My Story: “Win At Cannes As First Indian Woman Cinematographer Was Surreal: How I Broke Into A Male Bastion”

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Modhura Palit recently emerged as the first Indian cinematographer to be honoured with the prestigious Angenieux encouragement award at Cannes Film Festival. She was also the first Indian woman to achieve such a spectacular honour. In an exclusive conversation with Efforts For Good, Modhura shares her journey as one of the very few women cinematographers in India and why the gender disparity in the film industry needs to be addressed.

“I knew from my very childhood that doing a 9 to 6 job was not my cup of tea. I was cut out for something on the lesser trodden path, something creative.

My parents were ad photographers, so, perhaps creativity was inbred in me. I had the exposure to an alternate household environment which encouraged and nourished passion. In plus two, my subjects were far from core science or commerce. I studied commercial arts, fashion technology etc. After that, I joined St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata to pursue Mass Communication and Video Production. That’s when I discovered my flair in videography.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

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2,00,000 meals served
Emergency funds sent to 350 families

I realised that working behind the camera is something I can do for the rest of my life. Then I got enrolled into Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) and decided to master the craft thoroughly. Gradually, things proceeded on their own, and here I am today, being the first Indian to win the Angenieux special encouragement award at the Cannes Film Festival.

My Story Modhura Palit

The underlying gender disparity of film industry

The journey was indeed inspiring, but far from easy. Being a woman technician in the film industry is breaking into a male bastion in itself. A subtle gender disparity greets every women director, scriptwriter or cinematographer on a film set. Somehow, the persistent notion is that these professions suit men only. Women directors and writers are coming more into prominence these days, but you would hardly find women cinematographers, or say, sound-editors in India.

Except for perhaps a few essentially female jobs like script-girls or costume-ladies, all behind-the-camera profiles portray a clear trend of proclivity towards men.

If a woman can carry a heavy pail of water, why can’t I carry a camera

I am quite used to hearing that cinematography demands quite a lot of physical exertion. This is purely absurd. Who says women cannot do manual labour? If a woman in a village can carry a heavy pail of water for miles and miles, another can very well shoot with a heavy camera. Why is it so hard to normalise women technicians?

We get to hear vague excuses like if it is a woman, she cannot work on her periods. If it is a married woman, she will be busy attending to her family, how can she focus on work? So, better not select her. If she is a mother, then she must be retiring soon. All the stereotypes we get to hear, seem to be around one gender only.

A female DOP? Impossible!

I remember one time during my initial days I was assigned to be the Director of Photography (DOP) for a project. When I was instructing the technicians to adjust the lighting the way I wanted, they were doing it quite half-heartedly.

When I insisted, they expressed their reluctance fearing that the DOP would instruct them otherwise the next day. I did not reveal to them that I, myself, was the DOP. The next day when they found out, they were extremely apologetic. But that’s the thing. It was beyond their imagination that a woman could be a DOP as well. That’s the stereotype we have to break to let more passionate women take on these roles.

Don’t highlight her gender, highlight her achievements

Why don’t we get to see more female technicians? Right now, female aspirants might be clueless about how to be a cinematographer, what to do, where to go. See, if the existing women are never highlighted, the willing ones would also feel excluded even before starting. We don’t have a substantial female representation in the film industry anyway. So, the little bit we have has to be brought under the limelight.

Then again, I am against the idea of hailing a woman professional just because of her gender. Her gender should not define her work or her identity. But, at least, the narrative on their work and achievements should be put across to the public.

To be honest, very few people are aware of what cinematography actually is. I would like everyone to know that it’s not just holding up the camera on your shoulders. A cinematographer needs to have an aesthetical viewpoint, a philosophical perspective of the scene being shot. That’s how a beautiful scene comes to life on screen.

Experience at Cannes Film Festival

The experience at Cannes has been surreal. I have always heard about the grand event, but being there and accepting an award is insane. It’s beautiful, overwhelming to be honest. Meeting the people you have always dreamt about and idolised – I cannot express it in words.

My Story Modhura Palit

I get happy very easily. Something as simple as a veteran actor appreciating my work or a famed director wanting to work with me can make me happy instantly. I guess that’s what keeps me going forward with my passion. Presently, I am working on two Bengali feature films and two short films. Let’s see how everything pans out.

My advice to the aspirants of cinematography

To all the youngsters who want to get into cinematography, I have only one advice – be extremely serious about it. You cannot just think that since it is not a mainstream profession like a doctor or an engineer, your passion would be enough for it.

Nobody has become a successful cinematographer just my carrying a DSLR around and shooting random videos. You need to study thoroughly about the basics of the craft. You need to follow and learn from the experts in the field and practise. There is no substitute for learning and hard work. That’s when success will come to you.”

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

Goonj Is Working With 1000’s Of Volunteers & Partner NGOs To Provide Covid-19 Relief In 18 States

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With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.

After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.

Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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2,00,000 meals served
Emergency funds sent to 350 families

Goonj’s focus: 

Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.

Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.

“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.

Direct Monetary and Material Transfer

Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.

Information till 10th April 2020:

  • Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
  • Reached 17,700 families
  • Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
  • 77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
  • Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
  • Made 42,800 cloth face masks
  • 24,900 cloth sanitary napkins produced
  • Produced 1500 litres of organic sanitiser

In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.

In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.

This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.

The need is huge.. We are there.. Need You too !!

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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