Rathnavelu
Interviewer : Inian & Jyothsna Bhavanishankar | Coordination : Venkatesh | Camera : Mohan | Text : Jyothsna Bhavanishankar
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CAMERAMAN RATHNAVELU INTERVIEW
Endhiran frenzy is scaling phenomenal heights. One pivotal man who made this dream project come alive is DoP Ratnavelu fondly called as Randy. Hailed by the likes of Super Star, Shankar and Aishwarya Rai, Randy spoke at length despite his impending travel and a slight health impediment to Senior Editor Jyothsna Bhavanishankar and Inian. Completely nonchalant about his accomplishments, this ever affable man spoke to us in detail about Endhiran.
 

A brief run through your career

I passed out from Adyar Film Institute and worked with Rajeev Menon in Mani sir’s Bombay as an associate. I started out on my own with Sarathkumar’s Aravindan but got my break in the second film which is Bala’s Sethu. From then on there was no looking back and I worked in films like Nanda, Jeyam, Thirumalai, Perazhagan, Telugu Arya and many more which were big hits. I did not sign up films in urgency. I am in the industry for 13 years and have done around 14 films. I give importance to the script. I am not saying that I choose the best scripts but the scripts should convince and challenge me. As I had worked with Rajeev Menon, I had a good exposure to advertisements as well. I have also shot around 1000 commercials which include multinational brands Pepsi, Coke, Butterfly, Whirlpool etc. Lastly, I worked for Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram and for the past two and half years I am involved in Endhiran which consisted of 6 months of pre-production, 2 years of full-fledged shooting and post-production work.

How did Endhiran happen?

I was in the final leg of shooting for Vaaranam Aayiram when Vijaykumar from Ayngaran International approached me to find out if I would be interested in working for Endhiran. We had a meeting and they gave me all the details. Although it was a very attractive offer especially with Shankar sir and Rajni sir, I was skeptical because I understood the magnitude of the project which would easily run to two plus years. When the producers spoke to me, they clearly mentioned that it would take a minimum of 18 months. I told them I needed 48 hours to think because considering the


Endhiran is one of Shankar’s

best scripts

duration of the project, I may not get any other film offers and at the same time I realized I may not get such an opportunity too. I told them I wanted to listen to the script. Shankar sir gave me a narration for 7 hours, first half 3 hours and second half 4 hours. It was a fantastic script. Then Shankar asked me if the project is feasible technically. Any normal film will have a couple of highlights but Endhiran is tough right from frame one till the end as it involves the coordination of many departments like cinematography, art direction, make up, CG, animatronics etc. Many people would have backed out just by hearing the tough climax of the film. Endhiran is a dream project for everybody especially for Shankar sir as it was gestating inside him for more than 10 years. He had Kamal in his mind first and then Shah Rukh Khan and finally it has culminated here. I feel Endhiran is one of Shankar’s best scripts.



Shankar sir’s pre-planning was

fantastic

Were you at any stage pressured by such a huge project?

When I had signed up for Endhiran, I understood that it would be a tough, tiring and draining project which required a lot of pre-production work. However, I did not find it that difficult as I have rich experience in the film industry as well as in advertising. Shankar sir’s pre-planning was fantastic. Every scene had a clear description by him which helped us, although the project was tough. At the beginning itself, we prevized the action sequence and CG portion in 3D. As we had worked with foreigners, especially in animatronics and
CG and if they don’t have proper previz, there could be a gap in communication. That way, previz was a useful bridge between us and the foreigners. As regards shooting, Shankar sir and I used to take one day at a time. We gave in all our hard work and effort for one schedule, heaved a sigh of relief on completing it and then moved to the next. An elephant task was broken into small pieces and we were completing it one by one, in the process patting ourselves on finishing it.

I am generally very fast and keep the momentum flowing in the sets. Basically I am spontaneous and Gautham used to appreciate me for this in Vaaranam Aayiram. That kind of energy was of great help in this film because computer graphics professionals take their time, make up personnel want their time and if cinematographer also takes time, artistes will not be connected with the film. When Rajni sir or Aishwarya is performing and if each shot takes 2-3 hours, then they cannot get involved with the script. Hence I planned previously and lighted the sets and kept the energy levels high. Shankar often used to comment that the pressure came down largely because of my quality work and speed.

