Ace Indian cinematographer Ravi K Chandran will soon complete 30 years in the film industry where he has worked on some of the most prestigious titles in Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam cinema. He has won the Filmfare Award for Virasat, Kannathil Muthamittal and Black, but his work on these films as well as Dil Chahta Hai, Yuva, Paheli and Saawariya is trendsetting in a way that it would be studied by students of films many years in the future. In a conversation with LetsOTT, he recollects some experimental and challenging moments from his career, and what lies for him in the future. Excerpts:
Q. What are some qualities that you feel are an asset for a cinematographer?
A. Any budding cinematographer needs a couple of skills before they can think of joining this field. And that's not how to use a camera, or how to point and shoot. A film school can teach you the technicalities of a camera, what certain types of shots are called, what lenses work best. But that vision of an artist, the ability to frame the visual, a certain understanding of composition and colour... that is something you are either born with or inculcate yourself over time with practice.
Q. What was the case with you? Natural talent or developed skill?
A. My late brother (Ramachandra Babu) was a cinematographer. He shot many important Malayalam films and won many awards. But I had not thought of anything specific in terms of my career even till I was leaving college. I used to draw, had an interest in art and looking at pictures and photographs. We just had a lot of cameras lying around in the house and we used to subscribe to photography magazines. Sometimes, we had the opportunity to use the unused film bits from my brother's shoots to use at home and make our own slides. It just happened to be that on multiple occasions a lot of people would ask me to take photographs, on very specialized or new-tech cameras and somehow I used to compose a shot well even if I was unfamiliar with the device. Later, I was told almost every time that the photographs I was taking were coming out well. Once I was on holiday in the United States when I met actress Nadhiya Moidu's partner and he asked me to give him prints of the photos I'd taken. I started taking photographs for brochures (borrowing a camera from my friend), projects I got by getting referred by photo studio owners and other friends. Eventually, I started assisting my brother which is when I started taking cinematography as a career more seriously. But all these instances motivated me towards this path.
I still don't know what it is. Each eye is different and maybe I was able to visualise in a particular way. There is a famous quote which is 'the difference between a good shot and a great shot is three inches.' A good shot is where you are now. A great shot is how I manoeuvre the camera in that diameter to create something different. Maybe that comes from all that you've observed and learned over the years. A good example of that is Santosh Sivan, a fantastic cinematographer who is naturally talented. I remember watching his first film years ago where he had only shot one song and the rest of the film was shot by someone else. I could see the difference, and saw his work as unique in that run-time.
Q. You've shot so many films in so many languages. What can you tell us about the differences between the markets?
A. Lagaan (2001) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001) changed the Hindi film industry. Before these films, the only difference between the regional film markets was the budget. Hindi films always had more budget on an average than a regional film, something which is not the case now. But what these two films did was bring a more disciplined and organised approach to how films were made. The script had to be written properly beforehand, it was bound and shared with actors and technicians to go through, a proper schedule was created. Suddenly, you couldn't go to an actor without your basics of the story. That was the difference which has been adopted by other markets now as well.
Q. Did that help you? This disciplined approach...?
A. Yes and no. The disciplined approach is the only way someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Zoya Akhtar can make the kind of films they do. The approach is systematic and clear. There is a lot of pre-planning. And that is certainly helpful on that kind of set. In the South, without making it sound sentimental, the planning is not that meticulous so the movies come across as more carefree, raw and real. I can't imagine a film like Angamaly Diaries being shot with tight deadlines and vision boards like in Hindi cinema. But look at Uri: The Surgical Strike and how well that is shot. That must require precision. So the approach is working in both ways.
Perhaps Hindi films seem more polished but they also lose out on the opportunity to be creative. When there is an agenda, there is a deadline. Deadlines create pressure and don't necessarily always yield optimum results. Of course, there is basic planning on a Malayalam film set but I find it rarer that some producer is yelling at you, for example.
I also feel that the involvement of the first AD (assistant director) team, quite often in Hindi movies, is more clinical and not as invested with every beat of the film. In South movies, this team is involved in a project from start to finish, but in Hindi movies, they are more involved in the production setup and that's it. In a way it is a good thing. Since it helps to stick to timelines and work on a schedule.
