'I can't say no to Adoor'
He believes in one kind of cinema only: art cinema.
It was his aversion for commercial films that made Mankada Ravi Varma shoot only art films.
Varma is this year's national award winner for best cinematography, for his work in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Kalamandalam Gopi.
This is Varma's second award -- he won the first 25 years ago for Gopalakrishnan's first film, Swayamvaram. That film marked the beginning of a long association between the cinematographer and the filmmaker.
In 1984, Varma won the special jury award for his own film, Nokkukuthi, based on a poem by noted Malayalam poet, M Govindan.
In his career spanning nearly five decades, he has shot only a dozen or so films -- all of Adoor's films, one for Singeetam Sreenivasa Rao (Dikkatta Parvathi),one for P N Menon (Olavum Theeravum) and the late Aravindan's first film, Utharayanam.
Shobha Warrier spoke to the award-winning cinematographer. Excerpts:
No one in your family has been connected with films. What made you choose this unconventional profession?
It was quite accidental. I happened to see an application form for a course in cinematography from the Madras Polytechnic. It was ordered by a relative. When I saw it, I decided to apply.
That was in 1948. My interest was not in films then, but in the technology.
Only after I completed the course did I realise that it was very difficult to get a job -- as there were not many job opportunities for a cameraman.
Remember, we were a young, independent country then. Luckily, three of us from our batch were selected for a six-month training course in the Films Division.
We were offered the post of assistant cameramen only after the training. All of us felt that had we been North Indians, I am sure the Films division would have absorbed us as chief cameramen.
But then we were quite active for the next five-six years shooting for the Films Division.
Are the films produced by the Films Division not propagandist?
There are other types of films, too. In those days, they used to make films on various issues, as also travelogues. It was only after family planning became an issue that the Films Division became propagandist.
In fact, during my stint as assistant cameraman, I enjoyed doing the travelogues most. We shot films on holy cities like Benares, on Nature -- that is, on rivers, mountains, forests, etc.
What kind of experience was it travelling to forests and mountains?
I had a vision about India as a great country even before I became a cameraman. It got concretised with my travelling.
Only three of us would travel to these places. Sometimes, the director would not be present with us. So there we were, all alone on the isolated mountainous terrain, with forts all around us -- it was a marvellous experience.
One could delve deep into one's mind then -- alone, surrounded by mountains with not a soul in the near vicinity.
Actually, the film that we shot on the Himalayas won a National Award.
Did you expect to do creative work with the Films Division?
What I wanted then was a job, that's all. If there was a job available as a cameraman in the army, I would have taken it!
It was just a five-year stint, though. By then, the job had become too tiring for me. There was no time to sit in those days. Life was one long trip from one place to another. Hardly did we finish an assignment when we were asked to pack our bags and go with another director to another destination.
So, physically as well as mentally, I had no time to sit or reflect. Thus my decision to quit Films Division.
Did you quit because it was taxing or was it because you could not do anything creative?
Actualy, the prospects for promotion were very dim with the Films Division. It was a foregone conclusion that none of us would get a promotion.
How could they promote us when there were no vacancies at all? Anyway, for me, life as a cameraman had reached a stagnation level by then.
That is when I thought that if I came home, I could do something more creative.
I did not settle down in Kerala because the Malayalam industry in those days (the 1950s) was Madras-based.
The first five years were a real struggle for me. But I had to survive. So I bought a 6mm camera and started taking newsreels for news agencies like the BBC and some other foreign news networks. I also made some small films for them.
Then, I happened to meet some youngsters from the film institute who looked at films differently. We felt that we needed better films, not the kind that were being made then.
As we were fed on films made by great international masters, we could not appreciate crass commercial films. We had already seen films made by Indian filmmakers like Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray. Compared to that, what was the condition of Malayalam films?
When small countries like Poland, Hungary, Japan, etc, could make very good films, why couldn't we in Kerala better films!
