Please tell us about yourself
So when I first saw Senthil, a couple of months ago, I sensed a groundedness about himself despite his success at a young age (he is cinematographer for 3 of the biggest hits in Telugu, Magadheera, Arundhati and Yamadonga, not to mention a fabulous body of work). He has an uncompromising quality when it comes to work, works very hard (in heat that was constantly around 44 degrees for most of May 2010), constantly improvises, has great attention for detail and a great enthusiasm for his work. Ever smiling with kind and compassoniate eyes, Senthil is someone you’d love to have on your side because he comes across as a wonderful, honest and forthright human being as well. I decided to dig deeper to know more about him and what makes him tick.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Senthil’s story could well inspire several others. Born and brought up in a normal middle class family in Secunderabad – his father was in the defence services, he did his schooling in Valerian Grammar School, Alwal, subsequently went to Arts and Science College, Secunderabad, (now PG College, Secunderabad) and graduated in Bachelor of Science, Electronics. After graduation he worked as a teacher in a school, teaching Maths and Science, while he wrote exams for various jobs. ‘I decided to write whatever exams came my way and attempted everything – from the NDA, to Civil Services, to bank PO jobs – I wrote every single exam,’ he reminiscences. It was then that destiny chose to follow him. ‘My friend Ram Mohan, who was interested in films, had got an application for the FTII, Pune for himself,’ he says. ‘ I had no interest in movies or the FTII, but since my friend was ineligible that year (being an under graduate) and I was eligible, I signed the form, ticking cinematography for no particular reason. In fact he filled up most of the form himself and sent it off’.
‘I was pleasantly surprised to get a call for the interview and went to Pune,’ he said. ‘ Walking into the institute was itself a wonderful experience, with all its sylvan settings. And to top it all the selection process was very impressive. We had a week long introductory course in film making, with group discussions in the evening. During this course I enjoyed learning about the craft and art of film making, and when I watched Kurosawa’s ‘Red Beard’ I was totally seduced by the medium. In the final interview I was asked about a movie I had seen and a scene that I liked and I described a scene in ‘Bombay’. I don’t know if what I said was anywhere close to what Mani Ratnam conceived,’ he chuckles in that boyish fashion of his. ‘Anyway, I did not expect to make it because there were so many seniors and I was the youngest ad most inexperienced of the lot. There were many from the industry, many who had written the exam several times before. I was really surprised when I got the admission into FTII,’
‘I started to seriously believe in destiny after that. How someone with no film background, no connections, no interest even till that pint, also got this opportunity due to chance is incomprehensible.’
It’s not hard for me to comprehend what Senthil would have done after he got the admission. He must have gone after the course with the same seriousness that he takes everything. ‘ I actually topped my course in the first semester,’ he laughs. Ever the sportsman, he remembers playing a cricket match with ex-FTIIians led by Tom Alter.
‘Anyway apart from all the fun and games, I enjoyed the course thoroughly and when the time came to choose between Bombay and Hyderabad I chose Hyderabad. I am glad I made that decision,’ he says. I am sure the Telugu film industry is glad too.
What was your career path after graduation from FTII?
‘After I returned to Hyderabad I went to Prasad’s Labs to meet someone I knew to get some work. He told me to work with someone who does a lot of work as in quantity. I started out as an assistant to Sharath garu for several movies. After a while as an assistant I decided that I had better strike out on my own whatever happens. This period was the darkest period because I got no work. I was clear I did not want to do TV, and I did not want to compromise. I got no work. It used to be so frustrating those days. I remember going for a job in Ramoji Film City where my only job was to switch on the camera while a weather report was being read and switch it off. I refused of course. It was then that I gave myself a time frame to either make it in cinema or do something else.’
‘Sometime then I got a call from Chandrasekhar Yeleti who wanted a camera person for a TV serial (Amrutham) but one who had no previous TV experience. I took it up because it was interesting and offered some scope to use my craft. And then ‘Aithe’ happened. A small budget movie but it got noticed by many which really surprised me. And then, just when I was getting my hopes up, I got branded as an art film maker which was tough to shake off.’
‘I took up a project with a well known cinematographer. I had lots of hopes on that project because I needed work and the money but I had to give it up after 2 days. I just could not compromise on the work. After Aithe came Rajamouli with Sye, a sports film with rugby. And then came 3, Yamadonga, Chatrapathi, Arundhathi and Magadheera and my work was soon recognized. In terms of work, I enjoyed the Chatrapathi experience the most.’
Tell us about your work mantra
‘I cannot remember who said it but I always believe that my next shot is the best shot. I am always trying to give my best to every shot within the constraints that I have. I remember a meeting with Ganga Raju Gunnam while shooting the song sequence for ‘Aithe’. Time was running out and I had no idea how we were going to do it. Then I told him that if he gave some more time we would do a perfect job, he asked me in return ‘what is a perfect job?’ I had no answer. And then he said, ‘if I give you 15 days you’ll do a better job, and if I give another 15 you will better that. But that is not important. What is perfect for us is what we deliver in the time frame we need to’. I always remember that.’
Make the best use of the opportunities you get and always give your best.
What are your future plans?
‘I would love to direct of course. Film making is a director’s medium.’ And when I ask him if he was ready for direction he smiles and says ‘yes’. Mohana Krishna Indraganti who was sitting next to us added, ‘There’s no time like I will be ready in a few years. You either have it in you to direct or not.’ Senthil smiles and agrees. ‘My only confusion is about what kind of a film I would like to do. An out and out action film or a romance. If I had to remake a movie I would love to remake ‘Devi’ and change the end.’
His eyes shine with passion when he talks of good cinema with Mohana Krishna. There was a lovely discussion about Ray, Kurosawa and other greats that they both admire that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to. But most importantly, he sticks with his camera team – they look like a family, more like a solid mass, moving together in the heat of the location, cracking jokes, pulling up on another when someone slips up. He checks each shot for perfection. And being a cricketer, his inputs in each shot make life much more easier for the rest of us.
There is no reason why Senthil will not scale great heights and make wonderful, honest movies in the years to come. I wish him him all the best in his journey and Senthil, I will be eagerly watching out for your movies, as I am sure, many more are.