When Rajiv and I were preparing to shoot Kadal, we saw lot of films which involved shooting in the sea. Very few Indian films were shot in the sea, but one film which caught our attention was Chemmeen, based on the famous book by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, directed by Ramu Kariat and shot by Marcus Bartley the legend. It is still a classic and even today, some of the shots take your breath away.
Marcus was an Anglo-Indian, lived in Kilpauk. As young cameraman we went to him to service our lenses. He lived in a small bungalow. In the second floor he had his workshop where he serviced film equipment. Camera assistants would scamper in and out of the house as he would give them a dressing down on how badly they took care of their cameras. He felt that camera attender tend to put holy ash and smear vermillion only on Ayudha puja but choose to ignore their lenses and camera for the rest of the year. He was not afraid to air his views, He was the son of an army dentist who started his career as a photo journalist and shot news coverages for British Movietone in Bombay and later on switched to shooting feature films. He quickly adapted to the changing conditions in cinema, brought in systems and work methodology and instituted standards in an industry which was in its nascent stage. Even though he had no formal training in Physics or Optical engineering, he single handily maintained and serviced all the camera and lenses in Madras, the then home of the South Indian film industry. He was an institution and people learnt from him. The respect he commanded for the cinematographer in and outside the set because of his non-compromising attitude and technical brilliance, helped the subsequent generation of cinematographers in getting respect on a film set.
—Following is an interview given by Marcus Bartley to S Sivakumar after he won the Raja Sandow memorial award for his outstanding services to Tamil Cinema given by Tamil Nadu government and was published in Hindu newspaper March 30th 1990 —
It was one of those lavish Southern Productions. The set was sprawling and called for elaborate lighting. The meticulous cameraman had checked the lighting and settled to wait for the marquee name. When they were about to call it a day the star swaggered in with his entourage of sycophants. As soon as he entered the set , the cry “pack up” rent the air. The order did not emanate from the director but from the cameraman. Even as the unit hands packed the paraphernalia and the thespian mumbled in protest, the cameraman swept past them.
He was Marcus Bartley. This is just one of the many authenticated anecdotes describing his no-nonsense attitude towards his job. He did not have to fear anyone because he was the best in his field. Whether his camera caressed the coasts of Kerala or closed up on the contours of the lead artistes, the result took the breath of the cognoscenti’s breath away. This was at a time when photography was just perfunctory. Stars of NT Rama Rao’s stature would stand patiently in one spot while Bartley took his time lighting his visage. The results were always flattering.
Sven Nykvist had done the lighting with that intuition which is difficult to describe, but which is his hallmark and makes him one of the leading cameramen in the world, perhaps the best. If for some reason he was disturbed or ill at ease he would have to start all over again from the beginning.” This is how Ingmar Bergman described his cameraman in his autobiography. The description aptly fits Bartley according to KS Sethumadhavan, Bartley’s favourite director.
“If you are thorough with your script you will not find a better person. He was most economical and least bothersome,” says Sethumadhavan. This is contrary to the image Bartley had but he did not tolerate incompetence, inefficiency and indiscipline.
“He was a perfectionist and that is one of the reasons he was thrown out,” feels BS Loknath a long time protégé and himself a National award winner. “Anyone interested in photography should learn from him because he has a thorough knowledge.”
‘Chemmeen’ was Bartley’s highpoint but he won the National award for “Shanthi Nilayam”. PC Sreeram says he remembers Bartley’s work vividly. “The colours were so authentic and the texture so beautiful. He was also the pioneer of soft lighting, something difficult to achieve but used indiscriminately today.”
For a person on whom so much praise is lavished the films to his credit are not many. He tried to bring a semblance of order to a chaotic industry and did unheard of things such as demanding the script before shooting started. The industry, averse to discipline slowly shunned Bartley.
Most people have not heard of him and the few who do ask, “is he alive?” He’s not bitter. In fact he stumbles down memory lane with a gentle laughter that convulses his body. Yes, the volume of work could have been more but he would have had to compromise on quality which was anathema to him.
He feels elated that the Tamil Nadu government had at last recognised his work by bestowing on him the Raja Sandow award(1989). “I think it is now that they’ve realised that I’m an Indian”, says the veteran with an endearing smile.
Today he’s an expert at servicing cameras. The best again. While those in a hurry go to the less competent, the ones who care for their equipment wait for him.
“I earn more than I ever did in my heydays,” he says. He still talks in the present tense because he says he not officially retired and is open to offers.