The situation, though, was the same then as it is today -- distributors decided what kind of films should be made. They dictated terms.
As for me, I was not bothered about how much money I could make. In fact, none of us thought of or talked about money. We were just a group of idealistic young men, very passionate about films!
Did your association with Adoor Gopalakrishnan start then?
Yes, in fact we would correspond via letters when he was studying at the Pune Film Institute. I had written an article on films in a magazine called Sameeksha.
He happened to read it and later asked me to write another piece for a magazine that he had edited from the Institute.
Since then, we corresponded with each other through letters. Whenever he came down to Kerala, he would meet me.
We were not financially comfortable enough to produce a film. But we talked a lot about making films!
Actually, Swayamvaram was Gopalakrishnan's second script. By then, I had shot PA Becker's Olavum Theeravum. It was directed by P N Menon.
The first film I shot was Aval, for Aziz who was from the Film Institute. I think it was the first Malayalam production by someone from the Institute. This was in 1966 or 1967.
Wasn't Olavum Theeravum the first Malayalam film to be shot entirely outdoors?
Yes, we exploited the available light. The framing and composition of the film were totally different from other feature films. I tried to accommodate all the tones that were available in a black-and-white, and shot the film.
As I had shot documentaries in very adverse conditions, I decided to make use of all those experiences in a feature film. Usually in poor light, a cinematographer stops shooting. What I did was use it to my advantage.
Ninety per cent of Polinsky's film, Life In The Water, was shot outdoors, in a boat, in the twilight.
We couldn't get all the tones that Polinsky got -- our labs were not as well-equipped as theirs. Still, I tried to make the maximum use of a raw B&W film. Among the technicians, it literally created a commotion!
Gopalakrishnan also saw the film, and when he was ready to make Swayamvaram, he asked me whether I would do it.
I had no intention to shoot another feature film after Olavum Theeravum, as it had affected my regular work. Also, I didn't want to shoot films for others when my mind was geared towards making films.
Then came Gopalakrishnan's call and I couldn't say 'no' to him. And Swayamvaram won a National Award for me.
Swayamvaram is considered a landmark in the history of Malayalam cinema. Since the art film movement began with its success. What do you remember most about shooting the film?
What I liked about Swayamvaram in the beginning was its script. It was extensive and very well written.
It was after I read the script, that I couldn't refuse the offer to work on it. Even if it meant that my own work would be affected. It took more than one-and-a-half years to finish the whole film as Gopalakrishnan ran out of money in-between.
But he was confident that it would be recognised nationally. As it happened, the film got international acclaim.
Even though it won four awards at the state level, Swayamvaram was not adjudged best film.
The mythological film, Kumarasambhavam, took away the honours that year, I remember.
We all felt very bad. The national awards cheered us up
You have been Adoor Gopalakrishnan's mainstay for a long time now. That means, your association has lasted 28 years?
Gopalakrishnan maintains an association that he develops with a person. As there was no reason for us to separate, we continued our relationship.
Tell us about your work with late Aravindam's films.
I only shot for Aravindan's first film, Utharayanam. I told him that I wouldn't do any other.
You have not worked for any commercial film. Do you have any dislike for commercial films?
Actually what I like and dislike are the shooting conditions. Of course, I would like to see a good final product. But if you know that your contribution will go towards a bad product, it is better not to be a part of it.
As per our Hindu concepts, vidya is a blessing of Goddess Saraswati.
So, I do not like to use the blessing of the Goddess for a bad product! The vidya that I have is the camera. I am very particular that it is not used for a bad purpose.
So, you consider commercial films as bad.
I feel it is wrong to look at filmmaking as a pure commercial venture.
Do you think a film is as creative as a painting or a short story?
I am glad that you compared filmmaking to painting.
Do you think a painter thinks of money when he paints? While painting, if he thought of how much money his painting would fetch, it would not come out good.
