The grave, huge, second-hand Mitchell camera now lies unused, occupying a place in the archives of Jyoti Chitraban in Guwahati. It hass been a long time since it was last put to use. The camera, which has been witness to a large and extensive chapter of the Assamese film industry, had crucial participation on the shooting floor of the first-ever film studio of Assam, rather, the first-ever film studio in the Northeast, established by the Government of Assam. One of the first films, titled Bhodori (1969), was directed by Nip Barua, with Nalin Duarah as the cameraman and Sujit Sinha as assistant. It was a short fiction film produced by the Department of Public Relations of the state government. The mahurat of the film was also a part of the inauguration events of the film studio overall. In many ways, the camera is as iconic as the very foundation of cinema in the Northeast.
Mitchell camera in Jyoti Chitraban
A vital piece of work done by the camera was for filmmaker Waesqurni Bora's first film, a biographical documentary called Koka Nilomani Phukan (1974). The young director had picturized an animated style of shot, and Nalin Duarah had materialized that image. Bora wanted to show some books in an illustrated manner – falling from the top, one after another. At that time, in 1973 during the shoot of the movie, an animation shot in Indian cinema was merely a distant dream. Duarah, experienced with the Mitchell, knew however, that once the camera switch was stopped, no frame would be exposed thereafter – this method was popularly known as the 'stop gate' process. Duarah applied the process to obtain the shot, which closely resembled an animation, much to the Bora’s satisfaction.
The Jyoti Chitraban film studio was inaugurated on 17 January 1968, on the seventeenth death anniversary of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, the ‘father’ of Assamese cinema. The name for the studio was suggested by Bhupen Hazarika, picking 'Jyoti' from Agarwala’s name and 'Chitraban' from the name of Agarwala's film production company, Chitralekha Movitone's studio 'Chitraban’. It was technically the first film studio setup in the northeast. Agarwala had made this temporary studio in a garden godown at his Bholaguri tea-estate. In the initial stages of the studio, the department purchased mostly second-hand equipment. A certain Mr. Krishna Gopal from Mumbai was the consultant in the installation of the studio, and with his guidance, the government had purchased a second-hand 'NC Mitchell', which later became famous as the Mitchell camera.
Jyoti Chitraban FIlm Studio; Northeast Now
The camera stood huge and heavy, not placeable on a tripod. To use it, it would have to be placed on heavy wooden stools, known as patla. The stools were made of different heights to meet the shooting requirements of different films. The camera also needed a three-phase electric connection for operation. Because of all these requirements, it was not possible to take it to another location or for outdoor shoots, with increasing budget constraints. It had to spend its time within the four walls of the studio shooting floor.
The Mitchell was used for the indoor shoot of a feature film titled Bibhrat (1972), directed by Phani Talukdar. Mahesh Malla Baruah, an FTII graduate, was the sound recordist for the film. Interestingly, he also worked as the camera caretaker along with his primary recording work, owing to his love and passion for the Mitchell (as told by Hirendra Nath Bhattacharya, Sound Recordist, Jyoti Chitraban).
Bibhrat was followed by Anwar Hussain's Paap aru Prayashchitta (1977), although not for the complete film. The Mitchell was used for a special shot where the protagonist had to appear in two moods sharing a single frame. Another FTII graduate, Indukalpa Hazarika, the principal cinematographer of Jyoti Chitraban, was the DOP for the film. Films such as Biju Phukan’s Bhai Bhai (1989), Dilip Deka’s Adalat (1976), Hazarika’s Manab Aru Danab (1971) and Niyoti (1978), and several other filmmakers like Pijush Kanti Roy and Bijoy Chowdhury used the camera for their indoor shoots.
Mitchell and The Arriflex
The Mitchell camera was a combination of four block lenses of different focal lengths. “The lenses were too sharp and produced brilliant images, and were far better in tonal quality in comparison to the lens of Arriflex,” comments Nirmal Deka, who had a long working experience with the camera. Another major technical characteristic of the camera was its 'viewfinder', popularly known as ‘autojar’. The viewfinder was placed separately, horizontal to the lens, and as a result, gave two views of the same frame — one through the lens and the other in the viewfinder. During a shot, no one could ‘look through’ the frame. The cameraman had to monitor the frame through the viewfinder only, which gave a slightly different image than what was actually being captured by the camera. This was also a reason why some cameramen were not eager to shoot with it.
Since the time of its inception, Jyoti Chitraban had initiated its operations with the Mitchell. In 1973-74, the Department of Public Relations purchased one new Arriflex for their primary work – documentary and newsreel production – and the department’s old camera was sent to Jyoti Chitraban to make a feature film. Usually, producers booked the Arriflex, or Arri, as their primary camera and the Mitchell was booked only for floor shoots in case the Arri was unavailable. Former sound recordist of Jyoti Chitraban, Satish Chauhan, tells the writer over the phone, “The Mitchell was generally used for special effects works, no one booked it for the entire film. Usually, producers went for the Arriflex. Some producers hired the camera from Kolkata or Chennai or Mumbai when they could not manage another one, and only then they worked with the Mitchell and that too, only on the floor.” This system continued till 1984-85 when the Chairman of Jyoti Chitraban, Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia, arranged to import a brand new 16 mm Arriflex all the way from Germany. That was to be the first brand-new camera Jyoti Chitraban owned.
