Modhura Palit was at a shoot when an email flashed on her mobile screen. She ignored it, thinking it was spam and continued filming.
It wasn’t until the members of Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective reprimanded her for not responding to the email that she realised what she had received.
The mail was an invitation to the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival. Modhura had been selected to receive the prestigious Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography award this year.
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I was stunned as it came out of nowhere. It was scary and overwhelming to get such a huge validation for a craft that I have honed amidst cynicism, stereotypes and doubts, Modhura informs The Better India.
She is the first Indian to receive the Angénieux Encouragement Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2019.
From the day the email arrived till the moment she received the award on stage, surrounded by veterans of cinema, it has all been a dream sequence straight out of a movie for the 29-year-old.
Modhura distinctly remembers every the second of 25 May–the day she got the award–and yet the whole experience is out of focus. Speaking of the experience, she recalls, “… it hit me that in the next few hours, my work would get global recognition.”
As the ceremony was hosted in French and English, it took her some time to process why a French actress was looking at her while making an announcement. “The walk till the stage and sharing the stage with stalwarts was a surreal experience. Even now, when I think about the day, I get goosebumps.”
Besides the recognition and award, Modhura was also given a camera lens (from the Optimo or Optimo Anamorphic range) on loan for one of her projects. Modhura is saving it for a deserving project.
Breaking Into A Male-Dominated Profession
Modhura’s love for visual poetry stems from her childhood.
My parents were into art photography, and due to their work, I was exposed to the process of capturing real-life moments into beautiful pieces of art. It was pure magic when the images would pop up every time my baba put a white paper inside the developer in a dark room.
While growing up, I was never interested in studies, and from the very beginning I knew I was not cut out for a corporate job,” she adds.
Modhura’s journey with the camera started during her college days in St Xaviers. As part of her curriculum, she tried her hand at professional videography, and since then, there was no looking back.
The moment a camera starts rolling, there is a peculiar sound that it produces. The first time I pressed the roll button, it took me to another world. I felt an adrenaline rush, and yet it was so peaceful and calm. I knew I had found my true calling, says Modhura, who then joined the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata for higher studies.
A tall and sturdy man lifting a heavy camera and running around on the sets is usually the image that comes to our mind when we imagine a cinematographer. For decades, a woman’s role in the film making process has remained confined to a heroine who adds glamour to the 70 mm screen.
Although she graduated from a premier film institute, getting work and most importantly, being taken seriously by producers and directors was a daunting task for Modhura.
Judging me by my work comes much later in the picture. It starts with apprehensions like will I be able to lift the camera. There have been times when I have reached the director’s office for the role, and instead, I was mistaken for being a costume designer. Of course, I am prepared for all the stereotypes and gender biases, but I do get disappointed at times, she shares.
However, once she crosses the hard part of getting the film, it is a fun and creative journey from there. Modhura’s involvement begins right at the pre-production stage. Her valuable inputs serve to execute the director’s vision in the best and most creative ways possible.
Fortunately, she has not faced any biases on any of her movie sets. There are creative differences, but no one has picked a fight because of her gender.
Besides breaking into the male bastion, Modhura has also adopted unconventional routes on several occasions.
For example, Modhura shot ‘Ami O Manohar’ entirely on an iPhone, and it went on to win the Best Debut Feature Film at the Kerala International Film Festival 2018.
One of her favourite memories is tying herself to a jeep and shooting in the mountains, “It was a low budget film, and the producer did not have money to purchase a rig for the camera. But the director wanted that particular shot, so I became the rig.”
Interestingly, most of her projects are low-budget films, “I have no qualms about working with newcomers or strugglers. In fact, the enthusiasm, hard work and dedication put in by novice is way higher to get the best possible outcome. Personally, low-budget films have taught me to optimise my creativity with limited resources.”
In the last two years, Modhura has worked as a DOP on several advertisements, documentaries, feature and short films. Her filmography is a perfect blend that has traditional and global flavours, including a 15-minute Korean short, ‘Meet Sohee,’ a Chinese film ‘The Girl Across The Stream,’ and a Bengali film ‘Ami O Manohar.’
Her undeniable talent did not take long to get recognised. Her film, Paper Boy, a short black and white film, which was shot when she was pursuing the film course, made an official entry at numerous festivals including Kolkata International Film Festival (2015) and Dada Saheb Film Festival (2016) and served as her maiden voyage into the art of cinematography.
Let Your Work Speak
I treat every project as my last as I do not know when my next film will be. The fear of not being able to work anymore drives me to give everything I have to offer, to a film. This should be an ideal attitude towards work irrespective of which profession you work in, says Modhura.
She believes that if the craft is honest and unique, other factors like age, gender and experience become insignificant.
Modhura has only once piece of advice for aspiring cinematographers.
Get as much knowledge as possible about the camera and the movie-making process. Usually, the notion is that if you take good pictures, you can become a DOP. But that is not true, a DOP’s work is beyond lifting the camera. He/she is the eye of the film. So, take cinematography seriously and worship your camera.
As for women who are hesitant or sceptical of getting behind the camera, be brave and treat each obstacle as a learning point says Modhura. “Do not wait for any favours and fight your battle with confidence. Be focused on your goal and let your craft speak.”
Check Modhura’s showreel below
Modhura has come a long way and is carving her own niche. Her journey is a reminder to all of us that dreams do not have any boundaries. There is no force in the world that can stop you from breaking shackles and writing your own rules.
You can write to her at email@example.com or check out her work here.
All the images have been sourced from Modhura Palit.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)