The director of 27 Down, Avtar Kaul, died in an accident in the same week in 1973 that his first and only film was given a National Award for direction. The story of a Railways staffer (MK Raina) who falls in love with a Life Insurance Corporation employee (Raakhee) is given immediacy and intimacy by its still-fresh visuals.
“27 Down was very challenging for me. I was 22 years old, and I hadn’t done any major cinematography until then. Avtar gave me a full script and asked me for my approach. I told him that since the film dealt with realistic incidents, we should shoot with lenses that got close to the characters rather than shooting from afar and then zooming in. We shot in black and white for two reasons: we wanted stark contrasts. Also, colour film hadn’t fully evolved yet to give a desaturated look.
I shot 70 per cent of the film with a handheld camera. One film at the back of my mind was Battle of Algiers – you feel you’re right there when the conflict is taking place.
On the very first day of the shoot, I ran into problems with Raakhee, who was by then a star. She had put on make-up and false eyelashes. I asked her to take it off since she was playing a middle-class girl working at LIC. She was outraged, and wouldn’t take my requests for a second take. She wanted to see the rushes. Avtar refused, but I persuaded him to agree. Once she saw them, she changed completely. She shook my hand. I told her, you have such a lovely complexion, why do you hide it behind make-up? That was the way stars were groomed in mainstream cinema.
We shot on the train and at VT station without lights. I used to cover the camera lens with a black cloth and take it off just before starting to roll. Raina and Raakhee had rehearsed their lines in advance. By the time people realised what had happened, the shot would be taken.
One scene involved a steam engine. The Railways had given us the engine for just a day. I set up my camera right next to the tracks. The engine started coming towards me on the adjoining track and came really close. One part of me told me to stop and another told me to keep going. My finger went numb, but somehow, I mustered up all my courage and kept shooting.
I particularly remember one scene, which was a top-angle shot of VT station. We’d got a vantage point from one of the windows on top. A bit of the glass in the window was broken. Avtar took out a bit more glass and I held the camera through the hole. I was craning my neck and wanted to stop but Avtar said, don’t cut.”
“VK Murthy in Pyaasa, Subrata Mitra in Charulata, and Vittorio Storaro in The Last Emperor. Also Sven Nykvist.”
By Time Out on December 11 2009 5.30am