Ravi Varman, the man behind picture-perfect visuals of ‘Barfi!’, says he wanted the frames to have the look and feel of a European film

Ravi Varman is like a chameleon, changing his style of cinematography according to the genre and the filmmaker. He has been heaped with praises for his work in Barfi!, for making the film a visual treat. It’s hard to believe the same man shot commercial potboilers like Badrinath, Anniyan and Dasavatharam. “Whichever film I take up, I try to do my best. Badrinath didn’t do well, but I felt happy when director Gunasekhar called to appreciate my work,” says Ravi Varman, speaking to us early one morning, before heading to work. This time, the work is for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela. Varman works on one film at a time. At the moment, his focus is on Ram Leela. “I don’t commit to any new project until I finish a film; it’s tough to predict how long a film will take to complete. Barfi! was supposed to be over in six months but it took two years,” he says.

Talk to him about Barfi! and he asks, “Did you notice how we used five different colour tones in five different stages of the story?” he used grey tones for the twilight period of Jhilmil and Barfi and warm hues for the portions in Kolkata featuring Ileana, Ranbir and Priyanka. “I used soft focus wherever possible and the colour tones were subtle; I didn’t want anything jarring in the frames,” he explains.

Varman jumped at the offer when Anurag Basu approached him. “Usually, hill stations are shown with a lot of mist. I wanted to play with early morning sunlight. Shooting in a hill station is not easy. The light can be unstable as the weather changes from cloudy to warm all of a sudden. In certain sequences, I used artificial light to get the feel of early morning sunlight. In this film, I tried to show Darjeeling and Ooty quite differently,” he explains.

Varman doesn’t deny that the film had reference points from world cinema. “We were influenced by international films and wanted to give Barfi! the look of a European film. Filmmakers here try and ape films from Hollywood or Hong Kong but European films are my favourite,” he says.

What bolstered Varman’s enthusiasm was Barfi’s cheerful outlook. “I liked Anurag’s idea of showing child-like innocence. My camera had to complement his view,” he says. Varman particularly enjoyed shooting in Kolkata. “The city is culturally rich but quite dirty,” he says nonchalantly. “Unlike Anurag who is from Bengal, I looked at Kolkata with a fresh perspective. Of all the films that I’ve seen showing Kolkata, I’d rate City of Joy (1992) the best. I wanted to show the beauty of Kolkata rather than presenting images of a busy city,” says Varman. He looks back at his career spanning 13 years and is happy he learnt on the job, assisting filmmakers and other cinematographers (including Ravi K. Chandran). “I didn’t go to a film school. Cinematography, like art, cannot be taught. Someone can teach you techniques but unless you have it in you, you cannot shoot,” he says. Over the years, he developed his own technique: “My first priority is to arrive at a balance between light and shade and then work on colours. Cinematography should bring out the natural beauty in actors. Look how gorgeous Ileana is in Barfi!”

Before he leaves, he mentions that art, more than money, drives him to work. “In my opinion, Mani Ratnam is the best filmmaker who knows how to shoot in natural locations. And Bhansali excels when it comes to sets. I am happy I am working with Bhansali. It’s a dream with no price tag on it,” he signs off.

Lessons from life

Ravi Varman’s personal journey is an incredible one. Born in a village near Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, he lost his parents at an early age. “I come from a well-to-do family but after I lost my parents, I moved away from the village. It’s a long story,” he says. He worked as an office boy, car and bike mechanic and did other odd jobs before he became an assistant director and cinematographer. At one point, he even attempted suicide. Not wanting to dwell on that phase of his life, he says, “During those troubled years, I discovered my love for photography. The only photograph I had of my mother was out of focus. I was 13 when I got my first salary. I didn’t have my parents to share the happiness. I remembered my mother’s blurred photograph and purchased a camera so that I could take pictures. Life has taught me a lot,” he says.