Bengaluru: On the night of 26/11 when terrorists struck Mumbai, Pravin Talan was fighting another battle — to take his ill mother to a doctor. Mumbai had shut down soon after the first shots were fired. There was uncertainty everywhere.
“There was chaos all over, and my mother’s face had turned ashen – with fear and shock. My mother isn’t the kind who gets scared easily, and certainly not because of bombs and bullets. I knew it had to be something else,” recalls Pravin.
Amid his highflying ‘shoot-at-sight’ missions, Pravin Talan, one of the most sought-after fashion photographers of the country shared some insights into his latest assignment capturing the best and ‘beastly’ side of the Blacks Cats of the National Security Guards (NGS).
As reported in Onmanorama’s Republic Day special, the pictorial tribute by NSG to the martyrs of 26/11, shot by Pravin, has gone viral.
“There were no taxis available. Houses were locked. Communication lines choked. Streets were empty. I couldn’t find a place to get my mother scanned, until a kind doctor opened the back door of his clinic, took us in, examined her and gave the dreadful news that she had a clot between brain and the skull and required urgent neurosurgery,” says Pravin, narrating how his devotion to the Special Forces and NSG began.
His mother was flown to Delhi by the first flight that took off from Mumbai post-attack. She was operated upon the next day.
“I remember the first words she spoke feebly after regaining consciousness: ‘Is it over?’ I assumed she was asking about the surgery. But her query was about Mumbai. I told her the NSG bravehearts were in,” says Pravin.
He said soon the NSG commandos became heroes for his mother and everyone else at home.
Unfortunately, 26/11 took the lives of 164 innocent people, including 15 policemen and two NSG commandos. More than 300 were injured.
“We were caught unawares and unprepared, but had it not been for the brave policemen and commandos, many more would have died. It was a few years later that I decided to do a series on all the heroes, our extraordinary men and women in uniform. NSG had by then found a special place in my heart,” says Pravin.
Honour Our Heroes
He says it is an honour capturing the heroic efforts of India’s armed forces.
“It’s a great honour being with them, and capturing the best moments in action. I have been documenting and photographing India’s men and women in uniform since 2008, whether they are a part of the internal security forces or those guarding the borders,” says Pravin.
His first shoot with men in uniform was with the Indian Army in the North-East in 2008 and ever since he has seen virtually every wing of India’s security forces through his lenses.
With a strike team of three members, the latest NSG assignment saw Pravin’s chief assistant Rupali Saagar, too shooting the Black Cats from close range.
His other two assistants Sana Bazmee and Mohd Faruk too are trained to undertake the most difficult angle of attacks!
Fashion To Fury
When asked about his frequent switch from fashion to fire 'n' fury, Pravin says photography is one’s own vision statement and the concept of glamour is subjective.
“Without doubt there is much more glamour and honour in uniform than in so-called 'fashion'. Not that I have shifted from commercial work. My time is equally divided between inspirational work and commercial assignments in fashion and advertising. I just felt uniform deserved more respect and higher quality photos for adequate representation, and I chose to focus on that for a while,” he says.
With changing times dominated by social media, Pravin says psychological warfare has superseded everything else.
“Countries worldwide keep flooding the internet with high quality images of their soldiers that serve as inspiration to many. It may not matter much to the soldiers, but youth are influenced by these images and they need to be constantly motivated and be made aware of our capabilities,” he adds.
NSG Shoot & Theme
The brief of the latest NSG assignment was to come up with an awe-inspiring tribute to its martyrs through photos. NSG wanted the calendar to capture the ‘Men in Black’ at their glorious best. Honouring our martyrs and inspiring the youth of India was the key.
Pravin says precision, timing, reflex, training, motivation, daredevilry and various capabilities on land, and in air and water, in addition to use of technology and advanced weapons were some of the key elements of the shoot.
Asked about the challenges of capturing the NSG team, Pravin says every shoot and every shot was different.
“The challenge pushed you to do better than what you previously did. I am not a commando but I can’t be any less while I am shooting with them. Most importantly the photographs need to be a correct representation of them. Not more. Not less. It requires fine judgment to decide how much we actually want to showcase or needs to be in the public domain,” says he.
Pravin is now quite used to getting cuts and bruises shooting these commandos through fire obstacles, on high-rise buildings and in gas rooms.
“Once they threw a stun grenade during an exercise, and I couldn’t hear properly for the next three days. On another occasion, when I was taking a shot, a ferocious K9 assault dog jumped right in through the car window on to my hand, almost taking it off. I couldn’t move my shoulder for weeks because of the impact. There are plenty of stories saved for the right time to share with the world,” he said.
On shooting the commandos underwater and getting the frame right, he says it was easy and fun with the right equipment.
“Only if it’s not as cold as it was when I took those photos. I always shoot much more than required, so the right frame isn’t an issue. But there is always a problem of plenty. The dilemma of which one to use,” he said.
In physical terms, Pravin felt doing a book with the Border Security Force was quite demanding. The treacherous terrain, extreme weather conditions, constant look-out for poisonous insects and other creatures in the North-East and the Sundarbans delta was nerve-wracking for the team.
“I picked up some strange infection from the delta, and fever and hallucinations didn’t leave my body for months.
“Mentally every shoot is tough and challenging. I can’t be repetitive about my shots, and it’s tough, because eventually for everyone in uniform the primary role is to serve and protect the country. So I spend hours trying to understand their expertise, uniqueness of that particular force and the environment they work in, and the assets they protect,” says Pravin.
A quick scan through Pravin’s work over the years indicates the kind of risks he has undertaken to capture frames that always create the ‘wow’ effect. His work has clearly enhanced the image of the forces, whether it was shot against the the backdrop of jungles or cities, borders or barracks.
“What goes on the internet remains forever. Shooting for the Railway Police was quite a challenge as every time you search for them online, the only thing that popped up was dead bodies or rail accidents. I had to really understand their scope of work and bring it out by adding elements like deep dark tunnels and old heritage iron bridges.”
He said the main brief for the NSG assignment came from its Director General Sudeep Lakhtakia, who took personal interest in ensuring portrayal of the best of the Black Cats.
“It is team work. I take no extra credit for the images. I just shoot. It is them, the true warriors, who look like one, whichever way you shoot them. It’s an honour,” he concludes.
The arresting photos have already become an internet sensation and hardcore devotees of NSG are celebrating the photo carnival.
“The best Republic Day gift it is! Words fall short to appreciate our NSG commandos. They stay secluded and are ready to sacrifice their lives to bring peace to us. Their training schedules have even inspired badminton players at the top level. Great job by the photographer in gifting us something sensational. My salute to the superhumans,” says Utsav Mishra, former international badminton player and currently coach of the senior Indian team.
“These images will remain in our hearts forever. They inspire,” says Utsav, who is also the chief coach of the Air-India team.
So where is Pravin heading next? “Well! They say mission plans should be under wraps. And you got to strike without a warning,” he says.
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)