Most of us are guilty of the same folly - instinctively smiling when a picture is being taken, never mind the occasion.
Virtually every paper in the country carried the picture on its front page — an official proudly displaying the black box of the plane that crashed in Mangalore and which took some time to find. But what struck me as odd was that in a good few of those pictures, the man was smiling. Where was the cause for celebration? Surely the 160-odd passengers who had lost their lives would not return to their loved ones, courtesy the mystery revealed from the box. All that would happen is we would know why the crash took place and hopefully learn some lessons.
I suspect the man didn’t smile consciously. It was a reflex action. He, like most of us, was told early in life and then came to do it automatically — smile when a picture is being taken. The classical extreme of this was captured by the picture that adorns the back cover of the tome Pictures on a Page by Harold Evans, legendary editor of the Sunday Times in its days of glory. It shows a man stretched out beside a swimming pool and life savers obviously trying to resuscitate him. Next to him stands a young woman in a swimsuit smiling at the camera and the caption to the picture reads, if my memory serves, “Why is this woman smiling when her husband is dying?” The picture conveys, more dramatically than many thousands of words can, the folly most of us are guilty of — instinctively smiling when a picture is being taken, never mind the occasion.
I have all my life resented my picture being taken, for the simple reason that I have been overweight since not quite ten and the result has not been flattering. Then when I became a print journalist (there was no television those days), I progressed in the profession chasing the holy grail of the byline, not the caricature of myself that photographers invariably captured, though I can swear I never harmed even a single one of them. Things began to change when the post-Emergency effervescence in the media brought to the fore colourful magazines which made broadsheets look dowdier than ever. Then the designers got to work on the broadsheets but the most intractable was the edit page which instinctively revolted against the attempt to redesign it, much like a woman in early middle age who hates being told that since age is not on her side she must do up her hair differently and go for those horrid trendy outfits.
But the market eventually wins and the edit page got its visuals, the mugshots of columnists, most of which wouldn’t have allowed their owners to cross the front gates of hiring agencies conducting screen tests for acting hopefuls. Then my day of reckoning arrived. All my remonstrations that I had come to the profession to be known by my byline and not aspire to be a Hrithik Roshan drew a curt command from my editor asking me not to be difficult.
I tried the last ploy, told Jagan that I am working, you take whatever picture you want, don’t expect me to pose and don’t even care to show me the results. He, of course, didn’t obliged and the last word was had by the editor who ticked me off the way he would someone far younger, saying, why were you making such a fuss, the picture had come out quite well. He, of course, didn’t hear me mutter that that was not the point.
So, I had to live with Jagan’s creation for years until a time came when my friends told me it was time my picture was changed because, they added gently, I had not looked like that in years and would never do so again. This time I got my own back. I cooperated with Radhakrishna in Bangalore even less and when the pictures went to Delhi, the designers called back to ask why I needed to look so grim. That’s the way I am, I said, and added that if they asked my wife she would agree that my mood was like that most of the time. I finally had the last laugh, or didn’t, when the designers had to do a sketch of my likeness. The result, said everybody, was terrible. I was positively scowling.
The wife is, of course, a much more normal human being. She thinks, as most people do, that she must look pleasant in all pictures of hers, no matter how formal or inconsequential the need or context. Things came to a head when she rejected a whole lot of passport size photographs taken for things like bank account application forms, saying that she looked terrible in them. My attempt to be funny, by saying that this wasn’t quite the picture she would have needed for a marriage proposal, got the riposte it deserved.
All this explains why in our sitting room there are several framed pictures. Some are of our children as they have grown up over the years and are absolutely endearing. There is also a fine portrait of the wife taken before we got married by the famous Kolkata portrait photographer, Samir Das. There is, of course, nothing of me. Who would want to ruin the atmosphere of a sitting room by putting up a scowling face, no matter how truly it reflected the state of the world.