Ace cinematographer Rajiv Menon recalls the challenges of shooting a real storm for Mani Ratnam’s Kadal. Sudhish Kamath is all ears
When international filmmakers have 50 times the budget of Indian films, what do the best of our filmmakers do to create images on par with world cinema?
Ang Lee built water tanks that were four times the size of a football field to re-create a storm in the ocean in Life of Pi. Mani Ratnam turned to Rajiv Menon.
To get into the sea and shoot a real storm!
Rajiv Menon was only too excited to shoot cyclone Nilam, till the cops chased the unit away. “We were lucky that nature helped us. We would've never been able to recreate that if not for the storm.”
Mani Ratnam's Kadal is the artist's idea of adventure. Because the sea is not the easiest place to shoot. “How many different ways can you shoot the sea? When the sea is flat, it's too hot to shoot. When there's wind, the sea is too choppy. How do you use immersive technology when you are out in the sea,” asks Rajiv, recollecting some of the challenges during the shoot with his assistants throwing up because of sea-sickness.
As they were shooting, Rajiv Menon created what he calls a look book for the film.
“When you are shooting over a period of six months, you tend to forget how dark or bright it was. And when you are using different technologies, having a look book helps during the final grading of the film. So you can design what the film is going to look like even before the colouring process begins.”
Set in a hard landscape
Kadal was not a glamorous film to shoot. “It's a hard film set in a hard landscape. Most of the film had to look barren initially, so we had to pull up and accentuate the sand by muting the colours of the costume to show the boy grow up in a hostile environment. Manappad, near Tiruchendur, where we shot most of the film, is a lot like Spain or Portugal. It doesn't have much of vegetation and there are big churches. So we focussed on breaking the sky with the crucifix since there are no trees.”
Also, because it was a film on Christianity, he had to explore how artistes captured biblical themes. “I showed Mani Ratnam Simon Schama's documentary called Power of Art on Caravaggio and he found it exhilarating. Because we study to teach (at the film school Mindscreen), we look at things in an organised manner. So we've explored biblical themes as we have seen through Caravaggio. For the outdoors, we had to capture strife as it's shown today. So we used techniques used by photojournalists around the world to make it look real.”
Designing the look
The process of designing the look started when his assistants brought back hundreds of pictures after driving through the entire coastline of Tamil Nadu all the way to Rameswaram. After which, Rajiv Menon and
Mani Ratnam made a trip to finalise the locations. “When you read a story, you get some visuals in mind but you don't know what the reality of it is like. But when you visit a location and do a photo feature, you understand how boats wait, what people do, the pace of life, how a fishing market works, how fishermen mend nets.”
“The role of a director of photography is to use the numerous acquisition mediums available to him and find every possible way to create the energy of the place and make an impact,” he explains his choice of employing everything from GoPros to Scarlet to 7Ds to film cameras. Unlike purists, Rajiv is all for exploiting every technology available, including DI and CG.
“You have to keep the audience glued by hook or crook. I'm in love with the image more than romanticising the struggle of creation. I'm in favour of making the image look as real as I can than how to create it. We have to create images that remain in people's memory because a film is judged by what they have already seen. You are trying to create an image that is unique and you have to employ all the resources available to you.”
Why does he think Mani Ratnam likes to work with him?
“Maybe as a cameraman, I am very physical and good with handheld... which may come in handy when you have to shoot a riot or a storm,” he laughs. “I am good at creating beautiful images given the ad films I make but I like that he does not want me for that. I like to shoot feature films because it's about capturing emotions... words like guilt, hurt, betrayal. I like the shot in Subramaniapuram when the camera follows Ganja Karuppu to show his guilt. It's easy to shoot a fight or a disagreement, but difficult to shoot a festering hurt. The choreography of emotions is the creation of the image and that’s the challenge you get to explore in a feature film.”