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Goodbye, Mankada Ravi Varma

By Shobha Warrier
November 23, 2010 10:45 IST
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Mankada Ravi Varma Shobha Warrier pays tribute to world renowned cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma.

The setting was almost like an Adoor or Aravindan film; a small balcony with branches from trees falling onto it and sunlight peeping through the green leaves and playing with shadows on the walls and the floor.

Except for the noise of the wind and a bird perched on a branch continuously chirping, there was silence. And, on the two chairs sat world renowned cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma and me.

He spoke about cinema in a very soft voice which one had to strain to hear properly. The setting could not have been any different too as he chose to be a part of only "art" cinema and didn't want to have anything to do with commercial cinema.

Mankada Ravi Varma was the man who cranked the camera for all of Adoor's films except the last two (after he fell ill). The others he chose to be a part of were Singeetam Sreenivasa Rao's Dikkatta Parvathi, P N Menon's Olavum Theeravum and the late Aravindan's first film, Utharayanam.

When I heard that he breathed his last on Monday, the memories of our three meetings, every time in the balcony of his sister's flat, came rushing to me.

The first time I met him was ten years ago -- he was a 75 years old at the time. He was more interested in talking about films in general than about himself. When I asked him about his early days, he became silent. "It is so long ago. I don't remember anything."

I had to prod a lot to make him talk. But once he started talking, there was a glint in his eyes as if he was really going back in years and reliving those days.

The beginning

Year 1948. India was a young country, so was Ravi Varma. From a family that had nothing to do with films, he went on to study cinematography. But then it was not films that attracted him but technology.

The reason why he joined a course in cinematography at the Madras Polytechnic was accidental. He happened to see an application form ordered by a relative and decided to apply.

He applied, and got admission. After he completed the course, he realised that it was very difficult to get a job as there were not many job opportunities for a cameraman except in films.

Luckily for him, three from his batch were selected for a six-month training course by the Films Division.

During his stint as assistant cameraman at Films Division, what he enjoyed the most was doing the travelogues as they were sent to holy cities like Benares. He also could photograph rivers, mountains, forests, etc.

"I had a vision about India as a great country even before I became a cameraman but 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," he told me then.

His first award also came then; a National Award for the film that they shot on the Himalayas.

It was just a five-year stint with the Films Division, though. By then, the job had become too tiring for him. "There was no time to sit. 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. So, I decided to quit Films Division. Anyway, for me, life as a cameraman had reached a stagnation level by then."

He thought that if he came home, he could do something more creative. He chose to settle down in Madras because the Malayalam industry in the 1950s was Madras-based.

The first five years were a real struggle for him. To survive, he bought a 16mm camera and started taking newsreels and small films for news agencies like the BBC and some other foreign news networks.

A friendship starts

It was during this period that a young man who was studying film direction at the Film and Television Institute in Pune wrote to him. And the young man was none other than today's world renowned film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Ravi Varma had written an article on films in a magazine called Sameeksha which Gopalakrishnan, a student at the FTII happened to read. He wrote to Ravi Varma asking him to write another piece for a magazine that he was editing from the Institute.

That was how the association and friendship started; through letters. Whenever Gopalakrishnan came down to Kerala, he would make a stop over in Madras and meet him. The friendship that started in the 60s became a professional association in the early 70s when Adoor Gopalakrishnan made Swayamvaram. It was a friendship that had its foundation on mutual respect and love.

Shooting P N Menon's Olavum Theeravum

Even before Adoor made his first film, Ravi Varma shot his first feature film -- Aval, for Aziz, who was from the Film Institute. This was in 1966.

Then came P N Menon's Olavum Theeravum, a landmark film in Malayalam as it was the first Malayalam film to be shot entirely outdoors. He remembered those days, "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 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."

Adoor-Mankada association starts

When Adoor Gopalakrishnan saw Olavum Theeravum,  he decided that when he made a film, it was Mankada Ravi Varma who would shoot it. When he was ready to make Swayamvaram, he asked Ravi Varma whether he would do the cinematography. But he had no intention to shoot another feature film after Olavum Theeravum, as it had affected his regular work. But he couldn't say 'no' to Adoor.

What he liked about Swayamvaram was the 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."

The film won not only several National Awards but international acclaim too. Manakada also won the National Award for cinematography.

Swayamvaram was their first effort, one of the first serious films made in Kerala, a film that started a revolution and changed the way films were made in Kerala.

Decades of association

When I asked him whether he ever asked Adoor why he wanted only Ravi Varma to shoot all his films, he chuckled, "I did not need to ask him. I knew why. After he finishes a script, he sends it first to me. He is confident only if I say it was a good script. Even otherwise, it is better to have a second opinion about your script because you cannot be objective about what you write. And it is better to have the opinion of somebody who knows you and who has been working with you.

"Gopalakrishnan maintains an association that he develops with a person. As there was no reason for us to separate, we continued our relationship." It was as simple as that!

Shooting Elippathayam

Elippathayam is one of Adoor's most appreciated films, internationally. It was interesting for me to listen to Ravi Varma speak about how they struggled to make the film.

They had drawn electric power from the mains of the house they were shooting in, as they had no money to hire a generator. They were shooting in a village where the power situation was miserable. The supply was erratic. There were days when they would sit idle for hours waiting for the supply. Somebody from the unit would go to the electricity board office on a bicycle to speed them up!

"We had to put up with many difficulties. But we were so passionate about films that we were willing to sacrifice everything."

From the days of 'no generator', they graduated to hiring generators by the time they made Mukhamukham.

Finally, he said, "Today, they ask us, do you want more lights? I select all the equipments, though I may not be using all of them. Everything is so liberal now."

His own film

He made his own film only in 1984 -- Nokkukuthi, which won a special jury award at the national level. "I made it for my own satisfaction. People who are like me will also get satisfaction of watching my film."

His last film with Adoor

The last time I met him was when he came back from the sets of Adoor's Nizhalkuthu due to ill health. He shot parts of Nizhalkuthu thirty years after he shot Adoor's first film Swayamvaram.

When Adoor asked Ravi Varma to shoot Nizhakuthu, he was not sure whether he would be able to work continuously for 25 to 30 days. Adoor wouldn't listen to the excuses but he wanted Adoor to have a standby in case he fell ill.

"I am 75, you know. Anything can happen. I didn't want the shooting to get affected because of me. That was why we had Sunny Joseph as standby. I was confident that in case I couldn't work for a day, he could take over."

Sunny Joseph had to take over when Mankada fell ill. And that was the last time he looked through a camera.

No commercial films

His aversion for commercial cinema was quite evident. When I asked him whether a film was as creative as a painting or a short story, he replied in a serious tone, "I am glad that you compared film making 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. Without idealism, good films will not be made at all.

"Only if good films are made, will you have good audience. Only if you have good audience, there will be good films. So, it is a vicious circle. 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."

Sir, you might have worked only in a few films and made only one film but you will be remembered as long as films are made in India.

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Shobha Warrier in Chennai