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Rafey Mahmood and the tale of two "mohallas": Ankhon Dekhi & Pagglait

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

After four months of abstinence from Netflix I finally surrendered to peer pressure and subscribed to its most basic plan. The OTT platform that was my succor in America ten years ago has only been a major disappointment of late. Hence the abstinence. To be honest it was Umesh Bist’s “Pagglait” that finally made me succumb to a subscription. And I have to confess I have got my return on investment from this one film alone. It will be bad manners to move onto Rafey’s work before saying a few things about the film itself. For it is the film and the director that provides the cinematographer with the platform to practice his art.

Pagglait is well written, well-acted and a well-made film as a whole, with maybe minor hiccups here and there but that can amount to being to being too picky. The characters are beautifully fleshed out; at no point Umesh judges any of them, instead accepts them with all their follies and idiosyncrasies. He has a first-rate cast of actors like Sheeba Chadhdha, Rajesh Tailang, Raghuvir Yadav and a restrained Ashutosh Rana. Saniya Malhotra too is in fine form. The film’s rather radical premise of a young widow unable to grieve is infused with dignity. The dynamics between the young widow and her mother and father-in-law is of unspoken regard for each other in the face of the death of their young son and husband. It is this dignity on the part of the parents-in-law that is finally rewarded in the end and makes the film a heartwarming experience.

In 1995 Rafey won the National Award for Best Cinematography for Non-Fiction Feature for Rajat Kapoor’s documentary, “Tarana” on Khayal. While he has predominantly done his major work as cinematographer with Rajat Kapoor, there are other notable films like “Haasil” (2003) and “Bioscopewala” (2017) that have been lensed by Rafey. But it his astute camerawork in “Pagglait” (2021) and Rajat Kapoor’s fantastic, “Ankhon Dekhi” (2013) that one shall focus on in this article. Therefore, I choose to call it a “tale of two mohallas”.

Both Ankhon Dekhi and Pagglait are shot in old parts of their respective cities and capture the joint family milieus of these families that have lived in these “mohallas” for generations. If Ankhon Dekhi is set in the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi where in a traditional house the family of Babuji (Sanjay Misra) resides, then Pagglait is set in old Lucknow, where Sandhya (Saniya Malhotra) a young widow is finding it difficult to mourn the death of her husband. Both Ankhon Dekhi and Pagglait are two completely different kind of films. Ankhon Dekhi is more of a tragicomedy in the absurdist tradition set amidst the absurdities of a joint family of Old Delhi. Pagglait on the other hand is a slice of life look at the eccentricities of various family members of a dysfunctional joint family grappling with the death of the young son, in Lucknow. Rafey himself says that he found his director Umesh Bist more in the tradition of Ray and calls it a humanist film. Rafey thinks that Umesh, much like Ray, doesn’t judge any of his characters. The maker is neutral towards them and treats all his characters lovingly. Ankhon Dekhi on the other hand gets into a vortex of family crisis thanks to the “maun vrat” (vow of silence) of Babuji and tilts towards the transcendental. Sandhya too transcends social boundaries. Besides Pagglait is more mainstream in its approach or one can say middle of the road.

This clear distinction of aesthetics and mise en scene of Pagglait and Ankhon Dekhi is beautifully enumerated and expressed by the cinematography of Rafey Mahmood. The two “mohallas” in the two cities come alive in almost perfect harmony with the narrative worlds of their story and characters. Ankhon Dekhi has an overall blueish hue to it and oscillates between the slightly burnt-out highlights and minute details of textures and aging walls, with their cracks and crevices. There is continuous interplay of great detailing and burnt-out exteriors in the film, almost resonating with the thematic core of the film: transcendental absurdity rooted in empirical reasoning. There is also a sufficient balance of interior and exterior in Ankhon Dekhi, which gives the film a certain openness.

Ankhon Dekhi trailer:

Pagglait is largely shot indoors or in open areas of the traditional house inhabited by the Giri family in Lucknow. But Rafey creates a very warm ambience in the film in sharp contrast to the atmosphere of death and social peculiarities of its characters. The camerawork of Pagglait is laden with love in each frame that seems to be tenderly lit by Rafey as if complimenting the tender approach of his director. Since it is a more mainstream film in its ethos there is a certain degree of gloss in the film, but it does not rob the film of its authenticity. It is just a dash of palatable “dressing up“ from Rafey.

The excess of interiors in the film are perhaps compensated by excessive camera movement in the film trying to capture the nervous energy of its plot. It works most of the times. However, if one was to nitpick then the use of Steadicam seems a bit overdone at places. But this is a problem with most modern-day filmmaking, in the post-Steadicam period. Somehow physical movement of the camera is more gratifying to the makers. Having said that a lot of credit for as to why we love the space and the characters in Pagglait goes to the film’s cinematography. Its warmth is infectious.

Pagglait trailer:

Ankhon Dekhi however, relies on languid trolley and static shots and has a slightly detached feel to it. The dysfunctionality is more visible in Ankhon Dekhi as compared to Pagglait, where most things are suppressed. Therefore, this more detached pace that Rafey’s camerawork lends to the film gels with the visible cracks in familial relationships and Babuji’s sudden “vairagya(detachment).

Rafey himself attributes the quality of his cinematography to the scripts he shoots and his directors who happen to be Rajat Kapoor (Ankhon Dekhi) and Umesh Bist (Pagglait) in this case. What can be better for any maker to have a cinematographer who gets to the core of the script and translates it onto the screen but remains unobtrusive. This makes Rafey, an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune one of our finest “present-day" cinematographer.

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