'I regret not joining the film institute'
He's an alumni of the P C Sriram school of cinematography. And he's imbibed PC's adventurous spirit.
Thirunavukkarasu, a student of botany in interior Namakkal, Kerala, initially used the camera to shoot orchids in the nearby forest. Then, as his passion shifted from plants to photography, he discontinued his studies to work as an assistant in a studio. This, despite the fact that he'd seen only a couple of films before he began college.
It was Kamal Haasan who spotted his talent during the making of Thevar Magan and offered him Magalir Mattum. This was followed by Kadhala Kadhala, yet another comedy with Kamal, before he was offered Hey! Ram.
It's not de regieur for a modern day cinematographer to get to shoot a period film. Thiru sank his teeth into the project and the results were remarkable -- be it even in the little details like tonal quality or choice of lenses. Thiru, we hear, lost the National award by a whisker as gloss won over creativity.
He is currently shooting a Pentamedia film directed by Singeetham Srineevasa Rao. It stars the current sensation, Jyotika, and Robert Mitchum's son. He may also work on Kalaipuli Dhanu's ambitious bi-lingual, Abhay, starring Bollywood's Raveena Tandon and Kamal in a double role.
S Shiva Kumar met the national award nominee in Bangalore, where he was shooting for an ad film.
How did you get interested in cinematography?
Cinematography is an elaboration of photography. I was keen on it because there is more scope. I applied for a seat at the film institute, but there was a lot of competition. I lost one year. Then, through a family friend, I joined PC Sriram and worked as his understudy for four years.
The last film in which I assitsted him was Thevar Magan. This was when Kamal Haasan liked my enthusiasm and asked PC to let me shoot Magalir Mattum.
What is it like to work with PC? Does he teach you or do you imbibe just by watching?
He never teaches. PC has this constant urge to improvise. That itself is an inspiration. He's a very inspiring personality. You just have to get attuned to his style and you'll learn a lot. I have not learnt theory, so I used to read a lot of books like students do.
What about grading? PC gives a lot of importance to that.
He used to take us to the lab, but there's no time to teach grading us because it's done at the last moment. And, with the release date nearing, PC would work all night. He would answer all our queries and is open to argument. That's why so many of his assistants are flourishing.
So you don't regret not going to the institute.
I do regret that. I percieve cinematography as a science. If you don't know the science, you can't be creative. I compensated by reading a lot of books.
What is it that makes PC stand apart as a cinematographer?
It's his understanding of the medium. And his involvement till the end. Most cinematographers ring up the lab and let them do the grading, but not PC.
This is not some time-bound course. How did you decide you were good enough to work independently?
I did not decide. People around me thought I was good enough. Working for a very long time under someone makes it mechanical, because you're only executing his orders. PC too sees to it that nobody works with him for too long because of the monotony. He understands a person's capabilities. He allowed me to shoot a small portion of Thevar Magan because he was shooting some other scene for the same film. He was happy with the result.
I guess Kamal was happy too.
Yes, and that's how I got my debut film.
Did you make a conscious effort not to follow your guru's style?
A lot of people want to know why my work doesn't resemble PC's. On PC's set, I was doing what he wanted, but I was also thinking of other ways in which it could be done.
Yet, you did not get anything challenging till Kamal offered you Hey! Ram.
I don't agree. Each film needs a different kind of lighting and camera movement. Visuals somehow take a backseat in comedies. That's because an actor's facial expressions are given priority. But the amount of skill required is the same.
How important is a good director for good cinematography?
He's everything. Fifty per cent of the credit for good cinematography should go to him.
How was Kamal, the director, to work with? He knows something about cinematography too.
He's the creator, so he knows the geography of the scenes. After he explains the scene, I can give him options. The director knows best because he designs the scenes. Kamal was hassle-free.
How much freedom did you have?
Compared to the other films I've done, Kamal gave me all the freedom. I am clear about what I can deliver but, to get that, the director has to contribute. I could tell him to change the props. Sarika was helpful too.
As was the make-up?
We avoided make-up totally.
And the heroines didn't object?
Not at all. I read the script and decided on the tone. The film is set in the recent past. There are people from that era who are still alive. Some of the events, like Gandhi's assassination, are recorded, so you can't play around. It'll alienate the people in the know. I had to give the film a preserved look. I was not too keen on a sepia tone. I told Kamal that brown would be the basic colour and green, the supplementary. I used green because, when you preserve something, it turns brown, but green signifies life.
The present is shot in black-and-white and the past is in color.
We took test shots in various ways. I told Kamal that people's minds then were very clear. The feelings now are fake. There's no truth. I felt foreign corporate intrusion and communal riots will continue. Things are getting worse. The old man on the stretcher asks if the riots are still continuing. Kamal liked the idea of shooting the present in black and white. You can see the people and the soil in black and white but the elements, like fire, are shot in color.
What was the feedback?
It was very good. The public and fellow technicians liked my work.
I'm doing a film with Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, which Pentamedia is producing. So there will be a lot of graphics.
Do you want to direct a film?
It's only in Indian cinema that people think of doing the other person's job. It's only when a director doesn't know his job that the cinematographer intrudes and gives suggestions. Otherwise, I have a long way to go in my chosen field. There are so many things to do.