CHENNAI : An ace photographer becomes the subject of a documentary by a student to whom he had until then been a distant figure. 'Iqbal Mohamed: In Harmony with Nature', is a portrait of one of India’s most successful commercial photographers and his close communion with the natural world. Directed by Joseph Mathew Daniel, what began as a personal tribute to a person he considered his mentor is now being met with acclaim within the photography industry.
A commercial photographer himself, Joseph confesses that as a student at Loyola College, he often looked up to Iqbal — who was a visiting lecturer at Loyola — as an inspiration. “But I only had access to Iqbal the professional,” recalls Joseph, until about a year ago when, during a conversation with a friend DivyeshT Swamikutty, Iqbal was brought up as a subject. “Divyesh, a creative director, had accompanied Iqbal on a few trips to forests in the Nilgiris and Andamans, and spoke of his love for nature. We then thought this side of Iqbal deserved to be documented and that was how the idea of a documentary came about,” he added.
A process of discovery
It was then decided that Divyesh would script the film and Joseph would helm the project. In its finished form, Iqbal Mohamed... is a 32-minute documentary that tracks the Madurai-born photographer’s career alongside his deep bond with nature. The film shows him at work in his studio at the Light and Life Academy in Ooty he set up, and his many sojourns in the forests of Andaman and the Nilgiris.
Two things in the film shine through — Iqbal’s love for photography and his love for nature. In fact, his voice-over, paired with sounds from the natural world, take up the major portion of the film’s soundtrack. Throughout the film, Joseph keeps striking the balance between the photographer and naturalist all bundled in the same person. “It’s almost like a love triangle,” he says. “There’s Iqbal’s love for photography on the one hand, and his love for the natural world, and we had to keep interweaving these two elements.”
To depict this long-standing communion with nature, it was imperative that parts of the film be shot in the forests Iqbal regularly frequented. Shooting in the forests, recalls Joseph, came with some challenges. “We had to travel light. But Iqbal and his energy overpowered everything else, and there’s something about nature that drives you, makes you want to keep going,” he shares. The crew often worked long hours, starting as early as 3 or 4 in the morning, “but somehow, we never felt tired and continually felt rejuvenated just being in that zone — we really loved it.”
Pursuing Iqbal’s closeness with nature often required members of the crew to get down and dirty. One sequence in the film features a shot of a large cobweb in a swamp in the Nilgiris forest. Five foot in diameter, the cobweb was one of several breathtaking treasures of the natural world that it was worth braving the hardships, says Joseph.
Embarking on a film project with no prior experience in the medium was another learning experience for Joseph. In many ways, it’s a complex medium when compared to photography, but in others it’s also very simple, he felt. “In a photograph, you have one shot in which to tell the whole story, while in a film, you have the liberty of time and space through which to make your point,” he adds.
The one challenge facing them was the financing. Thankfully, they were able to secure a grant through Fujifilm’s “GFX Challenge Grant Programme”, which covered 25% of the film’s budget, the rest coming from Joseph’s and Divyesh’s pockets. With Fuji stepping in, he was assured that the film would have a wider reach, given how well established their global network is. Pre-production began in October 2021, and by September 2022, the film was ready.
It also helped that Joseph had a long-standing rapport with Fujifilm. As a commercial photographer, he admitted to having been an avid user of the Fuji range of medium format film, especially Provia and Velvia.
“When the company announced their digital medium format camera, I was one of the first to buy. So when I won the grant, I had this camera as well as the camera, lenses, and other gear Fuji provided us for the shoot.” The documentary that was finally premiered at the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) drew praise from several quarters, including veteran cinematographer PC Sreeram, who suggested that the film be taken to festivals in India and abroad, Joseph says.
Joseph is quite obviously buoyed by the response to his first film, and it’s certainly given him the impetus to keep making more. In the works are two more projects — one about a boy’s love for horses and the other a biographical documentary about a rights activist. The projects are still at the nascent stage, but Joseph is confident that they’ll turn out to be very interesting. The audience that attended the NFDC screening would certainly agree.