“You could photograph her from any angle—without make-up—and still come away with a masterpiece. She was a cameraman’s delight.” That was Jethabhai Hansraj Thakker on Madhubala, one of the most beautiful women in the history of Indian cinema, quoted in her biography by Khatija Akbar.
Thakker was one of the premier film publicity photographers in Mumbai for two decades since he came to the city as a penniless refugee from Karachi in 1948. The 1,400 sqft, Art Deco photo studio he set up in Dadar, near the once-popular Chitra Cinema, still stands, as do over 4,000 photographs of stars taken in that studio, which belonged to him, not the studios.
Eighty of them are now in the possession of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Noida and they have put them up in an exhibition, Sitaare Zameen Par, curated by Roobina Karode, and the women in them—from Madhubala to Nargis to Nutan—hark back to an era where beauty was unvarnished by a plethora of image-makers, stylists and photoshop artists. Thakker, who passed away in 2003 at 80, was close friends with many of the actors who worked in the nearby studios, Filmalaya, Kardar Studio, Ranjit Studio and Rajkamal Studio. Several of them have been torn down for their real estate value.
His son, Vimal Thakker, now 70, and also a photographer, recalls his father telling him about Nalini Jaywant, an actor from the 1950s who made a successful pair with Ashok Kumar in a series of films, who would often drop by for a coffee at the studio or even lunch at their home in Sion. She first met Thakker as a newbie and the friendship progressed from there. It was she who recommended him to many of her friends and co-stars.
Karode was introduced to Thakker’s photographs by artist-photographer Ram Rahman through an exhibition he curated in 2015 at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. For Karode, the natural beauty of actors of the bygone era was enhanced by Thakker who was a master at sculpting the image with light. As Rahman puts it: “The remarkable aspect of Thakker’s photos is that they are all performed in the studio with his complex lighting. It was a collaboration between the actor and the photographer. The abhinaya [expression] was spontaneous and sometimes related to the props in the studio, sometimes brought by the actors themselves.”
Since Thakker was using a large format camera which entailed focusing on a ground glass after which the film was inserted into the camera, the actor would have to hold their position very precisely before he could release the trigger. The focus of these cameras was very shallow. He could only check the result after the film was processed and printed. The skill of both actors and photographer was astonishing, says Rahman, as any photographer would understand.
Jethabhai Hansraj Thakker was as much an idol-maker as he was a man who connected the celestial body to the ordinary fan
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Both the men and women were looked at as stylised performers. The women were more “feminine” and sensitive, the men more macho. They followed accepted stereotypes of the period. As compared to now, the women are much more sensitively expressive—the moods are of longing, loss, with much less of the sexuality in recent movie images of the women actors. “It was also the result of shooting with hot lights in the studio, unlike the harsh flash lighting which has become the norm now and leads to a more quick, snapshot image,” he says.
The sheer magic of these single edition silver gelatin photographs takes us back to the time when cinema in India was making its presence and potential felt rather strongly in connecting to the larger public. Karode’s three favourites? Nargis, Suraiya and Madhuri Dixit, says Karode. “Thakker has been able to capture their face as well as persona, exuding and exemplifying their beauty through shades of vulnerability and strength in soft light,” she explains.
Taken so long ago, these images still stand out in the age of the ubiquitous paparazzi photograph, because it is the image-makers who manage and approve of the photos released in public. “The Thakker images are from the time when the actors were more human and real in their emotional connect,” says Rahman. “The new aesthetic, on the other hand, comes from our hyper consumer culture. You hardly ever see stars in sarees anymore—almost all in western clothing. The photoshop post-production now is universal. The Thakker pictures are from the time of film and darkroom printing where the retouching was minimal. The digital era has led to a less real image.”
Thakker stopped shooting film stars in 1968, saying times had changed too much for him. The arrival of Eastman Colour meant black and white had ceased to be attractive to stars. Thakker had also lost a lot of money, with producers owing him his fees. There was also a 19-day strike in 1968 in Mumbai cinemas which wreaked havoc on the film distribution system. A disheartened Thakker did only one major film shoot after that, in 1995, with Madhuri Dixit channeling Madhubala for the 44th anniversary of the film magazine, Screen.
Bollywood glamour is now the work of many, not one. Every actor now has a dedicated hair stylist, make-up person, fashion stylist, social media publicist and brand manager. Then there is the movie the actor is promoting at a particular point and the demands of fashion glossies which usually put Bollywood women on the cover. The whole process has become more professional, more process-driven, more brand-oriented, and less intimate and indeed less spontaneous. Though individual photographers such as Prasad Naik, Avinash Gowariker and Dabboo Ratnani are in demand for cover shoots, they usually follow a brief dictated by luxury labels and their seasonal looks.
But none of those instantly consumed photographs have the kind of gravitas enabled by Thakker’s use of chiaroscuro, a technique that plays with light and shadow. Thakker used spotlights and shadow textured backgrounds to create an aura around the stars of what is now known as Mumbai film industry’s Golden Era. With printing and film rolls being expensive, Thakker, who was a photographer with the British Army in pre-Partition Karachi, usually could shoot only one frame. The cameras he used—Field, Graflex or Rolleiflex—are all preserved by his son in India Photo House. “Not for long though,” says Vimal, with builders hoping to demolish the studio to build flats. “We are fighting it in court,” he adds.
Nutan eating an apple, in a publicity still for Dilli ka Thug (1958); Madhubala in a sari with foliage in the background sourced from Chitra Cinema’s garden; Nargis embracing Raj Kapoor in a still for Chori Chori (1956), one of the last films in which the pair appeared together; Suraiya shot with hair lights. Thakker’s women had an aura and a mystique about them, absent in today’s all-seeing, all-knowing world.
The photographs bridged the distance between the star and the fan. Sunil Dutt would order his wife Nargis’ photographs in bulk to be given to fans with her autograph, the 1950s precursor to the selfie. Thakker was as much an idol-maker as he was a man who connected the celestial body to the ordinary fan, something social media does so effectively now. He and many of his subjects may be gone now but their memory is forever.
(Sitaare Zameen Par is on view at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Noida, until April 30)
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