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January 12, 1999


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'Manoj is going to be the next Spielberg'

Manoj Shyamalan and Madhu Ambat on the sets of Praying With Anger
Praying With Anger Click for bigger pic!
Madhu Ambat, son of the world famous magician, the late Prof Bhagyanath, is one of the most acclaimed cinematographers in India today. The variety in his work is amazing and he has the distinction of having worked with almost all the major directors from various Indian languages. The list includes a then-21-year-old called Manoj 'Night' Shyamalan and an 80-year-old called G V Iyer.

Shobha Warrier met him at his home when he was taking a short break from work. In this interview, he talks mainly about his experiences of working with Manoj in his first two films, Praying With Anger and Wide Awake.

How did you become the cinematographer of Manoj Shyamalan's first film, Praying With Anger? How did he get in touch with you?

When Manoj decided to shoot his first film in India, he was searching for a cinematographer who is based here and somebody happened to suggest my name. He saw some of my films like Anjali, Swati Thirunal, Vaishali, etc, and he liked them; actually, I think he liked the variety in my work. So he called me from the US and, coincidentally, I happened to be in the US at the time. Later, we had long telephonic conversations before he sent me the script of the film. And I said yes because I liked his script. He came to India a month before the shooting actually commenced. Again, we had long discussions.

You said you liked his screenplay. What exactly did you find attractive in his script? These days, people in Hollywood say that he is one of the best screenplay writers.

Manoj is brought up in America but, at heart, he is Indian. The Indian sensitivity that he has is very appealing. He has managed to retain a good mix of Indian sensitivity and Hollywood techniques. That, I think, is being appreciated there. All human beings like sentimentality and, because Manoj has shown the right mix of sentimentalism and emotion in his film, he has become a huge success.

If you look at Titanic, which is one of the most successful movies from Hollywood in recent times, you will see it is like a Hindi movie. Look at Love Story, it was also packed with sentimentalism and emotion.

Americans also want emotional stories, but they do not get them. They may look happy from outside, but they are unhappy inside. It is like the bonsai. You cut your roots, you cut your branches so that you look good from outside. But, in reality, you have no roots, you have no branches, you have no relationships and no human feelings. So, to them, Manoj's films came as a breath of fresh air.

On the sets of Wide Awake
On the sets of Wide Awake Click for bigger pic!
Do you always ask for the screenplay of the film before saying 'yes' to a film-maker?

If it's ready, I would like to read the screenplay. Otherwise, I ask for a narration of the story. As you listen to the story, visuals start appearing in your mind. But I change my style in each film. I like to shoot each film differently.

Of course, the visual pattern you have should match with the director's. You feel happy when you achieve 75 per cent of the visual pattern that you had in mind for the film. If it is only 50 per cent, you are just satisfied. As far as both of Manoj's films were concerned, I got around 80 per cent of what I had in mind. The vision he had and the vision I had matched.

When he approached you, you were a well-known and established cameraman here and he was a nobody, a NRI from America interested in making a film.

I did not look at him that way. I don't look at any newcomer in that way. In his case, his screenplay interested me. And, if you look at my career, you will find that I have worked more with newcomers than established film-makers. One finds a lot of enthusiasm in them, as the film that they are making is their very first one. So, they put in a lot of effort.

In the last three years, I have worked only with newcomers! For example, Khoobsurat is Sanjay Chhel's first film. My next Hindi film is also with a first time director. He is the producer of Raja Hindustani, but it is going to be his first directorial venture.

Do you prefer working with young new film-makers?

Not necessarily. Let me tell you, I also have the distinction of working with the most elderly film-maker, G V Iyer, who is 80! I work with him even now. When I worked with Manoj, he was just 21! I enjoy that kind of variation. It is very challenging.

Or is it because you want to give newcomers a break that you accept their projects?

No, not at all. I enjoy working with newcomers. And I have enjoyed working in 90 per cent of the films that I have done. The first thing I try to see is whether I am comfortable, whether I can have good vibes with the director. Usually, my instincts have helped me. For example, when I talked to Manoj over the phone for the first time, I could relate with him very well.

What did you find attractive in him? His passion for movies? Everybody says he was passionate about movies even when he was a young boy.

I cannot pinpoint any one reason. The main common point was the kind of films that we liked. We liked the same kind of films. When you like the same kind of films, your ideas are also the same.

I like films that are different. If he had liked only pure commercial films, I would have found it difficult to co-ordinate with him. I look at films from a different level. If the director's wave length and ideas are different from mine, it is very difficult to work with him.

Madhu Ambat
Madhu Ambat Click for bigger pic!
Did you try to find out more about him before saying yes?

First of all, I tried to find out what he had in mind and what he expected from me. That was very important. If he had made any films earlier, I would have seen those films and made a decision. When Mani Ratnam asked me to do Anjali, I agreed because I liked his earlier work.

Did you see any spark in the 21-year-old?

When you work together, you see it. The way he handled the medium, the way he handled the actors, the way he executed a scene... I saw a spark in the way he worked. He is a very, very hard-working person. Can you believe, for the three scripts he has sold, there are 30 other unsold scripts in his office? His output is tremendous, amazing.

