him and said, you just sit on the monitor. But that was the actor in me. After pack-up, I rushed to him, hugged him and said sorry, I should not have spoken to you that way.

This incident remains with me. The prep and shoot of the film was the time I actually spent most closely with my father. As he was a practising DoP, a lot of times he wouldn’t be at home. 

At one point, I was also looking into the production. He used to withdraw money in the morning for spending on the shoot. After a point I gave it back to him and said, “I am already the AD and actor, so don’t give me another responsibility.” But it was all in the heat of the moment. We completed the film in 16-18 days. The film has been screened at national and international festivals. At some places it is screened as a tribute to him. It also won some awards. 

The last film he shot was Aajcha Divas Mazha (2013). 

Yes, that was his last film. They were supposed to shoot the last leg a couple of days after he passed away. His assistants on the project had to take over.

You had once mentioned that after he passed away, you came to know how highly respected he was in the film industry.

In my entire upbringing and early youth, we used to know that our father worked as a cinematographer. But we never read any of his interviews. And he never used to speak about the film industry at home much. Until I said one day that I wished to be an actor. Then he got 250 world cinema films for me to see. Before that, my experience was only watching mainstream films. But after his passing, I was overwhelmed by the kind of support we got from within the industry, especially from Whistling Woods. When he was briefly hospitalized for 3-4 hours before he passed away, a lot of people came to meet him; people from the industry and his students. He spoke with a lot of them before he passed away. 

After that I was overwhelmed again when I went to see the film Hawaizaada (2015) by director Vibhu Puri. His wife Savita Singh was the DoP. I read my dad’s name in 'special thanks'. This is because they respected him so much... even now when I talk to them. While talking to people from the industry and students, when I mention that he was my father, I can see their expression change. They first talk to you in a formal way. But when you give this added information, the respect I get is totally different. And you can sense whether it is coming from the heart. In this case, most of the times it comes from the heart. He had that goodwill from the way he conducted himself and carried forward his career. 

I am proud to say that I am Rajen Kothari’s son. It is a huge legacy and responsibility to carry forward. Your conduct has to reflect the kind of legacy you carry forward.