From Marcus Bartley of 'Chemmeen' to Senthil Kumar of 'Baahubali'.

Lights camera beauty A look at south Indias stand-out cinematographers Facebook/ PC Sreeram
Flix Cinema Monday, November 13, 2017 - 15:48

The National Award winning Malayalam film Chemmeen released in 1965 was based on a novel by the celebrated writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. It was directed by Ramu Kariat, the editing was done by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the music composed by Salil Chowdhury. Veteran Manna Dey’s ‘Manasa Maine Varu’ a melodious song from the film still echoes in the hearts of those belonging to the earlier generation.

One of the major highlights of the film, however, was the cinematography by Marcus Bartley. Bartley’s camera captured the sea (the backdrop of the film) in its myriad moods, placid and tranquil at times, aggressive and searing at others and the cinematographer also invested the rest of the film with his touch of class.

Five decades ago, when technology had not progressed to the level that it has now, Bartley’s picturesque and panoramic presentation earned him a host of admirers. Although the cinematographer missed out on the National Award for the film, he won it later for Shanthi Nilayam another film noted for its haunting visuals.

Another cinematographer director who excelled in those bygone days was Vincent, a favourite of directors like Sridhar. Vincent who directed National Award winning films like Thulabharam was at his best in films like Kalyana Parisu and Uthamaputhiran and was widely acknowledged as a master of his craft. Both his sons, Jayanan and Ajayan Vincent took after their father and have been an integral part of Malayalam cinema for decades now.

When the camera is a bystander

Two of Malayalam cinema’s finest offbeat filmmakers who have left an indelible imprint on Indian cinema are Adoor Gopalakrishnan and the late Aravindan. Both the stalwarts had their favourite cinematographers whom they inevitably repeated in most of their ventures. Adoor and the late Mankada Ravi Varma made for a formidable combination in films like Swaymvaram, Kodiyettam, Elipathayam, Mathilugal, Kathapurushan and Nizhalkoothu.

In all these films that inevitably moved at a tepid pace, Varma’s camera was like a bystander recording the frames, gauging the moods of the actors and in short synchronizing effortlessly with the theme and the direction.

Ravi Varma’s work in the PN Menon directed Olavum Theeravum too won him fulsome praise.

Shaji Karun also perfected this art but for him, the cinematographer was Aravindan in films like Thampu, Esthappan, Chidambaram and Kanchana Seetha.

One of their finest efforts however was Pokkuveyil (Twilight) a film that traced the life of a frustrated poet. Shaji’s subtle use of light and shade was the highlight of the abstract film.

Of lights and colours

Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar held sway over Tamil cinema for a considerable length of time and both also tried their hand at direction where the former was much more successful than the latter. Balu who passed out of the FTII, Pune with a Gold Medal in Cinematography, once confided to this writer that cranking the camera was child’s play for him. His lens work however was in an altogether different league and right from the Kannada film Kokila which he also directed to Shankarabharanam and Moondram Pirai, he gave ample proof that he could provide considerable value addition to his films with his camera. 

The sensual presentation of the song ‘Ponmeni’ picturized on Kamal Haasan and Silk Smitha where the colourful filter lighting was eye catching and brilliant is a case in point. Ashok Kumar’s too was a class act and his work in Nenjathai Killathe, My dear Kuttichathan ( India’s firs 3 D film ) and Johnny marked him out as a cinematographer of great merit.

Mani Ratnam, whose films are renowned not just for deft directorial touches but also for their technical brilliance, has always ensured that he gets the best cinematographers on board for all his films.

While Balu Mahendra worked with him in his debut film Pallavi Anu Pallavi, it was P C Sreeram who collaborated with him in many of his earlier films like Mouna Ragam, Nayagan and Agni Natchathiram.

In the last mentioned film, Sreeram used special filters in the song sequences with great success.

Offbeat cinema

Madhu Ambat also an alumnus of the FTII, Pune wielded the camera for Mani’s poignant film Anjali. Incidentally, Madhu is one of the very few cinematographers who has worked extensively in offbeat films made on shoestring budgets and some of his outstanding work has been manifest in GV Iyer’s films like Adi Shankaracharya, Prema Karanth’s Phaniyama, Bharathan’s Vaishali and Girish Kasaravalli’s Tabarane Kathe.

Lenin Rajendran, an avant garde Malayalam film maker has always preferred Madhu for his films and the duo have done memorable films like Swathithirunal, Makara Manju etc. Madhu also lent his expertise to Salim Ahmed for Adaminte Magan Abu and won the National Award for Cinematography for the film.

Of grit and grandeur

But one of Mani’s mainstays has been Santosh Sivan, an universally acclaimed cinematographer who has also worked in Hollywood. The duo is all set to come together for the sixth time in Mani’s new film.

Sivan worked his magic in films like Thalapathi, Roja, Dil Se, Iruvar and  Ravanan with Mani wielding the megaphone. Rajiv Menon, to whom Mani offered the lead role in his film on the Mumbai riots Bombay ended up being the cameraman of the film and imparted an authentic feel to the riot sequences, an integral part of the film. 

An extravagant film by Indian standards, Baahubali, directed by SS Rajamouli was shot by Senthil Kumar who graduated from FTII, Pune. He won his spurs in Telugu films and was handpicked by Rajamouli for his magnum opus. The second part of the film was even more lavishly mounted and Senthil had a tougher job not just to maintain the high levels he had touched but to do even better. Senthil was fortunate that he had the full confidence of his director who allowed him plenty of leeway to shoot the sequences, especially the war scenes, a piece de resistance of the film.

Among other practitioners of the art, special mention should be made of veterans like KV Anand (National Award for Priyadarshan’s Thenmavin Kombathu) Nirav Shah (Billa, Benares, 2.0), Ratnavelu (Nanda, Varanam Aayiram, Enthiran, Lingaa ), Ravi Varman (Anniyan, Vettayadu Vilayadu, Dasavatharam, Galiyon Ka Rasleela), Rajeev Ravi (Liar’s Dice, Chandni Bar, Dev D, Gangs of Wasseypur I & 2,’Bombay Velvet ) and Ravi K Chandran ( Kannathil Muthamittal, Virasat).

The list however can hardly be complete as there are several other cinematographers knocking at the doors of stardom, all set to break into the big league.

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