Technology/camera/equipments used in Endhiran

We have used many new equipments in Endhiran. As regards camera, we have shot in the regular conventional 435 Xtreme camera and have used negative. Initially I was toying with the idea whether to go for digital (as lot of CG is involved) or movie. Then I did a couple of tests and decided on movie as we have to shoot many double action sequences without motion. We shot many movement shots using normal conventional trolley, dolly. While using motion control, it takes a long time and we can only shoot 3 or 4 shots in a day. The reason for using 35 mm is that we cannot recompose in digital. While using super 35 technique, there is more space on top and bottom and CG people can track and fix any aberration at the post-production stage. That’s why I decided to go for negative besides other advantageous factors than the digital.

We have used a lot of high end equipments in Endhiran. We have used Scorpio telescopic crane, gyro stabilizer and chopper shot for nose mount instead of the regular window side mount. We have also had a few specially designed equipments for this film. Technically, lighting scheme for Endhiran will be modern and stylish.

Experimentation you did for Endhiran

The major plus point in Endhiran being a science fiction is we have not shown a space odyssey or life in other planet or aliens or anything like that. Shankar sir has clearly written the script which happens in Chennai and which revolves around Rajni sir. However, this film required stylized visuals. Hence we decided to have an ultra modern look of the scientist’s lab or his house or the conference hall of the scientists or the research centre. We performed a few tests for it and then we went ahead with that.

On shooting the tough climax

As I had told earlier, the moment somebody hears the story, they are bound to be apprehensive about the climax shoot. It is very tough to shoot and achieve the required idea. Shankar sir told that it is easy to dream but it is difficult to make it true. However, all of us have worked as a team and have made alive Shankar sir’s dream. Arima Arima is the climax song which will be the highlight of the film. At this stage I can’t reveal much about it. But lighting, techniques and sets in the scene should be modern because we were shooting for this scene in 2008 but knew the film would be released only around 2010. Hence we had the huge responsibility of thinking ahead in terms of style, lighting scheme, Sabu Cyril’s sets, and costume design to name a few.

Just like the climax song, the climax action sequence was also tough as there were many 2D and 3D portions in the film. Without knowing the size of the 3D image, I had to imagine and shoot. We shot in peak summer with Rajni sir in full black costume in a software park set with bomb blast and tanker blast. It was so difficult to even stand in that hot sun but Rajni sir was very cooperative and helped us finish the sequences. Many CG technicians were involved like Srinivasan from Indian Artists, Eddy from Hong Kong.

About Shankar

Shankar sir is the most disciplined director in the industry. If he takes a scene, he starts planning right from the morning. He is a thorough professional and expects everyone to be on the sets in time and he also will be there before us. Endhiran is a dream project for him. He was very clear about his script and at the same time, gave a lot of freedom for technicians. As a cinematographer, if some suggestions are put forth to him, he would accept them. It was a very friendly atmosphere and we two struck a good rapport. He liked my preparation and used to comment that if some other cinematographer had worked in this project, it would have taken four years to complete. I liked his first compliment. After seeing the first few rushes he told me that my work is better than his dream visuals and is like apple iPod. It is a big compliment for me.


Shankar sir is the most

disciplined director in the

industry

Shankar and Rajni had mentioned that your hard work is majorly responsible to bring down the duration of shoot. Your comment.

I cannot just say it is only because of my work but my work also played an important part in wrapping up this project in time. I did not say this; Rajni sir and Shankar sir have said this. I like to work fast and want to maintain the energy levels flowing. It does not suffice to shoot fast but preplanning was also essential for this project. I read the scene once or twice and try to give a feel and create the mood for it. I will complete my preparation before and Shankar sir gave me a lot of freedom for it. We will not come to the location and plan things. We used to take digital photographs before hand and decide on the position of key light, fill, back light, artiste’s movement etc. Once we are at the location and when the artistes arrive, we quickly can the shots. This saved us a lot of time.



Rajini sir is a great human being

What did Rajni say about your work?

