Subrata Mitra The Master of Light

Dev Benegal writes about his only guru in cinema the legendary cameraman Subrata Mitra who died December 08, 2001. This is the article which originally appeared in the MidDay, Bombay.

2001. What a year it has been!
George Harrison, Douglas Adams, Subrata Mitra.
Subrata who? Precisely.


The film festival in Bombay this year seemed 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 many ways he was a techno geek before they were even invented.

But where was cinema in all this?

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 their 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 had begun a revolution.

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

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 before we would set exposure, I would often turn to Sukumar Jatania (his protege, Anoop Jotwani who filmed English, August being the other one) and ask, “what would Subrata have done here?”

He photographed the famous Ray films, Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sansar, Charulata, Jalsaghar, Devi, Kanchenjunga- his first color film. For Merchant Ivory he filmed Shakespearwallah, Householder, The Guru and Bombay Talkie. In 1986 he filmed New Delhi Times for which he won the National Award and in 1992 became the only Indian to win the Eastman Kodak Lifetime Achievement for Excellence in Cinematography.

He was the master of light, a Jedi Master, quite simply the best.

There was a time in this country when we made them good.