Cinematographer Sunny Joseph on shooting the bilingual biopic Ramanujan, and his experimentation with light and shadow.

Acclaimed cinematographer Sunny Joseph strangely begins work by turning off lights. His camera then engages in an understated play with light, which breaks into shades of whites, greys and darkness. He aims at a realistic visualisation that he says arises from the demands of the script, narration and the setting.

Sunny’s individualistic style of work will once again be under the arc lights in Gnana Rajasekaran’s upcoming bilingual biopic Ramanujan, which is in post production stage.

Shooting in a small stuffy room of the mathematical prodigy’s heritage home on a narrow road in Kumbakonam, Sunny stuck to his choice of natural light. “The room is small and it was hot. But the physical limitations helped me enhance the emotional connect in the composition and lighting,” he says. He went on to shoot the rest of the film in diametrically opposite conditions in Cambridge. “In every situation one is faced with a choice. I go for realism.”

Growing up in green Cherthala countryside allowed him the first hand feel of nature. Images that impressed were natural, organic. Oddly, spiders casting a web were an early obsession and other such languid earthy observations became a subject of his first camera gifted to him by his uncle. Years later these images were to take shape, as in Piravi (1988) where the beauty of slow motion and pouring rain was caught by his lens in enchanting ways.

“The unlit feel” is a metaphor Sunny uses to define his compositions, inspired by his mentor Subrata Mitra of Satyajit Ray fame. His personal favourite shot is the image of the Banyan tree in Vasthuhara, which he says he took an hour to compose.

It was as early as in class seven that he knew the direction his mind was veering towards. Three years later he was confident about making films. Stalwarts such as P.N. Menon and Vincent mash were his ideals at that time but it was G. Aravindan’s Uttarayanam that stood out as a model film. The young collegian built up courage to meet the renowned filmmaker and declare his wish to assist him. He was directed to Pune Film and Television Institute, where he graduated from in 1984.

“Coincidences have played a big part in my life,” says Sunny looking back on the past three decades in the film industry and on working in 11 languages. In the Film Institute, while pursuing editing he stood first in cinematography in his second year. “The professor directed me to move to cinematography and I did so.” There have been times when he regretted the decision but continual work has not given him the chance to dwell on it. Sunny started working with cinematographers Venu, Madhu Ambat and Shaji N. Karun.

Still vacillating after his first film Theertham (1987), directed by Mohan, he decided to go back to assist Aravindan. But work came in the form of his second film Eenam Maranna Kaattu, directed by Thomas Esaw. Later Shaji Karun offered him the chance to wield the camera for Piravi. With that Sunny stepped into the limelight.

“A cinematographer’s real job is lighting. Composing the mis-en-scene, the arrangement of a shot is vital. One has to look for abstract elements such as tonality, graphic arrangements, lines and colours. The idea is to make the audience believe that the scene is happening for real,” he says.

And for that reality he is inspired by the Japanese word ‘saaba’ meaning the “suchness of things”. “Just before taking the shot I do switch off some lights on a set because there is a tendency of overdoing, of over lighting, an abundance in everything. Lighting or for that matter everything should be just right, I believe in the philosophy of minimum,” says Sunny, whose fastidiousness is appreciated and not seen as fuss.

But then has this uncompromising stand limited the purview of his lens? “It was in the seventies that cinematography became a selling point of films like music and songs. Mainstream cinema made the good, bad and ugly all look beautiful. I too will have to follow the dictates if I do mainstream cinema. Venu’s Daya (1998) had a fairy tale ambience and hence the lighting was to suit that.”

From his body of work he has a few favourites – the steady ambience of Piravi, the complexity in the psychological Bengali road movie Kahini and the intensity of Vasthuhara where the role of the cinematographer is intangible. “That comes closest to my philosophy of unlit feel,” he says.

He rates highly his work in the Manipuri film Sanabi, directed by Aribam Shyam Sharma, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu and T.V. Chandran's Mangamma. The Kannada film America America by director Nagathahalli Chandrashekar and Konkani film O Maria is special as they were all-time box-office hits of the respective regions.

His work takes him across the country into different languages and cultures. In Kochi at the inauguration of a film club, Sunny says: “I support any work of art that connects people. Such art is proactive towards life. I have only one principal for my work and art, jeevanthomukham, life giving/nurturing.”

As a subscriber of proactive art, Sunny, as a student, had made a film, The Clown and The Dog, which won the award for Best Experimental Film 30 years ago. It elaborated on the people’s right to use violence as a tool for social change. Thirty years later Sunny still affirms that but with a rider – “Don't use it”, he says and shows a small Buddha that he carries with him everywhere. The philosophy of his camera that has panned all over and across now zooms in on a life and light, that’s “just right.”