I am a great fan of Rajni sir. In my household, as a family when we go to a film, it will only be Rajni sir’s film. Hence I was not able to believe that I was working in his film. It was a fantastic experience for me. Rajini sir is a great human being and I was able to learn a lot from him. Rajni sir and I had a different kind of experience on the first day itself. We finished the make up test on Rajni sir in Chennai itself. With the movie camera, it was the first day of shoot at Machu Pichu with Rajni sir and Aishwarya. We had already got permission to shoot in a park for the Kilimanjaro number. The park director came to us and said he cannot permit us to use heavy duty lights. Rajni sir
and Aishwarya along with foreign dance artistes were waiting and the frame was set. Rajni sir looked at me. I am used to shooting in available lights; you may have seen in Vaaranam Aayiram and Sethu. Hence I did not get perturbed. I was not able to use extra lights and used only thermocoles. I cut the lights that were going to Aishwarya with a cutter. It was just a manipulation technique - positive to negative, addition to subtraction. When I cut the lights for Aishwarya, it became positive for Rajni sir. It was an instant thinking. Rajni sir was still in doubt and that evening after pack up he asked, “Nejamma, light vendaama?” I assured him that it was ok. Later when he saw the digitized stills, he was satisfied and he called to appreciate me after he saw the song. Later, after he completed his dubbing, he called on the same night to compliment my work and said although I worked very fast like a commercial cameraman; the quality was different and very good. He spoke at length. He could have called me later but Rajni being Rajni, would never keep anything to himself and would openly discuss things. Even while we were shooting, if he found something good, he would immediately appreciate. It is very difficult to come across a person like Rajni sir.

How was Aishwarya Rai to work with?

Aishwarya Rai is the most beautiful and gorgeous women in the world. Other artistes, please don’t get angry with me for this! Ash is not only beautiful but also intelligent. She is aware of the shot duration, artiste’s timing, long shot, mid shot, close up shots and everything. She knows direction, cinematography, make up and is versatile. She is very cooperative too. She was impressed with the stills I took. I also told her to use minimal make up and assured her I will take care of her skin tone. Once she realized she was in able hands, she was cool and appreciated me whenever there was a good shot. She was encouraging and had good spirits. Endhiran enjoyed positive vibes from everyone. Everything went smoothly without any obstruction.


Endhiran enjoyed positive vibes

from everyone




Bala has certain special qualities

Can you compare Bala and Shankar?

I cannot compare Bala and Shankar as they come from different schools of thought. I like to be an all rounder doing commercial as well as art films. I can shoot even a comedy film. Bala has certain special qualities, the way he extracts performance or the way he churns out intense films. On the other hand, Shankar sir has the capacity to stretch commercial cinema to its maximum limits. Hence one cannot compare the two. They are strong in their respective areas and I gelled well with both of them.

What is the specialty of your work?

My specialty is to shoot as per the requirement of the script right from Sethu to Endhiran. Some cinematographers shoot the song sequences alone well and leave out the scenes. But I am not like that and I concentrate more on scenes. I always work towards what can be done visually for a scene and what kind of lighting to be given to create the apt mood. I think from a director’s point of view and this has become my style now.

What makes you say yes to a project?

A script should be inspiring to say yes to a project. It may not be the greatest script in the world but it should be challenging and inspiring to me. Perhaps that’s why most of my films are successful like Sethu, Nanda, Jeyam, Thirumalai, Perazhagan, Telugu Arya, Vaaranam Aayiram and now Endhiran. Of course, I have also committed a couple of mistakes. When I was shooting for Vaaranam Aayiram, there was a gap. That’s when Kannada director Yograj Bhat who made Mungaru Male wanted me to do his film Gaalipatta. He narrated the story and I liked it. It was a very light story which happens in monsoon rains. He said that if shot during that period, it would incessantly pour for at least 2 months in areas around Bangalore. It was a challenge for me and I accepted the film. I shot just with available lights wearing a rain coat but completely drenched in the rain. The film also did well. Then while I was doing commercial films, I did a film called Cyanide which was about the last 25 days of Sivarasan and group and I shot for the film for 25 days. The concept of the last days of Sivarasan was inspiring and the locations were all small dark rooms which was challenging to me. Instead of just bringing out day and night effect, I had brought out the nuances of mid day, evening, and night effect (when lights are switched off) in the film.

