Armed with a degree in Physics, a young Madhu Ambat had two options in front of him. He had secured admission in IIT where he could pursue a career in engineering. He had also gained admission to the prestigious Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune that offers multifarious courses related to cinema. A yen for cinematography saw him plump for the latter, a decision that he has never had to rue till date.
Madhu passed out of FTII with a Gold Medal and in 1973, bagged his first assignment, a documentary on ‘Industrial Estates’ directed by Ramu Kariat of Chemmeen fame. In over four and a half decades, Madhu has cranked the camera for an incredible 250 films, his milestone film being Pani in Malayalam. He is perhaps the only cinematographer in Indian films who has worked in nine different languages and has also been a part of Hollywood films directed by Manoj Night Shyamalan (Praying with Anger) and Jagmohan Mundhra (Provoked). Madhu’s first full-fledged film was in Malayalam, titled Love Letter released in 1974. He then forged a partnership with another up and coming cinematographer, Shaji N Karun, and the duo worked together in three films before branching out separately.
A marked feature of Madhu Ambat’s career has been his penchant to work in films made by offbeat directors whose work signalled a clear departure from the traditional auteurs who concentrate more on the entertainment angle. Even after establishing himself and earning plaudits for his camera work he has never shied away from films made by first-time directors. In fact, his 250th film Pani is helmed by debutant Santosh Mandoor. A major chunk of Madhu’s work has revolved around Malayalam cinema and here too he has worked with established professional directors and the younger lot as well. The cinematographer cherishes his association with one of Mollywood’s most acclaimed directors, KS Sethumadhavan, with whom he worked in films like Oppol, starring Balan K Nair and Menaka, and the Tamil film Nammavar with Kamal Haasan in the lead.
The late Bharathan was another director who placed a lot of faith in Madhu and their collaboration in films like Amaram, Vaishali, Sandhya Mayangum Neram and Padheyam, among others, turned these movies into aesthetic and visual treats. Particularly haunting were the visuals in the period film Vaishali shot at lush outdoor locales. The talents of Bharathan, who was also an accomplished art director, and Madhu fused admirably to turn the film into a panoramic delight for viewers.
Lenin Rajendran was another filmmaker who rarely looked beyond Madhu while scouting for a cinematographer. Some of their outstanding works include inter alia films like Swathithirunaal and Makaramanju. Incidentally Makaramanju, based on the legendary painter king Raja Ravi Varma, featured one of Madhu’s illustrious contemporaries, Santosh Sivan, in the role of the protagonist. Other discerning directors with whom Madhu has been associated in his long and fruitful innings were KR Mohanan (Purushartham), Rajeev Nath (Sooryante Maranam) and Pavithran (Aaro Oral).
First-time director Salim Ahamed too had Madhu wielding the camera for Aadaminte Magan Abu, a poignant film that narrated the story of an aging, poor Muslim yearning to fulfil his dream of going on the Haj. The focus here was on highlighting the pathos of the central character and Madhu’s frames conveyed the angst to perfection. Madhu Ambat’s third National Award for Best Cinematography came to him for this film. The director-cameraman team came together again for the Mammootty starrer Pathemari.
Although his exposure to Kannada cinema was limited, Madhu had the opportunity of working with some of the finest directors in Sandalwood. The late acclaimed director GV Iyer placed considerable faith in Madhu and their combination resulted in some of Iyer’s finest films on celluloid. Adi Shankaracharya (Sanskrit), Kudure Motte, Madhvacharya Bhagwad Gita (Sanskrit) and Swami Vivekananda, all helmed by Iyer had some fascinating lenswork from Madhu. In fact, Madhu’s first National Award was for Adi Shankaracharya. As the ace cameraman confessed to this writer once, shooting for Iyer’s films was extremely tough as comfort was the last thing on the director’s mind, especially during outdoor shoots.
Another Kannada director for whom Madhu had high regard was the late Prema Karanth with whom he did Phaniyamma. Multiple National Award winner Girish Kasaravalli too roped him in for Tabarane Kathe, a film based on a novel by the late Poornachandra Tejaswi. This film again was an emotion-laden human drama with a great deal of pathos woven into the script. A national award winning portrayal by Charuhasan was the highlight of the film and Madhu’s contribution with the camera too won him accolades.
Madhu Ambat won his second National Award for the film Sringaram, directed by debutant Sharada Ramanathan, which depicted the life of Devadasis during the 1920s. Other notable films that provided Madhu an opportunity to showcase his talents were Amodini, a Bengali film directed by the well-known literary critic and father of actor-film maker Aparna Sen, Chidananda Dasgupta, Sai Paranjape’s Disha, Mani Ratnam’s Anjali and Mohan Sharma’s Namma Gramam. Madhu has also directed a film 1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love.
The cinematographer who turns 70 next March remains wedded to the silver screen and we hope he continues to work with filmmakers who can add new dimensions to cinema with their novel themes and ideas.