KK Mahajan was undoubtedly one of India’s foremost cinematographers with a body of work comprising of 84 feature films, about 100 commercials and over 20 significant documentaries and several TV serials. A gold medalist alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he graduated in Motion Picture Photography in 1966.
A four time National Award winner, his cinematographic contribution to both mainstream and art cinema has remained unparalleled. His prolific virtuosity has rightly been considered a major factor in the Indian New Wave. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of path-breaking feature films like Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969), Basu Chatterjee's Sara Akash (1969), Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969) and Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972). As diverse a body of work that these films were, the one common factor to all these classics was the brilliant cinematography by 'KK', as he was fondly known.
Born in 1944 at Gurdaspur, KK Mahajan – a physics graduate from Punjab University – was one of FTII’s early graduates. He began his career at a time when the film industry was unwilling to believe that training in cinema could be imparted, apprenticeship being the traditional entry route right from the silent era and looked down on the bunch of film graduates from the FTII.
In more ways than one, Mahajan was a trailblazer. As an independent cinematographer in Bombay, he first worked on ad films, documentaries and shorts with directors such as Shyam Benegal, Kumar Shahani and BD Garga. Some of his important award-winning documentaries of this period include: Shyam Benegal's Child of the Streets (1967), Kumar Shahani's A Certain Childhood (1967), and BD Garga's Amrita Shergil (1968) and Mahabalipuram (1968).
Fittingly, his first break into feature films came from his FTII work with Kumar Shahani’s avant garde graduation film, The Glass Pane (1966). On viewing the film, Mrinal Sen commented: "I loved the class-room exercise immediately…for its venturing to shoot in adverse conditions. In 1968, when I got a loan from the then Film Finance Corporation, happily with no strings attached, I formed a team, almost all having little or no 'commercial' content but with an abundance of verve and courage. I asked KK if he would do the photography as a sort of love’s labour, so to say. KK readily agreed and perhaps beamed inwardly." That was the making of Bhuvan Shome and the beginning of a long journey.
KK Mahajan received his four National Awards for Best Cinematography quite early in his career, for Sara Akash (1969), Uski Roti (1969), Maya Darpan (1972) and Mrinal Sen's Chorus (1974). In fact, special mention must be made of Mahajan's work with Mrinal Sen, an association that began with Bhuvan Shome in 1969 through to Ek Din Achanak (1988). Films photographed by KK for Mrinal Sen include Interview (1970), Calcutta '71 (1972), Padatik (1973), Chorus (1974), Mrigaya (1976), Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Akaler Sandhaney (1980), Kharij (1982) and Khandhar (1983).
KK’s cinematographic oeuvre is impressive not only quantitatively but also in terms of its qualitative variations. More than any other cinematographer, even as he shot for many 'off-beat' filmmakers of acclaimed, albeit low-budget films, he had no problems in adjusting to the so-called gap between art and commercial films, to the demands of mainstream Hindi cinema with film makers like Ramesh Sippy (Brashtachaar (1989), Akayla (1991)), Subhash Ghai (Kaalicharan (1975)), Mohan Kumar (Avtaar (1983), Amrit (1986)) and Basu Chatterjee (Piya ka Ghar (1971), Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti si Baat (1975), Chit Chor (1976), Swami (1977), Manzil (1979)).
KK’s most recent documentaries have been with FTII alumnus Kumar Shahani, in close association with whom, across nearly forty years and against all odds, has emerged a significant body of work including The Bamboo Flute, a feature documentary made in 2001 and As the Crow Flies, a documentary short on the work of painter Akbar Padamsee made in 2004.
A record that KK particularly valued, considering the near-feudal conditions in which he started his own career, is that about twenty-five (at last count) of those who assisted him over the years are now fine cinematographers in their own independent capacity.
Says cinematographer Alok Upadhyay: "While working with Mahajan Saab, the films we did for Kumar Shahani and Mrinal Sen were the most rewarding. The working style reflected the trust these directors had in Mahajan Saab, as he was always so right in choice of lenses, scene lighting and so on. Working with him was a opportunity for assistants and crew both to be themselves and to take pride in doing good work as a team. The capacity to show affection where it is due and to be intolerant where it is not acceptable, is a lesson we have all learnt from him as a team leader."
Anup Singh, director of Ekti Nadir Naam, a film in which Mahajan has done extremely distilled work in colour, wrote to him "You have shown us the beauty of resisting the visual cabaret that a lot of cinema is today. I’ve never known you to present the object to our eyes, but always a way of understanding the object in its context. You showed us the inner life that light and shadow create and thus gave us a curiosity to see more and the patience to see more…"
Not just his own assistants, KK has influenced a generation of cinematographers. Quoting Sunny Joseph, an FTII alumnus(1983) and cameraman of films like Piravi (1988) and Train to Pakistan in his tribute to KK on the GraFTII (Graduates of FTII) website, "We, generations of cinematographers will always be inspired by his eternal presence. I remember a small incident. When KK came to do the workshop with our batch one night he was lighting up the old Film Archive building. KK lit it up so beautifully, I was so happy to see the dance of light and dark and I decided to sketch the scene. Believe me, that probably was the first moment when I experienced an inner union with the light and shadow and it was also the moment when I realized that I could also be one day become a cinematographer."
Over the years, along with his professional commitments, KK Mahajan continued his association with the FTII through workshops for students. He has been a member of the Governing Council and a member of the Society of the FTII. He has also conducted workshops at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata. He has been on jury panels of several major film awards and on the script advisory committee of the NFDC.
In May 1999, he got together with a small group of cameramen to form Cinematographers’ Combine. Focused on the intrinsic contribution made by cinematographers to film making, the group aims "…to raise the standard of the image and to emphasis the interactive nature of cinema and its close relationship with other artforms, in the realms of painting, art, architecture, music, dance and theatre among others."
KK deservedly won several awards in his lifetime. In November 2000, the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) honoured K K Mahajan with the first Kodak Technical Excellence Award for his 'Innovative Contribution to Cinematography and Enrichment of Indian Cinema.' To quote the award citation - "Mahajan’s aesthetic use of composition and colour evoke impressionist painting, setting new standards in motion picture photography, which even today remains a source of inspiration for all aspiring cinematographers."
In December 2003, he was awarded the Honorary Membership of the Indian Society of Cinematographers (ISC) for his 'outstanding contribution to Indian Cinematography and excellence in professional work.' In June 2005, Mahajan was conferred the Honorary Life Membership of the Western India Cinematographers’ Association (WICA) for 'his outstanding contribution in the field of Cinematic Art.' In March 2006 the Indian Documentary Producers' Association awarded the Ezra Mir Lifetime Achievement Award of 2005 to K K Mahajan in recognition of his contributions to the way Indian reality and light is pictured. He was also given the Lifetime Award at the IIFA Awards in 2006 and in June 2007, Mahajan was conferred the first Katha Centre for Film Studies Lifetime Achievement Award given in recognition of 'Outstanding Contribution to Indian Cinema.'
But perhaps KK himself summed it up best. To quote him,: "I am lucky to be in this beautiful profession. I meet and work with a lot of people. You travel a lot. The best thing about this profession is that I am learning every day… there is no end to learning. Nobody is the master of his craft. It changes every day and you have to learn."
KK Mahajan passed away in Mumbai on 13th July, 2007. He had been ailing for sometime.