Cinematographer Modhura Palit on being the first Indian to receive the Angenieux award at Cannes
Modhura Palit speaks about the limited validation and recognition given to technicians behind the camera, as well as the bias faced by women who choose to become cinematographers
2018 was a landmark year in cinema for young artists behind the camera: The Pierre Angenieux ExcelLens in Cinematography ceremony at the Festival de Cannes recognised the work of young and upcoming cinematographers for the first time through the prestigious Angenieux Special Encouragement Award, which was given to Cecile Zhang from China. 2019 is significant in a similar vein for India; Modhura Palit, a cinematographer based in Kolkata, is the recipient of the Angenieux encouragement award (given to fresh graduates from film schools with some independent experience) this year, making her the first Indian — and first Indian woman — to be recognised in this category.
An alumna of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Modhura has worked on three feature films, numerous short films, ads, documentaries and TVCs. She is also a member of the Eastern India Cinematographers Association (EICA), and an alumna of the Asian Film Academy (AFA), Busan. Despite these credentials and the fact that she has worked on one of India’s first virtual reality films, she still can't believe the enormity of the Cannes recognition. “It feels quite unreal, to be honest. It is very difficult for me to fathom the weight of this. It feels like a pat on the back at the end of a good shot. Of all the hardships I've faced and taboos I've broken, this award gives me a sense of validation. As if all this struggle was worth it,” she says.
Her body of work is an eclectic collection of films, for which she has won numerous awards. Paper Boy is a poignant short film shot in black and white, on the little boys in Kolkata who live a life devoid of colour, zest or opportunity. The main character’s world is the by-lanes of the old city where he delivers the latest headlines and then spends the rest of his day working at a tiny tea stall.
Another film that Modhura is credited for having shot, directed and edited — as part of the 2015 Looking China Youth Film Project — is titled The Girl Across The Stream. Maneuvering the Chinese language and references while filming must have been difficult no doubt, and yet, the subtle ways in which the complexities of the character are portrayed is commendable.
During her time at the Busan International Film Festival, as an alumna of the Asian Film Academy, Modhura had the opportunity to make a 15-minute Korean film, Meet Sohee, in collaboration with the AFA Fellows.
Her filmography truly represents a global tone, and her aspirations are free-spirited. When I ask Modhura about the challenges in her line of work, she says, “I have mostly worked on projects that have an almost absent or very small budget. So I've always tried to work around obstacles and problems to find the best solution, with the available resources. When the audience watches a film, they don't know under what conditions or despite which difficulties it was shot. They just see the final product, and there's no scope for error.”
Virtual reality (VR) films are a fairly new phenomenon in India. With a lot of early adopters, it is an industry that has received a lot of attention. When there was very little available in terms of training and guidance, Modhura had the chance to work on one of the earliest VR films. “The VR film was very exciting to shoot. Because it is a 360-degree space, the lighting and framing becomes a very calculated process. There is no hiding, there is no fourth wall. So it was a huge learning experience,” she says.
Across the board, for technicians working behind the camera, there is very little validation. Because cinematographers remain largely unseen, their work is hardly noticed. Just this year, The Academy was criticised for its decision to present four awards during commercial breaks, to trim the lengthy live show to three hours. Cinematography was one of the awards in question. Hollywood was quick to call it ‘fundamentally stupid’, thereby making The Academy reverse such an outrageous decision.
Technicians in India have a much harder time. “Our country only looks at actors, directors and music directors. Other than that, the other departments are ignored or forgotten. Awards and recognition provide such validation. It pushes us to do better, work harder and to get noticed,” adds Modhura.
As somebody who dreamed of becoming a cinematographer since she was a child — inspired by the artistic upbringing of her photographer parents — Modhura has come a long way. But she doesn't mince words when she says that despite coming from a supportive family, things were far from easy. This is because cinematography is a largely male-dominated profession, which often excludes women who wish to pursue it as a career. “The women who are cinematographers in India are warriors. They are fighting a battle against patriarchy, social norms, their own biology — balancing home, kids and a 100-men crew on a shooting floor,” she reflects.
What stops young women from pursuing this as a career? Is it purely because of the bias they experience, or are other factors at play? “I think the biggest challenge is to get to the shooting floor. Before we can even get there, women are mostly judged by their physical appearances and ability. Can they lift the camera or not? Can they pull a 20-hour shoot or not? The craft of the person is simply ignored,” she adds.
About the future of women in cinematography and how she sees herself within the industry, in all its flaws, the 28-year-old says, "The underlying philosophy that cinematographers should be brawny men, tossing the camera up and down like a football, should change. Women cinematographers are a big culture shock to many. Puritans don't know how to deal with women directors of photography, especially the idea of being ordered by female heads of departments. The society has gendered our job and associated social parameters to it. Breaking these norms is still an uphill task."
Priya Seth, who has carved a niche for herself with films like Airlift and Chef, said to Women Making Films that this bias is not limited to only cinematography. "Take any technical field in any profession. The imbalance is systemic. It has to be addressed at a larger level, and the corrections will percolate to all professions. Once you need to shoot a film, it comes down to excellence — and that alone is important, not if you are a woman or a man.”
Organisations like the Indian Women Cinematographers Association (IWCA), Women Making Films (WMF), and WCC (Women in Cinema Collective) are trying to fight for inclusion and equality within the film industry. “We need communities which can foster and nurture women who want to come into this profession. It’s a long road for the workforce to reach any kind of gender balance. But we’re on it,” said Priya, about the work of the IWCC.
Modhura believes that it is because of communities like the IWCC that her work has been recognised on an international forum, and she is a huge advocate of such initiatives. “Focused communities for women professionals are very important. When we are together and pulling each other up, we become an indestructible force. Our problems are better understood and addressed. It helps the upcoming generation to settle in better,” she explains.
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