It's a quiet day for ace cinematographer Senthil Kumar, a breather brought in by the unpredictable weather. “Hopefully we will resume shooting in a couple of days,” he says, ushering us into his apartment in Hyderabad's Banjara Hills.
The break is a welcome one as he gets to spend time with his eight-month-old son, Ryaan Karthikeyan. The film he refers to is director Indraganti Mohanakrishna's new outing starring Sumanth.
“Cricket is the backdrop and the film takes a stance on the education system, particularly with reference to students in the age group of 10 to 15,” he says, and adds after a pause, “You can't compare this film with ‘Taare Zameen Par' or ‘3 Idiots', both of which made people reflect on the education system.”
Mohanakrishna's film offers a different scope and canvas for Senthil, whose name Telugu filmgoers instantly associate with big-budget entertainers “Yamadonga”, “Arundhati” and “Magadheera”. After three large canvases, he surprised his peers by choosing Bhumika's “Thakita Thakita” and Mohanakrishna's film. “In a way, it's easier to work on glamorous, big budget films since you have plenty of resources. Smaller films pose greater challenges. You need to push yourself to think out of the box and present the director's vision in the best possible way with limited resources,” he explains.
Senthil would know. After all, he shot to fame with Chandrashekar Yeleti's offbeat “Aithe”. “The locations and the presentation were as close to real life as possible and I got a lot of appreciation. Ironically for almost six months after ‘Aithe''s release, I didn't get any new film. Filmmakers doubted if I could handle mainstream cinema, which I thought was funny. It is tougher to do realistic work than mainstream films,” Senthil recalls. Senthil is a recognisable name today. But the growth hasn't been easy.
He left the hallowed portals of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, with dreams in his eyes. “In the institute, we were told that we are the best. Each batch had limited seats and only the best ones got in there. Once out of the institute, we came to terms with the harsh reality that there is no red carpet welcome for film students,” says Senthil.
The early years in his career were marked by trying to prove that despite coming from the film institute, he can mould himself to suit the commercial format.
“It wasn't enough to get a director to trust you. The producer and the hero should also trust you. Though I was capable of working independently, I had to work as an assistant to gain the trust of the industry.” Senthil assisted cinematographer Sharath for three years and was itching to break free. When he finally did, offers were hard to come by.
An opportunity came in the form of Chandrashekar Yeleti's television series “Amrutam”, produced by Gangaraju. “I was scared of getting stuck with television. But the frustration of just wanting to work took over and I agreed. The series was well received and as luck would have it, Yeleti was planning a feature film and wanted to use the same team. That's how ‘Aithe' happened.”
A sincere student in school, Senthil spent his time poring over Competition Success Review that aspiring civil servants swore by. “I was reading every possible book that helped boost general knowledge and was writing so many exams just to be in the ‘exam mode' before writing civils,” he says. He did watch the occasional English film at Sangeet but never fancied a career in cinema. An avid movie buff friend bought an application to the film institute.
“Only graduates could appear for the entrance and my friend had still not completed graduation. Since the application would go waste, he gave it to me as I was writing a whole lot of competitive exams. I wrote the exam and appeared for the group discussion. It was a new world where they talked colours, textures, photography and creativity. I was blown away when I watched Akira Kurosawa's movies. In a matter of minutes I forgot all about civil services and was lured into cinema,” laughs Senthil.
Senthil believes in working on one film at a time and has refused offers from other film industries in the recent past.
“Language is really no barrier for a cinematographer but so far I've got better offers from Telugu films,” he points out. He hopes to direct a film someday. “Ultimately, a movie is a director's vision,” he says.