V.K. Murthy: An Unusual Hero

April 8, 2014 at 9:15 AMApr (Cinema, Music, Musings, Slice Of Life)

VKMPaying tribute through words is a difficult task especially to a man who spoke a thousand words in an image, images that haunt us and will continue to haunt cinema lovers for ages to come.

Two images strike before the mind’s eye whenever the name of V.K. Murthy is taken; One of Guru Dutt standing at the door of the auditorium in a crucified Christ position. The other image is of Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt’s soul (or desire) walking towards each other and the beam, famously known as the Murthy’s beam, absorbing the two lovers.

The image of Guru Dutt at the door in a crucified Christ position is considered as the “ideal composition,” by G.S. Bhaskar, another remarkable cinematographer of Indian cinema. It is said that when Murthy composed the shot with the light thrown from Guru Dutt’s back turning the character into a mere silhouette at a very crucial point of the film Pyaasa, people criticized the shot because the hero was not seen properly nor his face nor his emotion. But Murthy answered them as, “How can there be light on his face?” The crucifixion of Vijay was more important, for the film, than the face or the emotion, because more than what Vijay went through the question what was done to Vijay becomes more important and also Pyaasa as a film spoke more than the story of Vijay the poet. Murthy knew the larger meaning of the film and knew how to wrap all of it in an image. He turns the character Vijay into a mere silhouette also in the scene where he loses his mother. An abandoned child now orphaned standing by the river all alone. How can there be light? Pyaasa went on to be understood as a creative cinematic expression stemming out of the disappointment regarding the failure of Nehruvian socialism and the independence of India beyond the story of Vijay a tragic poet.

The second image mentioned earlier was from the film Kaagal Ke Phool, the first cinemascope of India. Shanti and Suresh have known each other for some time now and love is flowering between the two of them and both are withholding each other. “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam…” goes the song and we see the souls (or the desire of the two characters) of the lovers coming close to each other and get dissolved in the light that is showering. The light consumes both of them. The cinematography escalates the emotional tone cinematically achieves what Kaifi Azmi does with words: “Tum rahey na tum ham rahey na hum.”

It seems once Murthy had an argument with Sahir Ludhianvi saying music is more important for a song than lyrics while Sahir being Sahir believed lyrics was more important. Murthy’s argument about music being more important has more to say than just the argument about song. Murthy himself was a musician. Being a musician he knew the importance of rhythm which seeped into the cinematographer in him too. Though he never theorized any of his works one cannot but observe the rhythm in Murthy’s image making.
His belief that music is more crucial than lyrics (words) throws light to his belief that a parallel to word/ language is possible to communicate, especially that which if said in words turns mundane. An image can speak what words can and more than that he seemed to have believed and he proved it successfully in the above mentioned examples. But nowhere did he recreate the words as images but moved beyond and transcended the words and recreated through images, in the visual language, what the words create.

vkm openIn another song from Pyaasa, “Jaane wo kaise log tey jin ko…” Murthy moves the camera mournfully towards and backwards from Guru Dutt and Mala Sinha and thus establishes the emotional distance between the two characters. In another song, ‘Aaj sajan mohe ang lagaa lo,’ the camera assumes the role of desire and moves close and closer to Guru Dutt while the character of Waheeda Rehman is still distant. The song is that of desire. Desire is the dominant emotion. By turning the camera movement into the movement of desire and then enabling the juxtaposition of it with the physical distance between the two characters Murthy creates magic. The absence of a mournful movement of camera in the latter song and the camera not assuming the position of any desire in the earlier song marks the difference between the two relationships and defines the difference in the two relationships too.

Apart from creating great images for the lovers of cinema Murthy’s contribution extends to the different inventions and innovations of Murthy for the art of cinematography which is beautifully documented by Uma Rao in the biography of Murthy sahib. His contribution is also in the various students he nurtured.

During the preview of the film Kagaz Ke Phool at the Maratha Mandir in Bombay, during the interval a joyful Shammi Kapoor came out running asking, “Where is the hero of the film?”Someone pointed out at Guru Dutt and Shammi Kapoor looking in the direction where Guru Dutt stood said, “Na na Murthy kahaan hai? Wo iss film ka hero hai.” [No. No. Where is Murthy? He is the hero of this film.]

An unusual hero of several films has passed away.

At the time of Guru Dutt’s untimely death Murthy sahib told Govind Nihlani, “I cried for myself.” He said so because he felt nobody would bring out the best in him the way Guru Dutt did. Today is the day Indian cinema, cinematography and cinema lovers cry for themselves.

[Written for and published in Vijaya Karnataka 08 April 2014]

[Photo courtesy: 1= FB page of Bangalore A Visual Anthropology. 2 = Open Magazine]

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