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The final chapter of a film

Cinematographer Navroz Contractor's book on the China of the mid-'80s portrays a billion-strong Communist nation making that transition to market economy.


A HOT and lazy Sunday morning is no time to launch a book. Yet, Strand Book Shop was reasonably full. Navroz Contractor, full-time cinematographer, chronicles daily life in China in the mid-'80s in his unusual first book, Dreams Of The Dragon's Children.

Only a fanatic quizzer can recollect the name of a well-known film's cinematographer. So, not many may know that Contractor is the cinematographer for Mani Kaul's Duvidha and several other path-breaking Indian films. He has been the cinematographer for many documentaries made by French, German, and American filmmakers as well.

Contractor, who did his Fine Arts degree in painting and photography from Baroda's MS University, followed it up with specialisation in direction and cinematography from the Film and Television Intititute of India, Pune. He then went on to study the subject under the master, Laszlo Kovacs, in the U.S.

Contractor was invited by German documentary maker, Pierre Hoffmann, to be the cameraman with an international crew making a film on the life and times in China in the mid-'80s. The book translates much of the film into prose. Three students from the University of Beijing facilitated and travelled 22,000 km with the crew, interacting with young people and recording their dreams and aspirations in a fast-changing Communist nation.

The difficulty Contractor faced was censorship — not in the filming, strangely, at least not until the movie was finished, — but in his communications to friends and family in India. Letters always arrived, not merely opened, but torn and censored. In fact, these letters, along with the anecdotes during the filming, form the core of the book.

The book is charming. Contractor may not be a polished wordsmith, but he knows that he has his task cut out. He also knows how to do a workmanlike, thoroughly professional job of starting a story, keeping the continuity, and finishing it in good order. There is a dramatic beginning, a rapid early defeat of the bad guys, followed by a clearly approving account of a more-or-less untouched China under Chairman Deng Xiao Ping. Contractor clearly took to the Chinese people and they to him.

The story turns grim at the end, with sudden storms, a stunning defeat, and a resolution. As the two foreign film-makers walk through the doors towards their flight taking them to Hong Kong and freedom, a thunderclap of disaster. Read the book to enjoy the roller-coaster ride.

Contractor's prose is effective rather than evocative, workmanlike, but not witty. As befits a professional cinematographer, his sense of narrative is clear and unburdened by language conceits and fancies, and the book reads as it should — a clear and lucid account with no stylistic baggage, about a fascinating two months' filming on China, a nation just flexing its muscles and visibly deciding to make a name for itself in the wide world.

Strangely, for a book by an acclaimed photographer who has a collection of his work at the Smithsonian, the book does not have a single picture! "Too expensive, according to the publisher," quips Contractor, and then adds, tongue firmly in cheek, "But isn't it novel? A photographer writes a book with no pictures!"

Which did he enjoy more, the filming or the book? (Incidentally both the book and the film bear the same title.) Contractor feels that film was a more exciting and active medium, while writing the book was a lovely and insular experience. Has he gone back to China after that? Yes, with Rajiv Gandhi on that historic meeting with Deng, but China was already changing rapidly and Tiananmen Square was to follow soon.

Four months of shooting and 175 reels of film translate into a nice, wordy book of 255 pages, about a country on the threshold of changing social norms and market forces.

SANDHYA IYENGAR

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