R. Siddharth is all excited about Aravaan. The cinematographer talks about his first brush with a period film and the challenges it posed

What looks like a huge ball of clay, rolls down and smashes into smithereens. The camera closes in on the innocuous mass to reveal a whole lot of sparkling gold jewellery falling out from inside it! This was the first shot that Siddharth captured for Aravaan, and to him it is symbolic! “As if beneath the rough exterior that the film seems to showcase is a priceless treasure, and as if despite being a young crew, its talent would shine,” laughs the film's cinematographer R. Siddharth.

Having slogged it out in the driest of terrains of the South in the peak of summer for more than 100 days, the cast and crew should turn up trumps at the box office. Siddharth is joining hands with Vasanthabalan for the first time. “I'm indebted to Balan. He could have brought any bigger DOP on board, especially after the stupendous success of his Angaadi Theru. But he chose to give it to me. I was waiting for a turning point in my career, when Aravaan came my way,” says Siddharth.

The film is also in the news because its story is a segment taken from ‘Kaaval Kottam' that recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award for its author Su. Venkatesan. Naturally expectation has increased manifold.

A period film

Aravaan is Siddharth's maiden brush with a period film. “We've gone in for hi-definition digital for the first time, and shot with Red One.” As a cameraperson, Siddharth is thrilled about the innovations in cinematography that Aravaan has helped him explore. The 8mm fisheye is a special lens that has been put to appreciable use in the film. “It's an extreme wide angle lens that covers almost 180 degrees of vision. You'll see the dynamism it lends to the songs and a few other sequences as well,” Siddharth is excited again.

Like any technician, Siddharth's career graph has seen highs and lows. Kunguma Poovum Konjum Puraavum, his last, didn't work wonders at the turnstiles and hence his efforts didn't attract much attention. On the other hand, the Dhanush-Nayan hit, Yaaradi Nee Mohini, which he shot, did. Kamal Haasan's Mumbai Express, the first film to be shot on DV and then converted to Anamorphic in film, appeared more an experiment than a visual spectacle. To viewers, it was visually different but not necessarily appealing. “We were just trying it out,” defends Siddharth, “and we've come a long way since then.” But again Nala Damayanti, another Raajkamal production, shot extensively in Australia, helped him make a mark. And besides his Hindi sojourns, assisting the likes of Govind Nihalani for Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa and Thakshak, Siddharth strides the ad arena in style having cranked the camera for some of the best-known makers of commercials, such as Bharatbala, and assisting Jayendra in JS Productions' endeavours.

Vasanthabalan didn't narrate the story of Aravaan to Siddharth when he called him over for a meeting. “But I could glean that as a director of photography it should give me plenty of scope, and it has,” his voice swells with satisfaction. “If the script is powerful, photography can always help enhance the impact.”

Though set in the 16 century, Aravaan isn't essentially about the British supremacy in that era. It's about the lives of people in interior Tamil Nadu. “The actual location is No Man's Land, beyond Arithapatti in Madurai, and the uninhabited niches far away from Kutralam,” says Siddharth. In the months of March and April, the blazing heat of Madurai can be unbearable. But Balan wanted an authentic earthy feel, the penetrating dryness and the mirages. “And the challenges to be surmounted were many.” Such as? “We had to consciously avoid tar roads and concrete structures, because we needed an authentic 16 century scenario. Vijay Murugan, the art director, slogged to create a settlement in the dense forests,” Siddharth smiles. A 100-member crew had to carry all the equipment, including the jimmy jib, and the essentials for the battalion camping there.

“At least we technicians sought refuge under parasols, but Pasupathi and Aadhi had to bear it all barefooted on the rocks that radiated heat,” Siddharth is all sympathy for the cast of Aravaan.

“Balan has created a visual style of storytelling that's adventurous and unique, like James Cameron did for Avatar, choosing to project a way of life that was very different in costume, habits, practices and thinking,” he compliments. According to him, the ambitious attempt and the toil it has involved have borne laudable results. “Even the fight sequences are far removed from the usual.”

Aravaan has five songs. “And Karthik, the composer, has used some rare instruments,” he informs. ‘Avan Dhaan Aravaan' with its rugged beats merging with melody must have been interesting to film. “Yeah, I had to change the tone and colour for the song, to suit the tribal and erotic feel of the sequence. Aravaan has been my most challenging assignment till date. I only pray it reaps the laurels it deserves,” Siddharth smiles, hopefully.