Mitchell camera at Jyoti Chitraban
Arriflex camera; Cinerent
Nalin Duarah, Indukalpa Hazarika, Dindayal Bajaria, Sujit Singha, Paresh Baruah, Nirmal Deka – those were the major cameramen to work with the Mitchell, and Duarah was the most well-versed amongst them. Before he started working in Assam, Duarah worked in the film studios of Kolkata and most of his practice was with the Mitchell brand. He shot Waesqurni Bora's short fiction film Rongmon (1985), where he used the Arriflex for outdoor shoots and Mitchell for the studio-shot indoor portion of the film, which was mostly a song-and-dance sequence. There was a crucial shot in this sequence though, that put the Mitchell and Duarah’s technical prowess to full use. In the middle of the dance, an artist was supposed to appear in the character of God. The director's vision was that God would slowly materialise in the dancers’ midst, and after his full appearance he too will join the dancing group. A huge mirror was placed on the dance floor at such an angle that the dance would be mirrored. The actor playing God stood behind a glass and a slow dimmer was used to light him up. The team involved in this experiment with Duarah was assistant cameraman Ajan Barua, and a writer who also worked as the Chief Assistant Director in the film.
Ajan Barua, a cartoonist himself, possessed a natural talent for working with technical gadgets and soon established himself as a self-taught cinematographer. He drew a large number of drawings for the animated portions of Dr. B.N. Saikia's short film Sanchoi (1986). He was also the cameraman, and the completely floor-based film was completed using the Mitchell. Surprisingly, no information is available about the film, even in the archive established in the memory of Dr. Saikia.
Waesqurni Bora had made his very first film with the Mitchell and was fascinated with the majestic look of the camera. The initial outdoor schedule for his first feature film, Priajan (1993) had been planned in Upper Assam, but it was not possible to carry the camera to a distance of more than 500 kilometers and so Bora opted for the Arriflex. It took more than eight years to complete the film and it was shot in several places, with various cameras and cameramen, depending on who was available. Dindayal Bajaria was the prime cameraman for the film, but Indukalpa Hazarika and Nirmal Deka also worked in Bajaria’s absence. The major indoor portions of Priajan (1993) were however completed with the Mitchell. Even some outdoor shots within the huge Jyoti Chitraban campus were filmed by the camera.
The Mitchell’s magazine was big – a 1000 feet of film could be loaded at a time. Compared to that, only 400 feet of film can be loaded in an Arriflex magazine. “The major advantage of using the Mitchell on the floor was the film-loading capacity – you can load directly from the can and after the shoot, you can load the footage back to the can and send. But in an Arriflex, you will have to cut the 1000 feet film into 400 + 400 + 200 divisions. It consumes valuable shooting time,” Nirmal Deka explains, talking about the practical advantages of Mitchell. The use of Mitchell was also an expensive affair. It took more manpower and time to move it around in comparison to the much more lightweight Arriflex. The 16 mm Arriflex soon became more sought after amongst the producers as it required less initial investment in raw stock and eventually, Arriflex pushed away the majestic but heavy, old Mitchell.
Munin Barua; Facebook
Munin Barua also used the Mitchell for his first independent film, Pita-Putra (1988). A 35 mm Arriflex was used for the entire movie, but Barua opted for the Mitchell for a specific shot. Towards the climax of the film, the protagonist is shown talking to his inner self, and the director visualized the shot as the same person standing face-to-face with themselves. The character was played by actor Biju Phukan. Though Indukalpa Hazarika was the cameraman, this particular shot was done by Nirmal Deka, his assistant on the film, and Lohit Barbora, an assistant cameraman. A look-alike of Phukan was found, and using him as a duplicate, the scene was filmed with a lens mask and reverse-mode system. A special mask was used on the lens to expose 50% of the frame vertically, and then reverse mode was used - the film would return to its original position i.e., the starting frame. The position of the mask was then flipped - the unexposed portion was now exposed starting from the very first frame of the shot again. In the entire process, the camera remained static and only the actor’s position was changed. Lighting was done in a way which placed both the characters – Phukan and his lookalike – in the frame. After Biju Phukan spoke his dialogues, the camera would stop. The two actors would switch places and the camera was then set in reverse mode. One person’s portion was shot in normal mode and the other portion was done in reverse. As a result, both the images come in a single frame standing face to face. This reverse mode was not a feature equipped with any Arilfex cameras. Although thought to be tricky back then, this method worked almost as Barua had wanted. Pita-Putra became a hit and “that scene where hero Biju Phukan is standing opposite to Biju Phukan” became equally famous and talked about. Though such scenes were a common ornament in popular Bollywood films by that time, the Assamese audience felt enamoured by it, which provided a flavour of Hindi films in Assamese cinema.
No one would have thought back then that Pita Putra would be the last film of the Mitchell. The emergence of 16 mm film and camera provided producers with a chance to make their films with a comparatively low budget. Lightweight, the 16 mm camera provided mobility to the director to go for any desired location without the constraints of carrying the huge Mitchell. Low-budget Assamese film producers started avoiding floor shooting to save money in set design. All of this together pushed the Mitchell into the studio storeroom. A few years ago, the Mitchell had been taken out from the room and shifted to a more prominent place in the film archive.
Photos of Mitchell by Monita Borgohain, Director Jyoti Chitraban