Excerpts from the interview:
My father was a dentist and a military man. He settled down in Deolali where he was actually doing his last bit of military service. He was inevitably involved in X-rays and the department did its own developing. I got interested. I used to do some of the work myself. Then I thought instead of developing why not take pictures. I got hold of a Brownie camera and had the greatest thrill actually seeing the pictures coming out. I was hooked from then. I started printing and also wanted to take pictures that meant something.
Was there any cinematography at that time?
No. I was strictly at a distance. While I was still at school there used to be a lot of weekend walks into the countryside. I used to shoot the village life and the countryside. The newspapers in Madras published them, particularly the Mail, at that time a popular eveninger. The art director there thought I had a lot of talent. He gave me specific assignments and also fixed my professional name. After finishing school I asked him about joining The Mail. He thought a bureaucratic set-up would stifle my style but later fixed me up with The Times Of India.
Were you a journalist or a photographer?
At that time I was mainly a photographer but they showed me into the darkroom. I was developing line plates on colodium negatives. I was wondering what went wrong. After I complained they gave me assignments. They also asked me to caption the pictures. I offered to give them write-ups so they tried me out on that. I think I was the first photo-journalist in India. This went well till my German boss got a little jealous of me. To suppress my progress he put me on an espionage job. I got the most comprehensive pictures from all conceivable angles of Bombay harbour. It was only when I printed and parcelled 200 prints to Germany did it strike me that the man was up to no good. When the business manager did not act on my complaint I came to the South and stated working in films. The first person to give me a break was K Subramanyam.
But what is the connection? Photography and cinematography are entirely different.
Oh yes, the business manager at the Times made a tie-up with British Movietone news. They wanted someone with a clear news sense to cover major incidents. Unfortunately major events were usually riots. That is all they were interested in. I did not see why I had to waste my talents recording disasters. So I decided on doing theatrical films.
But you did not have any formal training.
None. If you bring it to an academic level I did not get past high school simply because we were poor. After futile efforts to join Bombay Talkies I came down South where my people stayed.
Which year was this?
In 1938. After K Subramanyam, AV Meyyappan ventured into a highly commercial setup like Pragathi Studios. K Subramanyam signed me to do ‘Emarndha Sonagiri’. It was a test for me and another stage artist who wanted to make it in films, NS Krishnan. Apparently we both passed the test. The first full length feature I did was AV Meyyapan’s ‘Thiruvalluvar’. Thiruvalluvar again crosses my path at the end of my career.
How different are these two, photography and cinematography? Was it difficult to shift?
No. In photography there is a decisive moment and you have to get it. It must tell the whole story whereas in cinematography you have to think in terms of sequences. The time frame is much longer. I did not find the switchover difficult. Actually my experience in stills helped me in motion pictures.
Are you talking about lighting?
No. That is a different ballgame altogether. In motion pictures the aim is to simulate natural lighting conditions. Light sources are not necessarily direct sunlight all the time. Light from the window or reflected off the ground. But somehow it helps mould an image. You have to imagine it and create it with artificial lights. Now it is just second nature. There are times when I discard artificial lighting altogether. Today we have the lenses and films to make such things possible.
But did you have a light meter then?
Yes I did and because of that the experts called me an amateur. The meter is not a creative instrument. All it gives you is a reference point for your exposures. But the actual lighting exposure and modulation of tones occurs in the brain.
There is nothing wrong in using a meter.
No, no. Well I always had a meter on me. But I found myself using it less and less. I only used the meter to check if the level was up to what I was aiming and usually I was never wrong.
There was only black and white film.
Only black and white and that takes a lot more skill than colour. That is because you have to quickly translate colour images into an abstract form. Very often I use colour film where the shot looks black and white with the barest trace of colour left which gives the whole thing life.
I hear there was a stigma regarding the colour of your skin.
This inferiority regarding foreigners (laughs) has always been with us. We are just growing out of it.
You had to convince them that you were not a foreigner.
Yes, yes but I was automatically considered superior even if I turned out some lousy work.
They thought you were more competent?
Oh, yes! He is a Hollywood man. What he’s doing must be good, you see (laughs).
How did you welcome colour?
I more than welcomed it. I tried for more than twenty years to go for colour before they did. I practically forced them.
You mean it came twenty years after it did in Hollywood?