Q. Is this your usual process with all your films?
A. I am usually involved in every stage in the filmmaking process from planning to post-production. Usually once I'm given a narration or the script has been shared with me, I almost always share my instinctive visual cues with the director. After sitting on it for a while, my team and I share reference material - photographs, clips, other images - towards the final idea before shooting begins.
Q. A lot of your work is seminal. Dil Chahta Hai changed the way journey films are shot. Kannathil Muthamittal became a template for that style of human stories. Black and Saawariya were a masterclass in colour and lighting. What do you have to say to the fact that now every new film in these styles is shot the way you shot your films?
A. I haven't really thought of that. I only remember that when I shot all these films, I had no template to follow. In Dil Chahta Hai, for instance, Farhan (Akhtar) just told me how he intended the film to feel like and we just went with our gut. That went for other things as well... like styling and design. It was very well planned in terms of schedule but we were riffing on ideas as we went along. For one scene, I suggested that we begin the scene with an out-of-focus frame, which clears into the prop of the car. Once the actors get into the car and drive off, we're back into out-of-focus. He was happy with it.
Priyan (Director Priyadarshan) gave me my first big film with Virasat (1997). He had seen my earlier work in the edit room of a filmmaker and had asked about who shot that project. We were shooting in a village for the film. At the time Virasat was made, it was very common for Malayalam films with smaller budgets to be shot on a telephoto lens. They would work with minimal light and spare extra labour. Simultaneously, he was shooting for Kala Pani (1996) with Santosh Sivan. Santosh and I, however, shot on a wide-angle lens which Priyan would get really irritated with. It would mean more people in the film, more surface area, more labour, more activity needs to be shown. I convinced him that it'll look different. When the films finally came out, Santosh won the National Award and I won the Filmfare. Priyan accepted our vision and it was beneficial for the film. Kala Pani still looks stunning. A lot of young cinematographers refer to Virasat, they tell me. But that's because we had freedom to follow our creative pursuits.
Q. When studying your filmography, I noticed that location has played a very important role in your more distinctive work. I've already mentioned a few but a few more examples are Yuva with Kolkata, Amritsar in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, San Francisco in My Name is Khan, South Bombay in OK Jaanu, and the fantastical dream-like setting of Saawariya. How does cinematography help in building location as a character?
A. Of course, that's true. With Yuva, Kolkata was a major plot point for the film. So when we're using scenes to create a setting, it's very important to choose imagery that is familiar but to place it behind the action subtly. There are scenes where Rani's character would open her window and the famous Howrah Bridge would be visible in the background.
With OK Jaanu, we set the film in South Bombay because it is more picturesque. I set up the tone of the film in the same vein as Vicky Cristina Barcelona with very warm hues. These tones would only come out very early morning or just about late afternoon/early evening. So we would shoot only at those times and take a break in the middle or shoot indoor portions in the interim. Travelling in Mumbai is difficult so Shaad (Ali), Aditya (Roy Kapur), Shraddha (Kapoor) and I... we all stayed in town to be able to shoot at the right time. The colours, the costumes are all in warm tones. There is no daylight light, only sunlight. OK Jaanu didn't do well but I still feel it is one of my best works. It's a small film which was shot in a very short period of time but it made Mumbai look a certain way. In fact, David Dhawan liked the look of OK Jaanu so much, he called me for Coolie No. 1 and told me to make Mumbai look like that in his film as well (laughs).
My team did many recces for San Francisco. After seeing the city, we decided that the idea there would be to keep the colour palette that would be similar to the colours in the American flag, and we would try and stick to that as much as possible. Manish (Malhotra, costume designer) had already prepared the costumes for most of the film. So we told them to just avoid certain colours which wouldn't fit the look, and he was very cooperative. Sharmishtha (Roy, art director) also played a huge role in maintaining that tone with the sets etc. We worked so well together that it showed. In 2010, My Name is Khan was the only Indian film to be nominated for the prestigious Cameraimage Award in Europe. We competed with the likes of Inception, The King's Speech and 127 Hours.
