From the very first frame you are drawn towards the next. Making a documentary on of the most prolific and iconic photographers is no easy feat. With an archive that spans from Indira Gandhi’s Rule to the Bhopal Gas tragedy to Mother Teresa, Dalai Lama and India as a whole is more than difficult to fit in 55 minutes. Avani Rai decided she needed to celebrate her father Raghu Rai’s India and more importantly explore her relationship with her father. ‘If I were not his daughter I probably would not make this film. Through the film I was trying to find myself and if you see the father has reached where he wanted to in life but the daughter is still finding her path and her craft is evolving so it was important to show that as well. And by the end of it I make a point that says I respect you and you are in my life and in my frame and you will always be there but I will look at life differently’
What is your earliest memory of your father Raghu Rai’s images?
The Bhopal gas tragedy image of course blew my mind. But other than that my father photographed me every day. He has so much footage of me. The camera was a human being in our relationship. You cannot take that away from our family and us.
What was his reaction to you picking up the camera?
Until I was not using it our relationship was fine but when I picked it up and when I started creating is when issues arose as his opinion started making its presence. So people would look at my frame and say genes ‘mai hai ya nahi hai’ and that would irritate me. Then at every point when I would take a picture, every image I made he had an opinion of how to make it better. He would say you should be wholesome and I would say this is not math’s. For me it might be wholesome. So every time I moved ahead in the way I was looking at things and capturing things the point of view became stronger and I knew I did not want to make a picture with his point of view. As I realized if I do exactly what he says then I am he and I started fighting it and realized that fighting it without having a base or experience is pointless and I did not have anything so I needed to create it.
Is that the reason you created something of your own - what inspired you to make a documentary on your father Raghu Rai?
The thought of the documentary came to my mind when I shifted to Bombay from Delhi. I have always been a home girl and didn’t like going on school trips or leaving home. So when I decided to do college in Bombay I had a condition that I will only go if I can come back to Delhi once every month. Whenever I would return I would shoot fun, cute things that I would keep seeing when I would get back to Bombay. This happened for 3 years and after that I met Anurag (Kashyap) and told him that I have a lot of footage on my father. I never realized how important and well respected he was. In Bombay in the film industry everyone really looks up to him so that got me excited and that was when I told Anurag that I wanted to do this. He said he would fully support me but I would need to find my way, as he wouldn’t babysit me. Over time it became more than a father daughter thing. It became a responsibility as I wanted to share with the world, what he was communicating to the world and that became very important, as I had to do it properly.
What was the curatorial process?
There were certain things that was important to the narrative – one was the father-daughter relationship which I was fighting at film bazaar, at iffra forum which is a fund that I got, there I was fighting with Arte who are my co-producers now as they wanted only Raghu Rai for obvious reasons but I was insistent that the daughter has to be there and the father-daughter relationship was very essential and was key to the story as the daughter looks at life in a certain way and looks at her father in a certain way.
Then there was Raghu Rai’s India where I was selective, as I did not want to be repetitive a lot of people said the documentary is short but for me it was fine, as I had captured the essence that I wanted to.
And lastly there was Kashmir which becomes my first hand experience so between all of that there needed to be a balance where nothing became indulgent nor the daughter nor Kashmir we kind of climax also with Kashmir as that is something that stays with me today.
So what is your relationship with Kashmir?
I started going to Kashmir in 2014 which is when the beginning of the film starts and I realized this is something that is mine. We keep saying we have lived history through his eyes but I was seeing life through my own eyes and that became Kashmir and it has remained consistent and kept arising every now and then through the film. That’s why it was important and also with the current national agenda it was very important for me to understand the community on a human level. I am very attached to Kashmir and that’s why I keep going back.
Can you share some anecdotes while filming?
Making the film was very difficult, especially when a daughter is shooting you. For example when I would ask him to repeat he would say how do you expect me to repeat something with the same emotion after saying it to you 20 times as its not going to happen. So then I started getting people to interview him who genuinely wanted to know about him and I realized there were quite a few who wanted to meet him so they would speak to him and he couldn’t not be interested in the conversation.
How has the father-daughter relationship evolved after making the film?
We have really become friends - we can actually argue and have fun doing it. We can go shoot in the same place. Earlier there were times when he would not take me for trips as he would say your pace and my pace is very different and both our way of working is very different. He would feel bad after, but that has all gone now and it really feels like another life. Now every now and then whenever I shoot something I what’s app him asking him for his opinion and he gives his point of view. The film really helped our relationship and I kind of find myself through the film and it’s helped me make him hear my voice and because of that I feel free now.
TEXT Soumya Mukerji