Screens, Mists and Smoke: Translucence’s Ambiguous Dynamics 

Every time I read the hashtag “no filter” underlining a photograph on social media, I find it difficult to suppress my intrigue notwithstanding its ubiquity. #NoFilter is unarguably amongst the most commonly used descriptors today, and almost always in the earnest. Specially inserted to testify to a sincere sense of the scene’s veracity, #nofilter genuinely seeks to allay any suspicion of editing or play, dissolving the distance between the viewer and the view to the highest degree of transparency.

Most importantly, it quietly but confidently acknowledges the pervasive fact that photography today is intrinsically tied to endless manipulation through all kinds of insertions and subtractions, both of which get clubbed under the noun-turned-verb, “photoshop”.

But here’s the thing: the camera, which takes the photograph, is itself a filter of sorts. It is a simple fact that often gets ignored in discussions on the “truth” of images, and is only picked up for debate when a captured scene looks too exceptional or fantastical to be true. And yet, the idea is hardly difficult to grasp. If you use two different kinds of photographing devices (phones, point-and-shoots, tablets, DSLRs and whatnot) or even use two (or more) versions of the same brand (let alone different brands), it will be easy to spot the differences of clarity, texture, sharpness and colour within the respective images.

For this reason, professionals often tend to speak of the particular “focal length” and “ISO number” through which the image has been created. But even then, in many cases, the lens “make” or “type” and the complex technology infusing it (usually hidden to the eye) furnish different results.

This is not to argue against the harmless and heartfelt sentiment behind #nofilter, but simply to allow for the fact that much of what goes in the name of “reality” ultimately remains a “representation”, crafted through a particular device or medium in concert with human intentionality. More than often, a layer or a filter of “something” always determines the (im)print of the image on the screen or the page. Thus, for all our love of transparency, clarity and reality – the three of which routinely go together – it is the varying degrees of translucence that commonly guide our reception of scenes and, indeed, of scenarios. Then again, different kinds of filminess interact with different kinds of representations to generate newer versions of truth.

Mist hugging the pine trees in the lower reaches of the Shimla Hills. Photo: Siddharth Pandey

Whenever I take my digital photographs to print in the nearby studio, I consciously have to make an effort not give in to the disappointment that invariably descends with the dampening of colours and contrast on the altered screen.

What, then, is real? Is it the retina screen of my MacBook that habitually provides an enriching visual experience, or the different company’s desktop that prompts me to “edit” my images further, till they bear some resemblance to their look on my laptop? The tussle doesn’t end there, since the quality and type of the paper (gloss? matt?) become additional criteria to consider. Think also of the “graininess” of a 70s or 80s Bollywood coloured film, as compared to a contemporary production, and think again of the innovation inaugurated by 3D technology in the latter. And who can forget the 2015 global debate on “The Dress”, a fabric sensation on the internet that had the world divided between those who thought that the clothes’ colours were blue and black, and others who argued they were gold and white? 

Also read: On Embracing the Hills: Reflections on Himachal Pradesh on Its 50th Anniversary

Taken on its own, the lens of translucence far exceeds the limits of technology, for it is in the natural world that we first find it expressed. Depending upon the extent of moisture and the time of the day, translucence presents itself most powerfully in the form of mist. The silvery vapours and wisps that follow a rain or simply birth of their own during a highland dawn or dusk attest to the integral softness of the environment. Mist elegantly liquefies the ostensible immobility of a vista, making it alive, effervescent and mysterious, all at the same time, via its gossamer acrobatics.

For this reason, Hindi cinema cannot seem to have enough of its magic, and film after film ventures to demonstrate its fantastical, romantic and enigmatic appeal for assorted songs and scenes. From O.P. Nayyar, Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle’s lilting “Ishaaron Ishaaron Mein Dil Lenewale” in Shakti Samanta’s Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), to R.D. Burman and Bhonsle’s haunting melody “Phir Se Aaiyo Badra Bidesi” in Gulzaar’s Namkeen (1982), mist complements both starry-eyed overtures and solitary brooding.

More recently, one of Bollywood’s most tender romantic proposals also occurs in the presence of mist, when Shahrukh Khan’s character Rizwan Khan in Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan (2010) takes up the challenge of showing his beloved Mandira Rathod (Kajol) a part of her city – San Francisco – that she hasn’t viewed before. Early morning one day, Khan takes Rathod to a vantage point and introduces her to the magic of panoramic mist-clearing upon sunrise – a revelation for Rathod. The melting of the mist figuratively melts the heroine’s heart and seals her relationship with the hero.  

It was this link between the purity of translucence and the enchantment of emotions that got broken when we shifted to Delhi NCR three years ago from Shimla. Since Diwali, this region (almost like an annual ritual now) is yet to spot a clear blue sky, as haze hangs heavy, and one has to accept the “poor”, “very poor”, “unhealthy” and “hazardous” air as a way of life.

Ironically, only a few months ago, we were scampering for a mouthful of clean air at the peak of the pandemic. In a recent moving article titled ‘The Lost Glory of Delhi Winters, Santosh Desai laments that “it is not that winters today do not have their own charm. But there is simply too much to worry about. The outdoors have become our enemy and the sky a shroud.” When my three-year-old niece visited us for the first time during last winters from Shimla, she was confused how it could be “evening during the morning” (her words, for she had never experienced a perpetuation of haze before. Her comment was further telling because she intuitively knew that the translucence of mountain mist carries a different texture from the heaviness of polluted smog.

And yet, for many plain-dwellers, it is this haze that supplies “the feeling of mist”. Countless films and photographs celebrate the “romance” of such cloudiness that envelops Delhi and its surroundings during the current season. This triggers me to argue that there are indeed situations when visuality by itself fails to index the purity of reality. A pure translucence and a miasmatic one can indeed look remarkably similar in a visual documentation.

Perhaps, then, the way to go about understanding translucence’s complex ambiguity should not only be through the function of sight, but also through that of smell, touch, and the emotion of well-being. For the virtue of translucence isn’t something only to be seen through the eyes, but also felt by the body at large.

Siddharth Pandey is the author of Fossil and can be found on Instagram @shimlasiddharthpandey.

Featured image: Mist rolling the higher reaches of the Shimla Hills. Siddharth Pandey