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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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 Is Distributing 40,000+ Meals Per Day In Mumbai During Covid-19 Lockdown

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Every global crisis affects every country in a different way depending on their socio-economic background. The COVID 19 pandemic hit India straight in its gut. After the lockdown daily wage workers and people who are underprivileged have been rendered out of their jobs. This has ultimately pushed them to an acute financial crisis so much so that even being able to afford two meals a day has become impossible. While we all wait for normalcy to bring us back our sanity, the financially disadvantaged people on the streets are fighting both the pandemic and hunger.

In a scenario like so, a number of social groups have come forward to help in whatever way they can. One of the worst hit cities is Mumbai, where 5 lakh migrant workers, the homeless and underprivileged residents of slums and chawls, waiting endlessly for normalcy to return., an initiative by is cooking food and delivering them to those in dire need, every single day.

“” that was launched in the city of Mumbai on March 29th, is one of its kind people-driven movements that has been running hall and hearty by the people coming from all across. It is that classic example of solidarity where people from all backgrounds, cultural and social has come together to ensure that every mouth is fed.

Brains behind KhaanaChahiye
Top : Pathik Muni, Ruben Mascarenhas. Below: Munaf Kapadia, Shishir Joshi

How does work

What’s different you ask? has built a capacity of preparing over a whopping 50000+ meals on a daily basis by activating the closed kitchens on several Mumbai routes. Pathik Muni, who has been particularly invested in the mission says, “ We crowdsource demand on hunger pockets and then map it to supply-side by activating closed kitchens. Our partner NGO “Project Mumbai” with reach to the relevant stake holders in Government departments helps us facilitate permissions to activate these closed Kitchens with a turn around of 24 hours. Parallelly we raise funds to map the demand.”

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Areas of food distribution in Mumbai

The food that is prepared is not just hygienic but also fits the calorie count that is sufficient for a person to get him through the day. Every meal consists of daal-rice, aloo-sabzi, chole rotis, veg pulav etc. has a volunteer-driven collective drive in various areas of Mumbai where people in large numbers have come forward to contribute in the many ways possible. So far the initiative has covered the Bandra to Dahisar route on Western Express Highway, Sion to CST and underprivileged pockets between Mankurd to Kurla on Eastern Express Highway, Juhu to Dahisar on Linking road, a cluster of 1100 labor camps near Mumbai Central and a part of Dharavi Slums.

If you want to volunteer in Mumbai kindly reach out to [email protected]

Food distribution areas  in Mumbai by

  1. To beggars & homeless
    • below the flyovers between Bandra to Dahisar on Western Express Highway,
    • between Juhu to Dahisar on Link road
    • below the flyovers between Ghatkopar to CST
    • under privileged pockets between Mankurd to Kurla.on Eastern Express Highway,
  2. To labour camps
    • a cluster of 1100 labour camp near Mumbai Central
    • a cluster of 3000 labour camp near Govandi
    • a cluster of 2000 labour camp near Mahul
    • a cluster of 750 labour camp in Colaba
  3. Parts of Dharavi Slums towards Cotton Green.
  4. Over 5000 meals in labour camps at various location identified and provided by the Assistant Commissioner,
  5. Serving food to over 5000 meals in Worli and Bandra on request of the local MLA and Corporator.

Immense demand of food in next 10 days

The intent of the movement is to continue the drive of feeding the needy in these difficult times at least until the lockdown is lifted by the government. However, as the days are proceeding, initiative has identified more and more hunger pockets as a result of which the demand for food is just rising since the time it started. To give a perspective of the recently emerged roadblock, Pathik says, “Nine days back, we started with 1200 meals and we are already catering a demand of 40,000+ as of today. We have corporate donors for most of our requirement, but as the demand for food is rising, we are now looking to feed 5000 people in next 10 days, which turns out to be 1,00,000 meals. Therefore we need to now raise a sum of Rs 25,00,000/- which is huge and we really need the support of more people.”

To raise the funds, initiative has come together with Efforts For Good and The Logical Indian to share this concern with our community members because as a citizen-driven movement, the initiative needs more and more people to come forward and a set a sum aside to keep the initiative going in its full glory so that there are no impediments coming in the way of feeding every mouth in these difficult times. Additionally, one can also contribute by sharing the word with friends and families. COVID 19 is difficult for all, the least we can do is to contribute so that the struggle to cope up with the pandemic does not add up to the struggle to cope up with hunger as well.

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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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