Q. What about films where the set is created almost completely? How does location work there?
Kannathil Muthamittal was shot entirely in Chennai but so many Sri Lankans (as the film is set in Sri Lanka) told me that it seemed so real that they could almost smell their countryside. Yuva's interiors and smaller shots are all shot in Chennai. We only did one week's schedule in Kolkata but picked the location that would make the film more familiar for that time. But the Tamil version of the film, Aaytha Ezhuthu which is set in Chennai, was shot in Mumbai because we couldn't get the ideal location. In these cases, I think the production design, art design and editing has played a greater role than cinematography for closed or interior shots to give the suggestion of the city.
Q. And Saawariya was a set entirely as well, obviously. I would also want to know more about your collaboration with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on both films.
A. When I initially met Sanjay, he wanted me for Bajirao Mastani which he wanted to make with Salman Khan in the mid-2000s, which eventually got shelved. Simultaneously, he came up with the idea for a small film called Black. He told me that the film would be small, without song or dance and he'd like me on board. Initially, my idea was that since the film is Black and the main protagonist is visually and speech impaired, everything is white and bright around her and she misses out on it, and only she wears black. There is no darkness, only light. She cannot see the beauty around her. He liked the idea but he also felt that the story is still hopeful and this seems like a dark and morose approach to her story. Then we shifted to only blacks and browns. The hospital in which Amitabh Bachchan is kept after his memory loss is still white, that's just an interesting aesthetic choice. We've created artificial snow in Simla by placing salt on plastic sheets on the ground. In the end, it is because of Omung (Kumar, production designer) and Sanjay. Sanjay has a very strong visual aesthetic, a great sense of colour. He is one of the best filmmakers in this country. All his films have the capability of looking like paintings no matter who's in them.
For Saawariya, the vision was to set it up as a surreal opera-type setting. The only place where that kind of set could be created was a studio in Karjat which allowed for two-floor sets. The challenge in the film was the lighting because the film is set entirely at night-time. In 'American Cinematographer,' I had read about something called a 'space light.' Those were only available in an American studio. We had to get replicas made here. To test whether they would bring out the desired result, these lights were first tested in a song sequence for Fanaa (2006) which I was also shooting at the same time. They were then installed at the Saawariya set, almost entirely on the floor. Rishi Kapoor who once came to the set was wondering which light would throw focus on Ranbir's face (laughs). It was too much light but none of it was a spotlight. Palette wise, we had initially thought that we would follow the scheme of Raja Ravi Varma's paintings. But since the film is set at night, those colours make no sense. Stylistically, the idea was maintained but the colours were dropped. Many people don't realise that we use a lot of green because it's the holy colour for one of the characters, and then peacock blue and then black. An international review called the cinematography 'one of the finest.' Again, it didn't do well so not too many people talked about it then.
I think the worth of my work comes from people talking about now and telling me that it still looks brand-new.
Q. What about films which don't have a linear narrative in the screenplay like Yuva or Baar Baar Dekho?
A. Baar Baar Dekho was stylised and futuristic but not complicated to shoot because Nitya (Mehra, director) was quite thorough in terms of how we would shoot each time jump. We did use special lights for that film.
For Yuva, it was more difficult but not because of the structure and more because the characters have such different points of view. Arjun, played by Vivek Oberoi has a very myopic look at life where he only cares about moving to the USA. Till then, all his shots are framed in a certain way. As he meets the other characters and gets involved with Michael (Ajay Devgn's) story, his perspective broadens and his scenes reflect that as well. The meetings between these characters would happen at random moments and I had kept a different stock and different lens for each of them. So we had to keep a log of when to change the stock and lens each time the narrative mentioned an intersection of viewpoints. That's a bit painful because Mani (Ratnam, director) shoots really fast so you always have to be on your toes.
Q. Is it easier to make it as a cinematographer now than it was when you started out?
A. Most certainly. First of all, it was a lot harder to get into movies in the first place. It's not just the resources that have gone up now but even the number of films which are being made each year. More films means generally more opportunity to people of varied talents. There were limited resources, restrictions and budgetary constraints. If I had a certain tone in my mind for the whole film, I had to ensure consistency manually. That meant that it wasn't always possible to shoot at a particular time or place, but I had to make it happen.
