It is said that your first cameraman is like your first love … you never really forget him. He has seen you at your most vulnerable, your most insecure, and at that zone … where you are afraid of being laughed at.
It was my first shoot. I was supposed to get the curtain raiser ready for some show, and for that, the who’s who of our business were to be shot. The year was 1995, I was wide eyed and driven with a zeal to make the world a better place. Zed,a channel — that was supposed to reach learning to the majority and transform their lives — was my employer. And it was a goal that reached out and pulled out the idealist in me to the forefront. And, to compound everything I was fresh back after a decade in the UK, had very few friends back in India, had an obvious English accent, and was painfully reserved. My Hindi was rusty after a decade of non usage, and in many ways I felt like an outsider in my own country. And then I met Gaj -my cameraman for the shoot.
First impressions were a wiry, sun burnt, boy (he looked about 15), with a ready smile and a walk that suggested long hours on a horse…..He asked me what was to be shot. I told him. He asked how I wanted it shot….. and i looked at him and told him the truth. I know what i want to say, and how i want it said, but didn’t know really how to shoot it. He bobbed his head at me, and said “mein kis liye hoon” … mein karta hoon na ….mein aapko batata hoon ki mein kya kar raha hoon. ( what am i here for, i will take care of it, and will explain what i am doing to you). And true to his word he did. He taught me how to frame, how to transit, how to compose, exposure control, zebra lines, practically the basics of every aspect of filming. And he became my friend. Until then I had bosses, mentors, colleagues. My school time friends had moved on and I was just about getting used to the family again.
He was my cameraman for many of my shoots.He was a safe pair of hands, who had a great earthy sense of humour and a certain jauntiness that relieved the tension in most situations. As most cameramen in those days, he moonlighted extensively. He had this dream of buying a house in Delhi and was saving away money for it. He used to literally shoot One day on one of our shoots we heard a strange noise – like a drill going off and on and off again. On further investigation we found the soucee -Gaj asleep on a thermacol board behind the set, exhausted from his extensive moonlighting. “yaar mujhe log bahut pakate hai … aur mein unhe mana nahi karsakta ..” he said when asked why he worked so much.
We lost touch for a year or so in 1997, and when I met him again towards the end of 1998 the sun burnt appearance had gone to be replaced by a yellowish pallor. He had begun drinking and drinking heavily. Really really heavily. I sat with him and asked him what was wrong. He laughed and said nothing is wrong “peeta hoon toh jeeta hoon” ( i live if i drink) with a filmy ishtyle and began laughing as though the filminess was embarrassing. He joined us at Zed – he was the cameraman who would work with the first time directors – his compassion, his ability to share knowledge and not throw tantrums with the most nervy directors, were the right qualities that were needed to nurture the confidence of new talent.
When Zed shut down, Gaj moved back to freelancing. He moved to Delhi began doing very well. By then we had started Cogito, and he worked with us on and off. I met him about 6 months ago — he had come to the office. He was still more yellow than brown — the yellow of a damaged liver. He claimed that he had cut down … but
….. yesterday as I came into office, i came to know that he had died in the morning. His kidneys had given up, and passed away. He was 35.
I wish I was a better friend.