Interview - Ravi K. Chandran talks to Karthik Subramanian about the compromises cinematographers sometimes have to make, about preferring commercial blockbusters to arthouse cinema and about the importance of being appreciated by peers

A day ahead of the release of the magnum opus of this season 7aum Arivu, cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran appears more relaxed than nervous.

One can attribute that to two decades of working on some of the biggest movies in Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam with directors of the likes of Priyadarshan, Mani Ratnam, Sanjay Leela Bansali, Rajiv Menon, Karan Johar and Farhan Akhtar. The feeling of a big release looming large must now be all too familiar.

Or it could be because of his legacy — his elder brother K. Ramachandra Babu is widely regarded as one of the finest cinematographers in the country. “It is like being the son of Sachin Tendulkar and playing cricket,” he laughed when I asked him about it right at the end of the interview. “In my home town in Kerala, people still tell me what I do is nothing compared to my brother's work.”

He feels the audience should watch the movie in a theatre with good projection facilities. “The audience needs to get their ticket's worth. There needs to be awareness about this,” says Ravi, taking time off from an advertisement film shoot at the Sun Studios in Perungudi, Chennai.

So where does ‘ownership' of a project end, and how does a cinematographer move on to another project? He says there is no such thing. “Compromises are required at every step. There are budgetary constraints. If I had the chance to do something better, I might re-shoot.”

He quotes Sanjay Leela Bansali, with whom he has done some of his most artistically fulfilling work — Black and Saawariya. “Bansali always used to tell me, ‘Once a shot is made, it is history. The flaws are there to haunt you for years to come.' I still shudder looking at some shots — I feel like hiding my face.”

Blockbusters over arthouse

It is my assumption that an artist would crave for critical acclaim more than blockbuster appeal. So when I pose the question to Ravi, he dismisses it, laughing. Though he was introduced to the world of Bunuel, Kurosawa and Godard even as a kid thanks to his brother, and though Ramachandra Babu has been credited with some of the pioneering and at times under-appreciated Indian arthouse (the John Abraham-directed Agraharathil Kazhuthai, for example), Ravi says he is “absolutely normal”.

“As much as I love Kurosawa, I would any day choose Terminator 2 over any of his films to watch in a theatre. I prefer to sit with the crowd, whistle and enjoy a blockbuster.”

Some of the artistic inclinations are pretensions, he points out. “It is like wanting to be seen with ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' or ‘The Fountainhead' to appear serious. But what you really love is Sidney Sheldon.”

While reaching out to the masses with his work, he considers encouragement from peers vital. “Almost 90 per cent of cinematographers shoot keeping in mind what other cinematographers would have to say about their work. For me too it is important, because they understand the effort that goes into shooting a sequence.” That peer reviews are a matter of pride becomes clear when I tell him that I simply did not get the ‘larger-than-life' approach of Black, which won him plaudits from almost the entire community of cinematographers in the country. “You need to understand that his (Bansali's) approach was to treat it like an opera. You can't go to a Carnatic concert and be disappointed at not hearing rock music.”

Aspiring director

Ravi has been hoping to direct a movie for far too long now that it has become a joke in his household. “My wife and children no longer take it seriously. But I'm determined to take up a project and move ahead.” He has not signed up any movie after 7aum Arivu. Though he has had a collection of 13 short stories since his college days, he says, there are two scripts that are close to fruition. One is a period film and the other is about a heist. “I have become an assistant director now. It is like starting a new career,” he laughs.

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