In Camera: An Unobtrusive Gaze of the Filmmaker's Journey
by Sarmistha Maiti
Ranjan Palit's In Camera is a rare documentary not only in the Indian documentary scenario but also in the list of worldwide acclaimed documentary films of the recent times. It is a self-reflexive film where he invokes the feeling of “My gaze… My dark… My colour…” as the images and questions that have haunted him during his 25-year career. Ranjan Palit is celebrated for films that document the struggles of powerless people to save their homes and ancestral traditions and this has been his irrevocable passion to confront where he still questions the good he has done for them and wonders if he's merely turned their lives into images and then memories that are destined to be forgotten.
In this particular documentary, Ranjan Palit takes us into an internal journey and his camera takes the subjective angle to penetrate into the hidden dark corners dissolving all barriers. He reflects on his subjects and locations, from a sightless singer at village cremations to the fierce first lady of Indian cinema Kamlabai Gokhlae. This is one approach to the film and on the other hand, he is obsessed by the footage of an activist boy pointing him out in the crowd, accusing him of police surveillance.
Palit has captured children in this film who are victimized and radicalized by the events around them. But his own daughter induces the route for him as a filmmaker to address and answer the questions as the motivation for self-realization. His daughter actually evolves as the most powerful force to confront his motives, as well as his suspicion that he has “used film as the ultimate alibi: frame first, act later.” Palit has deeply explored the connection between his professional and personal lives and inextricably entwined in his collaboration and marriage with filmmaker Vasudha Joshi, he has eloquently answered his own question: “Isn't being behind the camera better than looking away?”
Throughout the film, he has reflected on his image-making process and at the same time has tuned into his personal journey as a witness to seminal moments in contemporary history. Demolitions in Mumbai, protests at a coal mine and against a dam, Bhiwandi, Baliapal, performers, singers, actors Palit has induced his gaze over the images he has come across and created. “When are we a partisan observer, narrator or voyeur?” Palit has asked this question as an undercurrent tone of the film but this in fact remains unanswered. Cross-section of images builds up the whole narrative on the note of a compassionate imagery of political clarity be it the image of the worker at the loom, burdened with the doubts he ponders over, a body covered in soot; Kamlabai who comes out as one of the protesters standing at the edge of a dammed river and Kanai, the blind singer who sings at the funeral ghat and clubbed with the snow-covered graves of those killed in police encounters in Kashmir. The use of available light Palit has done is not for an aesthetic texture; rather it evolves as a searing tool. A deeply political stance covers the entire film's body and the film's images.
Palit's In Camera indicates his revisits to the locales and sites he had filmed before. Here he went back to the pavement dwellings in Anand Patwardhan's Bombay, Our City where now a concrete flyover has come up with its height and the pavements have become clear of squatters. The changing landscape of the city is implicit in the film with the passage of time marking a brutal move in the city's view of its poor. And at the same time, the passage of temporal journey is sewed with angst and fear. The film moves to and fro from the city centre to the village of Bihar to track on Kanai, the blind bard. It is a deep sentimental journey sometimes disconnected from the core. This is a common treatment in Palit's works where he allows the camera to keep rolling without averting his gaze, unobtrusively.
Ranjan Palit finished his PG Diploma in Cinema with specialization in Cinematography from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune in 1982. His diploma film, a 30-minute documentary on the power loom workers of Bhiwandi, was selected for the Bombay International Film Festival 1983. He started specializing as a documentary cameraperson, shooting a major portion of Bombay, Our City for Anand Patwardhan. Has subsequently shot around 50 documentaries, including: Eleven Miles (1990), Memories of Milk City (1991), Kamlabai (1992), Dream Before Wicket (1994).