Did you ever think that he would be such a big success in Hollywood?

Yes, I did. In fact, I expect him to grow much more. I feel he is going to be the next Spielberg. He has that kind of talent in him.

How would you describe your experience of working with him?

Very good. I found then itself that he had talent. One could see brilliance in him. We had wonderful coordination and we clicked from the word 'go.' That was the reason why he insisted I would do his second film too.

In fact, he had to fight with the association so that I could work with him. Getting into the American union is not easy. He was offered a top cameraman from Hollywood, still he fought for me.

Before he began his third film, The Sixth Sense, he wrote me a very sad letter saying that he could not call me because the studio insisted on a top Hollywood cameraman. He didn't have the voice to fight for me then. He also wrote, 'I didn't want anybody else to shoot even one film of mine. I will establish myself and then make others agree with my line.'

But I feel basically their method of working is very different.

How different?

It is totally different from how we work here. Actually, it is very difficult to explain. It is like interviewing a common writer and then interviewing a Nobel prize winner! Each place has a different way of working. Hyderabad is different from Madras and Kerala is different from Bombay. Hollywood also works in a different way.

Madhu and Manoj on the sets of Wide Awake
On the sets of Wide Awake Click for bigger pic!
Manoj's second film, Wide Awake, was a $ 9 million project. When we worked here in India for his first film, everyone was from here except for the sound recordist. But when I went to the US for his second film, I was the only person from India. Their method of working, their technique, everything is different. You do not know what kind of equipment to ask for and you are at a loss to understand the logistics of work.

There are no light boys there, only gaffers and grips. Grips are people who handle non-electric items like trolleys, reflectors, etc. Gaffers handle the electrical items. Division of labour is so high that if you ask for a net, it is the gaffers' job if the light is in the net. It is the grip's job, if you ask for the same net to be kept on a stand in front of the light. So, if you are the main cameraman, you will be under tremendous tension. I prefer to work there as a unit one cameraman.

Another difference was the fact that we did a story-board for the second film. In India, we don't do that. Story boarding is sketching the entire film, shot by shot. So, we had a story board artist for two weeks. Both Manoj and I sat with him and he drew all the shots to be shot.

There is a higher level of pre-panning there. We finished the film in 32 days. I am sure it might have taken 132 days here. I gave all the lighting sketches before the start of the film itself. If we have a shooting tomorrow, the rigging crew will come and rig up the lights in the morning itself. So, I walk into a set which is rigged up. But here, the rigging will start only after I reach. So the unit has to wait till the lights are ready.

Is it because they are more professional?

They are very cost conscious too. A film cannot go over budget as the budget of a film is very high. Here, we finish a Rs 10 million Malayalam film in 50 days and if the shooting goes on for more than the expected time, you will lose only the proportionate amount. But when you are shooting $150 million project, each delayed day means more loss.

Can you imagine I had a standby camera, unpacked? If the other camera breaks down, you will lose one day and a lot of money. So, they prefer keeping a standby camera ready. We have to learn a lot from them.

The logistics of a big film are very different. I found that everybody in the unit has a job. The artistic part, I can take care of but the logistics... As everything is planned well in advance, you cannot afford to make a mistake in the planning as everything will go haywire.

Did you find any growth in him as a film-maker when you met him again as a cinematographer for his second film?

Manoj Shyamalan in Praying With Anger
Manoj Shyamalan in Praying With Anger Click for bigger pic!
Technically, he had improved a lot. Even the way he had scripted the film was different. More sense of humour! I must tell you, the way he handled children was amazing. We shot the film in the school where he studied. Till then, the school authorities had not allowed anyone to shoot inside the school. But they liked Manoj so much that they allowed him to shoot there. It was a well-crafted film but, commercially, it didn't do well.

What gives you more satisfaction, working in a commercial film or, let me use the much hated word, an art film?

I enjoyed working with Sanjay Chhel in Khoobsurat. You can do good work in a commercial set-up also. The Telugu film that I am doing now has Chiranjeevi's younger brother, the new superstar Pavan Kalyan, as the hero. Even though these are commercial ventures, I enjoy doing them.

I can do a Rs 100 million commercial film and then jump into a G V Iyer film! In a small budget film, you are constrained by the finance. I have starved and slept on the streets while shooting for some low budget films. But they were unforgettable experiences. I always take one or two such creative projects where you can satisfy your creative side too.

Were you disappointed when you could not work with Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense?

Of course, I was disappointed. Anyway, it was not possible for me to work as the main cameraman because of the union problem. I could have worked as a second unit cameraman, but then he also did not think of that possibility. I missed the experience. You know, he liked to work with the same set of people. The music director, the editor.. all of them are the same. I was the only person who was absent from The Sixth Sense. (laughs)

Would you be working in his new film?

I am not sure. We have not yet talked about that. I may, I may not. If it clashes with my work here, it will be difficult. I would love to, but...

Madhu Ambat's photograph: Sanjay Ghosh

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