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The Lesser Known Life Of Raghu Rai

Design Log 01 Nov

Avani Rai's upcoming documentary on her father 'Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait' captures the enigma that is Raghu Rai. Not only does the film touch upon the tender relationship between the father and daughter but portrays a lesser known side of India's most acclaimed photojournalist, whose career spans over 50 years.

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Avani and Raghu Rai in 1996 

Raghu Rai, or the ‘Father of Indian Photography’ as he is often called, has had a life like no other, having captured portraits of the likes of Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the pulse of India in his street photography. His daughter Avani Rai has chronicled his life as a photojournalist and her father in her upcoming documentary Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait, produced by Anurag Kashyap and Iikka Vehkalahti. For anybody who is familiar with Raghu Rai’s work, the film provides a glimpse into the softer side to the spiritual man who shaped his meaningful life, with a camera as his companion for his 50+ year career.

Design Fabric speaks to Avani Rai, the director and daughter, before the film’s release in November.

I want to understand your story as Avani Rai. What were your childhood years like, and was it a very family-oriented household?

I was born in Delhi. I have always been very attached to my family. In my childhood, I could not bear to leave home even for school trips or outings. So when I left for Mumbai for college in 2010, it was the first time I was leaving home and I felt like an uprooted tree. So while everyone was doing their own thing (because my parents travel a lot), we have always been an extremely close knit family and share every detail of each other’s lives. Having said that, I was a very quiet kid in school but quite a rebel at home.

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Shot by Avani Rai at the banks of the Yamuna, December 2016

How was your relationship with your father growing up, considering he was in the prime of his career in your childhood years?

My relationship with him was one of a close friendship. He would hover over me when I took phone calls and urge me to share things with him. Things became sort of professional between us when I picked up the camera for the first time. In the second year of my Bachelor’s in Mass Media degree at Sophia College, he saw me using the camera and would help correct my frames, posture, the camera angle, composition, etc. He has a very strong point of view about photography /framing a photograph or capturing the moment and that is never open to discussion. Sometimes I did try to argue, of course, but more often than not, it didn’t seem to matter. So my knowledge of viewing things in frames began early and it began with him.

There is so much vulnerability in exposing the father-daughter relationship. What prompted you to delve deep and document it?

I was trying to document life like it is. It wasn’t a tangible thing that I could hold on to, but the understanding of his energy and his work. As a family, we have lots of memories and many of them had been documented while learning how to use a camera professionally. When I started filming him, I was not looking at it as a project or a professional film till I revisited the footage after over two years of filming. It then dawned on me, to have my father as a subject of my film. It was a really comfortable place to go in the beginning, but as the project went ahead I got more and more anxious. I had to deal with my own story to be able to tell his and question why I was doing this;the need to document a person’s life, who has been documenting this country for 50 years.

Photographs by Raghu Rai

Most of his experiences were passed on to me second-hand and to be able to tell them first hand, I had to first address the conflict of our relationship as father and daughter and  film-maker and her subject. This conflict is the path the film eventually took as it was an extremely real experience for me.

Did you have to convince your father to say yes to the project?

I would just be shooting and he didn’t really think of it as a project. He thought it was probably a home video kind. This was until I went to Film Bazaar with the project and received the first positive response. It was where I met my co producer, distributor and my editor. Deepti D’Cunha helped and took the film forward right from the concept. Subsequently, we went to the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) forum and won the Best International Pitch in Bangkok. It was only then that he understood the seriousness of my initiative and said, "You must be doing something right!”.

One must remember that I am not doing a tribute. That would be from a distant perspective. This is close to my heart - it's something my father and I are exploring together.

The film has been co-produced by Anurag Kashyap and Iikka Vehkalahti as well as funded by IDFA Bertha Fund. How did that happen?

Anurag was the first person with whom I shared the idea, that I wanted to compile all my footage and make a film with a message. He called me back and said that if I'm honest about the film, he'd back me. That’s where it started for me. I met Iikka Vehkalahti at Film Bazaar in 2015 who became a creative producer on the film. The next year, we applied for the IDFA Bertha Fund – Europe, which we finally received.

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The father-daughter duo in Ladakh, 2014

Has it been your vision consistently or has having mentors like Anurag shaped it differently?

It was like a film school for me. Everyone in my team was much  older than me, and more experienced - from my editors to both my producers and distributor. The whole team, including Anurag, left me to do whatever I felt and never intruded  my space. In fact, I felt abandoned many times. Iikka would hear me out, make me speak for hours about experiences and helped me shape the film. I had two editors - a close friend of mine, Archana Phadke, and a Dutch editor, Menno Burema. Archana did a lot of hand-holding in the beginning and she helped me put all my ideas together on the edit table. We finally locked edit with Burema in Amsterdam this summer and that was that. What finally came out of this entire experience, not for a minute,made me feel like it was not the truth.

You travelled with your father during many of his shoots and captured him while he was capturing his subject. Was it tricky to balance the personal vs professional Avani?

It was always confusing, and there was no clear line. Sometimes we would both go into the subject of his shoot. The exploration of my craft became more pronounced and I discovered what excited me and caught my interest through my documentation of him while he was working. He once said something really important to me - "Written history can be rewritten but photo history cannot be rewritten". This made me want to tell his story even more. He's a man who takes about a 1000 clicks a day, and he has photographed our country for more than 50 years. That fed my curiosity and made it important for me to tell his story, while I told my own personal one.

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Raghu Rai at a farm near Delhi, 2015

What were the biggest challenges during the making of this film?

The biggest challenge was proximity to my subject and how deeply personal the telling of this story is for me.

You’re 25. Do you think you’d have had a different approach and perspective had you been older while making this?

I am sure I would. I was 19 when I started filming and had no intention of turning this project into  a film, and that made it all the more special. I wasn’t planning scenes and frames, which is what I would probably do with more experience, say, 10 years down the line.

You're refusing to show the film to your father till it's ready. Do you want it to be a surprise? Since you know him inside out, how do you think he'll react?

Yes, I want it to be a surprise. If I had shown him the film, it would keep changing. His reaction is most likely going to be about the frames and shots in the film and perhaps about its structuring. There would be no point of making this film had I kept on changing it according to him, because his opinion is important to me. But then, it would be his film and not mine. This is a personal film and I feel that seeking too many people’s opinion while I was still processing it, would affect the final product. The few people who have seen the film like it and my producers are happy with it; I am happy that they are happy.

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Poster of Avani Rai's documentary 'Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait'

Last one. What are some of the biggest life lessons you've picked up from your father while shooting ‘An Unframed Portrait’?

The new age excitement and infotainment is all drama to him, so he delves inside of himself very often. When he is shooting, he has to be in the moment, that’s his meditation. All his senses are focused on the moment. That is a big life lesson which has shaped my work as well.