Which is important - technology or content?

Content is definitely more important to a film than technology. Of course, technology has developed so much today and we have to travel with it. However, only when the content is good, it will reach the audience. Technology without content is useless. At the same time there should be acceptance of the latest developments too. Today, if digital technology has come in, we have to accept it. Earlier, when artists were painting and still photography came in, it was difficult for the artists to accept it. I feel in another two years, digital technology is going to take over and we need to accept it. But I personally feel movie negative is THE best when compared to digital format.


Technology without content is

useless

There is a feel that cameramen increase the budget of a film. Your comment?

Cameraman alone cannot increase the production cost. It depends on the script and if it warrants, then we can do it. One cannot make such a sweeping statement about every one. Some cameramen may increase the cost but not all. I can work with just two sets of lights too. I have shot Rajni sir and Aishwarya with just thermocoles. I will use only things that are required. In fact in Vaaranam Aayiram, Gautham used to wonder that I shoot with just minimal things. Endhiran climax needed a complicated lighting set up and I had to go for it. Hence it all depends on the script and not on the cameramen.



Mani sir is responsible for my

interest in cinema

Experience with Mani Ratnam

Mani sir is responsible for my interest in cinema. I was inspired by his Agni Natchathiram, Mouna Raagam, Nayagan and joined the film institute. I worked in Bombay as an associate for Rajeev Menon who was the DoP for the film. It was a fantastic experience with Mani sir. He is a genius. He was well versed in photographic techniques even then. He has a feel for the shot and will not complicate things. He has a distinct style and I am proud to have worked with him.

Experience with Gautham Menon

Gautham Menon and I worked together under Rajeev Menon; he as an assistant director and I as an assistant cameraman. We have a good rapport and are good friends. However, we were not able to work together till Vaaranam Aayiram. And Suriya was also the main reason for our teaming in VA. I would say that after Mani Ratnam, Gautham Menon is the only director who can churn out films in a stylish, aesthetic, natural and down-to-earth manner. Gautham Menon respects technicians and would listen to their suggestions but at the same time is very careful about his script. His specialty is that he is a one-take director. Many directors go for multiple takes and tire the artistes. But Gautham is not like that. He likes the spontaneity in the artistes. We have to be on our toes under Gautham who makes the artiste perform naturally. He feels that the first take is the best. Of course, there are times when 2–3 takes also happen. He believes that the natural performance will come out only in the first take because in subsequent takes, the competitive spirit will emerge among the performing artistes which will mask the spontaneity. It was a fantastic experience to have worked with Gautham in Vaaranam Aayiram. We did many new things in the film.

Your best work?

It keeps changing from time to time. I considered Nanda to be my best work till a couple of years ago, which fetched many awards. Then I did a Telugu film called Jagadam and till date technically it is considered as the best film although it did not do well at the box office. It is visually a fantastic film. One cannot pin down a particular film as the best because at every stage we want to surpass it and want to give better work next time. At one point of time, Cyanide was my best film and Girish Kasaravalli had commented, “The cinematography of Rathnavelu is a bridge between art and commercial cinema.” He appreciated that I have brought together art and commercial cinema and have rendered stylish visuals. Then I did Vaaranam Aayiram which is very close to my heart. During those days I had lost my dad and within a week, Gautham too lost his dad. Hence, for both of us VA is very close to our heart as it was about father-son relationship. Both of us were emotionally attached to the film.


The cinematography of

Rathnavelu is a bridge between

art and commercial cinema




Every cinematographer houses a

director in him

Would you take up direction?

Very definitely! Every cinematographer houses a director in him. Any good cinematographer would surely have knowledge of direction. I have also been working for the past 13-14 years with top directors. If I have to reach the next higher level in cinematography, it has to be direction. I am waiting because I want to write my script. I am yet to scale greater heights in cinematography. Perhaps, in a year or two, I will start directing.

Future projects?

After Endhiran I have not signed any project. Many interesting projects have come my way in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil. After the rigorous two and a half years, I want to chill out and relax now. As of now, there is nothing; perhaps if you ask me after a month, I may have an answer.

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