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As a child what were your early influences towards cinema?
Growing up in Chennai, Tamil Films were a huge influence on me as a kid. With leading stars like Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan at their peak in the 1980’s, one couldn’t really escape films.
My father was a serious film buff and a photography enthusiast. Thanks to him, as kids we were exposed to films other than our regular films.
How did you first become interested in an offbeat, unconventional and cool career such as cinematography? Did you start with photography?
As I had mentioned earlier, I got interested in films pretty early in life. But inclinations of any kind towards Cinematography I think started with a Tamil film in 1988 – Agni Natchathiram, directed by Mani Ratnam and photographed by PC Sreeram. The stylized lighting really caught my fancy. For the first time I noticed myself commenting on the Cinematography. And approximately during that time, my father gave me a camera and a roll of film and asked me to fill it with whatever I wanted. It was like a gentle guidance into the path.
What steps did you take to train yourself?
The main step that I had to take was to start to express my desire. I spent quite a few years taking photographs and reading up on my own. I also learnt quite a few things both technically and philosophically from Naga, a Cinematography graduate from the FTII batch of 1984. But I could never take that final step towards filmmaking. During that time in the early 2000’s my Brother and I were running an Internet based company with filmmaking always in the shadows. However hard I worked, it never felt complete. In 2003, a project at the Hindustan Motors Factory at Uttarpara, West Bengal, kind of helped me put things in perspective. It was a pretty strenuous work of photographing all the processes that go into the making of a car, and we were doing it in the peak of summer at the furnace. My camera conked out. But the joy of the experience of photographing was immense. I quit my job, initially joined S.U. Saravanakumar, a Wildlife Photographer as an assistant and then later joined the Film & TV Institute, Pune in 2004.
Have you assisted anyone? How does it help one?
While I was waiting for my Diploma film to get ready, I got the opportunity to assist Sudakar Reddy on the Hindi feature film Mirch, directed by Vinay Shukla. This is the only experience I have as an assistant. Personally I think assisting is helpful in getting to know lots of practical aspects of how things work – technically or otherwise, and with different perspectives.
How did your first film project come about?
In 2009, we had our Diploma Film screenings in Mumbai as part of the Lensight Festival organized by the FTII. Atul Sabharwal, a Writer and Director, was looking to form his crew for Powder, a TV Series for YRF TV, the TV department of Yash Raj Films. My diploma film was about a character trying to regain her life after having lost her husband. I decided to light her in such a way that she is either in the dark or lit too brightly, never in the correct zone of light. Atul later told me, it was the dark zones that got me Powder.
What is perhaps the most important factor for you to choose a script?
While reading any script, I am just a reader, not a DP. My immediate reactions matter to me. If the audience in me is interested, I get into the project. The second most important thing is the conviction in the team. It’s a joy to work with people who believe in working towards creating something. I am happy to say most of my projects have worked out like that.
Is cinematography intuitive or is it something you learn?
I am fascinated by this story – if you wish for something when you see a shooting star, it comes true. I cant help but wonder at the amount of hard work that goes in keeping the wish burning inside you while you wait for the shooting star to pass. Instincts are honed by learning and practice.
Tell us something about your latest film.
The latest film to release is Bombairiya, an Indo Brit Film, produced by Beautiful Bay Entertainment & Kreo Films and directed by Pia Sukhanya. It’s a story that happens in Mumbai over 24 hours, where 3 people come together and save the life of a girl. I see the film as an urban fairy tale, and we have treated it as a mad ride that it is. I revisited my days as a street photographer for inspiration and we also studied some contemporary painters from Mumbai.
The latest film I have worked on in is Dheet Patangey, produced by SAB TV and directed by Ravi Adhikari. It’s an adventure about four friends who decide to help each other fulfill their dreams. With the geography and the different terrains playing an important role in the narration, we have taken care to give a distinctive look to the various places these 4 friends visit.
What is in the kitty right now?
This is like a year where things are coming together. I am currently working on the post on Bombairiya, Dheet Patangey and Side A Side B.
I am shooting a Cineplay named Scavengers Daughter directed by Ritesh Menon.
This is followed by a web series in March and an indie film with a mainstream director between June and August.
What’s your dream project?
At a very personal level, I think my dream project will be one when I get this awesome feeling of accomplishment and a sense of contribution once the project is done. And at a very different level, I think it will be great if Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan act together again and I get to shoot it
Your most memorable blunder?
This has to be the one when I told PC Sreeram sir, that he looked like PC Sreeram. I was travelling on my bike late at night and passed a medical shop in Alwarpet, Chennai. I saw someone like PC Sir in the shop. I immediately stopped my bike, went up to him and didn’t know what to do (This was the period when I was still deciding on what to do with my life). So I told him, “You look like PC Sreeram.” He was like “oh! Whos he?” I of course explained to him that he’s a great cinematographer. After he walked away the shopkeeper told me he was PC Sreeram.
Your favourite film shot by you.
Powder – Because it was my first independent work once out of FTII. And three days before the shoot, I had to decide whether to finish reading the bound 26 volume script or the fat RED One Manual. Script it was.
Aurangzeb – My first feature film and that too shot on Film.
In general, I guess the work I do at any point of time happens to be my favourite at that point of time. There is so much of ‘me’ that goes into a project that it doesn’t work otherwise.
As of now it is Scavengers Daughter, a Cineplay directed by Ritesh Menon. It’s a lovely format – a mix of both Cinema and Play and the language is just waiting to be constructed. I have been playing around with colors more than what one gets to in Cinema.
Any advice to the inspiring cinematographers?
I would like to share what my teacher at FTII, Bidhusree BIndhany told me –
Watch the world around, observe and learn. The world around you is the teacher.