Yes. Colour was a tricky proposition in those days. A company like Technicolour Ltd. had complete monopoly on the business and was able to dictate terms. You had to face it, the quality was very high. But the outlay on their equipment was very high. So they had to charge high. It was only later that Eastman brought out a monopack negative which did not involve special processing and printing and gradually the emphasis shifted to monopack. The cameras were so heavy it was plain hard labour trying to shoot in Technicolor. That is one of the reasons a film like ‘Gone With The Wind’ is this century’s technological triumph. I have seen that camera. You don’t need cameramen. You need coolies. But they got results because they were obsessed. But the Mitchell is one of the finest cameras ever made. We can use it for the next fifty years. But you try to get somebody to use the Mitchell today they only use it for special effects…..”
Like mask work?
That is right. I have done seven maskings on one single negative. You can do it with a Mitchell because of the registration.
But it is not practical to use a Mitchell today.
You will be out of the business because the Arriflex is tight and has no viewfinder problem. The Mitchell we had those days did not have a single lens reflex. It took a lot of rehearsals to correct the parallax error.
What were you famous for? Was there any special facet to your work?
Offhand I would only say that I became famous for moonlight effects and that was a by product of my early days. As a boy I would go out on ‘shikar’ with my father at night. The jungle is a lot more interesting at night. So we would choose moonlit nights. I began to study it. How it fell and why it had that faintly bluish tint. In the studio it was just a matter of creating the same thing.
It probably involved only song sequences.
Yes, yes. In fact they had a song sequence in any film in Vauhini Studios. If they had a song they made a moonlight song. Because they knew my special talent would come into play. I’m only known for moonlight scenes.
You must have been disappointed when you did not receive an award for ‘Chemmeen’?
That was my piece of bad luck. This picture was a milestone in my career, absolute milestone. I had just left Vauhini because I’d been dubbed a troublemaker. I joined Gemini. I was doing nothing. I was there for thirteen months and I only did some retake scenes for a remake. At that time Ramu Kariat came and asked for me on loan to shoot ‘Chemmeen’. I was agreeable especially with these new imaginative directors. I was not paid for it. I just drew my monthly salary from Gemini. The film showed all the moods of the sea. The one thing that would have made the film an all time winner was to get the sea at the height of the monsoon when from a distance of two miles waves sixty feet high come rolling in. They felt my visuals might overpower the story and may also cost them more money. I still regret that because nobody has yet seen the Arabian Sea at the height of the monsoon. It is an absolute fantastic sight much like the Atlantic in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.
What was the relationship you shared with your directors?
It varied. There were times when the director was fighting the cameraman and doing his best to see he did his worst work, under the greatest handicap. The other times, the director would just feed me the scene, the mood and then say the rest of it is in your hand.
That is what you preferred.
That is what I preferred. All he did was watch the performance of the artistes which was his job.
Was your non-compromising attitude tolerated in those days?
Oh yes. In fact they came to me because I would not compromise. They knew the results were going to be good.
What according to you is the role of cinematography in a film? Should it be unobtrusive?
It should not draw attention to itself. After all what is a film? You’re telling a story. The director’s aim is to make the performances as realistic and if possible work in situations where every member of the audience can identify himself. We usually like pictures of real characters, situations in which we have been involved and are able to appreciate it better. That is where the camera comes in. It should be able to reflect that without distracting from the story. The moment someone exclaims, “Oh, what a beautiful shot,” it’s a failure.
What are the main differences between cinematography at that time and now? Were you forced to be more creative because of the technical constraints?
Well, it was a battle actually. We were glad to be a little self-conscious about our craft and we ourselves did not take photography as a means to an end but took it as an end itself. That was wrong. That was mainly because we lacked experience and had to overcome a lot of technical obstacles before we could get something on to the screen. We were fighting slow film or bad film, film without consistent speed, indifferent laboratory work and were happy to see something come out. Today, all this is taken for granted. Anybody can shoot a film and give a visible result. But the quality, intrinsic values are dictated by the cameraman. The director too helps in lighting if he’s knowledgeable.
What does this award (Raja Sandow) mean to you coming at the fag end?
There is a feeling of immense satisfaction that for 55 years I’ve been doing something right. If I did not get this award I would have considered my whole career wasted. The Government has saved me from that.
Are you surprised that they remember you at all?
Yes, I’m surprised because most people in the film industry don’t know who I am.
Do you think you’d fit in today’s scheme of things?
Yes, I would have fitted because I’m adaptable. You have to adapt because if you go back in to evolution you will find that all the creatures that did not evolve died out. If you refuse to change with the times you’re finished.
– S Shivakumar