In a career spanning almost five decades, RM Rao has not only been an eyewitness to the history of Indian cinematography in the advertising, documentary and feature film industry, but has also helped shape it. The Cinematographer’s Combine and the Indian Society of Cinematographers felicitated RM Rao at the recently concluded CAS event
RM Rao graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in 1964. In the nascent days of cinematography in the Indian advertising and film industry, Rao was the first to use and introduce the latest equipment and techniques, such as the use of split field lenses, slow motion cinematography, the use of macro lenses for extreme close-ups and pre flashing of film negative to enable filming in acute low light condition.
He demonstrated a flair for innovation and mastery of technique, which were to become the Rao hallmark across 4000 advertising films, 200 documentaries, 10 feature films and some highly acclaimed and loved national integration films.
His trend setting work is evident in his last released film Taj Mahal - an eternal love story and his lyrical visuals of the just released Phir Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. Rao finds time to participate in workshops and has been a guest lecturer at the FTII and various institutions across India.
Some leading filmmakers recount the years they have spent working and knowing RM Rao
Rao and I have worked together for many years on both cinema and TV commercials as well as long form promotional films. Many of these were landmark films in their genre – the Bombay Dyeing and Nescafe commercials during the 70s, the promotional films for Air-India in the 80s, that was shot around the world and which also won many international awards and Timeless India – a film which took us from the moonscapes of Ladakh to the gopurams of the deep south.
During all these travels and time spent together I came to know Rao well. I guess, we made so many films together because, for better or for worse, we seemed to share a common affliction. We were both known as ‘perfectionists’. Rao for one never compromised in wanting to get full value for every shot: which often meant being blunt - but that was his nature.
He would not suffer fools or imposters lightly. Whether it was the art director or indeed the client at the receiving end, Rao wouldn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. What I liked most about Rao’s cinematography is his mastery over the dynamics of camera angles and movement. For the type of work we did, we both often favoured wide-angle lenses, and these he used to great effect, orchestrating a number of elements to achieve scale and richness of imagery.
For those who have worked closely with him, Rao has been a warm and constant friend, a forthright presence who brings integrity to his profession. For many who studied at the Poona Film Institute and are now successful cinematographers, he was a guide and mentor, someone they could look up to and aspire to emulate. As we look back on his career we salute its longevity and the calibre of craftsmanship he has so consistently and proudly brought to his work over the years.
All of us see Rao as this perfectionist who knows not only his part of the process but also everyone else’s. Cameramen, directors, editors, production personnel, actors all should be filmmakers specialised in the field they love and do the best and I think Rao prides himself in that. When I first saw Rao, he was this young dude with all the beautiful models around him. Back in the mid 70’s, I woke up one morning to find my house invaded by these thugs (an ad-film crew).
It turned out they were shooting some cycle ad and Rao was the cameraman. All these pretty girls’ wanted to get Rao’s attention so that he might focus on them …At least that’s what I thought then …Years later, there was I shooting some ad with all the girls again … trying to get Rao’s attention. Why? He was giving them joy rides on the crane! Now that’s what I call a real peoples’ person.
Rao may be a brilliant cameraman, a celebrated DoP, but for me, after all my years of knowing him, he is my friend. He stands for what he believes in - right or wrong, form or conform is not the issue, it’s his opinion, his idea and he stands by it.
Rao sahib, Mr Rao, RM Rao, Mani, Rao ... known to different people by different names, but whichever name, Rao is a legend in his field. We met professionally when I was just starting out; Rao had been shooting 10 years or so already. Firstly, I would like to thank him for all that I have learned from him over these years, both technically and in terms of values. In both these areas Rao has great wisdom, experience and sincerity.
He is and has always been a producer’s cameraman, always from the heart; striving never to be wasteful and always interested in maximising efficiency and quality. He has always had a deep involvement with cinema and reflects this when he works. Rao will have in mind the script, the editing pattern, styling, colour schemes and will be always questioning every aspect while shooting. A perfectionist – Rao.
