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Born and brought up in rural Kerala, CK Murladheeran is one of the most accomplished cinematographers in India.
Beneath the gentle demeanour is the immensely skilled man who brought to screen two of India’s highest grossing films: PK (2014) and 3 Idiots (2009). A close collaborator of Bollywood filmmakers Rajkumar Hirani and Sriram Raghavan, Murladheeran’s oeuvre includes hundreds of documentaries and short films; and dark-thrillers like Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar alongside light-hearted films like Lage Raho Munnabhai.
Your Background? Why did you choose an offbeat and unconventional career such as cinematography?
Sipping on a coffee, he starts taking about the Kerala he grew up in. “Those were peculiar times”, he begins. “The late 70s and early 80s. The Left movement was active, but the Naxalites had suffered setbacks. There were a lot of frustrated youth in Kerala hoping for a change.”
Art flourished amidst the unrest. “There were a lot of people translating international literature to Malayalam. I remember reading Marquez in Malayalam before he was translated into any other language. In that atmosphere, it was hard not to get drawn into literature. I used to read a lot.”
He continues about how he learnt about cinema by reading. “Cinema was the in-thing then because it was a new medium. I would read a lot about Indian and international cinema, though I never got much opportunity to watch the movies. I came to know about European cinema and India’s new wave of directors like Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray from reading about them in periodicals.”
His eyes light up at these memories. The old-fashioned noble romanticism of the times.
“You could write to the publishers and they would send books through the post office. I remember getting a set of books by mail that I hadn’t paid for. They came with a note saying I could pay them later. I wrote back to them thanking them for the trust they had in me. I still remember the reply they sent to me. ‘What’s life without being able to trust people?’”
Where did you do your graduation?
Muraleedharan holds fond memories of his days at the Pune-based Film And Television Institute of India, his alma mater. “I landed in Pune without knowing any English or Hindi. For a person from a very middle-class background who grew up in a town in interior Kerala, Pune was a big cultural shock. Meeting students from all over India and other countries. Different cultures. Different languages. Different politics. It was something different altogether.”
The first movie he saw at FTII was Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda’s acclaimed Man of Marble. The film took him by surprise. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says. “Could films be made this way too? (After seeing this) I was confused whether I should continue to like the films of resident masters like Balachandra Menon.”
The films he saw at the institute helped mature his world-view. “Cinema has the ability to mature one as a person,” he tells me. “To understand how elements like politics and nudity are handled in other parts of the world.
To see how people from Germany or Argentina look at love and relationships. To learn how Chaplin created humour from his own life.” He soon realised that cinema was “something deeper and heavier than he had assumed before.”
At FTII, Muraleedharan lived and breathed cinema. “We’d discuss Russian Communism, politics, art, life and everything under the Sun. There was very little money, but there was cinema to feed on. Every moment you are talking about cinema. Every joke you crack is about a film. It was a different world altogether”.
Did you land a job after FTTI?
After he graduated from FTII, Muraleedharan’s life was “Struggle. Lots of it,” he says. “I did not have a place to stay in Mumbai. I’ve slept on footpaths and been thrown out of friends houses where I overstayed my welcome. I kept trying to find a job so that I could find food from somewhere.”
He pauses before continuing. “Sometime back, I was travelling through Pune with Sriram (Raghavan) in a car. He asked me why I never went back to Kerala after I graduated. I hate big cities, but I still came back to Bombay after graduating. And I stayed back. Years later, I still hate cities. But I’m used to this now.”
Muraleedharan started his career as a cinematographer shooting documentaries. He chose to do this for “political reasons” and because it gave him an opportunity to travel. “I travelled all over India. Through villages and urban spaces. I shot episodes of Doordarshan programmes like Bharat Ki Chaap, and documentaries for the BBC and the Film Board of Canada.”
And soon after, he started his stint in television dramas, through friends like Rajkumar Hirani. It was the Doordarshan era of Indian television, dominated by independent producers willing to experiment. Or as Muraleedharan puts it, “The Saas-Bahu trend hadn’t started yet. Channels were producing content-backed programming; and everyone was experimenting with the medium. I worked on episodes in which one shot went on for 12 – 13 minutes. Three such shots made one full episode. The industry was brimming with energy.”
When the era ended, so did Muraleedharan’s involvement in television. “In the late eighties, when the Saas-Bahu soaps started coming in, I quit television and started doing films.”
What was the turning point?
He had an inauspicious entry into films with Shashilal K Nair’s controversial Ek Choti Si Love Story. “I didn’t get along with him very well,” Muraleedharan says cryptically, and moves on to happier topics, about his long association with Rajkumar Hirani and Sriram Raghavan, that includes Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 Idiots, Johnny Gaddar, Agent Vinod and PK.
“By the time Raju (Hirani) finishes a movie, Sriram would begin his. So I never got a chance to work in anyone else’s films,” he laughs. “But now, I just finished Ashutosh’s (Gowarikar) latest. Finally, I am out of that chain.”
What do you dislike about the film industry?
Muraleedharan does not like to be called a technician. “I am good at technology. I am a physics graduate, and I like science and technology. But ultimately I am an artist, a creative person. I think and work like an artist. But in the industry, we are always called technicians. I hate being called that. I don’t go to the location with a set of spanners. I go with my head. I am an artiste who uses technology.”
What skills are needed for a cinematographer?
We need to keep up with technology. “I read a lot. I talk to people from the industry. And I experiment. I try to do things differently to see how technology can be used.” He illustrates with examples. “Sometime back, I was shooting a rain sequence in Rajasthan when the temperature was nearly 49 degrees Celsius. We were filming a rain sequence. When you try to protect the camera from water by covering it, the camera stopped working because it was too hot. So I made a case for the camera with fans inside.