The biggest thing is that now we shoot digitally, which gives you the opportunity to make fixes and corrections immediately. Not only that, since everything else is digital as well, there are also various stages in post-production in which I have the chance to keep looking at my work and make smallest to biggest changes almost whenever I deem necessary.
Q. You saw the transition of movies being shot on film to completely being done digitally by the mid-2000s. What do you prefer? Do you think this has been a welcome change?
It was on the sets of Black (2005) that we transitioned into digital. Before that, I had shot everything on film. While Black was also shot on film, we converted the negative into a digital inter-positive for colour correction. It was then converted back into a final negative for projection purposes. To be able to do post-production digitally was beneficial.
I think that shooting digitally now has its perks. Like I mentioned before, it makes playback and correction so easy. At the time when the transition was happening, it was difficult because the projection systems across theatres in the country were so ill-equipped. Some of them still are. Big and small cities and towns still have projection systems which can handle multiple formats but as we go into more of the interiors, it's very evident that the systems installed are not the most proficient. But specifically with film... I've seen so many of my own movies being shown completely out of focus. With new reels, the projectionists would mishandle so much that by the time the opening weekend was over, it was completely damaged with scratches and spots. At least now we know that most standard cinemas can almost replicate the visuals as they are intended with a fairly sophisticated digital projection system.
Q. ...But many filmmakers and cinematographers believe that shooting on film keeps the picture quality more pristine...?
A. I understand the advantage of film as well. It requires discipline. Every shot is important and has to turn out perfectly in the first instance as well. There can't be any wastage. There can only be one camera... we go to two for some major epic shot or something. But with digital cinematography, we have a minimum of two cameras for maximum coverage. I see why they'd be more supportive of shooting on film. I remember the time when shooting on film meant that someone like me got more attention (laughs). I was a boss and my instruction mattered. Since the actors and director couldn't check what the shot looked like, my say was end-game. 'Shot OK means shot OK.' And I don't attribute it solely to the 'coolness factor' or 'nostalgia,' which also plays a role. Of course, you can also do it if the budget allows. But other than that, there really are some films which do have a different look if they're shot on 35mm, for instance. I think it's a matter of choice where neither choice is incorrect. It is only a matter of what is more relevant and convenient to the project you are working on.
Q. How is Coolie No. 1's look going to be different? It's a completely commercial film.
A. David is such a senior and well-established director, he won't compromise on what he wants. He's asked me to make Mumbai look a certain way which you won't expect from his film. But his comic timing is impeccable and that's something which is the main USP of his film as well. So at the end of the day, in spite of being very focused, he's still let me take my calls. There are certain shots which I feel have more depth with a multi-camera setup and he was rather impressed. When cinematographers and directors work so well together, it creates magic on set. All these directors have always appreciated my contribution to their film. That's why all their films, whether they have been shot by me or someone else, always look so beautiful. Without a director, a cameraman won't be able to do anything. They've given me complete freedom.
Q. You directed a film in 2014. Have you thought of making a film again?
A. My film didn't perform well. The next time I make a film, I would want to put more of my heart into it and not think of commerce at all. It is about the story, whether I make a small film or a big action film. I need to make a few films before people will start trusting me as a director in general. In Hindi films, cinematographers don't necessarily make successful filmmakers. It happens but in the South especially Tamil but it is rare in Bollywood. The only example I can think of from recent times is Laxman Utekar who did a fantastic job with Luka Chuppi. But I don't know what's the formula. We'll have to see after the pandemic subsides.
Q. Now that more people are watching films and TV shows on laptops and mobile devices, and the screen is essentially becoming smaller, does that change the way you shoot something?
A. No. For me, I am making a film for a theatre which people may eventually rewatch on their personal device. My process will continue the same way as long as theatres exist.
Q. Do you see yourself transitioning to something original for an OTT platform? A straight-for-streaming film or a web series?
A. I am shooting a film which is only for Netflix directed by Shirish Kunder and produced by Farah Khan. It is a mystery thriller. It will be interesting because it is exclusively for an online platform but I have still shot it like a regular film.