Have you ever heard about a ‘death’ photographer? I had absolutely no clue about this group of photographers who, till recently, were seen in and around the many cremation grounds in Varanasi. They click photographs of the dead, finish a reel, bring it back to their studio, mostly located in one corner of their own home, develop the negatives and hand over the prints to those who order the photographs. This is their sole source of livelihood.

Research informs us that a death photographer, also known as a post-mortem photographer, practises the art of photographing the recently deceased. This practice was common in Victorian England and 19th-century America, and it served as a way of commemorating the dead and blunting the sharpness of grief.

But Indians, especially Hindus who cremate their dead, are familiar with the practice from ancient times. Before the camera was discovered, families would dip the soles of the feet of the departed, with vegetable dye and take prints on a sheet of paper. They would then frame this as a tribute to the memory of the person.

Social history tells us that in earlier times, families had many children. The story goes that some of these children died before they were five years of age, mainly because the common man had little knowledge of medical treatment. There were lesser trained medical doctors and the common man had little access to such treatment.

In such a case, photographs after the death of these children were the only way to preserve their memory. Earlier, the living family members would be photographed along with the dead. Over time, only the dead were photographed and the practice persists because death rituals among Hindus makes it mandatory to present one good photograph of the dead person during the tenth day rituals post-death.

Photographs of the dead also offered a much cheaper and rational choice over a painted portrait which only the rich could afford.

This writer chanced upon this breed of professional photographers in the Hindi film ‘Barah-X-Barah’ at a festival selection screening. ‘Barah-X-Barah’ marks the directorial debut of Gaurav Madan and, though it has been screened at film festivals across the world, the film had to wait for a few years for its national theatrical release scheduled for May 24. The director states that the footage has been captured on 16mm film, offering a unique, striking perspective through the lens of the only living death photographer in the ancient city.

Varanasi, an ancient city known for its numerous cremation ghats specially the Manikarnika Ghat where, the story goes, the pyres are forever burning because one dead body arrives for cremation on top of the other. This forms the visual space for the film.

This ambience of the ancient city is shown slowly and surely losing its historical and architectural identity. And this is no thanks to the ‘development of the city’ programme intent on demolishing old structures and building shopping malls and multi-storied constructions reeking of ‘modernity’ in their place.

The story, authored jointly by Gaurav Madan and Sunny Lahiri, revolves around Death photographer Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi). He is trying to earn enough to support his wife Meena (Bhumika Dube) and son Anshu (Prithvi Singh) by taking pictures of the dead.

Watching the ancient city being demolished around him to make way for modernity, casts a pall upon not only the city’s sacred history, but also poses a danger to Sooraj’s future and livelihood.

He lives a contented life with wife, son and ageing father who follows the traditional occupation of barber. The old man does not interfere in his son’s life, which is okay at face value as the wife also takes in stitching orders.

But the family’s life slowly and steadily moves towards financial downfall due to the growing popularity of camera-mobiles and selfie sticks which renders the job of the traditional camera photographer to a dead end. But Sooraj knows nothing about any alternate profession to fall back on and feels life is at a dead end.

"I hail from a small town called Jagadhri in Haryana. My parents had to let go of our ancestral home because the government decided to widen the adjacent highway. The house was razed in front of my eyes and we had to migrate to a drab housing colony.

“Now, the entire town looks listless, like a big city clone. Progress is vital, of course, but there's a part of me that misses the old town charm and sense of nostalgia. This film is a personal story, one I believe will resonate with anyone grappling with change, told through the lens of a novel protagonist,” director-writer Gaurav Madan said in an interview.

The opening frame of someone’s head being shaved sets the mood for the rest of the film. It establishes the character of Sooraj who is born to a family of hereditary barbers, who breaks away to become a death photographer by choice as he does not want to follow the profession of a barber.

But when the camera-mobile along with the selfie stick become a dangerous threat to his livelihood, what can he do? What should he do? In this sense, ‘Barah X Barah’ is a futuristic film which focuses on the changing present that is threatening traditional practitioners of craft and indigenous work practices, and an uncertain future looms.

The film does not try to be a guardian angel but rather, shows what is likely to force young men and women like Soooraj to make a choice even when they do not want to.

The acting of every single character, including the old actor who portrays Sooraj’s ageing and silent father is brilliant and this too, is an understatement. Bhoomika Dubey as Sooraj’s understanding wife, Akash Sinha as his friend are also very impressive in their spontaneous performances considering that they had to portray roles distanced from their real lives.

The film exudes a feeling of warmth, nostalgia with the fear of what the future holds. It also carries the flavour of mellowness, through its simple story narrated through visuals of narrow lanes Kashi is famous for, old structures, studios, and shops.

Sometimes the camera glances briefly at Sooraj’s wife stitching away at her sewing machine and the little boy waiting eagerly for a trip with the family. The soundtrack is filled with the sounds of buildings being demolished, machineries of destruction sounding like small bombs shaking the holiness of the place.

The shores of the holy Ganges are full of dead bodies, age sex, occupation, status, affluence are all immaterial. Right in the middle of this destructive development, families like that of Sooraj keep on juggling with the change, not understanding how to cope with it and what to do next.

Sooraj’s older sister, quite modern and independent, arrives to offer solace and options to her younger brother and his family by suggesting that they go along with her to Delhi to find new roots as soon, Sooraj will not even have an occupation to speak of.

‘Barah X Barah’ had its World/India premiere at IFFK, Kerala and International premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival. It has won top awards at various film festivals including the FIPRESCI India (Grand Prix, Best Film), Pune International Film Festival (Best Director) and Diorama IFF (Best Indian Feature Film).

Asked what inspired him to make his debut with such an unusual idea and theme, Madan said, “I once happened to meet a real death photographer during a trip to Varanasi and found that the subject had immense cinematic potential.”

When you watch the film, you realise he is right. It has been commended by critics as “as an atmospheric, visually stunning and nuanced portrayal of tradition versus modernity.” The question that this raises is – is tradition and modernity so polarised that they can never find common ground? Will all the Soorajs of Kashi be forced to leave their roots and search for new roots elsewhere?