V K Murthy, the only cinematographer to have won the prestitious Dada Saheb Phalke award, is no more. He was 91.
After a distinguished career spanning five decades in Mumbai cinema, the frail, affable Kannadiga settled down in Bangalore for a retired life in 2001. In fact, nobody in the neighbourhood of Shankarapuram was aware that a cinematographer of international repute lived in their midst till he got the Phalke award in 2008.
Murthy’s experimental lighting techniques in films like Kagaz ke Phool and Pyaasa won him wide acclaim. Cinematography students in the US did their doctoral work analysing his work. But he remained modest, giving all the credit to his director, Guru Dutt. “He allowed me time to visualise my shots and plan accordingly. We shot in natural light and sometimes in moonlight,” he told this reporter, after he won the Phalke award.
Kagaz ke Phool (India’s first cinemascope film) did not do well at the box office, but won international recognition for his camera work. The then reigning romantic star Shammi Kapoor hugged him in appreciation, but in a lighter vein added, “Tere wajah se film flop hua.” (The film flopped because of you).
Murthy took many days to plan the lighting to shoot the song Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye to Kya Hai in Pyaasa, which is considered revolutionary in the world of cinematic expression.
A student of Sri Jayachamarajendra Polytechnic College, Murthy never looked back and went on to picturise many Bollywood movies like Jugnu, Kalyug aur Ramayan, and of course, almost all Guru Dutt’s films. He did only one Kannada movie with Rajendra Singh Babu (Hoovu Hannu) and was extremely pained that Sandalwood never considered him for its films.
Katte Ramachandra, a director who knew Murthy for 35 years, says he was a perfectionist.
Throwing light on an unknown aspect of his life, Ramachandra said, “He had written seven or eight plays in Kannada. One of them was staged at the Mysore Association founded by him in Mumbai. The others were lengthier, and he hoped they would be published.”
Murthy had many proteges and helped whoever sought his advice. Many former students of Sri Jayachamarajendra College, who consider him the father figure of cinematography, say his black-and-white technique remains unparalleled in world cinema.
S V Kulkarni says, “His shots in Pyaasa reflect his perfect technique.”
B R Nataraj concludes, “There were no special effects in those days, but he created effects by using the play of light in an innovative manner.”