He has probably shot the maximum number of commercials for Indian advertising, more than any single DoP over the years. He and I have worked together thousands of times. We started with the original ‘Liril’ and have since been going strong, the last really well viewed piece of work being ‘Phir Mile Sur’, presented for this year’s republic day.
We have experimented together on many ‘firsts’ as far as 35mm film shoots go. He is and has always been pioneering techniques; starting from in-camera opticals to high speed lenses, using split-field and other effect filters. He was the first to introduce video assists here at a time when we were shooting only for theatrical release. He loves celluloid and is 100% dependable for all aspects of his negatives.
What he sees is what you get, never dependent on ‘post’ - ask any colourist!
Rao is as sturdy and tough as ever. His conditioning and experience with so many terrains and weather is totally awesome. He still gets to the top of the hill or the bottom of the valley with his camera and crew faster than any young director he works with.
Still going strong, and a long-long way to go, Rao sahib my heartiest congratulations on this honour.
Rao sa’ab, as all of us used to call him with a tremour in our voices. It still reminds me of standing around and shuffling our feet, trying to be as “patla” as possible - the reason being Rao’s ferocious eye for detail.
He is the only DoP I know in the world, who interviewed eager hopefuls who wanted to hire him for his services. He’d quiz them on their knowledge of cinema, about their previous work and why they wanted to work with him. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that 80% of the aspirants who arrived at his doorstep, hat in hand, were summarily bounced. Shooting with Rao for that film was one of the most intensive experiences I have ever had.
We were scared of him because of his reputation of being blunt and forthright. And his sarcasm - it cut through bone like a knife. For the entire duration of the shoot, I don’t think any assistant had the courage to sit down even during the lunch break. What we realised when we started putting the film together, was that Rao sa’ab in his own taciturn manner had managed to cover us from all angles and his contribution to the finished film was massive.
His interest in the film did not end when the shoot got over. He followed it to the lab, into the editing process, to the finished product. We had another surprise waiting for us in the lab. The grader, the moment he realised that it was Rao’s film, only bothered to correct the first shot and ran the whole negative through in the complete belief that he would have a perfectly balanced density on the rest of the film!
His contribution to the advertising film world is so legendary that young feature film DoPs would watch his ad films for hours trying to unlock the secrets of his lighting.
The most significant contribution that Rao sa’ab made to the people he agreed to work for, was the enormous learning that he set off by constantly putting pressure on them to raise the bar. Personally, I owe my entire growth to my interactions with Rao sa’ab, whether over delicious meals cooked by his wife or when he frowned over my lack of application during a shoot. Thank you, Mr Rao, for being a part of our lives.
The short summer vacation I spent with my aunt prior to joining college changed a lot of things in my life. As a family member, I was privileged to watch my uncle, RM Rao or Rao sa’ab as he is fondly known, from a rather unique perspective.
My first close encounter with the world of film making was as a production assistant on a corporate documentary that he was filming with a British director.
For a month we travelled all over India and I do believe that under Rao’s relentless, watchful eye I got the best possible education in film production. His exacting standards and keen attention to detail ensured I was on the very tip of my toes for all of those 30 days and if I did falter at some point, correction was swift and exacting. And when we saw the rushes of that shoot at the end of the schedule, it all seemed magical and worth much more than all the effort we had put into it.
As a student of Cinema I still remember his workshops being a goldmine of information on unconventional tools of the cinematographer’s trade. And he was most generous with imparting his knowledge to all us eager film students. At a time when most of filmmaking in this country was grappling with archaic processes, practices and equipment, he was somehow always at the leading edge of technical innovation and would be introducing newer equipment into filmmaking in this country whether it was high speed photography or the latest camera equipment from Arri flex and their associates.
Later, I was privileged to work under him and then, I had a somewhat more educated perspective of his art and his craft. It often surprised me to see how he used unconventional wisdom to deal with conventional situations. Most of all was the unending supply of enthusiasm and energy that he brought with him on every assignment.
Till today he continues with unabated enthusiasm directing his unending energies towards filming - truly an icon of innovation.
This article has been reprinted with the kind permission of the Cinematographer’s Combine from the book Towards a Better Image 2010.