A photographer’s camera is always pointing at the world ahead, and away from the self. In her new documentary, Avani Rai, who is photographer Raghu Rai’s daughter, has in a way reversed this dynamics, making the man behind the camera her main subject. For the last six years, Avani has been following her father around on his many assignments and travels. The two went to Kashmir together. And her film, Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait, is a compelling portrait of an elusive genius.
Q. Could you tell us what this film is all about?
A. The film is about my father’s work of 50 years, and his point of view through images—it depicts a lot of history, with a parallel narrative running of the current situation in Kashmir. The film is also a story about a father, told through the eyes of a daughter.
Q. How did the idea occur to you about making such a film on Raghu Rai?
A. I wasn’t really making a film. The first two years I was shooting because I had his camera with me. So I just shot fun moments, mainly because I was staying away from home in Mumbai for college. I started shooting him in the second year of college. I was the kind of daughter who had never gone out of home before college, and I used to hate to feel homesick. So to go back home and shoot with my parents and to have my family around, was all very exciting for me. After two years of this I thought, what to do with all this footage? And I thought it was important to tell this man’s story, who has captured so much of our everyday history.
Q. Tell us more about how you managed to fund this project and find distributors for it?
A. First, I went to Anurag Kashyap and told him that I wanted to make this film. And he said, “If you are making this film then I will back you.” So he was a mental support that existed throughout this project, which was more important than any of the financial support I got, which he was also a part of. In 2015, we submitted our cut to Film Bazaar in Goa and it was selected for the NFDC Work-In-Progress labs 2015. So we had mentors. There were six mentors, out of which one was my producer, one my editor and one distributor. Then in 2016, I got the IDFA Bertha Fund. And towards the end of 2016, I went to the IDFA forum to pitch my film. Then we went to Bangkok to pitch my film, and we got our co-producers ARTE France. We got many channels that bought the film. So after all this we had financial support, and things started working out as more and more people got involved.
Q. How was your experience of working with your producer Iikka Vehkalahti, and with Anurag Kashyap?
A. Iikka Vehkalahti would talk to me about all her experiences, so there was lot of communication between us. And I think that is one of the reasons that the film came out well. On the other hand, Anurag Kashyap was more like, “Whatever you need, take it, but don’t come to me because I don’t want to handle you, and if I do then you will not do things your way.”
Q. In the film you are trying to portray the father-daughter relationship in which the camera is a source of both connection and friction. Could you tell us how you connected with your father and his work through various travelling projects?
A. We only connected once we decided that we will do things in a certain way. So that is the realisation one had at the end of the film. But other than that the camera actually separated us, because it separates any two human beings. Even a person who is not a photographer wants to look at things in a way he or she wants to look at things, and to explain things to an institution like my father is a very difficult thing. He obviously has a very strong point of view, and his point of view has been re-told a billion times and we believe in his point of view—this is what he is known for today. To argue with that kind of point of view is very difficult.
Q. How did Raghu Rai feel when he was being filmed by you?
A. He would get very irritated, because he knew that every story he is telling me on camera has been told to me earlier. So I had to get people to talk to him, for him to tell the story more honestly and genuinely.
Q. Raghu Rai has often photographed in dangerous settings, amid strife and violence. Did you ever feel that tagging along with him could be a risky endeavour?
A. No, I never felt that. I would not think about my situation. But I used to freak out whenever he would be in any situation that was scary, because he always used to ask me to sit in the car. But I used to say I was coming with him. I would tell him that if he is to go out to take a shot, I would also come along to take mine.
Q. Did you face any challenges during the making of the film?
A. When we pitched the film, a lot of people asked why we were showcasing the daughter in the film; that we should only show Raghu Rai. But I made them understand that this is the daughter’s point of view—so the daughter is important.