THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHACHAJI: The Making of a Documentary Film by Ved Mehta
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THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHACHAJI: The Making of a Documentary Film

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In September of 1977, celebrated India chronicler Mehta (Face to Face, Daddyji, Mamaji) was approached by Boston's public TV station, WGBH, about ideas for an India documentary; slightly dubious Mehta made a few suggestions, and WGBH pounced on one of the least likely: a study of Mehta's ""proverbial poor relation,"" his father's cousin Chachaji (""respected uncle""), a misfortune-plagued clerk/messenger whose wife long ago ran off with their lodger (the real father of three of Chachaji's four children). So, once Chachaji's consent arrived from New Delhi (""I will do whatever my beloved second cousin from America orders""), Mehta and Tasmanian-born producer Bill Cran and a crew of four left for India . . . with ""no script, no story--just some poor, eighty-three-year-old man."" Would Chachaji be interesting enough for a 57-minute film? Mehta was sure of it, but as they began filming agreeable, hapless Chachaji (at a family wedding, at a mobbed bus stop, on errands, shaving), moody Bill became increasingly skeptical, worrying about audience appeal and film awards. Mehta was therefore forced to come up with appealing, Chachaji-related sidetrips: ritual bathing in the Ganges ("" 'Oh, my God! He's drowning!' Bill cries out. 'It's fabulous!' ""); a visit to Chachaji's village nephews during a dangerous hailstorm. And all this did improve Bill's mood for a while (""It's so Chachaesque,"" he would exult occasionally), though the crew grumbled about his impure-documentary predilection for staging events. But Bill was still dissatisfied--Chachaji was ""simply too fortunate a man in India""-- so, as a last gambit, Mehta reluctantly suggested intercutting Chachaji's day with shots of rank squalor. Thus: three days in Calcutta (""I want pictures that may be on the screen no more than twenty or thirty seconds but will shout 'Indian poverty!' ""); and Mehta worried this his ""slow, delicate film"" was turning into ""an Indian horror show."" Happily, however, the Calcutta shots were never used, since, back in the US, Mehta found that Bill's ""editing was as controlled and careful as his talk is flamboyant and loose"": the film, despite a few small Mehta reservations, is a success. So, too, is this book--with the gentle slapstick comedy (bureaucratic hurdles, Chachaji's blithe wanderings out of camera range) and the shrewdly selective details of the production only slightly marred by deceptively mild Mr. Mehta's rather unpleasantly ruthless portrait of producer Bill. Doubly seductive, then--the textures of India, the nuts and bolts of filmmaking--and enormously enhanced by a few photographic glimpses of old Chachaji's marvelous, film-worthy face.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press