A creative work has to be inspired. An inspired work will always be a good one but nobody can predict its commercial viability. It may get sold. Or, it may remain in the corner of his studio.
If you look at the history of painting, it is unsold works that have gone on to become great masterpieces.
You mean, a filmmaker shouldn't compromise on artistic values. Only idealism should drive him to make films?
Without idealism, good films will not be made at all.
But commercial filmmakers say that filmmaking is an expensive affair, with many people being involved of many people is necessary. So, what is more important, according to them, is sell the film and recover the cost.
That is a different consideration. A painter has to think of only his family, if he has one. Sometimes, he even neglects his life, his family and everything in life and buries himself in his art alone. And, that is how great paintings are born. I feel a filmmaker also should have that kind of dedication if he considers film as a form of art.
Is it because you consider films as a pure art form that you despise commercial films?
I do see commercial films once in a while, and I also enjoy some of them. If it has a good story line, even if it is a badly made, I enjoy them. I cry watching a tragic scene and I laugh when there is a comic scene. But it would have made me happier if a good director had made the same film, based on the same subject.
If making newsreels was bread for you, what was working for a feature film; butter?
A situation has come now that you can have your bread even when you work as a cinematographer for a feature film. It was not so earlier. Even though I had made news features to keep the pot boiling, I had tried to bring art in it too.
You could make your own film only in 1984. Your film Nokkukuthi won a special jury award at the national. Was it your burning ambition to make a feature film?
More than an ambition, is it not my right? (laughs)
Once we are born, do we not have the right to live? Do we not have the right to eat? It is the duty of the society through the parents of the child to feed him. The same way, it is the responsibility of the society to give a chance to those who have talent to exhibit their talents.
Unlike in Hungary or Poland, here a filmmaker cannot make a film without thinking of financial considerations. We have no network to show good films, we have nobody to finance.
Here, only commercial filmmakers can make films. If I go and ask for money to make a film, no financier will give me money. The first question that everyone asks is whether I will be able to guarantee that my film will run in the theatre or not.
I tell them point blank that I cannot guarantee that, and there ends the matter.
How is it that in small countries like Poland and Hungary and Italy, good films are made regularly? Is it because they have committed filmmakers, or is it because they have committed producers?
They have a national outlook for good films. They have a good distribution system and there are people to see and enjoy good films. There are theaters to show good films too.
It was through years of conscious effort that an audience was created there to see good films.
Let me tell you of an incident. In the 1956 Madras film festival, the films from Poland were very amateurish. But with the setting up of an institute to teach film technology, the whole scenario changed.
Ten years later, I saw Life In The Water. I could not believe that film came from Poland! The difference was amazing.
That is not to say that changes for the better haven't taken place in India. Take the Kerala and Bengal films -- they are totally different from the ones being made in other parts of India. They are artistically better, too. And the Film Institute has contributed a lot towards that.
Only if you feed people good films will they will develop a taste for good films. You need special knowledge to enjoy Carnatic music. Similarly, you need special aesthetic sense to enjoy good artistically made films.
So, only if you give good films to the audience that they will learn to enjoy them.
Yes, they need to develop a habit to enjoy good films. Like you need to develop a taste to enjoy good painting too.
Yes, only if good films are made, you will have good audience. Only if you have good audience, there will be good films. So, it is a vicious circle. Because of festivals and film societies, the Kerala audience is an enlightened one, at least a section.
Let me tell you, it is not necessary that a good art form should be liked by all.
Did you make Nokkukuthi for your own satisfaction, or for the others to see and enjoy it?
While I was making it, it was for my own satisfaction that I made it. People who are like me will also get satisfaction watching my film.
You want only that small section to enjoy your film?
Yes. (laughs) But I want that circle to grow! As the society becomes more and more cultured, the circle will grow. As the circle grows, there will be less and less people in the society who enjoy commercial films. Then, more and more good films will be made.
I am waiting for such a day.
Photograph of Ravi Varma by Sanjay Ghosh