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January 31, 1998


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Through the looking glass

V S Srinivasan

Madhu Ambat. Click for bigger pic!
He has seen much of the world through his lens. But even Madhu Ambat, hadn't expected to see a Hollywood set settle around it.

Soft-spoken -- serious, even his smile is carefully bereft of all offensiveness -- the cinematographer isn't what you'd expect of an Indian who's just finished work on a film in Hollywood. That Ambat is. And a bit more.

His work in G V Iyer's Sanskrit film, Adi Shankaracharya, won him a national award for colour cinematography. Besides, he's a regular on stage at the regional film awards, bending low and smiling beguilingly, and walking away with another trinket for his trophy case. Among them, Pavitran's Yaroo Oral, Prema Karanth's Kannada film, Phaniyamma and Bharathan's Vaishali.

Meet him in his hotel room in Bombay and you wonder how someone so phlegmatic, even sluggish in his measured way, is the wonder that his bio-data reveals him to be. "I am like that only," he says, his tone revealing it's not a rip-off from a music channel.

Ambat is in the city now, though he much prefers being elsewhere. "I can't keep pace with the people in Bombay. I'm used to walking; I can't run like the people here," he says in his south-tinged accent. That is perhaps why this is just his second Hindi film, with a third in line sometime in the murky future.

"I signed Anil Sharma's Maharaja first. I'm also doing Sanjay Chhel's Khoobsurat." And the upcoming one we mentioned is Gurudev Bhalla's Sach.

"The problem here," he continues, "is that they shoot continuously for 15 days and then there is a huge gap. It's a problem for me," he says. No fulmination, no bitching, just a statement of fact. There was a word that describes this kind of talent... Something...

Click for bigger pic!
It is better working in the south, he says. "There we start a film quite early; we don't waste much time. People reach on time and we leave on time It is very disciplined there." So is that his idea of professional perfection?

"No, sir," says Ambat seriously. "It is much better in Hollywood. There, the working time is from nine to six. One hour more, you're paid more. You're paid by the hour. The film never takes longer than it should." He goes on about the offices given in the studio, about how the sets, including the lights, are in place before you reach... And if you were just beginning to doubt if all this sniffed of complaint, he winds up, to his credit, ruefully: "Wish things would out similarly here in India too."

Strictly speaking, he wasn't shooting in Hollywood, but in Philadelphia for M Night's Wide Awake, produced by Miramax, the producers of the award-winning Pulp Fiction.

"It's a wonderful subject about a child in search of god. I loved doing the film," Ambat says, adding carefully, "Basically because my payment too was pretty good." Far better than he would have got in a similar middle-budget film from India.

Ambat met Night when the latter was shooting in India. "I liked working with him," he says, though Night had to almost arm-twist him into working on Wide Awake, due for release in March.

The diffident Ambat finds it hard to discuss his own work.

"It is difficult to tell which film is better or where I have loved my work. But, of course, you are quite happy if you have the liberty to experiment."

He first got it in Yaroo Oral, a film noire in grayscale about a person who loses his identity. "It was a surrealistic film and I had ample scope for experimentation." Got him a state award, that did.

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Of course, despite all his wonderful work, the film that brought him raves across the country was his work in Mani Rathnam's Anjali.

"The problem," he complains mildly, "was that Mani had got everything down in his mind as to what the shot would look like. But then, I was given a little liberty. And the result was that mind-blowing shot, of a little girl step out -- loaded with symbolism, that -- from the shadows into full sunlight.

But national acclaim, the critical variety, was singularly elusive. Till G V Iyer's Adi Sankaracharya.

"G V is just crazy," says Ambat, his voice finally showing traces of animation. "He is an absolute maverick. I have done all his films since 1978. In fact, the course of my life changed after I met him."

During the shooting of Adi Sankaracharya in 1984, Iyer broke his back. Literally.

"He was to undergo treatment for three months and rest for three more. But by the end of the second month itself, I found myself walking up the Himalayas to shoot with Iyer... Trekking 18 kms with just crutches... That too at the age of 65! That man runs on sheer willpower." So Ambat is capable of surprise. Surprise!

He is now on a roll. And comes up with his next anecdote, about the funny thing that happened during the shoot for Vaishali.

"The film was a mythological, based on a saint who's a virgin. A woman is sent to entice him to a place where there has been no rain for 12 years. So we went to shoot a dry place in Mysore." The crew reached the spot five days early. But, on the second day it rained so heavily that the seasonal grass grew fast to make the most of it. So to say, put a damper on the arid zone.

Click for bigger pic!
"We had no option but to pour petrol on the grass ad set it afire. Whew, that was an experience. We did everything except work in the first couple of days!" Faint laughter emerges. Crack! You can almost hear the ice splintering.

For someone who creates such magical effects, it's natural that Ambat's father was a famous conjurer, K Bhagyanath. Actually he was a professor but he took to legitimate legerdemain since it provided more fun and profit. His sister, Vidhubala, took to films and acted in about 120 films before retiring gratefully into matrimony. That left Ambat.

"I wanted to go into photography and my parents helped me in that. In fact, after my graduation from Kerala University in physics, I wrote three entrance exams -- for IIT (the Indian Institute of Technology), and for direction and cinematography at the Film Institute, Pune.

"I managed to get admission in all three; I opted for the last... I was lucky that my parents there with me..." That's real class: Just when he was beginning to sound like he was bragging, he deflected the credit.

At the Film Institute Ambat really flowered, becoming the only student to bag the ORWO merit scholarship for all the three years he was at film school. It's another matter that he didn't even need it.

He walked off with a gold medal and, almost immediately, got a Tamil film called Avanai Chutri which, alas, never saw the light of the projector.

He worked later with Shaji Karun, who was also in Madras to make three films, Gnaval Pazhangal, Manushan and Lehren. Then, almost suicidally, he joined the Kerala Film Development Corporation. Buffeted and tossed around there, he kept going till Iyer came along like a bouncy knight in ill-fitting armour.

Ambat has few aims in life now. Even now, besides the Hindi films he has in his kitty just Bharatiraja's Tamil film Taj Mahal, launch pad for the film-maker's son Manoj.

"I want to do few films. But quality work," he adds quickly. "I have no great ambitions. I want to work till I'm happy."

Remember the word we were seeking to describe Ambat. Unassuming, that's what it was.

Photographs by Jewella C Miranda

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