In the Malayalam film industry, art directors turning auteurs and cinematographers wielding the megaphone is hardly a recent phenomenon. While acclaimed art directors like PN Menon, IV Sasi and Bharathan also carved their niches by directing feature films with distinction, cinematographers like Balu Mahendra and Santosh Sivan down to Rajeev Ravi, Sameer Thahir and Amal Neerad have all progressed from cinematography to direction and have won laurels galore for their efforts.
One name that should feature in this august list is that of Shaji N Karun, a recent recipient of the Baburao Painter Award, who has been excelling both as a cinematographer and director, and whose films have won a rich haul of several international awards.
Shaji enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India in the Cinematography course and graduated by winning the President’s Gold Medal. His diploma film ‘Genesis’, directed by Rahul Dasgupta, won several coveted awards. Joining the Malayalam film industry as a cinematographer, Shaji worked with most of the leading directors of the time. But it was his long association with avant garde director Aravindan that was the most beneficial and fruitful.
Shaji was to Aravindan what Mankada Ravi Varma, another celebrated cinematographer, was to Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The Aravindan films for which Shaji cranked the camera were Thampu, Kanchana Sita, Esthappan, Kummatti, Pokkuveyil, Marattam and Oridathu. Aravindan, who used lighting to convey the mood of the characters in his films, found in Shaji the perfect cinematographer. His outstanding camera work, interspersed with an interplay of light and shade, coupled with Aravindan’s deft directorial touches, made these films a delectable viewing experience for discerning audiences. Shaji also worked with other leading directors like KG George, Lenin Rajendran, Hariharan and the famous writer-director MT Vasudevan Nair.
His work in Thampu, a black and white film, won him the National Award for Best Cinematographer. Shaji had worked as a cinematographer for as many as forty films before he decided to foray into direction.
Shaji’s first film as a director, and arguably his best effort ever, was Piravi, which was released in 1989. The film was based on a real-life story of a student leader Rajan, who goes mysteriously missing one day and never returns. It turns out that he had been whisked away by the police for questioning and had simply vanished from the face of the earth.
The main protagonist of the film, set during the Emergency days was the student’s father Raghava Chakyar (Prof. Eachera Warrier in real life) who goes from pillar to post in search of his son and pines for his return to the family home and a family reunion. Veteran theatre artiste Premji’s portrayal of a father’s angst was the soul of the film and the actor won the National Award for the film. Another stunning portrayal was that of Archana (a two-time National Best Actress winner for Veedu and Daasi) who was cast in the role of the student’s sister, who realises that her brother has been killed, but is unable to convey the news to the aged father.
Piravi impressed the National Jury and ended up with four awards for Best Film, Best Director (Shaji), Best Actor (Premji) and Best Audio (Krishnanunni). The film was also the toast of the international film circuit and reaped a rich harvest of awards and honours, including inter-alia Camera d’Or - Mention D’ honneur at the prestigious Cannes Festival. The film also won the Charles Chaplin Award at the Edinburgh Festival, Silver Leopard at Locarno and Silver Hugo at Chicago.
A throwback to the horrifying days of the Emergency, Piravi tugged at the heart strings with its emotional content and sheer poignancy. Shaji’s next film Swaham, released six years after Piravi, also had grief as its leitmotif. It narrated the tale of a young widowed mother who sends her son to a military camp pledging all her savings, but loses him in a stampede. The mother brings home the body, with the sister waiting for her mother and brother to reach home. Ashwini, who sparkled in Mahendran’s Uthiri Pookal was cast as the heroine and the film won the Silver Lotus at the National Awards and also a Special Jury Award for the director. Swaham was also nominated for an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Vanaprastham released in 1999 had a wider canvas, and for the first time in his career as a director, Shaji could rope in the versatile matinee idol Mohanlal for the title role of an actor who searches for an identity in the whirligig and chaotic environment of show business. One of the finest actors of our era, Mohanlal slips effortlessly into the role of Kunhikuttan, a Kathakali artiste hailing from the lower-class, who attracts the attention of an upper-class patron of the arts, Shubadra (Suhasini), who finds herself besotted with his performance as Arjuna. The couple develop a liaison and have a son, but Shubadra refuses Kunhikuttan any access to the child as she had no feelings of love or affection towards Kunhikkutan, the person.
The film draws to a close with the ‘Vanaprastham’ (the last dance). This film was the third in a row for Shaji where nomination to the Cannes Festival was concerned, a rare honour for any director. It won the National Award for the Best Film, Best Actor for Mohanlal and also the Award for Best Editing for Sreekar Prasad and Joseph Guinvarch. A unique feature of the film was that it was an Indo-French-German production. The film also made the rounds of the international film festival circuit and won a Special Jury Award for Shaji at the Istanbul Film Festival. Shaji’s only Hindi film released in 2002, Nishad with Archana and Rajit Kapur in the cast, dealt with the anxiety of a mother whose son had joined in the Air Force. The film premiered at the Fukuoka Festival in Japan also participated in several other international festivals, and was part of the Indian Panorama for the International Film Festival as well.
Shaji Karun’s other directorial efforts were the Mammootty starrer Kutty Srank and Swapanam, which had Jayaram in the lead role. In Kutty Srank, Mammootty portrayed the character of a mariner with three different shades as seen from the perspective of three women who enter his life at various stages.
Shaji, on the lookout for a woman cinematographer as the film was to be visualised from the background of the women characters, settled on Anjuli Shukla, who made the most of the opportunity. The film was also unique as it was shot on three different schedules keeping in mind the weather and environmental conditions. Kutty Srank premiered at the Montreal Film Festival and presented Mammootty in an altogether different light. The actor was reported to have missed the National Award for the film by a whisker.
Shaji’s Swapaanam revolved around the relationship between a chenda maestro (Jayaram) and a Mohiniyattam dancer (Kadambari) who are drawn to each other. Jayaram, an accomplished chenda vidwan in real life was the perfect choice for the male lead. The film was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival. Shaji has a couple of films Gaadha and Oolu in varying stages of production. The director has been awarded the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts from the French Government and also has a good track record as the Premier Chairman of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy.