Pravin Kumar ready to close his flour mill in Chhota Pakistan for the night
Bombay is a world in itself, and as one navigates its lanes and bylanes and takes in the everyday experiences and sensory explosions, the city slowly reveals its layers. In his debut book The Red Cat & Other Stories, photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani takes the reader through a panorama of Bombay, with each frame, scene and situation merging into one another. While some stories are left to the imagination, others are given a context with stories of discrimination, identity and uncommon conversations interspersed between the pages.
The Sindhi fable of the Red Cat tells the story of a young man lost in the jungle who meets and befriends a talking Red Cat. Tired of seeing age-old representations of Bombay as a City of Dreams and focussing on the suburbs instead, Ritesh uses the metaphor of the man’s relationship with the cat to explore the urban jungle of Bombay on foot and celebrate the city in his unique style.
Ritesh speaks to us about the making of his experiential non-coffee table photo book that uses photography and storytelling to comment on society and the times we live in.
The book, which has been shot over four years, is essentially about Bombay. Is it a homage to the city? What was the selection process for the photographs?
It’s a comment on today - what we’re keeping, what we’re losing, what is precious to us.
There’s no ideal depiction of India - it’s all subjective. I’ve seen older photo books and travelogues on the city by Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh, more recently Fawzan Husain, as well as some international names. And while they are equally memorable, I feel that none of them are fully acknowledging the fact that the city runs because of the suburbs. The major workforce comes from the North, and there’s no real visual chronicle of it. So I wanted to throw out the famous landmarks and cliches and bring out my own relationship with Bombay.
If anyone leaves their house in the morning to go to work, they are assaulted by experiences which pick you; you have no control over them. For instance, if you’re in a cab and the cabbie wants to talk to you, you can’t escape it. So the flow of the book is such that in the beginning, three characters introduce themselves to you and you become the protagonist and start exploring the city on foot. It’s almost like in each scene, someone is saying Chal baith (Come sit). If you’re standing on the middle of a road, it’s likely that you’ll see two opposite or complementary things on either side of the road or a panorama where the left and right blend. I’ve tried to incorporate those visuals in the book, like in the peacock spread, where the two pages could easily become one.
Tree of half life, Bandra Kurla Complex
Were you consciously donning the Photographer or Photojournalist hat while making this book?
No, if you see my old work or what I generally do for a living, I’m always shifting roles. I do portraits, weddings, photojournalism, and am keen to explore new avenues. I’ve never subscribed to one conventional tag.
I just wanted to tell a story with words and visuals and to keep it meandering and free flowing. The idea was to arrive at a book that is almost like a human being - you have give it time and patience and let it say what it has to. It’s like a conversation with the book.
So is the book autobiographical, or is it more about the people you capture?
The way of seeing and interpreting is mine. I relate to the protagonist of the little boy in the Red Cat story who is lost in the jungle and exploring a new world. If he were to be given a camera in Bombay in the current day, these are probably the kind of photographs he’d make. With photojournalism, one is generally focused on telling one story and constructing that fixed narrative through images. But when you move to a new city, there’s no one fixed idea behind what you’d observe and document or what kind of memories you’ll keep and process.
Seagulls and the Buddha, Marine Drive
Apart from the photographs and captions, you include some longer, more compelling stories that you’ve clearly given weightage to. Are most of the people in your photographs strangers or a part of your life?
They’re familiar to me. I had photographed Zeenat, a transgender woman, in 2012. But she had a bad experience with a filmmaker who was documenting her life story, and she was upset with media folk of all platforms. So in my first few trips to her place, she was hesitant to open up for the book. When she finally agreed to do it, she said she doesn’t want her face seen. That was a fantastic lesson to me because if we let the collaborator decide their visual and I tell the story, it becomes a two-way narrative and much more powerful.
In the case of Somnath Jadhav, the donkey seller, I had met a similar man with a beautifully dressed donkey who kept calling me to different locations for months but he'd never show up. Then another collaborator Suresh whom I had interviewed put me in touch with another donkey seller, which is how I finally met Somnath.
I’ve maintained connections with as many people as I can. I bump into a collaborator Akash with Maori tattoos on his face whenever I’m in Bandra. Editorially, I could have chosen a sad photograph of Akash in a dramatic stupid light. But I like the ordinariness of a man smiling at you. And grief is just a part of his life, not all of him.
