One Photographer's Journey Into The Lives Of Bollywood Stars In The 1970s

Photographer Neelkant Sharma
Photographer Neelkant SharmaImage by Karan Khosla

“It was on the sets of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film in the late 70s or early 80s,” says 74-year-old photographer Neelkant Sharma, straining to remember the movie’s name. “Vinod Mehra and Amitabh Bachchan were both starring,” which prompted us to guess Jurmana (1979) or Bemisal (1982), but Sharma couldn’t be sure. “Since Vinod and I were close friends, he asked me to come along to the set. I entered and saw Bachchan Saab sitting on a chair in full style, with one leg crossed and his hands up on either side, a firm look on his face,” Sharma describes, demonstrating the stance. He tells us that this was around the time the ‘angry young man’ was on the outs with the media, with no interviews, photographs or comments in the limelight.

First, Sharma stood at a distance with his Hasselblad camera in hand, shooting wide angles of the film star. When Bachchan didn’t object, he moved closer and clicked a few close ups. Then he got bolder, and asked Big B to pose for him, move his hand and leg as such, put on his shades and look into the lens. He even got the actor to put on his jacket, which was hanging off the edge of the chair, and pose. “It was amazing, he knew I was a press photographer, and he allowed it anyway!” exclaims Sharma, his eyes gleaming at the memory. “This wasn’t my first interaction with him though. I had seen him on the set of a movie in passing many years before, and at that time he was an upcoming actor. So I thought to myself, ‘Yeh toh flop hai,’ and walked away,” he adds, laughing.

Neelkant Sharma's photographs of Amitabh Bachchan.

The Diary That Changed Everything 

Neelkant Sharma graduated from a college of Arts in Lucknow in the late 1960s. Photography has always been one of his hobbies, and he would borrow a friend’s Yashica 65 camera to capture anything his artistic eye deemed interesting. “Whether it was a brush or camera, I always had an image in mind. I would observe and then react to my visuals, and the imaging just came naturally to me,” he tells us. After graduating, he moved to Bombay to live with his brother in Pali Hill’s Nibbana building. “I used to just shoot anything,” we learn from the shutterbug, who would roam around Nibbana and click children playing in their natural surroundings.

His job hunt in 1970 took him to multiple advertising agencies, but all in vain. Luckily, he met a famous greeting card printer named Soni Thakur, who commissioned Sharma to photograph Bollywood’s finest for a diary he was printing titled ‘Film Star Pictorial Diary 1971’. “They were beginners at the time,” Sharma tells us, as he made his way to film studios across the city, from Dadar to Chembur to Bandra, waiting outside ongoing movie shootings to get a shot of the next upcoming star. Helen, Babita Shivdasani, Sanjay Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Pran, Raaj Kumar, Sridevi Rekha and the likes found themselves at the other end of Sharma’s lens with close ups, wide angles, cinematic poses and unguarded moments in monochrome clarity. Of the multiple images he captured of these stars, he sold one of each to Soni Thakur’s diary for Rs. 100 apiece, and the rest were featured in Filmfare, Star & Style and other Bollywood magazines of the 70s. “You wouldn’t recognise Smita Patil without makeup,” he recalls, “She had the most beautiful eyes.”

Shabana Azmi (left) Smita Patil (right) photographed by Neelkant Sharma
Neelkant Sharma's photographs in The Film Stars Pictorial Diary 1971

Under One Roof 

Living with his brother in Nibbana was a boon for the burgeoning photographer, since the building housed film industry celebrities such as Vinod Mehra, who eventually became a close friend of Sharma’s. His network within the apartment complex led him to Prem Chopra, Navin Nishcol and Shabana Azmi and Rekha. “Rekha was a completely bindaas girl,” Sharma recalls fondly, “She was sweet, straightforward, and simple. Vinod Mehra was a good friend of hers, so I met her through him and we became friends. I used to go to her house and have idlis and coffee with her mother.” 

He confides that her innocence and charm was ruined by the “shrewdness” of Amitabh Bachchan, who was described with creative profanities. “My black-and-white photographs were beautifully composed and everyone in the industry knew it. Vinod Mehra used to tell Rekha, ‘black-and-white karvana hai to Sharma se’,” he shares.

Close-up portraits of Rekha behind the scenes, before shoots, and in her natural element were beautifully captured by Sharma’s Hasselblad almost like a poetic narrative of the actress. One of the truly iconic photographs of Rekha he shot was of her applying make-up to her stylist Rabani in a humourous moment of role-reversal. “Rekha even taught me how to do makeup!” laughs Sharma.

Rekha as photographed by Neelkant Sharma
Vinod Mehra and Helen as photographed by Neelkant Sharma

The Arrival Of A Cricket Legend

In the early 80s, Sharma’s attempt to make ends meet as a photographer took him to a job at Gammon India, a large construction company who needed someone with a steady hand and camera to document their work. Shoots of jetties, creek bridges, factories, and other construction projects took him to different sites across the country, and his photographs were compiled in the company’s magazine. In yet another one of his magazine print accomplishments, Sharma was one of the first Indians to have one of his photographs published in the camera company Hasselblad’s quarterly magazine.

As Sharma sat at his computer chair in his apartment just off Carter Road in Bandra, he flipped through old newspaper cut-outs of his published photographs and faded print albums of his work. As he paused at one of the old clippings, he handed us a photograph of a young man sporting an athlete’s hat and a very familiar face. A few seconds later, we exclaimed, “Is that Sachin Tendulkar?”, and Sharma grinned back at us. Being a cricket fanatic since he was a child, Sharma’s professional photography intermingled with his love for the sport. Using a Press card he had from freelance work with Times of India and Mid-Day, he entered the Press box of stadiums to photograph Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri and the likes. Tendulkar was a young line boy at the time, just a kid, Sharma explains, and he happened to photograph the “chooha” which was eventually published with the headline ‘The Arrival’. This image has come to represent one of the first ever in-colour images ever taken of the cricketer too.

Neelkant Sharma holding his photograph of Sachin Tendulkar
Gammon India's photo book, as clicked by Neelkant Sharma

“It took a lot of jugaad,” the 74-year-old shares talking about what it took to be a photographer in the competitive world of the 70s and 80s. With no digital cameras allowing you to instantly look back at your work and plan your next shot, the entire shoot came out of the photographer’s mind eye. Years of experience and trial-and-error helped him perfect his black room skills, bringing out the perfect composition in every picture. As an analogue lover, the new-world digital photography seems like a cheat code hack to Sharma, and his heart still lies in the beauty of developing negatives. “Now anyone with a smart phone can do food photography, and don’t even get me started on the stupidity of selfies. The concept itself distorts the image completely,” he sighs, shaking his head at the lost charm of analogue photography, reminiscing about the glory days of his life as a celebrity photographer in the 70s.

Scroll on to see more of Neelkant Sharma’s photography through the years: 

Neelkant Sharma. Image Credit: Karan Khosla
Rajesh Khanna
Neelkant Sharma at his work desk.

Photographs: Karan Khosla 

Related Stories

No stories found.