30 years ago, a star emerged with ‘Agni Natchathiram’: The story of PC Sreeram

In the whole of the film, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that PC’s lighting was a character in itself.
30 years ago, a star emerged with ‘Agni Natchathiram’: The story of PC Sreeram
30 years ago, a star emerged with ‘Agni Natchathiram’: The story of PC Sreeram
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This day, exactly 30 years ago, in the sweltering summer heat, director Mani Ratnam’s stylish flick Agni Natchathiram released. A film which defined “cool” to young boys and girls alike in TN those days. It was an unapologetic ‘A-Centre’ film and made no pretensions of being anything else.

Overnight, Karthik and Amala, who were part of the multi-star cast in the film, became a huge rage among the youth in south India. But this piece is not to revisit Agni Natchathiram 30 years since its release as is the trend these days, but, to talk about PC Sreeram (fondly called ‘PC)’ the cinematographer of the film, who became a star himself post Agni Natchathiram.

Agni was not PC’s first film. But it was Agni that gave PC the tag of a hotshot cinematographer and announced his arrival in the big league. Before Agni, he had worked in notable films like Prathap Pothen’s Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kadhai and Fasil’s Poove Poochooda Vaa.

Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kathai did not do well at the box office and will be remembered more for Raadika’s acting. Poove Poochooda Vaa, a Malayalam remake, was a big hit which made Nadiya a teenage heartthrob in TN. 

Though PC’s work in these films was commendable, few noticed him or his contribution. And then Mouna Ragam happened, PC’s first outing with director Mani Ratnam, a film in which both Mani and PC got noticed as director and cinematographer respectively.  We saw the Taj Mahal in angles and shots not seen before.  And talking of camera angles, can we forget the shots with the camera moving along the wheels of the horse-carriage in the song Chinna, Chinna Vanna Kuyil’?  

The duo’s next work Nayagan was path-breaking in many aspects. While “Mani Sir” arrived in the Tamil film scene with Nayagan, PC got his first major recognition with the National Award for Best Cinematography for the film. With most of the scenes set indoors, in typical Mumbai chawl setting, there was actually little scope for PC to showcase “eye candy” camera work. But even in that film, which was replete with high drama and intense scenes, PC demonstrated his ability to add value to scenes with imaginative camera work with never-seen-before frame structuring, camera angles, lighting and shots. The top angle shot in the pre-Jimmy Jib crane days in the scene where Velu Nayakkar hears of his son’s death and takes a long walk to see his son’s face, for instance.

In the next film, Mani in PC’s own words, gave full freedom to him to “go berserk”. And that was Agni Natchathiram. And PC did go berserk! Professional critics and aspiring reviewers who usually comment on acting, storyline, music/songs and camera work while reviewing films, started talking of lighting for the first time. In the whole of Agni Natchathiram, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that PC’s lighting was a character in itself. For the ‘Thoongaatha Vizhigal Rendu’ song, PC used shining brass vessels to reflect light on to the whole set instead of direct light – a technique which has been emulated by many cinematographers since. 

Similarly, in the song Raja, Rajadhi Rajan Intha Raja’ shadows created out of interesting lighting were part of the choreography. In scene after scene, PC adopted creative techniques of lighting, angles and frame composition. Of course, the overdoing of the lighting in the climax with lights flickering for a long while at a stretch came in for a bit of criticism as well.

I vividly remember, sometime in 1988 or 1989, when PC visited our college campus as a special guest for our university’s photography association, he got a rock star’s welcome. This was just after Agni and the hall was packed with enthusiastic student crowds wanting to meet PC. He answered a wide range of questions that day, on techniques and also on the over lighting bit in Agni. I remember him saying that his job is to keep trying something new every time.

As seen in his body of work since Agni, trying something new has been the constant with PC’s work. Mani and PC would go on to become one of India’s top director-cinematographer pairs. There are scenes and frames which as normal film-goers we vividly remember even now from their films.  Whether it is the shot where Kamal and Saranya walk together with fluttering pigeons as the backdrop in the song Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetam’ in Nayagan or the close-up shot of water gushing out from shoelace holes of Nagarjuna in Geetanjali or the colourful shots in sync with the lines in Pachai Nirame Pachai Nirame’ in Alaipayuthey or the church scene in OK Kanmani, they are all still fresh in one’s memory.

In addition to Mani, PC’s collaboration with Kamal in some of his films also warrant mention. We all know the kind of efforts Kamal took to play the role of a dwarf in Aboorva Sagotharargal. But, I read that PC’s cinematography technique in choosing the right angles and avoiding obvious angles also played a key role in getting the dwarf effect right in what was clearly pre-SFX era! Thevar Magan is another movie where the look and feel of the typical TN rural landscape was brought right before our eyes by PC through some exemplary camera work.

Even in Bollywood, PC has been on fire. His work with director Balki in films like Cheeni Kum, Pa, Ki and Ka and recently Padman have all brought a whiff of fresh air on the screen.

It’s not that there were no talented cinematographers in Tamil cinema before PC. People like Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar were special. But, it was PC who made cinematography become an integral part of the script. If you observe his work, it is not limited to showing breathtaking visuals in outdoors but using cinematography to add heft to the scenes and becoming a director’s able ally. And that’s why, we have images which stay in our minds for a long, long time from PC’s films.

“Enna, manasula PC Sreeram nnu nenappo??” (What, do you think you are PC Sreeram?) is an often heard quip if someone takes time to focus and tries new angles to click a picture! Or these days, if someone shares his/her clicks in WhatsApp groups, a comment like, “Photo PC Sreeram levella irukku!!” (the photo is of PC Sreeram’s level) is quite common. That has been PC’s impact. Without him realising it, he has been a guru to many an aspiring photographer. After becoming a hot star 30 years ago, setting new benchmarks consistently is not easy. However, PC does that even today. The reticent legend deserves every accolade which comes his way and then some more.

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