Time Is Another Name Of Love

Love is about memories and rememberence. Love is also about knowing Saba - the 'suchness of things'. Time is the medium where Saba is recorded. Yet, at the same time, Saba is the 'imprint of time' on things and beings. When one truly gets over the fear of time, then he/she can say that "I am in Love" or "I am alive". Love is the true unconditional existence.

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Location: Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India

I believe in Love

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My evolution as a cinematographer and Piravi

My love for cinema started at the age of ten - i.e.; in 1967. Later the very first person I became acquainted in film industry was G Aravindan, who became my mentor and inspiration, in 1975. I was eighteen then and madly obsessed with cinema.

Just to see films daily, free of cost, I joined as an apprentice projectionist in our local cinema hall "BHAVANI THEATRE" - learning the first lessons of film industry from my projectionist

guru Mr.Rajappan. And in that period of 1972-1974 I was seeing more than 365 films a year! That was my beginning. [Much earlier to this period when I was a little boy of seven or eight, Rajappan Chettan used to give me many frames from the films that were screened in the theatre and I took those home and projected it for my friends, using a water filled electric bulb and a small mirror]. I was already imagining myself as a film director!! I did really enjoy those projections. Later when I was in 8th standard I even had a hand cranked film projector - with which I used to project small strips of films - it even had a real electric bulb and a mirror!

In 1979, I joined the institute to study Editing, and then to do my post diploma in direction course. In fact I went to editing only, in our final year specialisation. But my teacher of cinematography, Mr. Bhanumurthy Alur advised me to shift to cinematography as my specialisation subject. At first, I was reluctant and then I did change my subject.

It was ten years after meeting Aravindan only I met Shaji in 1984. I was with Madhu Ambat and Vijay Menon, working on Vijay Menon's film 'Nilavinte Nattil' in Madras. There I received the news of my Diploma film "The Clown and The Dog" [photographed stunningly by my class mate Anoop Jotwani] winning the National Award for Best Experimental film. The same day I also received a call from Aravindan to join him as a cinematographer for a documentary shoot in Kottayam. It was my plan to join Aravindan as an assistant director and those days I never thought I would become a cinematographer! Anyway this opportunity to work with him even as a cameraman was a dream come true. I took a bus from Madras and reached Kottayam only in the midnight of the appointed day. Not having any sign of me, Aravindan has already left to Trichur for shooting with KG Jayan who was working as an assistant to Shaji. Shaji was in Kottayam too, to shoot a film with KG George, ‘Panchavadi Palam’. In the middle of the night thesecurity man from the hotel put me into Shaji's room. So I met him and we talked very little that night. He asked me to assist him for two days till Jayan comes back from Aravindan's shooting. I agreed and our association and friendship started unexpectedly, at that midnight.

Later I assisted Shaji in four feature films including Aravindan's 'Chitambaram'. More often, in the sets, Shajichettan and myself talked more about experiences in life rather than cinematography. I think this was the prime reason for Shaji to choose me as his cameraman in ‘Piravi’.

To be frank, Shaji never told me that I was doing the cinematography of ‘Piravi’ - till the first day of the shooting... till the coconut being broken on the first day of shoot!! Yes we had lots of discussions on the script. Many interactions... and one day both of us went and saw Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' in a cinema hall... there were only two of us in the hall. We just saw the film together and enjoyed the film together and we talked about the ambience created in the film. Even then I did not know the intentions of Shaji. I thought, at the most he would ask me to do the camera operation.

Then on the first day after the poojas and breaking the coconut,Shaji quietly told me "Why don't you just start...?"

I was pleasantly surprised...then slowly started lighting up the first scene in our shoot... the scene where the old man was waiting for the bus in front of the small tea shop in the morning and the owner opening the shop! The first shot was of the shop door from inside, darkness to begin with and the owner opening one plank, there by we see the outside. Light enters. After that first shot I had no nervousness. By the time of 'Piravi' I had photographed three feature films - all this films were initially supposed to be shot by Shaji and later given to me as independent assignments. So, because of Shaji I got this three films one after another and people started noticing my work.

Since most of the day exterior shots were to be done in actual rain, we did not use any lights neither any reflectors for those scenes. It was really interesting the way we started our day. All will wear a rain coat and plastic hat and just move out. The camera had a big umbrella and a plastic sheet to protect it. What we used to was if we saw any rain approaching [we can actually hear it nearing] then we will get ready for a scene with rain.I must also mention Madhu Ambat's contribution in getting my first film 'Theerthom'. Even though Shaji send me to the location of 'Theerthom', I didn't know anybody in the production. Not even the director - Mohan! Unfortunately when I reached the Location Mohansir was not there and the producers were doubtful about my abilities. Remember that I was a skinny little fellow, looking like a student rather than a cinematographer. The producers immediately wanted to get some other cameraman and they called Madhu Ambat in Madras. But when he knew that I was in the location, he told the producers to let me shoot the film. He later telephoned me and said "Sunny must do the film. I have told the producers that if Sunny is there, I am not coming." That boosted my confidence and I shot the film. After seeing some parts of the rushes, for the first time Shri. Adoor Gopalakrishnan also talked positively about my work, which encouraged me a lot.

The lighting equipment in Piravi was very minimal - we had 2 Mini-brutes, 6 Multi 20s and 4Multi 10s for Day scenes. For night scenes we had 6 Juniors and six Babys! After 3-4 days we stopped using the Mini-brutes because all the bulbs in it were getting fused and we thought that we can’t afford it. In any case there were no replacement bulbs for them and what was left was 'half a Mini-brute'. This indeed came to my help in the very last scene of the film.

The biggest luck I had with Piravi was finding the 'house'. It had
un-plastered red bricks for walls/as background and that enhanced the lighting a lot. A face against a darker background will be more
attractive. Lighting will be more pronounced, isn't it? And the limitation of the number of lights also becomes a blessing in disguise. There was never a danger of over lighting a scene :-).

The negative stock we were using was Kodak 5297 [250D] for day scenes and Agfa high-speed film for Night + late evening scenes. We actually used two cameras too! An Arri III for 5297 and an Arri IIC for Agfa high speed film. Because, Agfa negative running in the Arri III was producing a lot of dust. In the IIC it behaved normally! The light meter I had then was a Spectra Professional gifted to me by Thomas Esaw who was the director of my second film "Eenam Maranna Kattu". The strangest thing we did in the film was using the samples from Rosco swatch book as camera filters for the twilight scenes, that too cut and pasted behind the lens with cellophane tape! :-) Of course we thought that, even if we loose some sharpness because of this, it will be to our advantage. Twilight time we actually see less clearly. I selected the 5297 for day scenes because I had earlier seen 'The Shy People' by Chris Menges and liked it a lot. The choice of Agfa for night was simply because Kodak high-speed film then was giving a very inconsistent performance.

I still remember Subrata Dada’s shock when I narrated the ‘swatch book’ story to him. Meeting Dada after Piravi and his encouragement was my prime strength to move on in the path I was treading. One day he asked me, “Sunny do you know why I like your cinematography?” I was puzzled and said “No Dada I don’t know!” Then slowly he said, “I like your cinematography because it doesn’t look lit up”. For good or bad, that became my guiding spirit in all my works.

Most importantly by now I know that a cinematographer achieves his best when he is supported by an intelligent gaffer and skilful lighting assistants. Another person one should mention in ones development is the Colour Grader in the lab. He is our right hand man giving the excellence to the look of the final image. My many thanks to all who assisted me in my career, who helped me, grow in my understanding of cinematography.