You’ve also shown the ugly side of Bombay, with domestic disputes in public and Bollywood stars with spit on them. It’s a strong commentary in subtle ways. Was this a conscious choice?
Yes, because our mainstream Hindi film industry is spineless. Even in the arts world, it’s only people like Orijit Sen making a commentary on what’s really happening around us. It’s not like I went and spat on Amitabh Bachchan's face - I just found it and decided to capture it. There’s a lot we can do as photographers - we ought to have opinions and make commentaries, which we’re not really doing. We’re still making pretty pictures. But beyond framing and looking at something beautiful, what else can you do with it? As someone who is chronicling our times, I’m not bringing anything new to the table by showcasing Priyanka Chopra’s beauty, am I?
Ritesh's photographs of vandalised Bollywood star posters like Amitabh Bachchan reflect on the ugliness of the mainstream Hindi film industry
With the current day and age being of essence in the book, why do you think it happened at this point of your life?
I was just ready for it and had arrived at a point where I could process things in a way that is distinctly mine. The Red Cat fable was told to me when I was six years old. I realised that at 36, I’m able to understand the layers it has, which is why it’s the pivot of my book. That’s the beauty of simple things - they are insanely complex if you put them under a microscope. It was also about understanding life through metaphors. There’s no real red cat in the book. It’s a symbol for something or somebody that helps you find meaning when you’re in a new place…
If the Red Cat is so important, why did you put the fable right at the end?
If I put it at the beginning, you start looking for a cat and motifs and it influences the reader’s experience. I’m not the kind of photographer who uses a photograph as an illustration. We’re in the digital age, and today, photographs function as ideas. That is what I have tried to do in the book. The book begins and ends at dawn and has a 24-hour cycle from either side. Throughout the book, I wanted to show that with humans, ideas, relationships, we can keep swiping left and right and hitting the Like button but it’s not going to lead to anything constructive without time, patience and preserving what matters to us.
Under the bridge, in her mother's saree
You’ve had some fantastic mentors and collaborators for the book. Tell me about them.
The initial edit was entirely me. Then I approached my mentor A. Srinivas, and with him, his opinions are at times brutal and at times very much in love. He’s from a generation 20 years ago but is extremely open-minded. His history and basis of judging images is very strong and impartial. You can’t con him or pull some random stunts.
There was Harsha Vadlamani, a contemporary photographer whom I trust and with whom I have a very productive working relationship. He is also one of my closest friends. I know that with him, my PDF isn’t going to suddenly start travelling online. He was very specific about what worked and didn’t.
Finally, Peter Bialobrzeski came in and I feel he was a godsend. What I love about him is that despite being the famous photographer that he is, he answered all my questions, no matter how silly. He does a series of city diaries, which was made by an indie publisher called The Velvet Cell. I went to their website and discovered a self-publishing course, which I took and unlearnt all the mistakes I made in this book initially.
I also loved working with Pragati Offset Printers and am totally enamored by the way they treat even their smallest customers. I did the binding and printing with them and it was a rich learning experience from the word go.
Aarey Milk Colony, Goregaon
You’ve kept the captions very playful and not below each photograph. Is that also because you wanted to leave the photographs open to interpretation?
The idea of not having captions was to give hints but not tell the full story. It’s like humans - if I were to meet someone for the first time, I wouldn’t put all my cards on the table. I didn’t want to interrupt the reader’s experience and make them go back and forth trying to read the captions. So I kept two flaps with captions, which can be kept open while flipping through the pages or not. I wanted to create an experience for the reader, otherwise photo books become too serious or become deadweight on coffee tables.
How does it feel having completed this book?
I used to be someone who’d start something and not go back to it. So I feel great about the fact that I’ve actually finished the book. It was also a crash course in human nature - I’ve met a wide spectrum of people ranging from absolute assholes to the kindest of human beings, for which I’m grateful!
The book also taught me that people are receptive - we underestimate our audience in India. Yes, there are some who don’t see the Red Cat’s significance or question why the book is constructed the way it is. But I’ve been going door-to-door delivering the book myself in Bombay and it’s amazing to see the kind of responses and the differences in how they react to a book! It makes it all worth it.
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